This week it was all about El Clasico. The first meeting between the two sides for six months finished 3-1, with Real Madrid coming back from a goal down to overwhelm Barcelona in the Santiago Bernabeu. In the other matches over the weekend, Athletic Bilbao earned a much-needed three points, Sevilla went level on top with Barca after beating Villarreal, and Atletico and Getafe fought out a fiery Madrid Derby.
Claudio Bravo’s record of eight consecutive clean sheets in the league was broken by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo as Real Madrid beat Barcelona 3-1 to pull themselves back in touch with the leaders.
Luis Enrique shuffled his pack for the trip to the capital, with Luis Suarez given the green light to start in attack in his first match back from a four month suspension. While that was expected, eyebrows were raised when it was announced Jeremy Mathieu had been shifted to left-back in place of Jordi Alba while Gerard Pique started alongside Javier Mascherano in the centre of defence. Even more surprising was the inclusion of Xavi at the expense of Ivan Rakitic, removing an energetic element of the midfield.
The biggest surprise however was how quickly it took Barcelona to open the scoring. Three minutes in and a floated ball from Suarez on the right flank found Neymar on the edge of the box. The Brazilian danced past Dani Carvajal – who was excellent thereafter – and Pepe before firing an unstoppable shot into the bottom right corner to give the Catalans the lead.
The Bernabeu was stunned, but the players were not. This isn’t the Madrid team that famously lost 5-0 to Guardiola’s side; a result which more or less told Mourinho – who “confirmed” to everyone – that you cannot attack Barcelona. They continued to play with belief, almost arrogance. Moreover, this isn’t that same Barcelona either, and the first half played out in entertaining fashion, with minimal defending as each team took it in turns to attack.
Suarez should’ve had two assists on debut as he fed Messi in the box, but with Telmo Zarra’s record beckoning, the Argentine couldn’t find a way past Iker Casillas who did very well to save from close range. Easily the most important save of the season so far, and the Spanish captain seems to slowly be finding his way back to form.
The end-to-end nature continued, and Karim Benzema hit the woodwork twice in the space of about three seconds as Real stormed forward searching for an equaliser against the league’s best defence and on 35 minutes a sliding Pique handled Marcelo’s cross. The Brazilian was tormenting Barcelona down Real’s left, as Dani Alves tried to cope without much help from the right-sided midfielder, Xavi, and a penalty was awarded to Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up. Cristiano Ronaldo slotted home. Los Merengues took a deserved draw into the break.
Both sides were creating chances but there was an inkling that Real were the more likely, quicker and more incisive in their attacks as Barcelona, while not poor, seemed somewhat sluggish. Madrid seemed a perfect hybrid of Spanish and English football: the pace, power and desire to attack and throw bodies forward, but with a touch of class, technique, creativity and finesse. They were missing Gareth Bale? A casual fan would not have known they weren’t at full strength.
Fairly, on the balance of play, Real took the lead as Pepe directed a nice header home from a Toni Kroos corner in the 51st minute and 10 minutes later it was curtains for the Blaugrana as a classic Madrid counter-attack saw Karim Benzema fire in a memorable third off the post. With a corner clearance rolling towards the sideline on halfway, a retreating Andres Iniesta inexplicably knocked the ball back inside, past his own man, and the live-wire Isco pounced. The Spaniard drove forward before playing a pass inside to Ronaldo who spun, feeding James Rodriguez who played a perfectly weighted through-pass to Benzema, beyond a scrambling and outnumbered Barcelona backline, and the Frenchman made no mistake, firing past Claudio Bravo to add to his brace at Anfield from midweek.
Lucho’s selections failed to pay off, with Javier Mascherano the only Barcelona defender to have a solid evening – but without much support there’s only so much one man can do – and Real cruised to victory. Barca had more possession as usual (57 percent) but they weren’t at their best while Real were. Credit must go to Carlo Ancelotti, it’s almost impossible to imagine a midfield containing four attack-minded players wasn’t put to the sword by Barca’s exceptional passers but such is the flexibility of the Italian he can make it work. The 43 percent possession for Real, while still considerably less than their opponents, is a huge increase of the 33 percent they have averaged over the last several encounters between the two and this was an example that Madrid can go out and attack against their biggest rivals.
