By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
At the top and bottom of the table, this weekend in La Liga was critical in putting shape to how the final positions will likely end up, with Real Madrid taking El Clasico against Barcelona, leaders Atletico Madrid dropping more points, Huesca taking a giant leap toward safety, and Eibar hitting rock bottom.
Pacheta’s revenge isn’t yet fully complete – that won’t be the case until we see the final standings at the season’s conclusion – but this weekend he certainly got one over his old employers that dismissed him so cruelly.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen such emotion in a dressing room,” the Huesca boss told the media after seeing his side defeat Elche 3-1 in a crucial game near the bottom of the table. And he would know a thing or two about emotion among groups of players, as he finished last season with wild celebrations having earned one of the most improbable promotions to the first division with Elche.
Even though he was only in charge at Elche for two-and-a-half years, Pacheta managed to bring the club from the semi-professional third tier to the glitzy heights of La Liga. He had done so with one of the smallest budgets of last season’s second division, in a season that ended for them as late as August 23, after qualifying for the final playoff spot in the most dramatic of circumstances off the pitch.
The final round of the 2019/20 Segunda División was interrupted when an outbreak of Covid-19 was detected in the Fuenlabrada team. The side from Madrid started the day in the driving seat to secure that last playoff spot, but after their game was called off without any other match across the league being suspended, they sat in limbo for weeks having played one game fewer than everybody else around them in the table, and with Pacheta’s Elche having overtaken them in 6th.
Fuenlabrada eventually played their last remaining and hugely important game against Deportivo La Coruña, even though many of their squad had already left the club and numerous youth players had to make their debuts in the club’s biggest game in its history. A spirited Fuenlabrada team led the already-relegated Galicians for most of the match and were set to take their spot in the playoffs until the 95th minute when Depor went ahead 2-1, sending Elche officially through to the playoffs.
A second leg 81st minute winner in the semifinal over Zaragoza came before a 96th minute second-leg winner in the final against Girona, and, incredibly, Elche were a La Liga club once more, having prevailed in a division where all other teams bar the four who were promoted the summer prior had a larger budget than theirs.
Pacheta’s reward for this unbelievable level of success? He was sacked.
However, he doesn’t harbour much ill will toward his former team, telling the media pre-match that he left a part of his heart on the city in the south of the Valencian region and that he wishes els ilicitans all the best. The club underwent a takeover during Pacheta’s final season and the new owner, Christian Bragarnik, clearly had his own ideas of who should be in charge of the team.
“The owner was always very clear with me,” he explains, although he admits he was hurt by the decision to replace him in spite of all the success he brought to the club.
Having been denied his chance to manage in the top division with Elche, Pacheta was made to wait until January before sending out eleven men under his orders in Spain’s top division. Huesca, struggling badly at the bottom of the table and seemingly unable to find a scrap of luck, eventually placed a bet on the playoff winner as the man to keep them up.
In his now 12 games in charge, the Aragonese have picked up all three points in four of them, winning 15 of their total 27 points under the new management. On Friday night, for the first time in months, Huesca climbed out of the relegation zone and put Elche in the drop zone instead.
Rafa Mir, the striker on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, has been in fantastic form. The 23-year-old now has six goals in his last five outings, playing a huge part in the points picked up by Huesca of late. Luis Enrique has said before that he will pick players for the European Championships with a heavy emphasis on form. Could Mir make a late season push to have his name included in the squad?
For his club manager Pacheta, if the table reads the same way after matchday 38, his amazing narrative arc will be complete.
The buildup to this weekend’s Clásico felt like the winner would be in prime position to take the La Liga title, but Diego Simeone will take up issue with this, given his side remain top of the table with a lead that has been gradually dwindling over the past months. Real Madrid used all their knowhow to grind out an epic 2-1 victory and to do the double over Barcelona this season, the first time they have managed that feat since 2007/08.
The wind and rain battered the Alfredo di Stéfano pitch, particularly in the second half, making visibility difficult and control a lot trickier than usual. The conditions added to the spectacle, not that the game needed any help, as it was played at a frantic pace with opportunities coming thick and fast at both ends of the pitch.
Following Real Madrid’s derby victory in December over league leaders Atleti, this column wrote about how los Blancos seemingly have an attitude problem. One side of that coin were the dismal results against more lowly opposition, losses in games the world would expect Real Madrid to win easily. But the other side of that coin is how Zidane’s men seem to be supercharged when facing a big-name opponent with plenty on the line.
A Clásico, with the winners going top of the table (at least temporarily, before Atleti had played) proved just the right conditions to bring the best out of Madrid. As did the Champions League quarter-final with Premier League champions Liverpool a few days prior. Similarly, against los colchoneros in December, it was Madrid’s masterful midfield that set the tempo and dictated the game. Madrid are one of the best teams in the world at exerting such a level of control in a match that limits the opposition in what they are able to do.
