By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
Comebacks were the order of the day for weeks 19 and 20 in La Liga, played over the last midweek and weekend. League leaders Atletico Madrid showed enormous levels of mettle to come from behind twice and pick up all six points on offer, further strengthening their title credentials, leaving them seven clear of Real Madrid at the top with a game in hand.
Both goals conceded by Diego Simeone’s men stunned them initially, before they were able to dust themselves down and get back to the task at hand. First, Eibar’s goalkeeper Marko Dmitrović put the Basques ahead from the penalty spot, a once-in-a-decade occurrence in La Liga. Against Valencia on Sunday night, a stunning strike from Uroš Račić gave Los Che the advantage.
As each week goes by, Luis Suárez, who celebrated his 34th birthday this week, proves his worth more and more to a side looking to hijack the duopoly the same way they did in 2014. With each goal he scores, now 12 in 15 league matches, and with each victory that comes to Los Colchoneros, the decision from Barcelona to let him go to a direct rival is looking more and more foolish. Bizarrely, history looks to be repeating itself a là David Villa’s last season in Spain, lifting the La Liga trophy with Atletico Madrid.
Furthermore, fbref.com calculates Suárez’s expected goals for the campaign at only 7.3, indicating the Uruguayan is tucking away chances at a rate far exceeding what he is presented with. He bagged the equaliser and winner against Eibar before following that up with putting his side in the lead against Valencia in what would eventually be a 3-1 win.
Currently, Suárez is leading the ‘pichichi’ charts, Spain’s top goalscorer, with another striker in scintillating form. Youssef En-Nesyri found the net four times in the past week, helping Sevilla find their stride on the pitch in a manner that had been eluding them this season. The Moroccan opened the scoring in a 1-2 away win to Deportivo Alavés before scoring his second hattrick of the month against Cádiz to quickly put the Andalusian derby beyond doubt.
At the weekend, En-Nesyri’s first showed off his sharpness, reacting quickly to a shot that had rebounded off the post. For his second, he displayed great movement and heading ability to hit home a free kick from a wide position. For the third, he used a combination of the traits of the first two goals, reacting so quickly, confidently, and strongly to leap high in the air and hammer the ball into the net with his head after a loose clearance. He later hit the net for a fourth time in the match after peeling off the back shoulder of his marker, but the move was hauled back for a slight offside.
The 23-year-old arrived from Leganés midway through last season and took a while to find his feet under Lopetegui, but over the last number of weeks, he has shown himself to be the link that Sevilla have been missing. With fabulous defenders at the back, relentless full backs, dynamic midfielders, and skillful wide forwards, the Europa League winners were just missing a quality number 9 to tie it all together. Luuk de Jong had served well as a target man and contributed with some big goals in big games but couldn’t manage to be the volume goalscorer the side needed. Since Halloween, En-Nesyri has scored 16 goals for club and country in 1,276 minutes, averaging a goal every 80 minutes – more than a goal a game.
Sevilla had a tricky beginning to the season, struggling to find their rhythm after a gruelling 2019/20. After losing three on the spin in the earlier part of the campaign, there was worry at the Sánchez Pizjuán, but since then the team have gone through a large chunk of this season not entirely convincing yet still picking up wins. Lately, however, Sevilla are turning on the style once again, playing with the speed and aggression that they show when they’re at their best. In truth, Alavés and Cádiz are sides Sevilla, with Champions League ambitions, should be putting away easily – but the difference now is they are winning these games with a lot more style, whereas the first half of their season passed by a lot more pragmatically with tight victories.
On the other side of the city, Real Betis were one of the comeback kings this past week, and now must have European ambitions in their sights. 1-0 down at home to Celta Vigo after only 15 minutes eventually turned into a 2-1 win, while a very late point was rescued in heroic circumstances from being 2-0 down to Real Sociedad.
