Chase for Europe heats up

Malaga, Real Sociedad and even Real Betis may all be making a claim to be considered the ‘best’ in Spain’s ‘other’ League – the one that excludes Real Madrid and Barcelona. But, it has always been Valencia and Atletico Madrid that have traditionally fought for this title. And, on Sunday night their battle resumed as Los Che travelled to the Vicente Calderon.

A tight and tactical affair was expected but it seemed like something completely different was on the offering after the first six minutes of play – it was all tit-for-tat and literally goal-for-goal. It was the visitors who broke the deadlock first, Brazilian forward Jonas taking advantage of some sloppy defending from his compatriot Miranda to stab the ball home from six yards out.

The home fans were stunned into silence but, no sooner had they been, they saw their side equalise. A delightful cross from Arda Turan broke the offside trap and Radamel Falcao was there to steer the ball home with the deftest of volleys. With his goal, the Columbian put an end to his minor drought of three games and no goals scored.

After the game’s frantic opening, it soon evolved into what was expected pre-game – tactical, tight with few real chances at either end. With Atletico Madrid playing their preferred game of sitting back and attacking on the counter, Valencia were allowed to play their natural game based on possession and control.

But, neither approach proved enough on the night as the game slowly petered out and the spoils were shared. And, in truth, it was probably a fair outcome as neither side did enough to really merit coming away with all three points, not that Ernesto Valverde fully agreed. “Considering how we played in the first half, we think we could have won here,” he said afterwards.

However, Ernesto did show some perspective too, admitting that a point away at Atleti, who before kick-off had won 13 of their 14 home ties, was some kind of achievement. “Looking at Atletico's results here all season, you can say the point is good.”

In addition, Valverde can be proud of his side’s draw given the raft of suspensions and injuries he had to deal with. Club captain and leading goal-scorer Roberto Soldado was unavailable due to injury while Jeremy Mathieu had to fill in again at centre-half in what was a makeshift backline that included midfielder Andres Guardado. Diego Simeone, on the other hand, had practically a full-strength squad to choose from with the exception of the suspended Juanfran Torres.

Madrid’s AS ran the headline: ‘Great game, bad refereeing’, practically solely due to Estrada Fernandez’s decision not to award the home side a penalty in the first half after Jonas appeared to handle the ball in the box. Replays suggest that Fernandez may not have got it right too, but his overall performance on the night was not as bad as AS suggested.

Despite protestations from the Atleti players regarding their penalty appeal, they will have walked off the field the happier of the two teams. Their unlikely tilt for the title came to an end a while ago and now all they have to do is ensure third spot and Champions League football for next season. And, they are certainly on the right path with the point maintaining the 13-point gap between them and fourth-placed Real Sociedad who shared the honours away to Espanyol.

As for Los Che, a return to Europe’s top competition is not so certain even though they are surely in the hunt. Valverde’s side are just two points outside the top four and though a point will come in handy in their bid for Champions League football, Malaga’s win away to Rayo Vallecano saw Manuel Pellegrini’s side move up to fifth and Valencia drop down to sixth.

Indeed, it was certainly an impressive victory for Los Boquerones and Pellegrini himself was left impressed. “The team played a great game. They did well in the first half, but the second half saw us with a lot more of the ball,” he enthused afterwards.

Goals from Isco, Julio Baptista and man-of-the-match Pedro Morales ensured all three points for the Champions League quarter-finalists. As a little historical aside, it was also the first ever win at Vallecas for the Andalucians.

Speaking of history in terms of Spanish football, it seems unavoidable to mention Lionel Messi no matter the day, week, month or year. Barcelona may have failed to win, but, as ever the Argentine managed to score. And, rather remarkably, in scoring away to Vigo it is now 19 games on the trot that Messi has scored. Furthermore, he has now scored against every team in La Liga this season. Just Messi doing what he does best – making the extraordinary seem rather ordinary.