24 February 2014

Power Shift

Joseph Sexton

In the tightest title race that La Liga has seen in 21 seasons, week 25 stood as being a potential game breaker. Barcelona and Atlético had blazed the way since the first week, but recent dropped points and Real’s excellent form since their defeat at the Camp Nou saw them close in on the inside lane until finally we went in to this week with all three locked on 60 points,

It was unlikely that the record total of 100 points- set in each of the last two seasons by Barça and Madrid- would be equalled; the margin of error being a single draw before the end of the season. But never before have we seen three sides on this many points so late in the season.

Real Madrid did what Real Madrid have been doing for the last three months; winning. They did so without their strongest team and they did so professionally, overpowering Elche at the Bernabéu before taking Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema and Jesé off to give them some extra rest ahead of a gruelling week that sees them face Schalke in the Champions League before visiting Atlético for the derbí madrileño.

Barça tried to do something similar against a Real Sociedad who they coasted through against in the recent Copa Del Rey semis but came a cropper. 3-1 was the final score as the home side cut the Champions to pieces with that formidable counter-attack that served them so well last season. But more on that later.

The task was clear for Atlético ahead of their visit to El Sadar in Pamplona on Sunday night- win and they’d go out on their own at the top; anything else would leave them trailing their neighbours from the posh side of the capital.

But there was a rather large caveat, and that’s precisely why this weekend was singled out; Osasuna. The Navarre club have made something of a habit of raising their game for the big boys.

Real and Barcelona had both already dropped points on this ground this term. It took two moments of utter desperate luck to see Barcelona claw back to win 2-1 here in August last season, a thoroughly unjust result. The year before, they’d lost here 3-2 and the year before that Real again had been held.

El Sadar is one of those La Liga grounds with a lot of personality. It doesn’t quite hold 20,000 but it sure makes a lot of noise. The Indar Gorri, Osasuna’s ultras are a colourful and vocal bunch. Irish tricolours were seen in solidarity. Though over the border from the Basque Country proper there is a strong sense of Basque nationalism in this corner of Navarre.

By the time the match kicked off the ground felt like a boxing ring in a title fight. In almost no time at all, Atlético were on the ropes.

And though they stumbled on to the 12th round, they would never recover from those initial blows. The result was never in any doubt.

After just 6 minutes the shellshocked visitors conceded the first. A booming cross from the left saw Atleti flat-footed. Nobody picked up the run of Álvaro Cejudo who bombed in unmolested to the back post to plant a firm right-footed effort past a helpless Thibaut Courtois.

Before long things would get worse; much worse.

Intercepting a loose pass in front of the defence, Armenteros still had the full Atleti backline ahead of him. There didn’t look to be much danger at all. But having sidestepped a halfhearted challenge from the captain Mario Suárez he unleashed a homing missile from 25 yards. Once again, there was nothing Courtois could have done to prevent the goal.

Atlético were rattled, and badly rattled at that. Nothing was coming off for them, and they were being hustled out of their stride in the manner they’ve hustled so many this season. They simply had no answer for Osasuna’s intensity. 

Diego Costa dived to win a penalty, not for the last time on the night. He skirted a very fine line and was fortunate not to received the booking that would have seen him suspended for the derby. 

Before the break his side would concede again.

Again it came from a left wing cross. And again, the marking was abysmal. Roberto Torres hung back as the central defenders stood off and was left with effectively a free header to beat Courtois all ends up at the back the post.

After the break Atleti improved but rarely threatened. Indeed if any side looked likely to add to the goals it was Osasuna. It was as thorough a 3-0 beating as you’ll ever seen administered to a top side.

Javi Gracia, Osasuna’s coach couldn’t contain his joy after the final whistle. “This is a very special day”.

Diego Simeone accepted the defeat had been complete. “When an opponent is better, as Osasuna were today, I congratulate them”

Gracia continued. “The win had an added bonus. We scored three goals against the best defence in the division. So this victory is all the sweeter. It’s an important step in the fight against relegation”.

“We must continue to grow. This team, despite its limitations always tries to give their all. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the crowd at El Sadar do the [Mexican] wave. It was very nice.”

Simeone admitted his side had been caught cold. “They surprised us in the first 20 minutes with the two chances, we just couldn’t get into the match. Their tactics were spot on they stopped us from playing our game”.

It may have been just a bad day at the office. No week is a bad week when you win away to AC Milan. But there’s a feeling that Atleti couldn’t be going into the derby in worse shape.

Or that Real couldn’t be better. Cristiano Ronaldo will be back, the team has found a sense of balance and as clear an identity as at any time in the last couple of years. They are now unbeaten in 26 in all. Only Leo Beenhakker’s Quinto del Buitre side of the 80s can better that record in Real’s long history.

And now they’re top for the first time since May 2012.

Around the grounds

Heartbreak for Granada at the Mestalla. They succumbed to a 90th minute Ruben Vezo strike having largely held their own against Valencia. For the hosts, the Pizzi project is beginning to take shape. They were industrious and they leapfrog their former manager Unai Emery’s Sevilla to sit in the final Europa League place, having been 10 points off the Andalusian club over the winter.

That defeat sees Granada slip in the relegation fight once more, but as with Osasuna, Celta Vigo are pulling away. There was no win this week- they had to make do with a 1-1 draw to Getafe- but there’s a growing sense that everything they weren’t getting but merited earlier in the season is going their way. 

Luís Enrique is enjoying a fine first season at the helm and already there’s talk of Rafinha coming back from his loan to the Camp Nou in the summer and being a big part of their first team next term.

How Barça could have done with him on Saturday. Tata Martino started with Alex Song- who Marca awarded a four out of ten- with Sergio Busquets ostensibly playing the Xavi role. It didn’t work, and neither did the weakened defence.

There was a lively radio debate on Onda Cero on Sunday night. It got heated at times, but the feeling was that Messi strolled through the game raising further worries about his physical capacity; and, once again, his mindset. As much as La Real deserved their win, there’s a feeling that Barcelona earned what they deserved.

Results: Valladolid 1 Levante 1, Real Madrid 3 Elche 0, Celta Vigo 1 Getafe 1, Real Sociedad 3 Barcelona 1, Almería 0 Málaga 0, Rayo Vallecano 0 Sevilla 1, Real Betis 0 Athletic Bilbao 2, Valencia 2 Granada 1, Osasuna 3 Atlético Madrid 0

Monday: Espanyol v Villarreal (21:00)