If Real Madrid win their visit to Mallorca on Monday night – or if by the time you’re reading this they already have – you might be tempted to conclude that the race for the title, if thus it can be called, is over. In truth it hasn’t really been a race, and Sevilla don’t really look as though they can sustain any meaningful challenge now, with ten games to go. If Mallorca were to surprise us all, then hope might spring eternal, but it would still be a long shot. Even a bad result in next Sunday’s clásico for the leaders – entirely possible given Barcelona’s current form but equally improbable given their visit to Turkey on Thursday – would not cripple Madrid’s pretensions.
Sevilla’s draw at Rayo was a predictable result, and means they have only won twice in the last eight games. They’ve probably concluded that their greatest hope for glory this season lies with the Europa League, having beaten West Ham in a decent display at the Pizjuan last Thursday. They visit the Londoners on Thursday with a 1-0 lead and then face Real Sociedad three days later in the league, which won’t be easy. For the neutral observer therefore, the interest in this season’s league must lie elsewhere, with two of the Champions League slots up for grabs for five sides most probably – Atlético, Barça, Villarreal, Betis and Real Sociedad. That will certainly get interesting as the spring starts bloom and the lambs start to gambol.
Barcelona’s easy 4-0 win over a strangely subdued Osasuna – they have been good travellers this season with six wins – was a decent tonic for a tough week ahead and a morale-booster after the nano-crisis sparked by their goalless draw at home to Galatasary. They are now only five points behind Sevilla with a game in hand, a fact which says much about their turn-around this season, the lift in spirits when Koeman was finally put to rest and the clever signings of Feran Torres, Adama and Aubemeyang. And then the impossible happened – I refer to the sight of Riqui Puig scoring a goal – the first time this event has taken place in the last fourteen months. And for those of you who like an obscure fact to kick off your week, Puig was the 22nd different player to score for Barça this season, beating the previous record of 21 established by Real Madrid in the 2019-20 season. I’m not sure this heralds anything significant, but anyway, just thought I’d throw it in.
Whilst we’re on statistics, Gerard Piqué made his 600th appearance in all competitions for the Catalans on Sunday, achieved in the space of 14 consecutive seasons. Man Utd’s loss perhaps? It seems strange that destiny could have dealt its cards so differently. He also managed 22 games at Zaragoza, an oft-forgotten fact, but since 2008 he’s been a one-club man. He also shares a birthday with Shakira (ain’t that cute) but she’s ten years his senior. Love him or slightly dislike him, he represents a connection with much of the significant recent history of the club, joining at the outset of the Pep revolution, then onto the Luis Enrique and the Valverde years, now ending up with his ex-team mate Xavi. Indeed, at 35 now, he’s unlikely to catch his coach, who managed 767, second only to Messi with 778. He has also been a fine servant for the Spanish side with 102 appearances under his belt, despite the difficulty of his explicit connection to Catalan independence. It was never going to make him popular, but in a profession so often dominated by the cliché and dumb soundbite, Piqué has managed to say some fairly interesting stuff. Barça will need to keep Araujo if they’re not going to miss Piqué, when he finally decides to call it a day. A player of his towering top-heavy physical stature is unlikely to last much longer, given the stresses and the strains on the plinths below.
Returning to the odder type of facts, I was at the Reale Arena to see Real Sociedad defeat Alavés 1-0 in the Basque derby of the day and lift themselves back above Villarreal into sixth place. Real’s supporters do enjoy the rare sight of goals this season, starved as they have been of them. Remarkably, this was the side’s 8th home win of the season, and the 7th time they have achieved a 1-0 scoreline. It seems to be developing into a ritual. The other time, in case you were wondering, was a massive 2-0 win over Granada, a goal-fest that sparked wild celebrations in the otherwise conservative city. It’s a strange set of stats for a side who insist on possession and who try to play attractive football. Then again, they have only conceded six goals at home, the best record in the league. But eleven goals scored seems almost bizarre for a side still a mere four points from the Champions League spots.
Even Levante, at the other end of the table, have managed 17 at home, and their 1-1 draw with Espanyol and Granada’s home defeat to Elche means that they can still dream of escape. It would be unlikely after the miserable pre-Christmas form, but Granada, on the crest of an alarming slump, are now only 6 points distant in that hot spot just above the three relegation berths. It might be still premature to predict the three eventual victims, with the aforementioned Mallorca slipping into the zone.
Anyway, next week sees the season’s second clásico, and most of the week’s discourse will surround this fixture. The game in the Camp Nou, which ended in a 2-1 win for Madrid, seems like some distant epoch. A lot of water has flown under the proverbial since then, but at the very least Barcelona have recovered their sense of dignity and self-respect. It remains to be seen whether they can assault the Bernabéu, in whose hallowed shadows Real Madrid are yet to lose this season….but you never know. The interesting aspect of this game is that Barça have several new elements to their side, whereas the clásico is usually characterised by the two sides knowing each other rather too well. The Europa League visit, however, might dull the event because Barça cannot afford to travel to Turkey and stroll it. Key players may still be feeling the lactic acid some Sunday.
Last but hardly least, it was a good day in Barcelona for another reason. The women’s side clinched the league title with 6 games to go, beating (you know what’s coming) Real Madrid 5-0 in the process, in the female version of the clásico. Real Sociedad, in a dignified 2nd place, had beaten Betis on Saturday to delay the title, but it was always going to happen. Now Barça visit Sociedad in the cup on Wednesday, I’ll be there and it’ll be a question of the hosts keeping the score down. It’s got kind of silly, but the stats do the talking – 24 wins from 24, and 136 goals scored with 6 conceded. The Levante side from 2001 won all their games, but Barça look like equalling the record. As such, I’d prefer not to enter into a debate (it’s an article, not a paragraph) about whether this is good or not) but Barça aside, the league is competitive and entertaining, and well worth watching. Barça’s own dominance perhaps does them few favours, and things will change – they always do. But it would also be churlish not to recognise their brilliance. Putellas, Martens, Hermoso, Paredes….the list is much longer. They’re fantastic players and there’s still not enough recognition of the fact. Now they face Madrid in the Champions League quarters, and should pass that without much difficulty on their way to a second consecutive win. Looking forward to Wednesday but it might be a little brutal.