Joaquín, the personification of Real Betis, was the story of the week for Los Verdiblancos. After being diagnosed with Covid-19 at the beginning of the year, isolating for two weeks, and only taking part in limited training sessions, he saw his first minutes of the new year away to the Basques. His introduction late in the game totally woke his teammates up. Playing just the final 12 minutes, the captain and local star set up the first and scored the second goal to ensure a point for his team that tasted like victory.
With his goal, Joaquín also made history by overtaking Ferenç Puskas, Jorge Molina y Ben Barek to become the fourth oldest goal scorer in La Liga at 39 years and 186 days. His first goal of this season also made this campaign the 21st consecutive season in professional football in which he’s scored a goal.
Betis’s campaign has had a very stop-start feel to it, with Manuel Pellegrini unable to find a formula to string two league wins together until that midweek win over Celta Vigo, which had followed up a 2-0 win over Huesca, with an added cup win in between. They are now unbeaten in four games in La Liga, their best stretch of the season, and have every chance of making it five when they play Osasuna next.
On Saturday night, Deportivo Alavés celebrated their 100th birthday. A club’s centenary is a great occasion anywhere in the world, but in Spain it seems to have an even more special feeling to it, often with weekend-long programmes of celebrations, ceremonies in the stadium to look back at the highlights of the institution’s past. However, the bad news is that no fans were able to enjoy the day together with their team due to the pandemic, and to compound this bad news, Real Madrid were the team welcomed to Vitoria-Gasteiz for the game.
With Zidane isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, with Sergio Ramos, Fede Valverde, Dani Carvajal, Nacho Fernández, and Rodrygo out missing, Eden Hazard played probably his best game in a Madrid shirt and ensured a 3-0 lead at the break, with the Belgian scoring one and assisting another, effectively ending the game as a contest at the half-way point. In the end, los blancos, coached by David Bettoni for the day, with a phone to his ear presumably with Zidane on the other end of the line, ran away 4-1 winners to keep the pressure up on their city neighbours at the top of the table.
The result leaves Alavés in the bottom three, after being overtaken by a resurgent Osasuna who have found life again after a dismal couple of months prior. In fact, los rojillos have only suffered one defeat in their last seven games, winning points against Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, and Valencia in that spell.
Third in the table sit Barcelona, who saw off Elche 2-0 without the services of Lionel Messi, who was serving a ban for his first ever club red card after lashing out at Asier Villalibre in the Super Cup final loss.
On the scoresheet for the third time this season, with all three coming this month, was Frenkie De Jong. The Dutch midfielder has been handed more freedom to roam forward and arrive late in the box by Ronald Koeman lately. The results are plain to see, with goals and important contributions coming from the former Ajax man in the past weeks. His goals have been crucial too – the only goal in a 1-0 win over Huesca, the opener in a 2-1 against Real Sociedad in the Super Cup, and the first in the 2-0 victory over Elche.
The license and encouragement to roam forward has been one of Koeman’s best actions this season. With the added responsibility, De Jong looks like a much more vital component to this Barcelona team that have been in their best form of the season over the last few weeks.
Despite the well-earned praise he’s been receiving lately, the Dutchman has his feet firmly planted on the ground. “I think since the start of the new year we’ve been a bit better. I don’t know if we’re in the title race, we just have to win our games and see where we are at the end,” he said in post-match comments.
🚀 Chelsea loanee Kenedy hit a LaLiga goal of the season contender last night for @GranadaCdeF against Villarreal 🔥
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) January 21, 2021
Goal of week 19: Kenedy’s incredible long-range strike to earn a point for Granada away to Villarreal.
Uros Račić with an absolute BEAUTY! 😱
Oh my word, what a curler that is from the Valencia man 🦇 pic.twitter.com/Q1QaBXu6zo
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) January 24, 2021
Goal of week 20: Uroš Račić beautifully combining power with precision to launch a rocket into the top corner past Jan Oblak to give Valencia the lead against Atletico Madrid.