In late August, many of us thought this would eventually become a fun season and it does seem as though the entertainment will last… unless you’re a Barcelona fan. Well, even if you support the Azulgrana you can’t say they’re boring, but there’s indeed plenty of room for improvement and good news in general.
The fact is that Real Sociedad lead the standings – and have done so for the last three matches –, that there are five teams separated by four points, and that the three successful winners of the title in the last 18 seasons (Valencia was the last club not named Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico de Madrid able to conquer LaLiga) – look hesitant and interestingly inconsistent.
Of course, even though Real Madrid and Atlético have given plenty of reasons to doubt them, Barcelona are in a different league in terms of disappointment and frustration. On Saturday, interim coach Sergi Barjuán debuted in a seemingly winnable home match against strugglers Alavés. He fielded a dream team for those raised in the religion-like Barcelona philosophy, enjoyed 80% of possession, saw his team take the lead… and then concede an absolute gem of a goal, the seventh of Alavés in 11 matches. In the ensuing press conference, Sergi said that the visitors had scored off a rebound, which isn’t true, but yes, we get the point: Alaves did get their goal in their only chance, which is what usually happens when your opposition lacks self-confidence. I was going to insert a Riqui Puig reference here, but I don’t want to tease Barcelona fans that much. They have enough on their plate as it is.
The big question, indeed, is when will [Xavi] make their phone ring. Musical references aside, rumour has it that he has told Barcelona he’ll negotiate his exit with the Qataris and then will get back to Laporta so that he arrives with a check (doubtful) or more likely with a plane ticket to the Camp Nou. The huge problem for Barcelona is that if they don’t react as early as next Tuesday in Kiev, they could be almost out of the Champions League by the 23rd of this month, when they will play a do-or-die match vs Benfica (the Azulgrana lost 3-0 in Lisbon, in case you don’t remember).
Everyone – including this scribe – is sure that Xavi’s arrival will instill a huge wave of good vibes in Barcelona, and that Riqui Puig will start every match under him (sorry, I couldn’t resist). But the main issue is how deep this squad is and, as we’ve discussed a few times here, how far can this group of VERY young kids take the club in a long, tense and physically demanding season. We see the elders getting painfully older by the match – Pique is injured again – and even though there are some answers off the bench for some of the squad needs – Nico indeed looks the part – some areas of the team are painfully short, especially the back four and the final touch. Pretty much what wins you matches, I know.
What about Real Madrid and Atletico? I’ll be quick, I promise, as I want to mention a few other clubs who are indeed overperforming. Well, the Madridistas keep getting the best results of the trio even though they rarely play well for a full match. The good news for them is that Carletto decided to rotate – something he didn’t do a few seasons ago – and that those rotations worked, at least in their win in Elche. Vinicius has indeed found his scoring boots: everyone praised his second goal at the Martínez Valero, but to me what showed his real evolution in front of goal was the first: a strong, low well-taken shot with his left foot. This shows a lot of work finally paying off. The chip was already in his repertoire. I was expecting him to score more often with his first or second touch, and the fact that he did so with his left foot is a great sign.
However, the Madridistas keep showing their issues at the back and the endless list of injuries does not help them either. This is still not a reliable squad, and the accumulation of matches will test its resilience. On Wednesday they also have a must-win Champions League match vs Shakhtar. No time to relax.
Atlético reacted after two consecutive draws by demolishing Betis. The Sevillanos are a more than decent squad who had a shot at leading the standings had they won in Madrid but saw themselves overwhelmed by what has been probably Atletico’s best performance so far this season. Coach Simeone decided to break the trident and used João Félix off the bench, which improved the intensity and aggression of his side and saw the Portuguese star score at the counter. Betis looked the inferior team for most of the match trying to create some football and suffered mightily when defending set pieces. That’s probably another sign of Atletico’s recovery: they looked threatening with every cross, something that was a trademark of Simeone’s side for quite a few seasons but had been lost. Ah! The work of De Paul in midfield is stunning. If Simeone can maintain this version of Atleti firing all cylinders, they will fight for the title, but that means that João Félix will not be happy.
There’s plenty more to mention. For instance, Sevilla and Athletic, the best two defences in LaLiga with just seven goals conceded after 11 matches, and two sides whose coaches have made them extremely hard to beat (they’ve both only lost once so far). The latter managed to get a draw against leaders and arch-rivals Real Sociedad on Sunday evening, even though they needed a howler by the opposition’s goalie to level in the very last minute through Muniain. However, with a limited side in terms of talent, Marcelino García is working wonders once again, and those seven goals conceded show that this is a decently coached side. Similarly, Sevilla are extremely hard to beat and much deeper in terms of offensive options, that’s why they’ve looked like title challengers to me since the season started. On Saturday they defeated Osasuna, who had four wins and one draw in five away matches until they travelled South. With this win, Sevilla have won all their five home matches so far (15 scored, 4 against). The Sanchez Pizjuan looks intimidating.
But it’s hard to discuss any weekend in LaLiga without mentioning leaders Real Sociedad. We’ve already said that they could not defeat Athletic, but they won’t be held many more times at home this season. Not only does the team play great football and they’re recovering they’re injurees, but the stadium refurbishment finally looks great. The team spent 25 years deprived of a real stadium with the move from Atocha – the most terrifying stadium in Spain – to Anoeta – a bourgeois, all-seated stadium with a running track and a huge separation between pitch and supporters. The new Anoeta does look intimidating; we’ll never get back to the old Atocha in terms of physical threat to visiting teams, but that might be a sign of progress indeed.
A few other points worth mentioning: Valencia recovered their teeth by defeating Villarreal in a trademark Bordalesque performance. The hosts were so tough that they prompted Unai Emery to state something along the lines of “it takes two to tango” after the match, to express his impression that Valencia had not been too keen on playing the sport we know as football. Getafe finally won their first three points of the season as they took care of Espanyol with two goals by Enes Unal in his best performance since he arrived in Spain four years ago. Scoring twice against in-form Diego Lopez is not easy these days.
There’s two more fixtures on Monday, and Phil is 4/8 so far. A win vs Celta would take Rayo to the top 4, while Levante and Granada will fight to leave the opponent in relegation spots. This season does indeed look like fun.