La Liga’s midweek fixtures feature quite a bit of flexing from the top-three, as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid grab three points each.
Atleti Beat Basques
It took the champions less than two minutes to lodge the opening goal on Tuesday against Real Sociedad. (Well, the goal was technically lodged by Sociedad defender Mikel Gonzalez, but that counts, too.) It was less than eight minutes later that they’d seal the three points for good through an Antoine Griezmann strike (against his previous employers). The 2-0 scoreline was good enough for Atleti, as they kept their hold onto third place in La Liga.
This has been a weird campaign for Diego Simeone and Atleti. While their title defense hopes are all but dead — and have been for quite some time in all reality — there surely still exists a sense of wonder around the Vicente Calderon these days. They’re still considerably better than the teams below them. They still manage to batter their crosstown rivals on occasion, which used to be unheard of. And they still have plenty to look forward too.
Apart from the aging leadership of Gabi and Tiago, Atleti still have rather youthful side. Specifically, Griezmann and Koke are two players who could easily be considered amongst the best in the world in three or four years time. We’re also still waiting to see what youngins like Raul Jimenez, Saul Niguez, Jan Oblak, and Jose Gimenez can unearth from their seemingly deep lockers. And this is all without considering the currently loaned-out talents of Oliver Torres (at Porto), Toby Alderweireld (at Southampton), Javi Manquillo (Liverpool), and Joshua Guilavogui (at Wolfsburg). Hell, even the experienced likes of Diego Godin, Miranda, Raul Garcia, Juanfran, and Arda Turan still have many years of elite play ahead of them. And then, of course, there’s the young managerial whirlwind that is Simeone.
If you really take an in-depth gaze into what’s happening at Atleti — and not just what “happened” last season — it should be clear that their golden age is just beginning. Their triumph in 13/14 may have felt like an outlier, but it could’ve just been the first of many.
A Barca Re-up
Barcelona steamrolled Almeria on Wednesday at Camp Nou by a score of 4-0. A brace from Luis Suarez, and goals from Lionel Messi and Marc Bartra, kept Barca’s lead atop La Liga firmly intact, while the visitors maintained their spot in the relegation zone.
Recovering from a stale performance can be difficult. It’s even more trying when you’re attempting to recover while missing key members of your squad. Coming into the match with Almeria, off the back of a suffering 1-0 win over Celta, Barca were without Sergio Busquets (suspension), Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, and Neymar, the latter three sitting for resting purposes.
In place of these mainstays, Luis Enrique called upon both youth and experience to face Almeria. Amidst conflicting reports of his future — and whether it lie in Spain or Qatar — an in-form Xavi was deployed as midfield general, as he has so often been over the last decade. Alongside the 35-year-old sat the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of Sergi Roberto, getting only his third start of the league campaign. In attack, Pedro finally saw a full 90 minutes over Neymar. Likewise in defense, Marc Bartra was given a rare start ahead of Gerard Pique.
In truth, it was probably a more-than-welcome scenario for Barca to get their heads straight after a questionable run and before a brutal next couple of weeks. They were able to rest and spare some key players ahead of the possible season-defining matches coming up against Sevilla, PSG, and Valencia. Lucho likely wouldn’t have thrown out this eleven against one of those teams, but against 18th place Almeria? Well, let’s just call it a convenient entry into a inconvenient batch of games.
Messi and Suarez continue to score, too. That doesn’t hurt.
A Real Test at Rayo
Real Madrid left Vallecas with all three points on Wednesday, as goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez gave the visitors a 2-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano.
Last month, I wrote about Rayo manager Paco Jemez’s aversion to playing for draws. His justification is simple and quite enlightening. Jemez maintains that relegation-struck sides are repeatedly leaving a slew of points on the table (so to speak) by settling for draws. He believe that is they’d just play every single game with the intention of winning it, they’d almost always survive the drop. And, as I explain in the piece, his mathwork emphatically backs his claims.
It’s awfully refreshing to see a modestly-run side like Rayo Vallecano play like giants. Though they may rarely topple the actual giants of Spain, you wouldn’t be able to tell by simply watching them play. Their philosophy of frequent passing and constant attacking is probably seen as suicidal by more pragmatic minds, but Jemez and Rayo have undoubtedly had the last laugh. Despite a crippling transfer budget, the Spaniard has managed to keep them afloat in La Liga without the threat of relegation. As long as they play with this manager and this strategy, they’ll always do enough to stay up. That’s the genuine power of optimism: it’s in such minimal reserve amidst struggling sides that, if you make it a priority, the points are there to be had.
Real Madrid, of course, are always trying to win as well. Their victory over Rayo wasn’t easy, but they showed some real resolve. As the minutes winded down in the second half, and a harsh penalty appeal from Ronaldo went against the Portuguese (and resulted in a yellow card for simulation), it felt as if the game was slipping away from Real, along with the league title. But then, in the 68th minute, a boisterous run down the right flank from Dani Carvajal set Cristiano up with a thumping header (his 300th goal in a Merengues shirt) that would prove to be the winner. James Rodriguez added a second, and Madrid held onto the three points, as well as second place in La Liga. They still sit four points behind Barcelona in the table.