Game – Barcelona vs Valencia
On paper it looked like it should have been a routine victory for Barcelona against Valencia but it ended up being a lot closer than Barca’s 4-2 win suggested – and that’s all thanks to Luis Enrique’s insistence on playing a 3-4-3. The system which helped produce that epic 6-1 victory over PSG is here to stay it seems but unlike the French giants, who abandoned any idea of attacking, LaLiga sides won’t be so forgiving.
READ MORE: Luis Enrique plays down set-piece issues
Lionel Messi was at his brilliant best but that isn’t necessary down to the formation, it’s more because he’s by far the best player on the planet. The issues this formation, or system, present is that it always gives the opponents an opportunity on the counterattack and as such, the game is never really dead. And let’s be honest, Valencia should’ve been in the ground and everyone attending the wake after half an hour.
The 3-4-3 does seem to guarantee excitement but if a 10-man Valencia side can constantly find gaps between midfield and defence a better one (Champions League opponents Juventus for example) would leave them with a mountain to climb. It wasn’t until Barcelona brought on PSG slayer Sergi Roberto and returned to a back four that they controlled the game in a safe manner. There was no need to take such risks beforehand though.
Valencia always turn up against the big teams and last night was no different. Outclassed for large parts they still posed a significant threat on the counter and if Munir showed more composure, despite one well taken goal, then they might have returned home with at least a share of the points. Dani Parejo, who Los Che depend on so much, struggled with his passing and it harmed one or two breakaways Valencia produced. Not easy with 10 men admittedly.
Performance – Atletico Madrid (vs Sevilla)
So many people have written off Atletico Madrid this season but their 3-1 win over Sevilla was a stark reminder that there’s life in the old dog yet. The experimental switch to an overly attacking system, abandoning their defensive first approach, wasn’t a natural fit and now that Diego Simeone has seen the error of his ways Atletico look a lot more like, well, Atletico.
They’re happy to concede possession but at the same time restrict their opponents to feeding on scraps. Sevilla simply couldn’t find a way past Atletico’s deep defence and compact midfield. As Sevilla’s frustration grew, and with one or two questionable personnel choices, it meant they ploughed more men forward – and they fell into the trap. Like a rattlesnake waiting for its prey, Atletico lured Sevilla in then struck with precision on the counter over and over again.
The first goal actually came from another former Atletico strength: a set piece. Antoine Griezmann floated in a wonderful freekick that fooled Sevilla and up popped Diego Godin to make it 1-0. Sergio Ramos isn’t the only goalscoring defender in Madrid. The second also came from a freekick (more on that later) with Griezmann getting in on the act. It was his 14th of the season. Koke bundled home the final goal after Sergio Rico had saved well from Yannick Carrasco.
Sideman – Cristiano Ronaldo
One of the main criticisms levelled at Cristiano is his apparent failure to value the team over his own individual accolades. A tad unfair in my opinion as he’s always got into double figures for assists in each of his eight seasons at Real Madrid, plus what elite level player doesn’t believe in his own ability that he can sometimes be too greedy? Anyhow..
READ MORE: Being top means nothing yet, says Zidane
Against Athletic Club he was in a giving mood, providing both assists in the 2-1 victory. The first came courtesy of a sublime long ball from Casemiro which landed perfectly at the feet of the step-over king. He looked up and crossed for Karim Benzema to coolly slot past Kepa Arrizabalaga. The second was an assist, and goal, more akin to their neighbours Atletico as a corner was swung in, flicked on by Cristiano and Casemiro had all the time in the world to bring it down and poke the ball home.
It’ll be interesting to see if Zidane continues to stick with the 4-3-3 or moves towards a 4-4-2 with Cristiano essentially playing alongside Benzema. That does however mean one of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos or Casemiro dropping to the bench though.
Goal – Antoine Griezmann
It’s not easy being one of the best forwards in the world. Despite being the ‘MVP’ of Euro 2016, young Griezmann found himself getting a bit of stick for his lack of goalscoring exploits in the run up to the winter break. On the surface there didn’t appear to be any major problem, even though Simeone was still experimenting with things at that time, but perhaps fatigue was to be expected for a guy in desperate need of a rest.
