By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
In a matter of a few short weeks, Javi Calleja has turned the fortunes of Alavés upside down, but this comes as no surprise whatsoever to him, the manager who confidently proclaimed in his first press conference: “Next year, we’ll be in Primera again.”
Calleja has dragged the club from bottom up to 16th, two points above the drop zone. In less than a month, he has flipped the prospects for this club entirely, from facing near-certain relegation to looking toward building solid foundations in the first division next season with a talented and experienced manager.
In his short time at Mendizorroza already, Calleja has won a point in an away derby against the biggest team from the Basque country, earned a priceless six-point victory over direct relegation rivals Huesca, gotten one over his old employers Villarreal who sacked him at the end of last season despite finishing 5th, and guided the blue-and-whites to a draw away to Valencia with ten men that was disappointing only for not coming away with all three points.
The situation with the previous manager, Abelardo Fernández, had become toxic. The club picked up merely five points from the 33 available during Abelardo’s time in the hot seat, and the coach had ostracized star striker Lucas Pérez from the team as well, essentially accusing him of not putting effort in during training sessions or matches.
The former Arsenal man was dropped from the squad completely by the end of Abelardo’s time in charge, and Pérez admitted after the managerial change that his last conversation with his former boss came after the Real Betis game on 8 March. “Abelardo’s words hurt me a lot because I’m a professional,” the Galician told Marca in mid-April. “Everything that was said affected me and my family.”
The former Depor hitman has had new life breathed into his career with Calleja, playing regularly and contributing to good results. Another striker whose form has seen an upturn with the arrival of Calleja is John Guidetti. The Swedish forward has had a difficult couple of years, making no league starts this season and without a La Liga goal since April 2019. But he and Luis Rioja were brought on with about twenty minutes to go in Mestalla and combined to put the Basques 1-0 up with just about five minutes to go.
That Valencia rallied back and found an even later equaliser to share the points was a bitterly disappointing blow for the Babazorros, but to be disappointed from only winning eight points from four games shows how far they have come in such a short time.
Elche, one of the most chaotic sides in La Liga, continue along their rollercoaster ride, climbing out of the relegation zone again. Just a couple of weeks ago, it looked as though their prospects for finishing above the danger zone were becoming bleaker and bleaker, after a crucial loss to Huesca was followed up by another defeat in a winnable game, 2-0 against Osasuna.
Yet since then, they have picked up a point against Valladolid – a massive result now that the Pucela are just a point below them in the table – and a win against a sleepy Levante side to bring themselves out of the bottom three.
Since that brilliant win over Elche, Huesca have lost three on the bounce, making their challenge extremely difficult. The Aragonese fell to a heartbreaking 2-0 loss to Getafe while wearing one of the sleekest special kits La Liga has seen in some time.
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¡Tenemos una para vosotros!
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¡Suerte! 🍀 pic.twitter.com/l59RPjbKD1
— SD Huesca (@SDHuesca) April 24, 2021
Predicting who drops division come the end of the season is proving a difficult task in the run-in, as there are no teams significantly worse than the rest of the pack, perhaps barring Eibar whose fate looks more and more sealed with each defeat. Any two of Huesca, Valladolid, Elche, or Alavés could go down, while the five-point gap from safety that Getafe boast should be enough to see them over the line.
It is just as difficult to predict what order the top four will finish, although we do know one thing, that those four teams will definitely now be the top four, after Sevilla’s Champions League qualification for next season was secured with their win against Granada making it five victories in a row for Los Nervionenses. Papu Gómez in particular was electric in the Andalusian derby, winning the penalty for the opening goal and setting up Ocampos for the decisive strike. Once they are back allowed in the stadium, Sevilla fans are going to absolutely love watching the vibrancy of the Argentine attacker.
Across the city of Seville, it’s five in a row too for Real Betis – five draws. Though, they will be particularly pleased with their latest stalemate, holding Real Madrid to a 0-0 tie and putting a dent in their La Liga hopes as things get much more compact at the summit.
Barcelona inched closer to the top by edging Villarreal 2-1, Real Madrid dropped two points which would have put them top, and Atletico Madrid came away from their meeting with Athletic with nothing but a bloody nose and a sense of implosion in slow motion.
From this point, anybody could win the title. It is in the hands of both Atleti and Barcelona, while a draw in their next encounter on the weekend of May 8 would hand the initiative to Real Madrid. It is getting impossible to predict a favourite at this stage, let alone an eventual winner. With this much excitement at both ends of the table, who needs the Super League?
Goal of the Week: Antoine Griezmann waited and waited, watched the footwork of Sergio Asenjo, shifted his body into position, and applied the deftest of scoops to place the ball into the corner of the net. Barça’s equaliser against Villarreal came just barely a minute after the yellow submarine had taken the lead, but a fine run from the French World Cup winner completely broke through the heart of the back line, and he suddenly found himself with all the time and space to pick out his goal.
Strong first half from Barca as they lead 2-1, and a spectacular one from Antoine Griezmann! 🔥
How about this for an audacious finish 😍 pic.twitter.com/V09Q5iEpnU
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) April 25, 2021
Shortly afterwards, Griezmann would give his side the lead which they would hold onto until the final whistle with an intelligent move putting him in position to latch onto a Juan Foyth back pass intended for the Villarreal goalkeeper. These three points that puts Barça in a great position for the title were largely won by the former Atleti man whose Camp Nou career has not been the smoothest thus far. Victory-delivering performances such as this will go a long way toward making him a fan favourite.