Well, that was slightly disappointing, Atleti. Some of us believed that, on the back of that miraculous classification for the knockout stages of the Champions League, the team would recover some of their swagger in their visit to the Bernabeu. It wasn’t meant to happen, though.
Atleti did start well, or at least looking like they were controlling the match. But in the first chance that the Madridistas found to run, Vinicius found Benzema and the Frenchman’s volley put Real Madrid in the driving seat. That was all they needed to manage the game through their savvy midfielders, in this case taking advantage of a Luka Modric vintage display on top of the already customary decisiveness of Vinicius Jr.
It’s hard to point out what’s wrong with Atleti. Too much talent, perhaps? Having made up his mind against playing Griezmann and Felix together, Diego Simeone has been swapping them constantly, and one can understand why: It does not matter who starts, the sub always does better. It was the case again last night, as Felix joined the match after the break and in less than 10’ he’d already created a handful of chances with slick touches and great movement. But all his efforts died in the face of Courtois – the last one, one minute before the final whistle, was saved literally by the Belgian’s face, who’s not only as inspired as he was when he played for Atleti, but also a bit lucky.
On their neighbours’ side, Ancelotti is clearly replicating his 2014/15 routine, at least until the point where he builds a powerful team that never rotates and wins a large sequence of matches consecutively – 22 back then, 10 so far this season. Seven years ago his reluctance to rest his starters ended up costing the club dearly in terms of injuries to key players, but after the victory vs Atleti he stated that he’d learned his lesson. We shall see. To some extent, it’s good to know by heart your starting line-up. That said, it does feel a bit like a thing of the past, like teams with numbers from 1 to 11 or matches without VAR consultations.
The weekend also confirmed some of the ideas that have been around since the season started. For instance, we can now state that Messi-less Barcelona are an ordinary team, almost vulgar, lacking not only offensive flair, but especially the required resilience to win in tough stadia, such as the one in Pamplona. The Xavi effect has lasted for what two strokes of luck did. In his coach role, he hasn’t been able to build on those positive results at the beginning of his tenure, but it’s obviously unfair to chalk up to Xavi this last sequence of disappointments: the team, without Messi – and of course, without Griezmann too – has no real playmaker. The bizarre mixture of kids that just left La Masia with players that should have been sold a couple of seasons ago (if only there was a single buyer for them out there) is not a real team, and what that means is that they simply can’t compete: neither in Europe, nor in LaLiga.
On Sunday, they wasted a lead twice to end up drawing to Osasuna, one of the hardest-working teams in the tournament, and probably the type of rival against which the Azulgrana suffer the most. Xavi can still find some solace in the performances of the young: Abde, Gavi and Nico are earning their wings with impressive displays every week. But they should be the cherry on the cake of a functioning team, not the ones carrying the weight of the match for 90 minutes. He said so after the match: “It’s hard to digest that the young are holding the fort”.
Due to their injuries in both running back positions, the Azulgrana used a 3-4-3 with the surprise addition of Umtiti. They did not have any extra control in midfield, nor did they create any more than previous formations. This team still demands a lot of work, but especially some fresh blood, and the dramatic issue is that they won’t be able to hire unless they sell. Obvious as it is that no one wants Coutinho, Umtiti or the other heavy contracts we know by heart at this point, they will have to sell real talent, potentially some of the youngsters, if they want to be able to sign a decent player who can contribute from day one. Go tell that to any Barcelona fan and you’ll hear a mouthful, but reality is tough. There was no financial way for the club to keep Messi, and there’s no financial way for the club to sign real talent unless they sell Frenkie de Jong, Ansu Fati or Pedri.
Another realization more and more obvious every weekend: both teams from Sevilla are candidates for a top-four finish, improving from their already decent campaigns last season. This weekend they both defeated Basque teams. Sevilla won in Bilbao after an unedifying show of pragmatism and huge doses of luck, but we’re by now used to Athletic creating chances that they can’t finish… and also to see Sevilla win matches with not much to show off about. Betis did demolish an exhausted Real Sociedad, who had played for their lives on Thursday in the Europa League. The cruel twist was that Betis fielded three former Real Sociedad players – Canales, Juanmi and William José – who all performed extremely well. The man of the match was Alex Moreno, a humble journeyman who scored twice and assisted for another goal from his left fullback position. By the way, Betis also played on Thursday in Glasgow, but they were already qualified and used a weakened side vs Celtic. On Sunday, they took advantage of a bizarre misjudgment by Real Sociedad’s keeper to score in an otherwise even first half, but after the break they just destroyed the visitors’ back four.
And now the surprises of the weekend: Villarreal are better than what they’ve shown so far, which wasn’t quite unexpected, but they had been underperforming for so many weeks that even Phil Ball thought that they wouldn’t defeat Rayo Vallecano in his weekend preview. With their classification for the knockout stages of the CL still quite fresh, Villarreal did defeat Rayo in their first convincing win in La Liga for the last two months. Gerard Moreno scored from the spot, but more importantly the team looked like they had taken a huge weight off their shoulders. If they’ve found their form, it’s going to be fun to watch them… finally.
Another surprise: Espanyol can score four with only one goal coming from RdT. And, beyond surprising, in fact downright shocking, is Levante’s winless running streak. Eight months have gone by since their last win in LaLiga. In Cornella they took the lead twice and ended up losing again. Time to start testing all the superstitions they can think of, because this has no rational explanation.
And with only one more match to play in 2021, Real Madrid will finish the year leading the standings with an eight-point advantage over Sevilla, and seeing Atletico and Barcelona 13 and 18 points behind respectively. When they announced Carlo Ancelotti as Zidane’s replacement, not many thought this would be the case. Live and learn.