A lifetime in Spanish Football took place over the past nine weeks and in particular the last ten days, and today we look back at all that was and what it means for tomorrow.
The talk of the pundits over the past two weeks has been about the slow return to normalcy in La Liga, after nearly two months of nearly unprecedented upheaval at the top flight league, and about how a few specific players have been the catalysts for the new equilibrium.
Fox Soccer reported that Real Madrid keeper, Keylor Navas, has had a spectacular series of games (12 matches, no losses, three goals allowed) and was the main reason Celta Vigo did not defeat the Merengues last weekend. Similarly, Goal.com reported that Barcelona’s Luis Suarez was the main reason the Cules are in step with their archrivals atop the La Liga table.
Not as many have reported about the four players who are tied, with six goals, two below the eight goals scored by the leader of the scorers’ table, the likes of Imanol Agirretxe at Real Sociedad, Javi Guerra at Rayo Vallecano Borja Baston at Eibar, and in particular Nolito, at Celta Vigo. Those four have all played an outsized role in their teams’ early La Liga fortunes and a few are responsible for their continued success in this surprising domestic campaign. But the big teams are resurfacing and how they are will be of import.
Though Real’s Navas and Barca’s Suarez were key to their team’s victories, two issues that beg greater attention are the poor performance of Real’s defense and the role of Neymar in Barca’s resurgence. The Madrid defense allowed Celta Vigo to possess longer when they met, and to take 17 shots at goal, many which forced Navas into the highlighted goal-squashing saves. With any type of luck the Vigo side would have taken the three points with ease in that match.
Similarly, as great as Suarez’s performance has been in Lionel Messi’s absence, it was Neymar who scored four against Rayo Vallecano the previous week, and it has been the Brazilian who has assisted on most of Suarez’s goals this season including the Uruguayan’s recent hat trick. If Real does not shore up its defense Navas will have to continue his otherworldly play. If Neymar suffers a dip in form Suarez is not the playmaker to make things continue to happen for Barca.
At best the two Spanish giants are treading water as Real awaits the return of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, and Pepe from injury, and Rafa Benitez settles on a roster. At Barca, coach Luis Enrique settled on a fully second string starting line-up and endured a 0-0 score line against third-tier Villanovense in the teams’ Copa del Rey 2015 match. Enrique also awaits the day his team is complete, once Javier Mascherano serves his suspension and Andres Iniesta and Messi recover from their injuries.
At Atletico de Madrid much was being made of Diego Simone’s ability to meld the team’s newcomers with Atleti’s core. Similarly, the fact that the Colchoneros are in their customary third place after having a very challenging nine matches, most against top La Liga sides, is seen as reason to believe the other Madrid side will be poised to make a run at the domestic trophy again this year.
Unquestionably, Simeone’s guys have endured a tough patch and have come out on top of expectations, but they have met top teams that have often been missing the players that grant them that status. What will happen when all 28 of Real’s, Valencia’s, Villarreal’s, Sevilla’s and Barca’s stars return and have had time to get in sync? It would not be surprising if rubber fixtures aplenty have discordant score lines for Diego’s boys.
Here are the La Liga scores and standings at the season’s quarter mark. Week 9—Results: Rayo Vallecano 3-0 Espanyol, Celta Vigo 1-3 Real Madrid, Granada 1-1 Real Betis, Sevilla 5-0 Getafe, Malaga 2-0 Deportivo La Coruna, Levante 0-4 Real Sociedad, Las Palmas 0-0 Villarreal, Barcelona 3-1 Eibar, Atletico Madrid 2-1 Valencia, Athletic Club 3-0 Sporting Gijon. Table leaders: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Celta Vigo, and Villarreal. Top Scorers: Neymar-8 (Barcelona), Artiz Aduriz-7 (Athletic Bilbao), Cristiano Ronaldo-7 (Real Madrid), Luis Suarez-7 (Barcelona), Nolito-7 (Celta Vigo) and Imanol Agirretxe-6 (Real Sociedad) and three others at six goals.
Come Week 10, Atleti travels to La Coruna for an always dicey match. Real and Valencia should breathe easy with Las Palmas and Levante as their respective visiting opponents. Villarreal and Sevilla have a highly anticipated clash with all types of import hanging in the balance. Barcelona and Celta Vigo have accommodating traveling fixtures against Getafe and Real Sociedad respectively. Eibar gets to find out if its form still holds against what should be a beatable Rayo Vallecano, while Espanyol has a winnable home stand against lowly Granada. Hosts Sporting Gijon will be looking to swap places when meeting Granada and Real Betis and Athletic Bilbao will determine who between them belongs in the top half of the table, in what should be another eminently watchable match.
All of this seems to point to a continuing of the tenuous balance among the top tier of the table with the middle group most likely to see movement while the lower tier consolidates. Look for this transient status quo to continue for a few more weeks, but with a few wrinkles, as the early upstarts solidify or dissipate, then, as the many walking wounded start jogging and eventually sprinting, see the real deal emerge as the winter break approaches.