La Liga’s title race takes shape as Real Madrid and Barcelona press their claims but in very different ways

Dermot Corrigan
The Independent

Real Madrid and Barcelona remain joint top of La Liga standings after both scoring four times while winning this weekend, but how each team began Saturday’s games against Eibar and Celta Vigo respectively suggests how the season might finish.

Madrid were first out, away at Eibar on Saturday afternoon, and a furious start completely overwhelmed their opponents. Zinedine Zidane’s side pressed right up the pitch from the first minute, with midfielders Luka Modric and Fede Valverde piling into the box, and both full-backs flying up the wing.

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Karim Benzema had already hit a post, and been denied at point blank range by Eibar keeper Marko Dmitrovic, before he put Madrid ahead on 17 minutes. Sergio Ramos made it 2-0 from the spot moments later, and Benzema added a second penalty before the half hour mark. In a game played in driving rain in the Basque mountains, Zidane’s men were a whirlwind.

Eden Hazard had by far his best game since joining for €100 million from Chelsea last summer, winning the first spot kick and being central to the move which led to the other. Most striking was a 50 yard run past three defenders, which ended with an attempted rabona cross, and suggested that the Belgian is finally reaching top shape.

Madrid did not let up – with even Hazard and Benzema working hard to press Eibar defenders throughout. The fourth goal late on was 21-year-old Valverde’s first (of many) in La Liga, after he was teed up by Modric, who gave his most influential performance since winning last year’s Ballon D’Or.

While all the talk midweek was understandably about teenager Rodrygo’s hat-trick in the Champions League demolition of Galatasaray, Valverde has been the real figure of Madrid’s turn-around in recent weeks. The 21-year-old has given the team more energy and muscle in both attack and defence – and also helped by showing both Modric and Toni Kroos that they are no longer automatic picks.

Since losing 0-1 at RCD Mallorca on 19 October, Madrid have hit 16 goals without reply, and recovered from dodgy positions in both La Liga and the Champions League. Five consecutive clean sheets is the longest run of either of Zidane’s terms as coach, and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has got his confidence back.

“What we did after our loss in Mallorca was think about how we had to work harder,” Zidane explained at Saturday’s post-game news conference. “Then we can use our quality. That is what we have done in these five games – clean sheets, scoring goals, we are happy.”

It is unlikely a coincidence that Madrid’s best performance of 2019/20 so far came at Eibar – the scene of one of their many embarrassments last term. It was also achieved with Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez left behind in Madrid, despite Zidane saying on Friday that both were fit enough to join up with Wales and Colombia this week. Zidane and his players knew they needed to be physically and mentally ready for Saturday’s challenge – and this time they were.

Asked if it was happiest day since his return to the job last March, the former galactico repeated his favourite saying – that once his team matches opponents for intensity and workrate, their greater skill levels will always win out.

“We had a good first half in Galatasaray too,” he said. “But today we can be happy with the whole game, the second half too. We knew we had to give everything from minute one to 90. It is difficult here, they play their own way and can cause you difficulties. We controlled their strengths and played very, very well. If we can keep a clean sheet then our quality can be decisive.”

Barcelona kicked off just as Zidane was finishing speaking, and the Catalan side’s super sluggish start to their game contrasted hugely with what Los Blancos had done before. Celta completely controlled the opening stages, going man for man against their opponents, stopping Barca from playing out from the back. The 19th placed team in La Liga reached a quite amazing 70 per cent possession, unheard of for visitors to the Camp Nou, with Barca’s new-look midfield of Sergi Roberto, Frenkie De Jong and Arthur Melo totally flustered.

Lionel Messi came deep to try and get his team going, while coach Ernesto Valverde cut a frustrated figure on the sideline. Just as veteran midfield holder Sergio Busquets was warming up to come on, a needless handball by Celta defender Joseph Aidoo allowed Messi to convert a penalty for 1-0 with 23 minutes gone. It was very much against the run of play. Busquets replaced apparently injured right-back Nelson Semedo, Sergi Roberto moved out of the central role, and Barca began to play better.

Celta, though, were still well in the game. A sign of the general frustration was Messi back 25 yards from his own goal giving away a free kick. Celta left-back Lucas Olaza caught out Barca keeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen for 1-1. Which just made the blaugrana talisman even madder. And two spectacular free kicks from guess who put Barca back in control of the game.

Busquets’ shot to nothing from the edge of the box to finish the scoring late on also underlined how important his entry had been. But really it was all about Messi getting the rest of his team – and his manager – out of a hole, as so often. New Celta coach Oscar Garcia had even predicted what would happen at his pre-game news conference on Friday.

“You can play a very good game, and then Messi sticks a free kick in the top corner,” the former 1990s Barca player and more recently Brighton manager Garcia had said. “He’s the best player I’ve seen in my life, and can decide a game in any moment.”

Barcelona remain over dependent on Lionel Messi (Getty Images)
Barcelona remain over dependent on Lionel Messi (Getty Images)

But that Garcia, who only took over at Celta last week, could quickly set up a team to cause Barca such problems did not look good. Especially after a week with a loss at Levante and a draw at home to Slavia Prague – even if club president Josep Maria Bartomeu called Valverde the “ideal coach” for what he suggested was a transitional season. It was also another difficult evening for €120 million summer signing Antoine Griezmann, who had his latest very quiet game, and whose relationship with Messi has not yet kindled.

“It’s impossible to not depend on Messi,” replied Valverde when asked if his team were over dependent on their captain. “We depend on him as much as any team would depend on him. He lights everything up, what are we going to do? With Leo, anything is possible.”

The message appeared to be that once Messi continues scoring a couple of direct free kicks a game, Barca can still win everything. Which was not well received by blaugrana fans concerned at how their team can no longer control games by moving the ball around. Meanwhile, the mood among Los Blancos heading into the international break is the most positive it has been all season.

La Liga’s title race is taking shape. Although Atletico Madrid and Sevilla remain a point behind, the big two still have the rearranged Clasico on 18 December at the Camp Nou as a game in hand. If Madrid can keep their fast starts going until then, regular Messi magic will be needed for Barca to keep pace.

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