La Liga weekly roundup: Huesca boss ends long wait to taste top-flight win as Real Madrid underwhelm again

By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs

Redemption was completed for Juan José Rojo Martín, better known as ‘Pacheta’, this weekend when he earned his first ever La Liga win as a manager with Huesca’s vital 1-3 triumph away to Valladolid, direct rivals in the fight against relegation, leaving the newly appointed coach “happier than the milk.”

The concept of milk is used in a lot of euphemisms in the Spanish language and direct translations are often comically absurd, but for all intents and purposes the manager was telling the media that he was extremely happy with the result, explaining in post-match comments that he feels supporters can be proud of their team.

José Rojo Martín 'Pacheta', Huesca

Pacheta would have been entitled to hope that his first ever La Liga managerial win would have come much sooner than this, yet this was only his third game coaching in Spain’s top division after replacing Míchel at Huesca on 12 January.

Instead, he would have been entitled to hope his first win in the topflight would come as manager of Elche, who are playing in La Liga largely thanks to his fantastic success with los Ilicitanos. In just two and a half years at the helm at Elche, he brought them from Segunda B – Spain’s regionalised third tier – to the top division after winning the playoffs in the most difficult of circumstances.

The last day of the season in last year’s Segunda División was thrown into utter disarray when, shortly before kickoff, the match between Deportivo La Coruña, in the relegation zone and scrapping for their lives, and Fuenlabrada, sitting in the promotion playoff spots and dreaming of glory, was postponed following an outbreak of Covid-19 among the Fuenlabrada squad.

Every other team played out their scheduled final games of the season and results elsewhere confirmed Depor’s relegation and knocked Fuenla outside of the top six. For weeks, Fuenlabrada players were locked up in hotels strictly not allowed to leave their rooms, while a whirlwind of legal proceedings, challenges, complaints, and statements followed, causing bedlam by putting the whole outcome of the league season in jeopardy.

Eventually, it was decided that the last game between Deportivo and Fuenlabrada would be played out weeks after the season had ended for everybody else, with the Galicians already relegated and Fuenlabrada stripped of most of their squad that had brought them this close to a shot at promotion, as contracts expired and players needed to ensure employment. Fuenla lined out with a team that leaned heavily on their youth setup, and a mostly second-string team almost brought them their first ever La Liga promotion playoff spot, only to be scuppered by goals from Depor in the 84th and 95th minute to seal a 2-1 win that was ultimately meaningless for the Galicians but devastating for the side from Madrid.

The result left Elche, after spending weeks in flux not knowing which division they would be competing in 2020/21, unexpectedly in with a shot at promotion, as they were the side that had overtaken Fuenlabrada in the standings when the Madrileños were unable to play their game on the first scheduled date.

Before their promotion was confirmed, the club had no way of knowing what kind of team they needed to budget for or what level of income they would be receiving the following season, as it wasn’t until 23 August 23 that the playoff final was finished.

Pacheta incredibly led his side to wins over Zaragoza and well-funded Girona to reach the promised land in the most spectacular and chaotic fashion. And thus, after two and a half seasons, going from the third to the top tier, Elche decided to fire Pacheta.

Midway through the 2019/20 season, the club underwent a change of ownership, and the decision to replace the manager with Jorge Almirón was likely made long before the season’s conclusion, just the unexpected glory surrounding its conclusion made the managerial change look tasteless.

Elche win promotion

Regardless, Pacheta now has his chance to manage in La Liga, and has already felt defeat, draw, and victory in the division in his first three games. A goalless stalemate against Champions League-chasing Villarreal would have given Huesca confidence, but a win away from home against another side likely aiming to stay away from the bottom three places come the season’s end will have done the world of good for the mood in Aragon.

“Wins help the team believe in the work being done,” the coach said following the victory, going on to say that his team needs to convert the “good things” they do on the pitch into “triumphs.”

Rafa Mir was fundamental in the triumph over Valladolid, knocking in a hat trick of well-taken goals. The first two goals showed off the striker’s ability of doing the basics at a perfect level, as Pacheta highlighted how “precise” the team played in both boxes. Meeting a Pablo Maffeo cross, not for the first time in the match, Rafa Mir nodded a header on target that was simply too fast for the goalkeeper to stop. The lively right-back provided a lot of danger throughout the game and could create chances from deep.

Huesca

Maffeo then controlled a high ball in the second half and simply dinked it over the heads of a very high defensive line allowing Mir to run through. The striker needed perfect control before carrying it a short distance until he was able to guide the ball into the far corner. Nothing spectacular, but very efficient football. Precision.

His third goal, however, radiated with the confidence the Murcian clearly took from his first two strikes. Arriving onto a through ball just outside the box, the striker wonderfully followed the movement of the ball and timed his side-foot it into the far post to perfection, letting the ball just about creep into the net.

Mir now boasts a tally of six goals this campaign. The connection with right-back Maffeo yielded success, and the defenders’ looping crosses from deep could provide Huesca many more chances going forward as they aim to avoid relegation in La Liga for the first time in their history.

Currently, Huesca lie six points from safety, but have played more games than some of the teams around them, and Real Madrid and Sevilla are next up for the Aragonese. If they are to achieve survival this season, they will need Rafa Mir to shine as brightly as he did in the José Zorrilla stadium again.

