Football NewsTuesday 22nd November 2016

Euro Bites: Madrid is white but Barcelona and Atletico are left feeling blue

Euro Bites: Madrid is white but Barcelona and Atletico are left feeling blue

THE WINNERS

No luck involved as Real Madrid crush their city neighbours

It feels weird to suggest a team on a 28-match unbeaten run would he considered ‘lucky’, this despite winning a Champions League trophy in during that time as well.  However Real Madrid were tipped by so many to drop points away to rivals Atletico Madrid, who in turn had been praised for their performances despite enduring their worst start to a LaLiga season under Diego Simeone. I guess we can all agree now that the ‘lucky’ tag would be doing these Real players, and this young, inexperienced manager, a disservice.

Simeone has managed to become a thorn in the side of most Real managers throughout his stay in Madrid. It’s worth remembering that Atletico were the last team to hand Real a defeat, all the way back in February.  But the Madrid derby at the weekend was all about Zidane and how he set-up his team.  A man who doesn’t like to talk about the tactical side of the game, who to the media loves to portray the role of a manager as a simple task, got his tactics spot on against Atletico.

There was no Sergio Ramos, no Pepe, no Casemiro, no Toni Kroos, no Alvaro Morata and a half-fit Karim Benzema on the bench. Two first choice defenders, two first choice midfielders and both strikers unavailable from the start.  The switch in system to a 4-4-1-1 worked wonders and actually allowed them to control the midfield.  Mateo Kovacic was outstanding alongside fellow Croatian Luka Modric, but the star of the show was undoubtably Isco - and Cristiano, of course.  The young Spaniard finally got a chance in his favoured position, something impossible to do when all members of the ‘BBC’ are available, and looked like the Isco we all got excited about back at Malaga.

As for Cristiano it was the perfect way to answer his critics.  A hat-trick, and not just that, but one scored in a way which would cause his detractors to froth at the mouth.  A deflected free kick, a penalty and a tap in.  I suppose when the ‘he doesn’t turn up in the big matches’ narrative doesn’t work you can attempt to poke holes in something else. He looked comfortable in the lone striker role and perhaps, if not immediately but long term, it might be the beginning of the end for the ‘BBC’ as we know it.

Another late show from Sevilla sees them snatch three points

They just never give up, do they?  Sevilla are the kings of late goals in LaLiga and they needed two more this weekend to smash-and-grab three points against a frustrated Deportivo de La Coruña. This wasn’t the first time Jorge Sampaoli’s entourage have shown that you need to kill them off when you have the chance or, like the Terminator, they’ll be back. This was their SIXTH 85th minute plus goal already this season.

With just one minute on the clock Sevilla were a goal down. As half-time approached, it became 2-0 and the ‘away day curse’ looked to have returned. However Steven N’Zonzi, one of the form players in the division, reduced the deficit to just one before the managers had time to speak with their players. 

There was no real response from Sevilla in the second half, despite the introduction of Vitolo, and Deportivo had a very strong penalty appeal waved away. Not for the first time this season the officials have failed to give the blue and whites the decision they deserved.

Yet as the match approached it’s final few minutes, up popped Vitolo to make it 2-2.  A huge slice of good fortune as an attempted shot deflected into his path, unmarked, to see his side claim an unlikely point. But there was still time for more drama as a Sevilla corner was floated in and after the initial shot was saved by Tyton, who was there to strike home the rebound? Yes, villain of the day and guilty of getting away with a blatant push in his own penalty area, Gabriel Mercado. Football can be cruel at times but for Sevilla fans, they’re riding the huge wave of optimism and move within two points of second-placed Barcelona.

Eibar: It’s happening again

Another season, another bright start by Eibar.  The loveable club from up north, tucked away in the mountains, almost inaccessible unless you have a car, continue to perform above expectations and find themselves once again in and around the Europa League spots heading into December.  Even without their [on-loan] star striker from last season, Borja Baston, they’ve managed to continue in the same manor and are actually on a very good run of performances and results.

In their last seven matches Eibar have beaten Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Celta Vigo, picked up draws away to Real Madrid and Espanyol and cruelly lost in the dying seconds to Las Palmas due to a contentious penalty. In fact, that draw against Espanyol saw their opponents score a late equaliser deep into stoppage time.  It’s a fine margin but two extra points would’ve seen them sit just one point behind Atletico Madrid which is incredible.  But let’s not take anything away from the points haul they do have.

The only blot on their home record was a 2-3 loss against Osasuna, a rare slip from Jose Luis Mendilibar’s team.  In the other five matches played at home they’ve won four and drawn just once.  Making Ipurua a fortress again is key as no one seems to like going there. A throwback to the old school stadiums, not the goldfish bowls we’re treated to nowadays. Small yet intimidating, you feel almost boxed in and teams are struggling to find a solution.  Fran Rico’s winner against Celta was their 100th goal in LaLiga and each season they seem to get better, so much so that it won’t be long before we aren’t surprised to see them doing well near the top of the table.

