By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
The La Liga title race has been blown wide open in the past week, with all four of the top teams legitimately in the hunt for glory.
Atletico Madrid have let a huge advantage at the summit shrink to just three points after two disastrous results against Levante. A quirk in the schedule saw the two teams face off twice in league competition within four days, and the side from Valencia very much came out on top taking four points and leaving Atleti sitting on shaky ground at the top.
Los Colchoneros are beginning to recover many important first team players from Covid-19 such as Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar, Hector Herrera, and Moussa Dembele all missed matches in this devastating run of poor form that has seen Simeone’s side drop seven points of the last 12 available. Despite some key players now recovering and returning to the fray, their fitness levels clearly aren’t optimal and the team’s performance levels have been severely impacted.
Atleti are synonymous in European football with solidity, yet they have not kept a clean sheet in any of their previous eight outings, the longest stretch during the Simeone era. For large stretches of this season, statistics from understat show that the red-and-whites have outscored their own expected goals in tight victories, but the loss to Levante told the opposite story. This weekend, the numbers suggested Atleti “should” have scored 2.06 goals, while the victorious visitors created chances equivalent to just 0.77 expected goals.
Hot on their heels are their city rivals Real Madrid, who were all too delighted to respond to Atleti’s defeat with a narrow 1-0 victory that was reminiscent of their victorious title run-in of last campaign. A drab affair, Madrid’s win in Valladolid was a story of resistance – seeing the job through despite adversity.
Zinedine Zidane also has the headache of missing a spate of key players, yet is tasked with finding a way to win nevertheless. Madrid were without Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Dani Caravjal, Marcelo, Eden Hazard, Rodrygo Goes, Eder Militao and Alvaro Odriozola for the trip to Pucela, but were able to count on their aging superstar midfield trio who were once again fantastic.
Casemiro ultimately got the only goal of the game, repeating a pattern of his of scoring vitally important goals when his team needs them the most. The Brazilian defensive midfielder scored one and assisted another in their late dramatic Champions League comeback against Borussia Monchengladbach, he netted the first in his side’s recent 4-1 win away to Deportivo Alavés, he scored what was the only goal against Granada until Benzema made it two in the 93rd minute, and perhaps most pivotally, he netted the opener in December’s dominant derby destruction against Atletico Madrid.
Over the past years when Madrid were at their height, there seemed a sense of inevitability and invincibility about the team. If they were chasing a result with the clock winding down, they were one of the best sides in the world at laying siege to the opposition penalty area, with heroic defenders leaping high in the box and magnificent crossers surrounding the most advantageous positions to make an assist.
Casemiro seems to embody this siege better than most, alongside Sergio Ramos, as the holding midfielder is not known for his goalscoring, but his aerial ability gets him on the end of so many crosses when he is most needed, generating so much chaos and fear in opposition teams. If he doesn’t always score the crucial goal, he so often gets a vital touch to keep the ball in play or flick it on for someone else to tap it over the line.
The following day, Barcelona were up next to compound the pressure on Atletico Madrid and confirm their spot in this title race. Facing Cádiz, the side with the worst defensive record in the league, who had conceded four goals in each of their last three outings and only earned one point in their last five games, it was probably the perfect opportunity to put their midweek Champions League disappointment behind them and get their focus back on track.
However, things did not go to plan for Messi and Koeman and co. Cádiz are a team that enjoy sitting deep, renouncing possession, and making life difficult for opponents with their two impenetrable lines of defence. Barça enjoyed 82 percent possession, completed 809 of 883 passes compared to Cádiz’s 110 of 200, and had a total of 20 shots, 17 more than their visitors.
Despite it all, the Catalans could only find a way through via a Messi penalty, created from Pedri reaching the ball quicker than two defenders, but Barcelona were unable to extend the lead. In the dying moments of the game, Rubén Sobrino tried to meet a cross into the box but was struck by the swinging leg of Clement Lenglet and the referee pointed to the spot. The Andalusians dug deep and put in the effort of a lifetime to stop Barcelona taking advantage of Atleti’s slip up.
Lastly, Monday night saw Barcelona overtaken in third spot by Sevilla, who have to be counted in this title race, as the Andalusians are keeping pace with their more fancied opponents at the top end of the table.
Sevilla outdid Osasuna 0-2 in Pamplona with a header from Diego Carlos, who said after the game he enjoyed the clean sheet as much as the goal, and a delightful first-time backheel finish from Luuk de Jong.
The Dutchman has now hit the net in his last two games in all competitions, complementing the fine form of fellow striker Youssef En-Neysri, while responsibility is also being shared well in the attacking midfield line, especially in the absence of Argentine star Lucas Ocampos, with Munir El Haddadi scoring vital goals, Suso making himself a hugely important component of this team, Papu Gómez bedding in so naturally after joining in January. At the back, Bono has now set a new club record for most consecutive minutes without conceding in La Liga with 528, and no other team have conceded fewer goals in the league.
If all four teams maintain form and keep the fight going until the end, then the weekend of May 9, match week 35 of 38, will be one of the best that La Liga will offer in some time, with Atletico Madrid travelling to the Camp Nou and Real Madrid hosting Lopetegui’s Sevilla.
– At the bottom of the table, Eibar are going through a very rough patch with two vital games coming up in their next two fixtures. A 1-0 defeat to Elche this weekend, enjoying the new manager bounce with the arrival of Fran Escribá, put the teams level on points and confirmed the head-to-head advantage for the ilicitanos, putting the Basque side effectively in the relegation zone even though the table won’t reflect this right now while the season is still ongoing.
“The dressing room is f**ked, everyone’s disappointed. It’s normal,” Eibar coach José Luis Mendilibar said after the game. “We have time to analyze the game and recover morale. We have to think about the positives. Eibar began this season knowing we could have been in these circumstances.”
A defeat to Osasuna and a draw with Valladolid preceded this loss, a poor return against teams near the bottom end of the table and direct rivals in the fight to avoid the drop. In the next couple of weeks, Eibar will face off against Huesca and Cádiz, fixtures which could be make-or-break for the Basques.
– Also well and truly mired in the scrap, Huesca earned a morale-boosting, dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 win over Granada to give them plenty of hope of staying up.
– Getafe are another side who are far from safe in La Liga after losing 1-0 to Real Betis. After a fantastic couple of seasons reaching European competition and very nearly breaking into the Champions League, José Bordalás’ men are looking more and more as though they’ve met the end of a cycle. Without a win in six and making more and more enemies in recent weeks thanks to their rough, in-your-face style of play, the blues are moving in a downward direction at the moment.
– Like Getafe, Villarreal are also winless in their last six. After bitter cup disappointment and with the Champions League places slipping further and further away, the Europa League may be the only salvation for their season, while they must also ensure qualification for European competition next season. Emery’s men drew 1-1 with Marcelino’s Athletic Bilbao on Sunday night.
– Alexander Isak now has nine goals in his last six La Liga matches. The Real Sociedad forward went through spells earlier in the season where he managed to get into great positions, but the final killer finish would elude him. The Swede is now brimming with confidence with regular goalscoring backing up his overall brilliant performance level through the campaign. His hat trick set the txuri-urdin on their way to a 4-0 blowout of Deportivo Alavés.
Goal of the week: Luuk de Jong’s delicate touch to direct the ball from between his ankles into the far post, doubling Sevilla’s lead over Osasuna, ensured the three points and third position in the table.