The title picture begins to come into focus for Barcelona and Real Madrid in this week’s La Liga action.
Barca Outlast La Real
The objective was simple: keep winning. For the next three, or however many weeks, just keep winning. It seems elementary enough, because it really is. When you’re talking about a team like Luis Enrique’s 2014/15 Barcelona, winning seems almost foregone. Not that that’s necessarily true statistically (they’ve still lost four league games this season; that’s more losses than in each season from 2009 to 2013), as much as it is theoretically. They have one of the greatest attacking forces anyone’s ever seen. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar seem to always be in-form and always scoring. It feels, and rightly so, that you should never lose with those three on-the-pitch.
Of course, we know that, in the real world, it’s never that simple. And Real Sociedad manager David Moyes surely spent the entire week leading up to Saturday’s match with Barca drilling his players’ heads with that very truth. You can beat this team. Hell, you already beat this team once in 2015. Let’s do it again.
Although Barca’s January loss to La Real does seem a world away at this point — the media, at the time, was deadset on applying the “crisis” narrative, unaware of the spike the team would experience come Spring-time — the Basques seemed hellbent on ruining the Catalans’ road to glory, as was evident in the first-half of play on Saturday. Not that the run of play suggested Barca were ever in real danger of conceding. But La Real’s stingy defense and sure hands of keeper Geronimo Rulli certainly gave pause to the 80,000-plus Cules that filled Camp Nou.
However, true champion resolve won out when, in the 51st, Messi’s teasing inswinging cross was deflected right into the goalward path of Neymar, who headed past Rulli. The game was then put further to bed through a highlight-reel bicycle kick from substitute Pedro in the 85th. 2-nil, all three points to the Blaugrana. They’d have to wait for Real Madrid’s later match to discover how close the title really was.
Los Che Hold Off Madrid Comeback
Something had to eventually give at the top of La Liga. If that “thing” wasn’t the scheduled end of the season — or at least the possible “cancellation” of the season — it was probably going to be a slip from one of the two colossi. Well, it finally happened: Real Madrid slipped. And while the slip didn’t result in a flatline, Los Merengues are certainly comatose and fading fast.
Following up last week’s breathtaking encounter with Sevilla, Real Madrid welcomed 4th place Valencia to the Bernabeu needing to win to stay within striking distance of league-leading Barcelona. Alas, they failed. Though not without putting up a hell of a fight.
After going down two goals thanks to first-half Valencia goals from Paco Alcacer and Javi Fuego, Madrid staged a comeback in the second-half. A 56th minute Pepe goal sparked a feverish attack that culminated with a curling masterpiece-of-a-strike from Isco in the 84th. From that point on, the action became end-to-end with both sides manufacturing quality chances. In the end, neither Madrid nor Valencia were able to breach each other’s goalmouth again. 2-2 was the result.
The point means Los Che lost a bit of ground on Sevilla, who they currently lead by four points in the Champions League race for next season. For Madrid, the point is nearly a death sentence: Barca need to only win either next week at Deportivo or the final matchday against Atletico Madrid to claim the league title.
This game wasn’t as much about what Real Madrid didn’t do as it was about what they simply couldn’t do. In a match brimming with goalscoring opportunities, Los Blancos just couldn’t better Diego Alves, who had a season-defining match. In fact, a moment that could’ve flipped the game on its head ended up being the catalyst to a saviour’s performance from Alves.
It was towards the end of the first-half, and Valencia left-back Jose Luis Gaya had just given up a penalty for pushing Gareth Bale down on the edge of the box. This pitted Cristiano Ronaldo against Alves for a single kick that dictated who would feel inspired/dejected heading into the locker rooms for intermission. Ronaldo stuttered, feinted, and released; Alves studied, reacted, and saved. It was the turning point that never was.
I haven’t talked enough about Diego Alves. (I know that “we,” as a collective, also haven’t, but I haven’t either.) Not just in this section of writing, but in all of my sections of writing over the past few years. It doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about the lad. On the contrary, every time I see Los Che play, I’m reminded at what a gem the Brazilian is. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought to myself, “With all of Brazil’s goalkeeping woes in recent history sans Julio Cesar (at times), why don’t they just stick Diego back there?!?” I still don’t understand how he isn’t the undisputed Samba King of the Sticks, but Saturday’s performance may just be his ticket to the throne.
They’d been teasing for long enough. Eibar’s dreadful 2015 form had them turn from underdog triumph to near-basement-dwellers in a matter of months. While it always seemed like they’d eventually string together a couple of wins to guarantee their safety, the Armeros have doubled-down on the drop in recent weeks. After losing on Friday to Espanyol, and with results going against them this weekend, Eibar now sit in 19th place. Those almost unthinkable fears of relegation have finally materialized. Having now lost 16 of their last 18 league matches, it’s difficult to see a way out for them. The only saving grace for Eibar lies in their remaining fixtures against 15th placed Getafe and already-relegated Cordoba.
Of course, with Eibar’s rotten luck comes fortune for others. A last-gasp equalizer for Deportivo from Alberto Lopo at San Mames means the Brancoazuis have climbed out of the dropzone for the time being. And despite losing to Malaga, Almeria remain safe at the moment in 16th. Lastly, Granada’s vital 2-0 win over cursed Cordoba has given them a shot at staying up.
The relegation escape remains, like always, just as exciting as the title race. With one side already down, and four others vying to reside above those final two places, anything can and will happen in the final two weeks. The darlings of La Liga coming into the season, Eibar, will surely claim the rooting interest of many, as the financial waterbugs of the Primera. But football can be cruel and unrelenting. Eibar have learned this the hard way. They’ll be hoping the soccer gods will suspend further punishment for the next couple of matches. Otherwise, their Hoosiers-esque story will have have one helluva tragic ending.