Not that long ago this LaLiga season felt fresh and different, right? We had Sevilla, Betis and Real Sociedad challenging for a top four finish, Villarreal on a roll and threatening the top six, Athletic putting together great performances against the top sides… Well, scrap that.
This weekend, the Sevillistas tied their Friday match vs second-to-last Alavés and pretty much gave Real Madrid half of the title, while both Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid surpassed Betis in the standings, leaving the Verdiblancos out of the top four for the first time in ages. The duo also cut Sevilla’s advantage to seven points, a few weeks after it had reached fourteen – and Barcelona still have a game in hand, by the way.
The Azulgrana can finally have a “Xavi effect” to call their own. Five wins and one draw in the last six and a convincing quarterfinals win vs Napoli in the Europa League have quieted down the crazy house the Camp Nou had become when Xavi Hernandez arrived. And not only the winter signings have worked out so far, but also the manager has recovered a few players for the cause, like Memphis Depay himself, who won the match for Barcelona in Elche in the last five minutes. It’s just one of those situations in which everything goes. Whether it’s a 4-0 thrashing of Athletic or a comeback win vs the combative Elche, Barcelona can do no wrong now and one does wonder what would have happened if Jan Laporta hadn’t protracted the decision to bring Xavi back for a few months more than he should have.
Yes, Ronald Koeman did have a point when he complained about Laporta’s hesitant support to the Dutch media last week. He suffered through Pedri’s injury, while the summer signings were well below Barcelona’s standard and even in that context he managed to get a handful of youngsters playing decent football in the top side. Not bad, Ronald. That said, you can easily spot the differences between the Dutchman’s coaching style and Xavi’s, and so far they overwhelmingly favour the latter. And make no mistake: this is not the caricaturised Barcelona of Quique Setién and his thousands passes in a single match, but a much more direct version of the football that Xavi learned in Can Barça. Again, there’s plenty of ways to win, and great teams usually have a long libretto. Barcelona’s current manager knows that well, even if in his public statements he sounds like a guy obsessed with a one dimensional approach to football.
Most Spanish journos were discussing the end of the Diego Simeone’s era a few weeks ago, but Atletico have won four in a row and performed admirably well against the riches of Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League tie. Their impressive win against Betis, possibly the most in-shape team in Spain right now, came by means of a return to Simeone’s basics that the team was demanding a long time ago. Simeone finally let João Félix run the attack, used the best physical side he had, and the team responded with a trademark performance in which they defended like beasts and killed Betis at the counter. Felix shone like very few other times in his Atletico tenure, to such a level that his double feels like precious little with the number of chances he got involved in. Tough loss for Betis, especially because they went from third to fifth in the standings. This was a key match for Pellegrini’s boys and you can see that, even with rotations, the team didn’t find the spark they needed to defeat this recovered version of Atleti.
And then, of course, we have Real Madrid. Given the mounting number of players who could be out of the key match versus Paris Saint Germain – Mendy and Casemiro are suspended, and then Kroos and Valverde will have to undergo a test right before the match to see if they’re fit –, Carlo Ancelotti finally decided to give Eduardo Camavinga a chance. The kid had played 45 minutes total in the last two months and finally got a full match under his belt. He raised to the occasion, scored a cracker and showed that he’s fit, smart, technically gifted… and naïve as 19 years olds usually are.
The match was such a disappointment for Real Sociedad supporters that I was scared to text Phil Ball after the final whistle. The visitors’ performance was laughable, and even though they took the lead they were manhandled by Real Madrid as though the match took place between teams of different divisions. Was it promising for Real Madrid fans? Yes, and the players, quite smartly, took a walk around the pitch to salute the fans to heat things up for Wednesday. By the way, the after-the-match round of thanks to the fans was a Bayern tradition that Kroos brought to Madrid when he arrived, but stopped doing because of the lack of team mates surrounding him. He retook this year when Alaba joined the team. On Saturday the whole squad took the walk, and the effect on the stands was excellent.
That said, it’s hard for the realistic Madridista to be optimistic for Wednesday. Rather than getting players involved during a season that has been easier than any team supporter expected, Carlo has stuck to his preferred starting eleven in every single match. Now the whole Champions League title challenge depends on Nacho playing a decent match at the centreback position, on Camavinga and Valverde – if the latter plays – delivering at the most intimidating scenario imaginable, and on some kid off the bench bringing the extra energy the team will likely need in the second half. Paris Saint Germain will be happy to sit back and wait, and they’re extremely dangerous in that position.
But let’s go back to LaLiga, and to those fading hopes of something new and unexpected happening this year. Unai Emery’s Villarreal, who was the best team of the tournament in the last ten matches, lost to the unpredictable Osasuna on Saturday. The Rojillos decided to show up, and they frustrated the Yellow Submarine beyond belief. Another setback for the challengers and three points that feel like gold for the hosts, now free of all relegation concerns in what, whatever happens in these last two months, should be a good season for them.
And in the trouble zone a huge win for Cadiz, the first in five matches, and losses for Granada, Mallorca and Getafe. Granada’s coach, Robert Moreno, lost his job shortly after his team was defeated by the recovering Valencia. His side conceded two goals in set pieces and another one in a questionable penalty, but the writing was on the wall for Moreno and any negative result would have generated the same outcome.
Tomorrow, Athletic and Levante will close the list of fixtures and after the Champions League midweek matches, we’ll get to see whether the classic three keep dominating the competition or any of them falters. If you look at the rivals next weekend – Atletico and Barcelona host Cadiz and Osasuna, respectively, while Real Madrid travels to Mallorca – seems like we’ll have to wait another at least week for them to slip, until El Clasico returns on the 20th of March.