Valencia and Real Sociedad remind Real Madrid and Barcelona to keep their guards up at all times.
The top is a lukewarm place to be. It’s a particularly lukewarm place to be when you’re there for years at a time, with only your most hated associates there to keep you company. It might not seem lukewarm from the comfort of your own pitch, where the grass is cut from the specifications of your feet and the imagination of your dreams. But when you actually go out into the world, where everyone kind of hates you, you’re reminded that no shield is big enough to protect from every stone thrown your way. For every Goliath, there’s about a hundred Davids twirling their slingshots just waiting for the day you step into their backyard.
For all intents and purposes, this year’s La Liga race is another two-horser. No, it does not mean there aren’t a barrel-full of interesting things happening throughout the league all the way down to last place, because there are. It also doesn’t mean that Atletico Madrid can’t repeat the amazing feat they managed last year of upsetting the longstanding duopoly that Real Madrid and Barcelona have held over Spain’s top-flight for years; they genuinely can. But still, La Liga’s traditional Romulus and Remus clubs are objectively the two best teams in the country.
For evidence of this, one needs to look no deeper than the goal records of each club compared to the teams below. Real Madrid have scored an absurd 56 goals this campaign while giving up only 15, leaving them with a goal differential of +41. Barcelona have managed 41 goals whilst conceding a ridiculous 8, resulting in a differential of +33. So, Real are scoring a ton of goals, and Barca aren’t giving up any. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid and Valencia, in third and fourth places, sport GD’s of +19 and +17, respectively. The status quo is being upheld, there’s no doubt about that. But if this past weekend’s Liga action had anything to say, it’s that awaydays are anything but status quo.
Valencia Stun the Kings
Real Madrid’s 22-game winning streak was ended by Valencia on Sunday, just two games shy of Cortiba’s world record. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 26th league goal from the penalty spot in the 14th minute began proceedings in a familiar manner for Los Che, who had only won once in their last ten home matches against their foes from the capital. But it was clear as this match started to unfold that this Valencia side was, and is, equipped with a dash of the amazing, as well as the unexpected. Though they were outpossessed by Carlo Ancelotti’s men, the Bats of Valencia were stern and explosive where they needed to be. By the time Antonio Barragan leveled the score in the 52nd, the winds were changing in their favor. Nicolas Otamendi’s go-ahead goal in the 65th would’ve seemed too early on most occasions, but the timing was irrelevant on Valencia’s end. They simply weren’t going to lose this game.
Los Che now exist as the most in-form team in Spain, controlling ten of the last twelve points available. But as potent as the Valencia’s attack is, traditionally and presently, it’s really been their reinforced up defense that has shined this season. Particularly the two-way presence of defenders Otamendi — who has registered the most league minutes for the club this season, in addition to scoring the winner on Sunday — Barragan, and Shkodran Mustafi have anchored Nuno Espirito Santo’s side for the better part of the campaign, proving the region can champion much more than the elegant football of their recent past. They’ve conceded only 14 goals in 17 Liga games in 2014/15, second to only Barcelona. The early January signing of Argentina international Enzo Perez from Benfica to aid the defensive midfield efforts of Javi Fuego seems to indicate that this new aesthetic of Valencian football is here to stay.
This is a weird time to play Real Sociedad, specifically at the Anoeta. Nobody’s quite sure what to make of the David Moyes era in San Sebastian, whether his British sensibilities will meld with the Spanish game in an emphatic way, enough to capture Basque hearts, at least. But the fortress of the Anoeta seems somewhat impervious to the uncertain rounds of displeasure and incompetence associated with a football club’s executive issues; it instead seems to exist as a haven of forged identity that’s willing to oblige inspiration regardless of outside distractions. This season, Spain’s top-four have only managed one point from the Anoeta, when Valencia visited in November. Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona have all fallen to the royal axe on their travels. Simply put, you know you’re in for it when you visit La Real.
That being said, looking at Real Sociedad’s overall league performance this year would suggest that you’re better off battling with this year’s side than in previous years. After all, there’s no Asier Illarramendi, Antoine Griezmann, or Claudio Bravo, and they’ve mostly been bottom dwellers in 14/15 rather than challenging for the top-four. Add in managerial anxiety, and you’ve got a side that should be primed for a gutting. But, the Anoeta, man.
If the setting of Sunday’s clash between La Real and Barca wasn’t enough of a clue that an upset was in order — the Catalans had lost in their previous two visits of the Anoeta — Luis Enrique’s decision to start both Lionel Messi and Neymar on the bench was the clincher. Granted, both players were late returns to the squad ahead of the weekend, it was believed that there was little chance that Lucho wouldn’t deploy one of the two from the start. Alas, as we’ve seen so often during Messi’s career, the team didn’t look like scoring in the first 45, which obviously lead to the Argentine being subbed on for the second half, though he couldn’t provide a breakthrough in the end.
A couple of the more glaring stats of this affair were Barca’s whopping 70 percent possession and Sociedad’s zero shots on target. This is paints a traditionally odd, but subjectively recognizable, picture for frustrated Cules. Apart from Jordi Alba’s 2nd minute own goal born from a sumptuous Sergio Canales cross, Moyes’ side rarely threatened Barcelona’s goal over the 90 minutes. But this happens often when you’re Barca: the game begins with an unexpected hiccup that demands you score sooner rather than later, because you’ll more than likely need multiple goals to snatch all three points. This can be a waking nightmare against any team — budging a parked bus can be akin to tying your shoes with oven mitts — but against a David Moyes team, this is hell. The Scot has built his reputation on matches just like this.
As the Moyes boys suction their way up the Daily Planet building, creating a unique narrative that blends reclaimed glory with notions of colonial endeavor and nationalism, Barcelona have once again faltered beneath an all-too-familiar story of having rocks thrown their way as they sit atop the mountain with their mortal enemies by their side. But Real Madrid, too, feel the pressure, although their version doesn’t include a front office circus or a highly publicized transfer ban. It certainly feels like Los Blancos’s year when considering how electrifying they’ve been performing over the totality of the season and the undeniable illuminative quality of their teamsheet every time they suit up. While Barca struggle finding roles for both veterans and youngsters alike and Atleti toil to maintain their savior status through questionable attempts to recapture past highs, Cristiano and company, current Bat-inflicted neck bite in-tow, are firmly set in overdrive with minimal distraction from their main goal of domestic and continental supremacy. Of course, this coming Wednesday will see them visit their crosstown rivals for the first leg of a potentially epic Copa del Rey matchup. A loss wouldn’t directly affect Real’s league expedition, though their visions of a historic treble-winning season definitely hang in the balance. Shields up — thus is life at the top.