When you can’t be a good team, be a lucky one
It was far from pretty at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon but sometimes it doesn’t have to be in order to get the result you need. Real Madrid were booed at various times during their contest with Sporting Gijon as the LaLiga minnows made the hosts sweat until the final whistle but ultimately came up short after Cristiano Ronaldo’s double within 20 minutes was enough to get the job done - but only just.
Fine margins often determine whether you win or lose league titles and a key ingredient to doing that is snatching victories in matches where you’re below your best. It all started so well as an early penalty, converted by Cristiano, was soon followed by another for the Portuguese international, this time getting on the end of a wonderful cross from makeshift full-back Nacho. This should’ve signalled a professional performance from Madrid to see it out, maybe even add a couple more, but they were soon punished for their lack of urgency on the ball.
Instead the second Madrid goal seemed to inspire Sporting into action. They smothered the midfield, Luka Modric in particular, and pulled within one after robbing the Croatian in the centre of the park before working it out wide, eventually getting the ball into the box for Carlos Carmona to smash it first time into the far corner. A really smart finish from the former Barca B winger.
As the rain crashed down the game tipped further and further into Sporting’s favour and Madrid had Keylor Navas to thank for keeping their lead in tact. However Nacho’s clumsiness in the box gifted the visitors the chance to take a deserved share of the points from the spot. Duje Cop took the responsibility but sent the penalty over the crossbar and Real somehow managed to hold on.
The league of the late goals strikes again
For those of you who decided to wake up early and watch Malaga versus Deportivo, a match on paper that didn’t inspire much confidence of producing a good game, you were treated to one of the games of the weekend - perhaps only surpassed by Swansea’s epic 5-4 victory over Crystal Palace. It’s the Premier League which loves to boast of the late goals scored there but this season has seen LaLiga rival it in those stakes and this weekend was the perfect example.
Deportivo took the lead as they were finally awarded a penalty with just two minutes on the clock. Celso Borges did what Cop couldn’t and put his side into the lead. However less than 20 minutes later Malaga had a spot-kick of their own and Michael Santos levelled it up. After that the game appeared to be heading only one way as Sandro Ramirez made it 2-1 to the hosts and Santos grabbed his second ten minutes into the second half. Game over, right? Wrong.
Malaga are fun to watch and despite the solid defensive showing at the Camp Nou the other week, they tend to leak goals. In less than 10 minutes they appeared to shoot themselves in the foot with Deportivo scoring two goals to make it all square once again. The first came from a beautiful cross while the second was quite comical as Carlos Kameni could only get a slight touch on it, allowing the ball to hit Borges and he unknowingly grabbed a brace. 3-3.
There was still time for a late twist in the tale and I spoke about luck being necessary to win a title, but you also need it if you’re going to avoid relegation. Deportivo looked to have secured a point but they were to be outdone by a magical goal from academy starlet Javier Ontiveros. Cutting inside with nothing on in the 91st minute he decided to have a go from all of 35 yards and it rifled past Kameni to send the home crowd wild. Great for Malaga but yet another body blow for Deportivo.
Piatti leads Espanyol forward
I’ll be honest with you, I was a little concerned with how Espanyol would do this season. Despite the success from the likes of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour in England, in Spain, foreign investment usually ends in tears. Without the huge revenue available to Premier League clubs, it’s a lot harder to buy your way to success over in Spain. The door has been closed even further thanks to Financial Fair Play regulations, which Malaga and Valencia fans have learned the hard way.
Espanyol were taken over by Chinese businessman and billionaire Chen Yansheng and many scoffed at his plan to be in the Champions League within three years. Last season saw them fall way short of that and a summer of upheaval followed but, to Chen’s credit, the side is looking a lot better after the changes and that dream of Champions League football doesn’t seem so daft any more.
Quique Sanchez Flores opted for experience over potential and it’s proven to be a wise choice. Diego Lopez, recently turned 35, has kept six clean sheets in his last seven matches. Javi Fuego, Jose Antonio Reyes and Leo Baptistão were discarded by their previous clubs but have all played a crucial role in this mini-Espanyol revival. Gerard Moreno is finally showing his undoubted talented and at 24 could be the man to lead the team long-term.
The undoubted star is Pablo Piatti however. His time at Valencia wasn’t poor by any means although he got tarred with that brush after last season’s horror show from the club. People often overlook the fact he scored seven and made eight assists the season before that so perhaps Valencia were too trigger happy in letting him go. This year he already has five goals and seven assists after just 10 games. He scored a brace and assisted Moreno’s goal in a 3-0 hammering of Leganes. At 27 he’s naturally hitting his peak and could be the driving force behind a charge for the European places.
