LaLiga: Advantage Madrid in the title race, Eibar the brave, Monchi's farewell while Barcelona implode

Andrew Gaffney

THE BEST

Ending – Real Madrid

Now prior to the final match on Saturday, more of which we’ll talk about later, it wasn’t looking too great for Real Madrid. Their city neighbours might be enduring a below par season but Atletico have become somewhat of a bogey side for Los Blancos domestically. The only victory for Real in the previous seven fixtures came earlier on in the season courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. More often than not though, it’s Simeone who has had his rival’s number.

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However Atletico Madrid were, by and large, terrible. The game plan was to simply sit and frustrate the hosts and walk away with a share of the spoils. Atletico are famous for their counterattacking ability but the attitude was different this time as they felt confident enough to keep Real at bay.

It worked for a long time as Real struggled to create anything of note and were forced to shoot from range in an attempt to get on the scoresheet. However, they found the breakthrough via a familiar source as Toni Kroos whipped in a freekick and forgotten man Pepe headed past Jan Oblak. You could feel the relief around the stadium as a goal hadn’t looked likely with Oblak in inspired form.

For the first time this season nerves took over. Real retreated further and further back as Atletico poured men forward in search of an equaliser – and it duly came. Antoine Griezmann is the most wanted man in Europe and it was fitting that he’d race onto a fine through ball from Angel Correa and place it beyond Keylor Navas. 1-1.

Yet while the draw felt more like a defeat in the immediate aftermath, the result of their rivals in Andalucia later made it seem like a huge step towards claiming the LaLiga crown.

Performance – Eibar vs Celta Vigo

It couldn’t happen, could it? Eibar are looking to defy the odds once again and qualify for European football next season. Perhaps prior to this weekend the team didn’t want to discuss the possibility of landing a Europa League place but following an impressive 2-0 victory over Celta the dream is very much on. A town with a population of less than 30,000 is on the verge of something special.

Celta admittedly had one eye on their own European adventure which resumes on Thursday but that should take nothing away from Eibar’s performance. The team no longer depends entirely on Sergi Enrich either as everyone is chipping in.

Perhaps no one embodies this current Eibar side more than Kike Garcia. The Middlesborough flop broke his leg back in January and missed two months of action. Since returning he’s scored four goals and made two assists in five matches. You can’t rule out Eibar in the race for a top six finish any more. Three wins on the trot mean destiny is in their hands with only seven games to go.

They might just do it, you know.

Send off – Monchi

Although not a member of the playing staff since 2000, Monchi’s farewell was almost like saying goodbye to your entire group of superstars. The man is a transfer wizard and flag bearer when it comes to selling key players but remaining competitive and he waved goodbye to Sevilla fans at the weekend. He isn’t afraid to show his emotion and broke down as fans chanted his name.

The man is a class act and Sevilla owe much of their modern success to him and his team. Much more than simply a director of football he’s the heartbeat of the club. The first person to greet you at the airport as you arrive and the first to wish you good luck when you leave. And that’s not forgetting everything he does in between. Sevilla’s 4-2 victory over Deportivo probably didn’t help his nerves but they got the three points they – and he – deserved.

Monchi walked onto the pitch and was greeted by all the trophies Sevilla have won since he started working for the club. He also wore an Antonio Puerta replica shirt. An example to the end.

People like Monchi can’t be replaced. He’ll be back one day and when that happens he’ll be given a hero’s welcome. He’ll deserve it too. Good luck, Monchi.

Renaissance – Valencia

It’s been a tough old season for Valencia and its fans. The turmoil off the pitch continues to dominate the headlines but the team’s recent run is restoring a little pride to the wounded giants.

‘Voro’ Gonzalez won’t be the first team coach next season but he’s done another sterling job at keeping everything in check while those above him consider their options. In their last seven games the only sides to walk away with three points were Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. The 3-1 victory over Granada at the weekend was their third in a row and they’re finally safe.

