Player of Week 36: Diego Alves

It may prove to be the last weekend of the League season but whatever happens with the looming strike, Week 36 was without question a pivotal weekend for the title race. Valencia aren’t in it – Champions League qualification their aim – but they’ve had a telling say and, very nearly, conjured up what could have been a decisive result.

The title wouldn’t have been guaranteed Barcelona’s if Real Madrid had lost to Los Che but a six-point gap with two games to play would surely have been insurmountable. It would also have meant Valencia stayed even more on the coattails of Atletico Madrid, the soon-to-be deposed champions who this weekend sealed a top four place.

Top four is welcome for both Atletico and Valencia but top three is really where the ambition should be. That means direct qualification for the group stage, avoiding an inconvenient and potentially difficult qualifier. There’s a four-point disparity between Atlei and Valencia after Week 36 and Alves did everything he reasonably could do close it further.

Cristiano Ronaldo from 12 yards is one of the more intimidating sights a goalkeeper can face. But not Alves. Alves, penalty-stopper extraordinaire, kept out the forward’s effort for the second time this season, as he has done regularly when it comes down to a one-on-on battle between ‘keeper and taker. Alves is a regular thorn in the side of penalty takers – and it appears Alves has even started to try and make it easier for the poor kicker.

Marca reported that Alves told Ronaldo not to shoot to his right, moments before the kick was taken. Ronaldo shot to the right. Alves saved. Of course, he’s not trying to make anything easy, and those mind games are part of why he’s successful at saving penalties. It may not be fair, it may not be sportsmanlike, but it’s effective, and in the white heat of La Liga, that’s what counts.

The penalty save was far from Alves’ only contribution. Madrid had another half-dozen shots saved as Valencia took a two-goal lead and held it for the best part of an hour. This Madrid may not been a side playing with the swagger and verve of the pre-Christmas Madrid but few teams ever go to Santiago Bernabeu and do what Valencia did. Few goalkeepers do what Alves did either.

As well as attempting to catch Atletico, Valencia are still looking over their shoulder at Sevilla. Los Rojiblancos are three points behind but haven’t won in their last two League games, perhaps distracted or depleted by the Europa League, of which they are in the latter stages. The head-to-head record works in Valencia’s favour – a 1-1 draw at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and a 3-1 home win at Mestalla – but with such a tight race coming to a close, it’s the major moments that matter. Saving a Ronaldo penalty at the Bernabeu might be the most major of all.