Honourable mentions: Carlos Kameni - I don’t know what it is about playing Barcelona but he’s kept two clean sheets in his last appearances there with Malaga.  Produced a world class save to deny Neymar a late, late goal.  Real Sociedad - they’ve been largely poor for two seasons but we’re finally seeing the best of this talented side.  There’s a great blend of youth and experience and they could make a play for that final Champions League spot. Espanyol - unbeaten in six, kept five clean sheets in that time as well.  Traction at last for Quique Sanchez Flores. Real Betis - a new manager, Ruben Castro as the main striker and Dani Ceballos in the team.  All is well again.

THE LOSERS

Another costly slip up from Barcelona

With the Madrid derby being played later on, and most expecting an Atletico win, this was seen as Barcelona’s chance to retake the lead in the title race with the season’s first El Clasico looming ever closer.  However due to injuries, suspensions and an underperforming second string it didn’t work out as planned.  In fact, the weekend couldn’t have gone much worse for Barcelona. Yes, yes, they might have lost but when you’re challenging for LaLiga a draw is about as good as a loss.

Malaga are no pushovers either and actually came into the match in good form, finally getting going under Juande Ramos’ leadership.  They’ve only lost to Villarreal, Las Palmas, Atletico Madrid and Real Betis.  The first three are understandable, the final one less so.  Either way, that shows they aren’t an easy team to beat but one, even in form, you’d still expect to lose to Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

Without Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and the injured Andres Iniesta it simply didn’t work.  Paco Alcacer, brought in so members of the ‘MSN’ could have rest, continues to struggle in a Barcelona shirt.  Neymar, the man you’d expect to lead the side in the absence of the other forwards, had a forgettable first half but improved later on. Andre Gomes, who has actually looked good recently, only started on the bench. And the great tactic to break down Malaga? Throwing Gerard Pique up front. It didn’t do the trick and Malaga took the point they came for - a mirror image of the result they secured last season in the same fixture.

Atletico are left battered and bruised

This was supposed to be the week that Atletico Madrid, who have impressed so many with their attacking prowess this season, got back into the title race. The switch from pragmatic, defensive-first approach to a more flowing, overloaded attack has seen them gain new fans as they’ve become easier on the eye.  A plethora of talent in the final third, led by Antoine Griezmann, would have a field day against Nacho and Raphael Varane - and their opponents didn’t even have Casemiro to help them out!

Sometimes football doesn’t go to script and this was one of those occasions. I’ve never seen such a slow start from Atletico at home to anyone, let alone Real Madrid. Perhaps stifled by their city rival’s set-up, they were largely second best throughout the first 45 minutes.  The midfield, where Atletico so often control games, belonged to Los Blancos and even with Gabi kicking everyone in sight, they couldn’t regain control - until the second half.

There was a spell of dominance from Atletico at the start of the second half, forcing Real Madrid back into their own penalty area and not letting them escape.  Better late than never, I guess.  However for all that pressure they didn’t really force Keylor Navas into action.  The introduction of Kevin Gameiro for Fernando Torres made sense - less so why he didn’t start from the beginning - but swapping Gabi for Angel Correa didn’t help the team’s balance. A slip from Stefan Savic brought Cristiano down and after the penalty, Atletico sunk without a trace.

Major problems at Sporting Gijon

It wasn’t too long ago that joy surrounded El Molinon as their side was amongst the frontrunners after just three games. However since they were dismantled by Atletico Madrid, it’s been a downward spiral of results that this weekend saw some fans protest at the direction the club is heading.  Perhaps a loss to Real Sociedad isn’t a real surprise but the manner in which they fell to defeat and the lack of response when they went behind the second time shows there is reason to be concerned.

Overall, this week has been one to forget for the club. Sporting’s frankly embarrassing response to the punishment handed to them because of the racist abuse Iñaki Williams received there hasn’t been highlighted enough.  The wait is all on LaLiga but to contest the punishment as being unfair is downright disgusting.  A partial stadium ban, in the main stand where the chanting came from, is NOTHING. They should be forced to play a match behind closed doors. And let’s not forget, the club failed to find a single supporter guilty of making those obscene noises despite it being loud enough for the referee to pause the game.

Anyway, they were throughly outplayed by Real Sociedad and at the end some fans even got out their white hankies and waved them about in protest of the result.  They’ve lost seven of their last nine.  Relegation form.

Honourable mentions: Las Palmas - started brightly but have fallen away recently and only have one win in their last eight. Soundly beaten by Real Betis on Friday.  Villarreal - after a really good run of form they simply didn’t turn up against Athletic Club. Sergio Asenjo kept the scoreline respectable. Valencia - failing to beat Granada at home was always going to cause anger. The constant need for change has to subside though as the club, more than ever, requires stability. The squad does remain awfully unbalanced though. Refereeing decisions - poor Deportivo must feel like they’ve upset someone in Spain as they were denied a clear penalty when leading 2-1 against Sevilla.  It wasn’t given and they ended up losing 2-3.

Comment