Honourable mentions: Atletico Madrid - It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Diego Simeone’s men but they responded by steamrollering Osasuna 3-0. Real Sociedad - They’ve had some great results over Barcelona at home in recent years but this was easily their best performance, deserved more than a point. Celta Vigo - Led by Iago Aspas, Celta have only lost twice in their last 10 matches. Routine victory over Granada.
Barcelona’s bumpy run continues
There’s something not quite right with Barcelona at the moment. It’d be easy to lump all the blame on, to date, uninspiring performances from new faces in the squad but that would be allowing some of the bigger names to escape criticism - and they deserve the bulk of it.
Luis Enrique rightly attempted to fix his team’s reliance on the front three and look to the future when it comes to finding long-term replacements for Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique. The transfer business the club carried out was largely praised as, despite financial restrictions, they undoubtedly improved their squad even after losing Dani Alves. Aleix Vidal was expected to step up after a so-so start last January but has fallen out of favour to the point he can’t make a match day squad.
The gap left by Iniesta is perhaps the greatest cause for concern. To replace someone of his calibre, or at least try to, was always going to take time. To expect miracles from Andre Gomes or Arda Turan is naive, although both, especially the former, could do better. However this lack of connection between the midfield and attack has meant Lionel Messi dropping deeper and deeper to be the man who starts attacks and the one who finishes them. For now, it’s doing okay, but long term it’s like putting a plaster over a two-inch cut. Eventually, it’ll fall apart.
They were thoroughly outclassed by Real Sociedad at the weekend and thanks to an inept linesman escaped with a point, although that’s a lot better than they’ve managed in recent years at Anoeta.
Luis Suarez and Neymar simply have to do more, both defensively and offensively. So often they’re bystanders for large parts of the game. The one time Neymar did get past his man it resulted in Messi scoring. He needs to step up, similar to how Gareth Bale was doing at Real Madrid before his latest injury. Perhaps a new combination in midfield would help restore some stability but everyone at the club needs to improve, even the little Argentinian. He needs to be given a role and not asked to steer the whole project himself.
It’s already looking bleak for Osasuna
No one was expecting second-bottom Osasuna to cause a shock against Atletico Madrid but they had a chance to when they were awarded an early penalty. Roberto Torres couldn’t beat Jan Oblak from 12 yards and with it went any hopes they had of claiming a share of the spoils. Those chances, those crucial opportunities, cannot be passed up - especially when you’re fighting for your lives.
Osasuna kept plugging away after the penalty miss but Atletico soon turned the screw and two goals in a minute condemned them to defeat. Enrique Martin has already lost his job and been replaced by Joaquin Caparros but the task at hand looks an unenviable one. There’s a distinct lack of quality throughout the team and you fail to see where the goals will come from which is a massive concern. They’re the second-lowest scorers in the division.
They need reinforcements but I’m not sure the money will be there for them to get the quality required. It’s hard to see how they’ll survive the season bar a remarkable set of results. They play Sporting Gijon, Deportivo, Valencia and Granada in four of their next five matches. Do or die time already.
Europa hangover for Villarreal?
Sometimes it just isn’t your day and for Villarreal, that came yesterday in their home clash with Alaves. Perhaps sluggish after a trip to Switzerland in midweek, Villarreal were caught by a first half onslaught from their lesser opponents, who scored two goals in 12 minutes and deservedly went into half-time with that lead itact. Both goals were not pretty from a Villarreal standpoint. Two lapses, the second from Mateo Musacchio a real clanger, were quickly taken advantage of.
Perhaps there’s a slight reason for Villarreal fans to be worried though. They’ve now lost three of their last four matches, failing to score in all of them. Quite often a finger is pointed at European football being the reason behind a loss but they’d actually won three matches after a midweek game before the defeat to Alaves, drawing the other against Espanyol. A mini-crisis can be set right if they defeat Leganes next weekend before they face Atletico Madrid (after another Europa League match).
Honourable mentions: Granada - still winless and rooted to the bottom of the table. Valencia - They weren’t favourites going into the game against Sevilla but they failed to take advantage of the host’s lacklustre display and fell to defeat. The linesman at Anoeta - perhaps he had rain in his eyes because I’ve no idea how he flagged Juanmi offside.