Casemiro, Toni Kroos, and Luka Modric were joined this week by Fede Valverde in the centre and the Uruguayan’s bursting run early in the first half carved Barcelona open and gave the space for Lucas Vazquez – who will be sorely missed for the rest of the campaign due to a sprained knee sustained in the game – to set up Karim Benzema with a sublime finish that will surely make the end-of-season goal compilations.
While Madrid thrive in these big games, Barça fall. The Catalans have now lost both games against their eternal rivals this season, as well as huge duels with Atletico Madrid, Juventus, PSG, and against Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa final in January.
Ronald Koeman’s side went into this weekend having picked up 51 points from their last 57 available, a run stretching back to December. Many even considered them not only favourites to pick up three points, but for the title as well.
However, barring perhaps a 2-0 win away to Sevilla, none of those games would really be considered blockbuster clashes. The Dutch coach has seemingly turned Barcelona into a routine game winning machine, with a weak underbelly that seems to be easy to get at for the best teams in the world, almost the complete opposite to Real Madrid.
For 24 hours, the whites sat at the summit. Atletico Madrid then travelled south to face high-flying Real Betis on Sunday night without two of their best performers this season, Luis Suárez and Marcos Llorente. In truth, options are running out for the red-and-whites, especially after João Félix and Kieran Trippier were both substituted due to injury.
Ángel Correa had to lead the front line for a large part of the game by himself. The Argentine is well liked by Simeone for the tireless effort he puts into his performances, and the forward can create havoc and setting up chances for teammates excellently. However, he is just not a killer, Atletico fans can lament. Correa had numerous chances to score a decisive second in a game that ended 1-1, but fluffed his lines time after time, highlighting again he is a player much better suited to playing alongside a strike partner. 2017/18 has been his most prolific season in terms of goals so far in his career, with 8 strikes and 5 assists to his name.
Atleti overall have scored just two goals in their last four Liga outings, but Simeone is not one bit worried about his team’s injury crisis in attack. In fact, he is revelling in it, in a way of trying to turn the narrative on its head and inspire his players to greatness. On missing so many key players for upcoming games, Simeone said “I love it because I have footballers who will continue to give their soul” to the cause.
With that said, let us remember that Diego Costa is currently without a club. The striker left the club in December, and we all waited to hear news during the January transfer window about where his next destination lay. But Costa never signed for anybody, he just left Atletico Madrid. They really could have done with his services in the Benito Villamarín, and the question must be asked of club officials as to why he was let go, or why he had to be let go. Was cutting the wage bill by one player worth putting a league title in serious jeopardy like this?
Atleti have now won just four of their last 11 La Liga games, a run of form that will make title aspirations very difficult to justify. They will be without some of their brightest stars for clashes with Eibar, Huesca, Athletic Club, and Elche, but would hope to recover most of them by the time they travel to the Camp Nou on the weekend of May 9.
La Liga has a new bottom-placed club. Eibar fell to 20th position after their loss to Levante coupled with Deportivo Alavés – under the new stewardship of Javi Calleja, who finished 5th last season with Villarreal – earned a point against Athletic Bilbao.
The simple fact that Eibar, hailing from a town with a total population that would fit almost four-times over in the Camp Nou, are playing at the top level of Spanish football is an incredible achievement worth constant reminding. After their miraculous promotion to La Liga, they have done tremendously well to avoid the drop ever since, becoming a mainstay around the middle of the table in the time since.
However, it looks like time is ticking on their glorious Primera dream. Without a league win since January 3, but manager José Luís Mendilibar is remaining somewhat optimistic. “We’ve won very few points in the last weeks and we’re only a few points off getting out of the relegation zone,” the Eibar coach told the press after his side’s defeat to Levante. “This gives us options, but we have to win.”
Despite the positive spin, Mendilibar also mentioned his side are afraid of rivals on the pitch, which would be a damning indictment of his own work. “We have to go out on the pitch with confidence and do things well. Right now, we don’t have confidence, we’re normally afraid of the opposition,” he said.
Eibar sit four points off salvation, with a huge tie against Deportivo Alavés coming up in week 34. It is not an impossible task, but the Basques have a huge amount of improvement to do if they are to give their fans another season at the top table.
What a way to win it! 😱
Quini unleashes a fantastic strike to secure the points for Granada 🚀 pic.twitter.com/DW5mElVYo2
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) April 11, 2021
Goal of the week: Quini’s late thumping strike for Granada gave his side all three points. After receiving the ball just outside the edge of the box, the left-back took a couple of paces to set himself up before launching the ball into the top corner with his right boot to complete the 2-1 comeback against Valladolid.