Since having a bit of time off at Christmas we’ve seen the Griezmann who makes his €100m buyout clause look cheap again. He has 8 goals in 12 LaLiga games, is back near the top of the scoring charts and his freekick against Sevilla was arguably the best in this fine run of form.
25 yards out, Griezmann stood over the ball with purpose. He hit it with such venom that it thundered over the wall and came crashing off the underside of the crossbar and in. Goals always look better when they hit the crossbar first. Inch perfect and Rico had no chance.
Performance – Granada (vs Sporting Gijon)
What you can’t afford to do when you’re fighting for your lives is let opportunities slip you by – especially absolutely huge ones which might change the entire outlook of your season. Granada did this at the weekend when they let a 1-0 lead crumble in a six minute spell and ended up 3-1 down.
You felt it might be Granada’s day as Geronimo Ochoa was seemingly unbeatable, particularly in the first half. The Mexican goalkeeper can drop the odd clanger but they’d be a lot worse off without him that’s for sure. Almost like superman he managed to arrive just in time to save the day producing saves that if it had been David De Gea, would’ve been made into a YouTube compilation with the title ‘The best GK in the world’. Seriously, Ochoa was that good. Yet, ultimately, it counted for nothing.
Granada imploded on the hour mark. Three goals in 420 seconds, 420 seconds which might be the most significant of the season in the battle to avoid relegation. It all started when Lacina Traore was introduced. He scored the first to get the ball rolling. From that moment, Granada looked like David Haye on one leg just waiting for the towel to be thrown in – and it duly was. Jean-Sylvain Babin made it 2-1 before Carlos Carmona made it 3-1.
Ochoa saved a penalty from Traore which kept the scoreline somewhat respectable but sadly his teammates weren’t at the same level as him – and it might mean their stay in LaLiga is over.
Game – Leganes vs Malaga
Leganes and Malaga were both in desperate need of three points and neither could afford to lose. If ever a game had 0-0 written all over it then this was it. Malaga have yet to win away in the league this season and showed exactly why with a tepid attacking display, unable to find the goals they were scoring prior to the winter break.
Leganes only have 10 home goals themselves and despite just one loss in their last five, they remain closest to the drop zone. You’d think there would’ve been a bit more attacking intent considering their next two matches are against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad… A victory would’ve taken them level on points with Malaga (and Deportivo de La Coruña) but they couldn’t find the crucial breakthrough.
In a match where there were 22 shots in total only 3 were on target. Both Carlos Kameni and Iago Herrerin made one great stop each but it was a game where composure was severely lacking.
Week – Real Sociedad
This was supposed to be the season where La Real announced themselves as one of the challengers for the Champions League spots but a horrible week for the club has seen them lose ground on Atletico Madrid and now the Europa League is anything but secure either.
Last weekend’s loss to city rivals Athletic was compounded with a limp display in the 1-0 loss against Alaves. They went from fourth to sixth in just seven days. It was a week where they also said goodbye to director of football Roberto Olabe. Issues behind the scenes are said to to be the reason behind the sudden change, a power struggle in which he didn’t win. Either way, Real Sociedad need to get back to winning ways on the football pitch.
It would be an enormous shame for La Real’s season to count for nothing. They deserve European football but they’re going to have to work extremely hard to secure it.
The rest of the weekend’s results:
– Las Palmas beat Villarreal 1-0 on Friday night but the following day announced that Quique Setien would be leaving the club at the end of the season. Not unexpected but it certainly takes the gloss off an impressive victory over a good Villarreal side.
– Eibar drew 1-1 against Espanyol, their third in four matches. The home side were the better team but couldn’t find a response after the visitors grabbed an equaliser. Both remain in the hunt for the Europa League spots – just.
– Real Betis comfortably saw off already-doomed Osasuna 2-0. It marked the first win in March for Victor Sanchez’s team who find themselves with nothing to compete for now as they’re way off the European places but don’t have to worry about relegation either. Yet another season of consolidation.
– Iago ‘Killer’ Aspas scored the only goal for Celta Vigo in the Galician derby against Deportivo La Coruna. The strike was his 25th of the season and 15th in LaLiga. For those wondering why he’s in the Spain squad, his numbers explain it perfectly.