I’ll start the La Liga round-up in Manchester, as you do, simply because it’s a testament to both Man City and Liverpool that they could put on such a wonderful game when three days later they must play their respective 2nd-leg ties in the Champions League.
Perhaps I’m being generous, since fate had decided the date of that Etihad fixture some time ago – and with one point between the two sides there was little choice but to put out their strongest sides, but over here in Spain Atlético Madrid seemed almost indifferent to their own fate at Mallorca, running out 1-0 losers to a side that hasn’t exactly been lighting up the night sky recently. In fact they’d lost their previous seven games. The attitude and commitment that Atlético showed in Manchester last week (they lost 1-0) was a stark contrast to their siesta-like performance on the holiday island. And of course, Cádiz, Alavés and Levante were all affected. Does El Cholo care? Probably not.
These Champions-sandwich games are difficult though, and I guess all teams have a certain right to approach them as they wish. Real Madrid perhaps got lucky with a home game against Getafe, who can’t seem to quite decide whether or not they’re in trouble. Well they’re four points off the relegation spots, so they need to buck their ideas up. The win was fairly comfortable for Madrid in the end, permitting them the luxury of leaving Modric, Kroos and Carvajal on the bench – just in case Chelsea visit on Wednesday with any big ideas, after winning 6-0 away at Southampton. Again, like Man City and Liverpool, one has to admire this sort of stuff.
Villarreal, let us not forget, beat Bayern 1-0 and were unlucky not to get a couple more. This was achieved a few days after capitulating to bottom side Levante, but that’s Villarreal’s season in a nutshell. Their home game to Athletic on Saturday was thus the kind of encounter that you really don’t want to play before a Champs League return fixture, but we’ll award them a pass mark after their 1-1 home draw. The pass mark is awarded because Unai Emery started the game with none of the players who had turned out against Bayern. This is either a testament to the depth of their squad, or an insane (but noble?) quest to win a tournament now largely whittled down to the giants.
It didn’t work out too badly for Emery, but the draw means that they are now eight points adrift of Real Sociedad, who consolidated the sixth and last Euro place with a 2-1 win at Elche. Unai is a brave chap, but possibly slightly foolish. His strategy might well see him having to resort to the Conference League next season (the what?), but even that isn’t a guarantee with Athletic a mere point behind. Villarreal have one of the best squads in La Liga, and yet their season might depend on them surviving the Munich onslaught on Tuesday. I have my doubts, but you never know. At least their principal boys will be rested.
And what’s that old adage about waiting for the bus and nothing comes for an hour, upon which five turn up suddenly at the same time? Barcelona have not had a penalty awarded against them all season, providing food for the conspiracy theorists, but against Levante they conceded two in the space of four minutes. The first one gave bottom side Levante the lead in the second half, but the missed one was of course a sign of what was to come next. Within three minutes Aubameyang had equalised and four minutes later young Pedri, on the bench in the first half, presumably to keep him fresh for the visit of Eintracht on Thursday, had put the Catalans in front.
However….the plot thickened and Levante got another penalty, as if the gods had decided that it was time for the visitors to be truly punished, and Melero scored. Just as well that Roger Martí, the chap who had missed, had gone off them minutes earlier. What do you do when you get three penalties in a single game? Ask the same guy to take them all? Answers on a postcard please. Whatever – when all else fails, stick on Luuk de Jong and chuck a few centres over. He’ll always come to the rescue and it was a great goal actually. De Jong is a wonderful throwback. Put him in baggy shorts and colour him black and white or sepia. He belongs to another time, but he clearly has his uses.
Conclusion – Levante are probably down with Alavés, although there are still 21 points to play for. They maybe deserved better, but Barça showed character of their own to strike back at Levante after the hosts had their tails up after the 2-2. Let’s see if they can get a bit of a rest before Thursday. They go second again, pipping Sevilla who also have 60 points.
Talking of penalties, Real Soc’s Alexander Isak took one at Elche, in the absence of the reliable Mikel Oyarzabal, and scored, only to be booked for stopping just before he struck the ball. The penalty, of course, was disallowed. I can’t recall seeing that for a long time, certainly in La Liga. Isak is having a bad time of it recently, with Sweden also out of the WC and the forward seemingly unable to recover the form that had put him on the agenda of most of Europe’s top clubs.
Had he scored, he would have equalled the record of 31 goals scored by a Swede in the Spanish league between 1949-1953, namely Henry Carlsson who played for Atlético. Isak, one assumes, will take over the mantle, but maybe the occasion got to him. Just as well that his side ran out 2-1 winners in the end, with a performance from David Silva which beggared belief for a 36 year-old. Astonishing stuff. I saw him in the bread shop two days ago, and he looked like some insignificant youth, his face hidden under a baseball cap and his clothes reminiscent of a youthful follower of reggaeton. Long may he keep dancing.
So – once the Champs League excitement has died down and we know which Spanish sides are still alive, there’s Sevilla v Real Madrid next Sunday, preceded by a decent-looking encounter between Real Sociedad and Betis on the Friday night. I’ll miss it as I’m flying to the Netherlands, but anyway, some lucky folks can have my two seats. Don’t write in – they’re already taken. Have a nice Easter and may your team take the points, as long as you don’t support Betis.