What we learned from La Liga Week 18

1. Real Madrid’s undefeated run is over, but not because of their new system

Zinedine Zidane surprised many with his Sunday night team sheet, setting up his Real Madrid side in a 3-5-2 formation, with three centre-backs in addition to regular full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo. Many will automatically assume the fact he debuted this formation on a night when Los Blancos lost for the first time since last April means that it wasn’t successful, but for most of this match it was. Real Madrid frustrated Sevilla in the final third and also created plenty of chances in attack, only for Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to waste them. An own goal and a strike Keylor Navas could have blocked won the game for Sevilla, but they had little to do with the new tactical setup.

2. Atletico won by playing the Atletico way

For the third La Liga match in a row, Atletico Madrid took all three points and they did so with a third clean sheet. Yet none of those three wins were simple, with Las Palmas, Eibar and Real Betis all proving tough to break down for large spells of those matches and with Atletico having to do a lot of defending in each of those outings. Yet they always found a way to grab a goal of their own, after which they expertly nursed their leads towards the final whistle in typical Atletico fashion. Real Betis never once looked like getting on the scoresheet on Saturday evening which allowed Los Rojiblancos to hold on for an important win, even if it wasn’t a pretty one.

3. Espanyol’s bubble may have burst

Although Espanyol enjoyed an excellent spell before the Christmas break during which they went 10 matches undefeated, the Catalan side have now suffered three consecutive La Liga defeats, while they were also knocked out of the Copa del Rey against second division Alcorcon. Their latest defeat came away at Valencia, which would not normally be considered too embarrassing, but which must be treated as a disappointment this season given the tough time Valencia had been going through. With their coach and sporting director having left and with no league victories since October, Valencia were vulnerable, but Espanyol’s errors made it fairly simple for Los Che to pick up the three points.

4. Perhaps Messi doesn’t need a little help from his friends

Last Friday Barcelona took the decision to sack their director of institutional affairs Pere Gratacos after he suggested that Lionel Messi wouldn’t be as good a player without the assistance of the likes of Andres Iniesta, Neymar and Gerard Pique. The following day, the Argentine would step onto the Camp Nou turf without those three players, each of whom was rested, but he still dazzled. He was alert enough to grab his weekly goal, while his passing consistently set others up in good positions. Maybe the better question to ask is if Iniesta, Neymar and Pique would be as good without Messi?

5. We have three clear candidates for relegation

With Valencia securing a pressure-relieving three points, they inched further ahead of the drop zone, which still contains Sporting Gijon, Granada and Osasuna. Those three teams are, therefore, the prime candidates for relegation, with Sporting losing once again, this time falling 3-2 at home to Eibar, while Granada and Osasuna played our a 1-1 draw. Their meeting was an excellent opportunity for one side to give themselves a chance at the expense of the other, but it finished with a share of the spoils, a result that doesn’t really suit either team. They’ll meet again in the penultimate weekend of the season, but there’s a chance one or both of those sides could have their fate sealed by then.