Oh what a lovely weekend, with lots of interesting games and results to keep LaLiga lovers happy – where the sun finally broke through the clouds at Barcelona, shining on the Catalan paupers as they fielded their glossy new collection of Premier League rejects. Only Griezmann was missing from the party, but Luis Suarez did manage to score against his old mates, even apologising as he ran back to the centre-circle…….but nobody seemed particularly interested.
Old man Alves, refusing to be eclipsed by all the young pups on show, set up a goal for his friend on the left, Jordi Alba – and quite a cracker it was – and then scored the fourth himself, hammering a low shot into the net where your Jan Oblaks cannot reach and thus becoming the most senior player to ever score for Barcelona, which is quite something. Alves celebrated by standing in silence, head aloft and arms out, like Christ the Redeemer above Rio.
Ah, Dani Boy, the pipes were calling. By the time Suarez had brought things back to 4-2, Dani spoiled his own party and upset the drinks tray with a nasty little foul on Carrasco, picked up by VAR. The chaps in the VOR-VAR room do sometimes notice things, although their noticing seems to be an increasingly random thing these days. Perhaps they fancied an Atlético comeback, but it failed to materialise. Whatever – Simeone continues his particular calvary where Barcelona are concerned (at the Camp Nou), and the sight of Atlético conceding four goals is a rare one indeed. That’s six they’ve shipped in the last two games, and their story this season has been their inability to recover their traditional defensive mojo. It’s as if the sudden fallibility of Oblak and the sight of Savic and Gimenez looking like mobsters on the run has presented Simeone with a problem he was perhaps not anticipating. Atlético have conceded 22 goals away from home, more than Cádiz. They didn’t play badly at the Camp Nou, but to go ahead as they did and to then concede four so quickly suggests that all is not well.
Meanwhile, the Alves-inspired new-look Barça are presenting their credentials, rather as we thought they might. Save the sending-off, it was a half-decent day all round for Xavi. Adama Traoré made his (re)debut – having played on one occasion against Granada in 2013 – and did what Adama does, getting past his full-back with that muscly burst of speed over 10 yards and crossing for Gavi to head in the second. The problem may turn out to be that Adama doesn’t really do anything else quite so well, and is not strictly a Barça-type player, but I don’t wish to damn the chap before he has a chance to enter properly through the St Xavi Gates. He’s a useful and scary player to have around when you need him.
Talking about useful and scary, if Man City could afford to let Ferran Torres go then it certainly indicates just how scary they are. He ran Atlético ragged, in the guise of the ‘false 9’, but you could play him anywhere. He’s excellent and perhaps better suited to the Spanish pace of things. Aubameyang might be another Dembélé (in terms of attitude) but again, he has a chance to redeem himself and his record is certainly a decent one. We’re talking about a one-in-two games goal-scorer, and he ain’t no Luuk de Jong or Braithwate. According to Pierre himself, the only problem was Arteta, and so freed of those particular chains, he may still prosper, at the age of 32.
You look at the Barça squad and suddenly it looks a bit intimidating. It didn’t take them long to reverse the shit-show, and with Gavi, Nico and Pedri all in place and Ansu to come back, the squad suddenly looks well-balanced. With the exception of Araujo, their defence is looking a little senior, as is Busquets, but if the young ‘uns start to buzz and gel with the new recruits, the only way is up, baby. All they can realistically do this season is ensure a top-four finish (and perhaps win the Europa League) but it’s significant how suddenly they’ve turned things around. Maybe they just had to exorcise the ghost of Messi. Maybe they have.
Elsewhere, the Betis v Villarreal game also looked like a tasty one, with the hosts on fire and the visitors forever threatening to light their own blue touch-paper. Well they finally did, and just when Betis were looking invulnerable, Unai Emery brought along some kryptonite. In our pre-weekend quiniela, I did suggest to my adversary Eduardo that Betis – who slaughtered Real Sociedad in midweek – might either continue to destroy all opposition or sink without trace in the dangerous euphoria of their moment. I predicted a home win, but the Lord be my witness, I did suggest that they might be toppled. Villarreal, like Betis, have a splendid squad, but unlike the Andaluz assassins, have not been able to find the right chemistry so far. The win lifts them into 6th place, three points short of the 4th Champs League place, a position that might yet be beyond them if, ironically enough, they stay in this season’s competition. They host Juventus on February 22nd, which should be interesting. They also host Real Madrid next Saturday which should also be erm, interesting. Meanwhile Betis, who at times can look like the best side in Spain, are looking nervously over their shoulder at the resurgent Barça.
Sevilla kept up appearances with a reasonable draw at tough-talking Osasuna, but they missed a penalty in extra time and have now gone three games without scoring, which is hardly the recipe required for catching Real Madrid. They played awfully too, controlling possession but rarely doing anything constructive with it. Tony Martial made his debut, but apart from a couple of fancy touches he failed to contribute anything constructive. As the French say, plus ça change. Sevilla look to be running out of steam/fuel and ideas.
And last but not least, the leaders themselves, who were always going to struggle against the stubborn physicality of Granada, visiting the Bernabéu after a hot week in the kitchen for the hosts, eliminated from the cup in a strength-sapping game in Bilbao and missing their two magicians, Benzema and Vinicius. And tricky it proved until Asensio pulled out one of his rabbits and scored a bit of a cracker, which according to a Microsoft calculator had a 4% chance of hitting the net. Asensio, sometimes nicknamed ‘Ausensio’ for his tendency to disappear from the scene of battle, is having a decent season and scoring goals (that’s eight and counting). That might prove to be a vital one too, in the greater scheme of things. Perhaps Asensio is simply another victim of expectation, over-lauded when he first appeared, and with those goals against Barça at the start of the 2017 season he was always destined to come up short, quality player though he is. Maybe like Isco, he doesn’t always fit easily into the tactical plan but on his day, he can determine it for himself. At 26, you feel that there is more to come.
Six points clear at the top, with Sevilla faltering, it’s turning into a potential stroll for the title now, although as Granada illustrated, there are no easy games in LaLiga and the PSG challenges are nigh. More significantly perhaps, the white ones will need to get though the Villarreal game next week unscathed, to really convince everyone that they are champions elect.