Sunday was a surprising day in Spanish Football, and not only because it continued what has been an unusual La Liga season—now moving into week eleven, with a large number of smaller teams playing very good football while the bigger teams recuperate lost ground due to multiple player injuries—it was surprising because what many thought was a “return to normalcy” last week has just been tweaked, again.
Last week (in Round 10) Deportivo la Coruna kept things interesting drawing 1-1 with Atleti in a hard fought match. Real Madrid handily defeated La Palmas 3-1, much as Valencia beat Levante 3-0. Villarreal showed they were for real with a 2-1 victory over Sevilla while Barcelona needed a 20-minute Neymar-Luis Suarez one-two punch to pull out a 2-0 victory over Getafe. Celta Vigo beat Real Sociedad 3-2 in a tougher encounter than the Vigo side expected. Meanwhile Espanyol and Granda drew 1-1, Sporting Gijon took full points from visiting Malaga (1-0), and Athletic Bilbao made their case for middle of table standing with a 3-1 away victory over Betis, now in the lower half of the table.
But this week, with most of the 11th Round of La Liga fixtures played on Saturday, Sunday’s high voltage matches put the icing on the cake on what continues to be a very entertaining, often unexpected, but continually well-played domestic tournament.
Sevilla FC ended Real Madrid’s undefeated run beating them emphatically 3-2. Atletico Madrid suffered at home until the 93rd minute to score an agonizingly unfair goal in their 1-0 victory over overachieving visitors Sporting Gijon, 14th in the standings. Barcelona, still ridding the wings of Neymar and Luis Suarez, defeated visiting Villarreal 3-0 with two goals from the Brazilian and a penalty from the Uruguayan. Athletic Bilbao maintained its top ten spot by defeating Espanyol 2-1 with a wonderful goal by Inaki Williams. Eibar, making good on its last gasp opportunity to remain in La Liga, has been playing well enough to make its defeat of Getafe (3-1) at home seem ordinary.
At night’s end the new La Liga table stood at: 1—Barcelona with 27 points, 2—Real Madrid at 24, 3—Atletico Madrid at 23, 4—Celta Vigo at 21, 5—Villarreal at 20, 6—Eibar at 19, and 7—Valencia at 18.
The scorer’s table stood at Neymar (11), and Suarez (9), both with Barcelona, then, tied for third at eight goals apiece were Imanol Agirretxe (Real Sociedad), Javi Guerra (Rayo Vallecano), and Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), and finally, four players were tied for fourth at seven goals each.
In Sevilla’s win the surprising highlights were the acrobatic early opening goal from Sergio Ramos who had to leave soon thereafter to nurse an injured left shoulder, the ease with which Real seemed to let go of all will power once their hosts scored their third goal, and James Rodriguez’s return to action.
Ramos 22nd minute bicycle shot surprised goalkeeper Sergio Rico as it bounced off the pitch in front of Sevilla’s goal before settling in the net. But the Madrid defender landed on his injured left shoulder and the impact was too much. He had to be substituted on the spot. Just as quick and jarring was Madrid’s seeming unwillingness to compete once Valencia pulled ahead 2-1, with Eber Banega’s toe poke from close in at the 61st minute. The Merengues seemed more intent on playacting at defense and pressing than actually achieving it. Fernando Llorente’s goal at the 74th minute was achieved point-blank, from an unmarked position inside the goalie’s box.
If one had watched the Atletico Madrid game, which took place just ahead of the Sevilla-Madrid match, and was a hard fought match either side could have won, one would had seen Atleti’s full-match, full-field pressure continued not until the 93rd minute goal by Antoine Griezmann put them ahead, but until the game ended at the 94th minute. In contrast, with the score line at only 2-1, one could see the sagging arms and half-hearted defense from Madrid’s players throughout the pitch. Sevilla always looked more likely to score a third than Real did of coming back.
Maybe more worrisome for Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo not only did not score, it was an eternity before he took a meaningful shot on goal. Most of the game he seemed out of sync with almost everyone, or perhaps the return of so many players to the starting ranks had everyone out of sync, period. But for Real to play its best football Ronaldo not only has to be engaged, he has to be front and center, and he was not so yesterday. In fact, he was so downright frustrated by game’s end he did not remain on the pitch for the post-match salutations.
On the plus side, Madrid fans would have noticed that when James came into the game the whole team played a much more skilled and high tempo match, if only for the few minutes of energy the Colombian had in him. Rodriguez needed little time to get into rhythm and once he did, every time the ball reached him he did something productive with it. Ronaldo, Bale, and James himself had more goal scoring chances off of the Colombian’s play than from any other source all game long. James also scored a beauty of a goal at the 93rd minute, unfortunately, at that late time it was meaningless, Sevilla had already won psychologically and was simply waiting for the final certifying whistle to blow.
Rafa Benitez seemed at a loss as to what happened: “We weren’t able to manage the situation,” he said Sunday evening. “It seemed as if the game was under control and then it wasn’t.” The coach has a lot of work to do between now and when his team hosts its next match, the Clasico against Barcelona on Saturday, November 21st.
Perhaps the critical match of the weekend was not Real’s loss but Barcelona’s win. Playing at home against another of the season’s surprising performers, Villarreal, the Cules found themselves in a dogfight that could have gone either way for the first 60 minutes. Then Neymar took over and produced another “Messi-who?” performance. In the absence of the best player in the world (Lionel Messi), and at a time when the reigning FIFA Ballon d’Or winner (Ronaldo) seems mortal, it is Neymar whose star is shining brightest. He is La Liga’s top scorer and its second in assists, but most importantly he has been the catalyst of each of Barca’s last several wins.
In Sunday’s match, Neymar opened the scoring at the 60th minute, after suffering a very tough hour of “tight marking” that cost him an early second half yellow and nearly bated him into further retaliation that would have cost him a second yellow. But overcoming that constant fouling the right-footed Brazilian received a pretty if bouncing through pass from Sergio Busquets into the left side of the box, and in two touches controlled and scored with his left leg.
At the 69th minute, with a penalty called on a tackle of Munir El Haddadi in the box, the usual penalty taker, Neymar, ceded the center stage to his pal, Suarez. The Uruguayan scored his first penalty for Barca, and statesman Neymar added another title to his many team roles this season. But a two to zero score line is the most dangerous lead in football as it lulls the leaders into a comfort zone that is hard to recover from should the opposition tie the match. Neymar ensured no such let down occurred.
The Brazilian connected with Dani Alves, Suarez, and Sergi Roberto, on three plays that had a chance over a fifteen-minute period, a timespan during which Villarreal put everything into attack. Then, at the 84th minute, Neymar intercepted a pass at mid-field with a clean header to Suarez and the Barca counterattack was on. Running on a two (Barca) against three (Villarreal), Suarez took the left wing and saw Neymar streaking toward the Villarreal half-moon. The Uruguayan crossed a bouncer to Neymar who controlled with his left thigh and lower chest, leaving defender Victor Ruiz, on Neymar’s left, out of the play. But Neymar’s peripheral vision caught defender Jaume Costa closing in behind him and to his right. In a continuous motion from his earlier trap, Neymar flicked the ball right, over the arriving Costa, and as the defender tried to turn and recover, and as goalkeeper Alphonse Areola stood his ground just inside the line of the goalie’s box, the Brazilian volleyed in…a golazo!
At game’s end Luis Enrique said “Neymar is electric…defenders only have two choices when facing him commit a penalty or let him score. Tonight he was breathtaking.” Enrique may have some worries about Messi’s fitness for the upcoming Clasico, but overall, he’s feeling just fine right about now.