Nine goals in three games is a welcome relief too, as is the form of Simone Zaza. The Italian striker’s reputation was soiled after an ill-fated spell at West Ham but he looks like the real deal. Maybe not a €20m striker but a good one at least.

However the real driving force behind Valencia’s rejuvenation is Carlos Soler. The academy starlet began the season with a modest €10m buyout clause which has since risen to €30m. If he keeps up his current form then €30m won’t put off the circling elite. He’s got everything. A fantastic first touch, skilful, great vision and knows where the goal is.

Forget Paco Alcacer, the former poster boy for this ‘Nou Valencia’, Soler is the man the club must build itself around. If that happens, and the boardroom can stabilise, Los Che will be back where they belong sooner rather than later.

Goal – Sergio Leon

Osasuna can cling to the hope of performing a miracle but the reality is they’re going down. To reach this stage of the season and have less than 20 points isn’t good enough – but Sergio Leon certainly is.

The €1.7m signing from Elche is the only positive from what has been a horrible season. At 28, and with a journeyman record behind him, he now looks a class above his teammates. There must be something in the water over here as strikers appear to get better with age.

The sheer audacity to take on the volley from a tight angle shows the confidence he has in himself. He lets the ball bounce before firing it with such venom Iago Herrerin had no chance of stopping it. Osasuna are going down a division – despite a 2-1 victory over Leganes – but Leon won’t be. He’ll be available for just €2.5m in the summer and there’ll be no shortage of teams bidding for his services.

THE WORST

Result – Barcelona vs Malaga

Almost as soon as the ‘Hay Liga’ banners came out, Barcelona made sure they were quickly placed back into the cupboard. A trip to Malaga didn’t look easy, they desperately needed a victory too, but most expected an away win. Yet for the so called ‘predictable’ league we saw another upset – and it might have ended the title race.

Barcelona were poor, make no mistake about it and deserved to lose 2-0. Luis Enrique is a stubborn man and it’s probably the reason most fans aren’t upset at him leaving. He’s a good coach with smart ideas but he can’t seem to adapt, in 90 minutes, to the obvious issues in his team. Almost like a child trying to force the circle piece through the triangle hole. Stop, look for another solution. He can’t.

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Andre Gomes is a good player and may yet salvage a career for himself at Barcelona but picking him now is fool’s play. The same for Denis Suarez. The experiments must stop when you reach the business end of the season. Jeremy Mathieu and a declining Javier Mascherano simply aren’t good enough either.

Take nothing away from Malaga though. Even before Neymar’s needless sending off they were good value for the victory. Sandro Ramirez’s goal – and his season overall at Malaga – another example of what ‘Lucho’ got wrong. Is Alcacer a better choice than him? One left for nothing, the other signed for €30m.

Performance – Real Betis vs Las Palmas

It’s cliched but Real Betis would be in a real trouble if the three clubs at the bottom weren’t so bad. When you glance over the squad Victor Sanchez has you expect to see an exciting young team which could push for Europe with a bit of luck. Instead you see a squad devoid of confidence and ideas and their 4-1 loss to Las Palmas typified that. They are the Marcus Kelly of the boxing world – just watch his last ‘fight’ to see what I mean.

Much like Valencia, Betis’ fans deserve a lot better. This is a big team in a huge city – they shouldn’t even flirt with relegation let alone Tinder match with it. The non-performance against Las Palmas only showcases the malaise engulfing the club at present. Luck isn’t on their side but that would only deter people away from solving the real issues at the club.

The other results from the weekend

– Villarreal responded to back-to-back defeats with back-to-back victories this week and remain in fifth place. Two goals in 11 second half minutes did enough to kill off the threat of Athletic Club 3-1. Victor Ruiz saw red in 74th minute but Villarreal held firm.

– Pablo Piatti scored his 10th goal of the season as Espanyol beat Alaves 1-0. What a signing he’s turned out to be from Valencia.

– Real Sociedad will host Sporting Gijon this evening – both need three points for very different reasons.

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