By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
Three derbies told the story of Spanish football this weekend, making a huge impact on everything from the title race, European pushes, the relegation battle and, of course, local bragging rights.
In Valencia, Levante may well have put themselves in the driving seat to finish above Los Che for the first time ever, while Javi Gracia’s men are left to lick their wounds and just hope they can see the campaign out and finish above the bottom three.
While in Madrid, Atletico Madrid’s stumble has put the smell of blood in the nostrils of the traditional big two, as Getafe earned a valuable point in their fight to avoid the drop despite literally never having scored a league goal against Diego Simeone’s Colchoneros.
Sevilla 1-0 Betis
Youssef En Nesyri was the difference maker in Sunday night’s showpiece event. His beautiful first touch to control Jesús Navas’s looping pass set him on his way to rounding the onrushing Joel Robles and exquisitely finish from a tight angle.
Both teams’ campaigns are going well in the grand scheme of things, even though each will have some recent disappointment and wounds to lick. Both went into the hotly contested encounter searching for different things – Sevilla had come to put an end to their rut which had seen them fail to win their last four encounters, which included painful exits in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, while they were also definitively removed from the conversation of the title race too.
Indeed, it was even beginning to look as though Julen Lopetegui’s side had a battle on their hands to ensure they kept hold of 4th place, with La Real in fine form of late and with none other than Real Betis creeping up the table just behind them.
Los Verdiblancos came into the game on a high, looking to solidify their standing in the chase for the European spots. Had Betis won El Gran Derbi, they would have sat just three points behind Sevilla in 4th with the head-to-head tiebreaker going their way over their local rivals. Instead, it was Lopetegui’s side who consolidated their position with the win and put nine points between the sides in the table.
Betis have long been a side playing below their potential. It was hoped that such an experienced and talented coach such as Manuel Pellegrini would change their fortunes.
The Chilean saw his green-and-whites stumble and struggle for form for the first half of the season, often showing glimpses of quality and finding big wins, but never being able to follow it up with victories that should in theory be more routine.
After week 2, Betis only first managed to string consecutive league wins together in weeks 18 and 19, when they beat Huesca and Celta Vigo. Since then, their form has exploded, with 24 points taken from the last 30 available to them, turning their campaign into one of mediocre obscurity to ambitiously dreaming of crashing the Champions League.
The Europa League looks a much more likely prospect for Pellegrini’s troops for next season though, and that would still represent great strides taken at the Benito Villamarín. The Chilean manager’s tweaks with the team lately have delivered great results, from trusting Miranda more at left back, to dropping playmaker Sergio Canales a little deeper to provide more combination play between himself and the maverick Nabil Fekir, to rediscovering the jewel of a striker that Borja Iglesias truly is.
The Panda has now netted seven of his eight goals this season in the last six games. Remarkably, against only Sevilla has he played the full 90 minutes, meaning during this spell he has netted on average a goal every 57 minutes of action. Two of those strikes came in the recent thrilling 3-2 comeback win over Alavés after the Basque relegation strugglers had stormed to a 0-2 lead.
The lasting image of this game will inevitably be the embrace between Jesús Navas and Joaquín after the final whistle. Two veterans of Spanish football, both icons in their unique ways, two Seville-local players both so emblematic of the clubs they captain, exemplified the friendly and familial rivalry of the hottest city on the Iberian peninsula.
We do not know what kind of words the pair of legends shared, but I’d like to speculate that they at least contained a comment on how much of a shame it was to not have the fans present at the match. The Seville derby was the first top flight game in Spain to be played after the coronavirus-enforced break during the 2019/20 season, and here the same two teams were again, one year on from not playing in front of fans, a symbol of the year football and fans have gone through.
Getafe 0-0 Atletico Madrid
In 19 games against Getafe as manager of Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone has yet to see his side concede a goal against the south Madrid blues. The problem this weekend was that he didn’t see his own team score one either, in what could be the most consequential of these meetings not to find the net in.
Getafe and Atleti’s goalless draw will stick the tails of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the air. With eleven games to go, the three-horse race for the league title is very much on. Granted, the colchoneros have a four-point lead over Barcelona in second and six over Real Madrid in third, but this is a gap that doesn’t quite feel as big as what the mathematics indicate, as the two richer, more fancied chasers in the pack will already be sniffing blood, hoping for further Atletico Madrid misfires in the remaining eleven matches. Barça and Atleti are also yet to meet again in a fixture that could go as far as potentially deciding the title this season.
The business end of the season needs to be exactly that for Atleti – purely business. Now is the time to dig the heels in deep and grind out ugly wins and kill off any hope that their more illustrious rivals have that they will fall. They have let 11 of the last 27 available points escape them and look like a team doubting themselves. In a big interview with sports daily Marca, Marcos Llorente echoed this sentiment, saying that his side “are lacking efficiency to define moves,” as in the important games, it is the “details that decide.”
For Getafe, the point will be a hugely valuable one as they sit just above the relegation dogfight, but are far from safe just yet. After going through a rough patch in recent weeks and a terrible run of form that has seen manager José Bordalás’s position come into question, the clean sheet – achieved with ten men at the end of the game – will give them fresh assurances of their rigid, battling style, and breed more confidence in the system that should stand strong enough to at least see out the season still in the top-flight.
Levante 1-0 Valencia
Levante are one of the most enjoyable teams to follow in La Liga this year. They are having something of a rollercoaster of a season with their free-flowing attacking team with a plethora of technically gifted skillful players, but a vulnerable and shaky defensive line.
Valencia, meanwhile, are having one of the most chaotic seasons Spanish football has seen in recent times, having sold half their team last summer without replacing even one player, and having a manager in charge who feels let down by the owners and actively tried to leave earlier in the season.
These ingredients for both teams could easily result in a season fighting against relegation, however, Levante have managed to hone their chaos in a way that suits them perfectly, both winning and losing games in thrilling manners. Without the resources to compete with Europe-chasing opponents, why not at least finish in mid-table while having some fun?
On the other hand of this rivalry, Valencia are not accustomed to lingering around this area of the table and don’t have the experience among their squad for a relegation battle. Los Che have seven points between them and the drop zone, but do not look like a stable football team right now and are very much in danger of getting sucked into a miserable whirlwind.
The good news for their fans is they can at least take some heart in the fact that the playing squad clearly have a lot of pride in their work as exemplified in numerous various big victories earned this campaign, and most recently last week’s comeback win over Villarreal.
Ultimately with a mistake at the back from Mouctar Diakhaby having been tasked with playing the ball out from the back, Roger Martí managed to neatly finish for the only goal of the game. The result gives Levante a five-point gap over their neighbours and puts them in prime position to finish above Valencia for the first time ever.
Goal of the week: Karim Benzema’s late winner for Real Madrid over Elche. Madrid were very close to slipping up, losing 0-1 at home to the relegation-threatened side in the second half, and showed little inspiration until the French striker turned the game on its head, with Zidane’s side eventually running out 2-1 winners.
Karim Benzema…WOW! 😱😱
An outstanding half volley to win it in stoppage time for Real Madrid 🔥 pic.twitter.com/cEC3ElO7in
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) March 13, 2021
A beautiful half-volley from distance bounced off the inside of the post and into the net to give Los Blancos the three points. The 91st minute goal followed a pattern of late and decisive strikes from Madrid including:
- Benzema’s 88th minute derby equaliser
- Vinícius’s 89th minute equaliser against Real Sociedad
- Mendy’s 86th minute winner against Atalanta
- Varane’s 84th minute winner against Huesca
For their plentiful faults, fighting spirit is not a trait that Real Madrid lack.