Last season it seemed a miracle that he was able to manage the egos and talents at his disposal to fit them all into an XI – and win. If that was a miracle, this is something else; something there isn’t an apt word for, yet.
“It’s been a long time since the Santiago Bernabeu was able to chant ‘olés’ against Barcelona,” said Pepe. And it may not be the last time for Madridistas considering this young, vibrant midfield. It’s a watershed moment. While they finished below them in the league last season, they beat them in the Copa Del Rey final and of course won the Champions League. After nearly a decade of Barcelona dominance over Madrid, save for the odd title, the balance appears to have shifted.
More importantly, though, the title race has blown wide open.
The main talking points were inevitably going to be at the Santiago Bernabeu, though Madrid hosted another important match this weekend: a derby between Getafe and Atletico Madrid.
A nasty encounter saw Atleti come out on top thanks to – you guessed it – another goal from a set-piece, with Mario Mandzukic finding the back of the net after 40 minutes. Alexis, who Sid Lowe has described as perhaps the stupidest player in the league, was sent off for violent conduct in the 56th minute – bizarrely the first card of any colour that Getafe received – in a match that wasn’t one for the purists, as Getafe pushed the boundaries of physical play against one of the league’s best proponents of tough football.
Simeone’s side came out on top, in fifth place but only two points off top, and there were rumours of a bust-up between the managers in the tunnel at full-time, though both denied anything sinister.
Athletic Bilbao notched up only their second win of the season with a 1-0 away from home against Almeria. Ernesto Valverde breathed a sigh of relief at the full-time whistle, as the Basques finally took the points they would’ve expected. Centre-back Etxeita netted the only goal with an assist to top scorer Aritz Aduriz and a couple of defensive changes late on saw Athletic hold on for three points.
Sevilla beat Villarreal which moved them equal top with Barcelona after a late flurry in Seville. Vietto gave the Yellow Submarine the lead in the 79th minute, but an 88th minute equaliser by substitute Denis Suarez looked to have nicked a point for the home side. There was one more twist however, as Giovanni Dos Santos gave away a penalty with Carlos Bacca scored to claim a dramatic win.
Rayo Vallecano continued their case for the most entertaining teams in the league, this time at the wrong end though as they shipped four goals to Malaga. Goals to Samuel, Darder and Juanmi put the contest to bed before half-time before Nordin Amrabat scored a penalty early on in the second 45.
Jagoba Arraste moves closer and closer to the exit as Real Sociedad again came up short, this time drawing away to La Liga cellar-dwellers Cordoba 1-1. La Real are one point from the bottom of the table, and if it weren’t for that sensational, unexpected win against Real Madrid earlier in the season they would be anchored to the bottom two points adrift. While Antoine Griezmann was pivotal last season, he was not the difference between a top eight finish and a relegation fight. There is something stale in San Sebastian, and this fixture seemed to present itself at just the right time to begin a change in fortunes. They didn’t.
In the other matches over the weekend, Eibar slipped into the bottom half thanks to a 1-1 with Granada, Valencia beat Elche 3-1 in a match that saw all four goals scored from corners, Celta Vigo beat Levante 3-0 to move into 6th, and Espanyol and Deportivo La Coruña played out a scoreless draw.
It was an interesting week in La Liga, naturally dominated by El Clasico, but a quarter through the season and we have an unexpected five-horse race for the title, with any of the top five potentially top following the conclusion of next round. Who says Spanish football is too predictable? La liga por todos.
Results in full:
Almeria 0-1 Athletic Bilbao; Celta Vigo 3-0 Levante; Malaga 4-0 Rayo Vallecano; Eibar 1-1 Granada; Cordoba 1-1 Real Sociedad; Valencia 3-1 Elche; Real Madrid 3-1 Barcelona; Getafe 0-1 Atletico Madrid; Sevilla 2-1 Villarreal; Espanyol 0-0 Deportivo La Coruña.