Funny old thing, isn’t it – the way that certain teams become a byword for a certain approach, or a certain ability – and then they suddenly forget how to do it, for no apparent reason? But football’s a funny old game, and that’s why we love it so. I refer principally to the rather splendid game at the Wanda on Saturday which saw Atlético Madrid, desperate for a tranquil victory as in their duller but effective days of yore, win 4-3 at the death with ten men on the pitch. Suddenly they can’t defend, but they can score. As the Spanish say, ‘Mundo al revés’ (It’s a topsy-turvy world). They’ve now shipped eleven in the last four games, and ice-man Oblak has suddenly turned all fallible, as if it had been a sham all along.
To continue the theme, Getafe, best known for a similar but less effective pragmatism than Atlético’s, have never been big-time goal scorers but have now managed ten in the last four, reversing their own trends. They certainly look a lot happier under Quique Sanchez-Flores, the man who could be Doctor House but who prefers to be a football coach. He remains a popular figure among Atlético’s fans and was applauded and briefly sung about before the game began, a gesture which he acknowledged. He was sacked by Atlético in 2011 and succeeded by the wandering Gregorio Manzano, who lasted six months before Simeone returned to the scene of his crimes and…..the rest is a cliché.
Getafe are safer on twenty-five points but still too close to the drop-zone for comfort, especially with Alavés(in 18th position) perking up a little after their 2-1 home win against a tiring Valencia. But you’d bet on Getafe staying up, with Enes ünal and Borja Mayoral up front, looking like a decent mid-table partnership. What is less certain will be Atlético’s ability to stay up in the Champions League spots, given the improbability of them getting much further in this season’s European campaign. Man Utd are not exactly on fire, but the game on the 23rd in the Wanda is beginning to assume significant proportions, for both sides. I’m kinda looking forward to it.
I went along to Real Sociedad v Granada on Sunday evening, to watch yet another game that fits the topsy-turvy theme. Last season Real Sociedad played some great football and scored lots of goals, but conceded too many in the end. This season they’re still playing some good stuff, have tightened up at the back, but couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. The 2-0 win and the two goals scored represented 25% of the total scored previously in Reale Arena this season, but to be fair they have only shipped six, the best in the league. It’s odd when a side suddenly can’t score, particularly when the rest of their play is absolutely fine. Is it the poor movement in the opposing area, or the final pass, or just nerves? Perhaps a combi of the three, and they really should have put more past an oddly positive-looking Granada. I was expecting the usual from the visitors, hard and physical, parking the bus – but they were nothing of the sort. They were attractive on the eye and seemed to be trying to play their way out of trouble, which is good. The only problem is that if you try to play open against Real Sociedad, you’re going to suffer. The cow’s arse continued to appear, and although the banjos kept flying past, the hosts eventually scored a couple – with a bit of help from Oyarzabal, as usual.
With Barça being held to a draw in the derby at Espanyol and Betis not really out of sight in 3rd place, the Champs League places are still up for grabs. Athletic in 8th place are only five points shy of Barça in 4th (as of Sunday night). There is still plenty to play for unless you’re Levante at the other end of the garden, eleven points from a possible 69 and heading for the second tier, beaten at home by the effervescent Betis 4-2, after clawing back two goals and giving themselves a ray of hope. ‘The soul has been sucked out of Levante’ wrote the journalist Andy West on twitter , and that rather sums it up. Nothing topsy-turvy down there then. Their woeful total is unlikely to be a record though, for those of you who like to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude. That prize goes to Sporting (I think) and their massive haul of 13 points in the season 1997-98.
Real Madrid drew at Villarreal, which was fairly predictable given the circumstances, but the interesting news was the fact that Gareth Bale actually started the game, almost eclipsing the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. He played pretty well too, and was only kept from a scoring return by the excellence of Gero Rulli. One does forget, in the context of this odd weekend, that Bale is actually rather good, and can play quite happily in any forward position. He lacks the associative powers of Benzema and the current cocky confidence of Vinicius, but he’s still scary. If he’s fit and willing (two adjectives rarely associated with him these days) then logic suggests that he can lend a hand to the cause for what is left of his time at Madrid. Ancelotti probably thinks so too.
Last but not least, I enjoyed the derby at Espanyol, particularly the entrance of Luuk de Jong with eight minutes remaining. Xavi isn’t daft, as they say, and with Adama already putting over a series of venomous crosses, it was the obvious move to make. The last-gasp goal was rather splendid when it came, with a thumping header from the sepia days of the past, but Barça will be disappointed to have gone 2-1 behind and then to have lost their only centre-half standing, with Piqué up to his usual antics against his favourite team from down the road. Sent off in stoppage time, and with Araujo, Lenglet and Umtiti injured, they’ll visit Valencia next weekend with their defence down to the minimum.
Champions and Europa League this week, with loads of Spanish interest, of course. Real Madrid visit PSG on Tuesday in a clash of leviathans, and it would be interesting to see Ramos, Neymar and Messi all playing in the same shirt, with Mbappé buzzing around against the players who may well become his mates in the summer. Ex-blancos Di María and Keylor might fancy a run-out too. The Europa League is no less fascinating, with Barcelona, Betis Real Sociedad, and Sevilla all looking to progress. With Napoli, Oporto, Atalanta, Dortmund and Lazio also in the competition, it looks just as interesting as the Champions League and it would take a brave guy or gal to pick the eventual winner.