On the weekend of 11 April, Pacheta will come face-to-face with his former side Elche in what will likely be a battle between two sides fighting against the drop. He’s already won as many top flight games as his predecessor managed (one), and his narrative arc could come full circle with the opportunity to hammer a nail into the coffin of his former side, if before that he can claw his new team out of the bottom three.

Elsewhere

– José Luis Morales, what more is there to say? The Levante legend scored a beauty of goal to level up proceedings away to Real Madrid on the way to a 1-2 victory. His half-volley gave Thibaut Courtois no hope on its destination into the far post, as Granota came from behind to throw a massive spanner in the works of Zinedine Zidane’s hopes of retaining the title.

Levante are a beautiful, bizarre, brilliant, and bewildering side. Regardless of their result, they are always worth watching as Paco López’s side boast creativity and style in abundance moving forward but are just as likely to frustrate themselves in the final result.

Jose Luis Morales

They can beat the likes of Madrid and teams chasing Europe such as Real Sociedad and Real Betis, but equally they can drop points against anyone fighting against relegation.

When all is said and done at the end of the season, a poor spell across last October-November will likely leave Levante reeling about what could have been in their campaign, with a loss away to struggling Athletic Bilbao being followed up by a succession of deflating draws against Celta Vigo, 10-man Granada, 10-man Alavés, Elche, and Valladolid. An in-form Granota would aim for at least seven more points won from these six games than what was picked up.

Real Madrid v Levante

As things stand, Levante are only a couple of results going their way away from making it into the European spots, and their talented squad could certainly aim to finish that high, but inconsistency has been shooting them in the foot for far too long this campaign.

– On the other side of this result, Real Madrid news is dominated by the side appearing to be stagnating at an alarming rate. They now sit ten points behind Atletico Madrid, while Atleti have one game in hand.

Not long ago, Madrid looked to be refreshing their squad in a very well-managed way, with magnificently talented youngsters being brought in from all corners of Spain at an alarming rate. But what once looked like frightening levels squad building now looks to be a string of players that may not be able to meet the level required.

David Bettoni

Álvaro Odriozola was caught unaware of Morales’s positioning for the equaliser and found wandering when the cross came in for the winner. Éder Militão has not looked like a €50m central defender and certainly didn’t when he was given a red card in the 9th minute. Eden Hazard obviously has a high ceiling and has a great potential to turn his fortunes around at Madrid, but his poor return so far might place him in the category of extremely expensive mistakes the club has signed.

Luka Jović has already been sent back to Eintracht Frankfurt on loan, Mariano Díaz can barely break into the team, and Martin Ødegaard has already had his bags packed for him as opportunities in the first team have been few and far between.

Madrid’s first choice XI is still one of the strongest in Europe, but those XI are ageing and it’s the manager’s job to oversee a smooth transition that so far has not been materialising despite a huge outlay spent. As that extremely talented first choice XI ages, Madrid stumble, and injuries and suspensions to just a few components of it leave the defending champions desperately hamstrung and often struggling to compete.

– Yannick Carrasco, Mario Hermoso, and Kieran Trippier might not be the most glamorous names in the Atletico Madrid squad, but they are some of the most vital components to how the Colchoneros play football these days. Diego Simeone has been employing something of a 3-5-2 formation, with the wingbacks given a huge amount of chance-creation responsibility, while Hermoso is the centre back that is most comfortable with bringing the ball out from the back while in possession and starting attacking moves.

This week, Carrasco and Hermoso were ruled out with Covid-19, while Trippier’s lengthy ban was confirmed by FIFA a couple of weeks ago. The replacements in the squad see a huge drop in quality, especially on Carrasco’s side as he is more of a natural winger that can balance his attacking and defensive duties wonderfully.

Diego Simeone

Despite these complications, Atleti took on the team that model themselves as an Atleti-lite, Cádiz, and still managed to pick up all three points despite also conceding twice. For so many weeks now, it was felt like the Rojiblancos have been on the precipice of finally falling – be it from key absences, difficult opponents making life very hard, and their own stilted form – but time and time again they have found three invaluable points from tricky scenarios.

All their last games against Sevilla, Eibar, Valencia, and now Cádiz, have felt like victories that are “the mark” of champions – wins under difficult circumstances that could prove the difference at the end of the season.

Unsurprisingly, Luis Suárez had another huge hand in the win, with two goals bringing his tally for the season to 14 goals in 15 games. The Uruguayan’s first was a fantastically struck free kick from distance, and Saúl Ñíguez bagged Atleti’s second with one of the most majestic goals we’ll see this season — if he meant to hit it that way.

Luis Suarez

Week after week, their results look like those of a formidable, title-winning team capable of hurting opponents in a fascinating variety of ways, and finding wins in pressurised, complicated circumstances.

With 50 points gained at exactly the half-way point of the season, they are on track to win 100 points this La Liga season, a massively remarkable feat any campaign, but even more so this season, condensed due to the pandemic. The Atleti show rolls on.

Goal of the week: Dani Parejo’s rocket into the top corner of Real Sociedad’s goal to give Villarreal an early 1-0 lead. The midfielder latched onto a loose ball outside of the area and unleashed an unstoppable shot that never stopped rising on its trajectory into the back of the net.

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