19 August 2013

An Unequal League

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton

The early signs were ominous, confirming all our worst fears. Coming against the backdrop of another summer’s exodus, with England- again- proving the most popular destination, it was hard to deny that La Liga is in a much weaker state this season. While both Madrid and Barcelona have strengthened, the rest have been depleted.

Gone is Falcao, Atletico Madrid’s best player. Diego Costa may soon be following him. Real Sociedad lost Asier Illaramendi, their most important player, to Real Madrid, and it’s rumoured their next most, Antoine Griezmann may be off to Everton.

Isco broke Betis' hearts with his late header

Valencia have lost Roberto Soldado, and more are forecast to exit. Betis lost Beñat, though at least he went to Bilbao; but the Basques have lost Fernando Llorente anyway. The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th top scorers from last term all made moves abroad. And even all of this together is far from the full story.

We needed something to believe in. But when Barcelona went ahead at home to Levante after just two and a half minutes, the nightmare scenario appeared to have arrived. By half-time, they were six to the good- the highest ever on an opening day before the break, and equalling Levante’s worst-ever defeat. It was first time any team had scored so many before the interval since 2001.

“Look, we’ve just left the dentists”, was their new manager Joaquín Caparrós’ verdict. “Next!”.

Perhaps then, it’s fair to say that final winning of seven seemed a minor reprieve.

But then Betis reminded us all of that, even in this unequal league, the little guy can stand as equal with the very best when we least expect it. Levante, a team known for their rugged defence, were naive in the extreme in attacking Barcelona. But attacking is what Betis generally do, and Real Madrid were rattled to their core.

Of Betis’ starting 11, only two had arrived at the club for a fee. One of those other nine was Cedric, a young Congolese who arrived from second division Numancia in the summer and put in a thrilling performance. On any other day, the man of the match gong would have been his hands’ down.

It was an all action opening, where Madrid lacked fluency. With 14 minutes played, Cedric wriggled free and teed up Jorge Molina to stun the Bernabéu.

It’s true that by then Real had already a goal- rightly- chalked off for offside. But just minutes later Cedric was at it again, laying it off for Joan Verdú the sort of chance you’d expect him to routinely score.

Now the home crowd had found their object of displeasure, as Karim Benzema was caught offside. Yet again, he’d failed abysmally to time his run to the great frustration of his colleagues.

And then, Real had a second goal ruled out. Again, it would have been an own goal for Perquís but to his great credit the linesman had spotted the offside. Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti looked aghast as Benzema failed to connect with Marcelo’s cross. Ronaldo clipped the bar before Benzema produced a stunning miss.

Betis hadn’t gone quiet and looked to attack with pace and precision. But then Isco, the debutant, presented the opening for Benzema to level. In truth, it was the most difficult chance the Frenchman had had.

Nosa headed against the bar for the visitors, Ronaldo was pulled back for offside, Betis should have had a penalty... And Benzema struck the third offside goal of the night. It was fast, furious and utterly compelling. Half time came with the score tied.

After the break it was all Real. Just 20 seconds in Ronaldo hit the bar. Di María found no luck, and the substitutes Casemiro and Álvaro Morata almost combined to put them in front. By the time the latter had a fourth goal ruled out on 84 minutes, it looked like being another of those nights for the hosts. A new regime, a new formation, but plus ça change.

Last season Betis didn’t surrender a single point in the final ten minutes, and that run looked set to continue. Then, we got one of those moments that remind us what we love about this imperfect league, and this imperfect sport that is football.

Marcelo was one of the main culprits of Madrid’s annus horribilus, but after his impressive Confederations Cup he was right on note here. A lung-busting run, a wonderfully struck cross, and an absolute gem of a header from Isco. And broken hearts for Betis fans. All their good work had come to naught.

Betis’ spokesman- the former Real legend Rafael Gordillo- was sanguine after the game. “We’ve made some mistakes, we’ve been unlucky, and we have to congratulate them”.

Emilio Butragueño was the first figure to be wheeled out by Real Madrid. “A very hard match. Betis were fantastic. Isco’s input was superb, both the assist and header. Man of the match,” he continued. “But it’s too soon to evaluate the team.” When asked about a certain Welsh winger, he laughed. “Bale? We only speak of our own players”.


“A fine dance to begin with” read Marca’s headline following Barcelona’s victory. Indeed it had been, as they waltzed through Levante. Neymar, only a 60th minute substitute, failed to score. But both Pedro and Alexis Sánchez did. And under Tata Martino, that old incessant pressing returned, leading directly to Lionel Messi’s first goal.

Martino noted “We’ve done things that were, let’s say, put on hold. Like the high line. Those are good signs.” Xavi also struck a similar note. “Last season when Tito [Vilanova] wasn’t there we didn’t train tactics as much, how to pressurise the opponent and we lost our way”.

One man who certainly doing things his way was Diego Costa. His way in that he continued his comic book villain act, resuming his running battle with half the Sevilla side from last season.

But also in his decisive contribution. The Brazil striker fired Atlético ahead on 35 minutes. Diego Perotti then equalised two minutes later with a staggering long range effort.

On 78 minutes, Mario Suárez robbed the ball before playing an incisive pass. Diego Costa produced a fine first touch and a finish to match. 30 seconds into added time, Cebolla Rodriguez scored a sublime individual effort, cutting in from the right and beating several Sevilla players to end the contest.

Real Sociedad 2 Getafe 0
Valladolid 1 Athletic Bilbao 2
Valencia 1 Málaga 0
Barcelona 7 Levante 0
Real Madrid 2 Betis 1
Sevilla 1 Atlético Madrid 3

Rayo Vallecano v Elche
Almería v Villarreal
Celta Vigo v Espanyol

Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn


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