Leading from the front

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or men rather, as was the case in Seville, Madrid and San Sebastian on Saturday. Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale were the heroes for Atletico and Real Madrid respectively. In Spain’s south, it was Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who together led Barcelona to a crucial victory to keep their title bid on track.

It was far from straight forward however, at the Benito Villamarin. In the opening exchanges, there was the sense that the evening could pan out to be frustrating for the defending champions. Barca had all the possession, but it was immediately very clear that finding a way through Betis’ stacked and well-organised defensive wall was not going to be easy.

Then, after just 35 minutes of play, the visitors were given a little helping hand when Heiko Westermann was sent off. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz was scolded for his performance after the game, but his decision to give the German two cards within the space of seven minutes was absolutely correct.

It was the 12th time this season that Barca played the rest of the game with a man advantage – a fact the Madrid Press were all too delighted to make a point of and to the extent of suggesting there was something conspiratorial about this. Case in point, Tomas Roncero of the sports daily AS posted on Twitter a Barca jersey with the No 12 on the back and with the word ‘referee’ written on top.

Hysteria aside, the fact is that even with a man advantage the Catalans only opened the scoring through a very fortuitous goal. An embarrassing mix-up between Antonio Adan and defender German Pezzella allowed Ivan Rakitic to prod the ball into an empty net. From this point on, the outcome was never in doubt.

Indeed, Barca did improve and Lionel Messi started to really run the show. His second assist on the night for Luis Suarez was masterful and it sealed all three points in what was at times a tricky affair for Luis Enrique’s side.

It was Messi’s 15th assist of the season, and he is tied for first alongside for Suarez in the league. The latter, who scored his 35th goal of the season, also now has a four-goal lead over Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Pichichi. Not since 2009 has a player other than Messi or Ronaldo claimed the award and, strangely enough, it was another Uruguayan, Diego Forlan, who won all those years ago. Suarez is odds on to break the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly in what is his most prolific season of his career thus far.

Bale, meanwhile, is arguably enjoying his best season of his career too and, without doubt, his best at Madrid in three years.

For the second week in a row and in the absence of Ronaldo, Bale stepped up again. The Welshman always looked the likeliest to score at Anoeta, in a game that was heading for a bore draw. Real Madrid had a total of 18 shots and Bale accounted for a third of those, yet it was his final attempt on target – a powerful headed 10 minutes from time – that clinched the win against Real Sociedad. It was his 19th La Liga goal – his highest league tally since his arrival from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013.

Just as Bale led from the front in the Basque Country, back in the capital it was former Real player Antione Griezmann who made the difference for Atleti. The Frenchman started on the bench, along with Koke, Fernando Torres, Saul Niguez and Filipe Luis – Diego Simeone clearly taking into consideration his team’s decisive Champions League tie on Tuesday – but he was nonetheless introduced on 54 minutes for Luciano Vietto. Barely a minute had passed and his first contribution to the game was a goal, his 21st for the season. Typically, Los Colchoneros held out for the remainder of the game as they ended with another clean sheet and have now gone 510 minutes without conceding a goal.

While Atletico’s marginal win is expected, we are usually accustomed to seeing Barca and Madrid score a little more freely. This was not the case this weekend, however, as the pressure of the title race and the opposition made it difficult for them. However, their big players stepped up for the big occasion and it is as you were in La Liga. Two games to go and still anything is possible.