Monday, May 4, 2015

Barça blitz on the eve of Guardiola's return

THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW

Barcelona have the finish line in sight, the end of the TV duopoly, prodigal Pep returns and Bilbao honour Matt Le Tissier


Barcelona scored 14 goals in two games this week to inch closer to the La Liga title.

With three games to play, the blaugrana maintain their two-point advantage over Real Madrid and are not only refusing to slip up but winning with wild abandon.

First they blitzed poor Getafe 6-0 at the Camp Nou on Tuesday before trouncing Cordoba 8-0 away on Saturday, condemning the Andalucians to the drop in the process.

Luis Enrique's side now have to play Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruna at home and in between Atletico Madrid away to confirm their championship.

Carlo Ancelotti's men have Valencia and Getafe at home and Espanyol away, meaning Real will probably depend on their city rivals Atletico to do them a favour and take points off Barça at the Manzanares.

A draw will probably not be enough for Real however, as Barcelona's scoring fest this week has taken their goal difference to +86 compared to Real's +73.

So assuming the freefalling Deportivo succumb inside the Camp Nou, and Atletico can only draw with Barça, Real's hopes lie with David Moyes' Real Sociedad, who beat the blaugrana at home earlier this season, taking points from them away from home as well.

But right now it looks like the title is headed to Catalonia. Real's 'March madness', when they lost to Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona and drew with Villareal, as well as losing in Europe to Schalke, has cost them dearly.

The Getafe mauling was another embarrassing Primera mismatch as the league-leaders entered the changing-rooms at half-time five goals up. They took their foot off the accelerator in the second half and only added one more, but it was another veritable goleada as they say here.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez grabbed braces, with Neymar and Xavi adding single strikes. The Argentine opened the goal-fest in the ninth minute with a Panenka penalty after Suarez had gone to ground following a 40-pass move.

The Uruguayan's first was a snapshot volley from a Messi chip. Neymar soon doubled their lead before Xavi scored the most beautiful goal of the evening, a curling effort into the top corner fromt he edge of the box. Three goals in six minutes and Barça were on fire.

Suarez then scored a near photocopy to complete a devastating 45 minutes, bagging his 13th goal in 25 games this season, a respectable haul given his sluggish start.

Messi made it six shortly after the restart with another far-post curler before the gods took pity on Getafe and dammed the flood.

6-0 was a bit harsh on their forward Fredy Hinestroza, who had an effort scooped off the line in the first half and hit the post in the second.

Restoring their five-point lead gives the Catalans a psychological boost once more, as Real must play catch-up.

Luis Enrique's team look odds-on for the title in this form, but once more the top flight's credibility is called into question. Getafe's average crowd is barely one tenth of Barça's and the blaugrana have scored more than four goals ten times this season already.

*Real stayed in touch by beating Almeria 3-0 at the Bernabeu. The highlight of a routine victory was a stunning volley in the D from James Rodriguez a minute before the break.

Chicharito failed to maintain his purple scoring patch but provided the assist for Alvaro Arbeloa's clincher in the 84th minute. In between, Mauro Dos Santos added an own goal.

*Valencia leapfrogged Sevilla into the fourth and last Champions League spot by beating Granada 4-0 at the Mestalla on Monday.

*On the same night as the blue and maroon goalfest in Catalonia, the Basque derby between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad ended 1-1 at the San Mames.

But other derbies have brought out some unpleasant elements. The league has reported three cross-city clashes to the Professional Competition Committee for insulting chants: Espanyol v Barcelona, Sevilla v Real Betis and Atletico Madrid v Rayo Vallecano.

* Saturday saw Barça again score a hatful and Real having to play catch-up. The blaugrana travelled to bottom club Cordoba and won 8-0, another ridiculously easy win.

That said, the intense heat of over 30 Celsius / 86 Fahrenheit and low humidity were hard to adapt to and the visitors fluffed several chances before finally scoring through Ivan Rakitic three minutes before half-time.

Luis Suarez ended up with a hat-trick, Messi and Neymar with two apiece and Gerard Pique the other scorer.

* The top two both played in Andalucia on Saturday, meaning their team buses briefly crossed paths at Seville airport.

Real's clash with Sevilla was much more interesting, as they won a hard-fought contest 3-2 in the end to stay in touch with Barcelona.

Gareth Bale was back and active, but Real's goals came from a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick.

Two goals in two minutes seemed to put Los Merengues in the driving seat but Sevilla, who contest the Europe League semi-final this week, fought back hard and levelled through a Carlos Bacca penalty and after Ronaldo had grabbed his third, Vicente Iborra.

The home side had the better of the closing stages and could easily have levelled the scores. Real survived a number of scares and trudged off at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan relieved their Andalucian trial was over.

* Deportivo La Coruna look headed for the Liga Adelante after crashing 4-0 at near rivals Elche. They gained a point at home to Villareal on Saturday but they need other results to go their way to avoid the drop.

Cordoba are La Liga history but fellow Andalucians Granada might still pull off a great escape after winning 2-1 at Getafe on Saturday. Abel Resino's men are now three points from the teams outside the relegation zone.

16. Eibar 31 pts
17. Almeria 31 pts
18. Dep. La Coruna 30 pts
19. Granada 28 pts
20. Cordoba 20 pts

* Valencia stayed ahead of Sevilla in the race for the fourth Champions League spot after beating Eibar 3-1 at the Mestalla, while Sevilla lost at home to Real.

Nuno Espirito Santo's team have a three-point lead over their rivals but must travel to the Bernabeu next weekend, meaning the two could finish level on points after the next three matches. Valencia's goal difference is plus 37, somewhat more than Sevilla's 24.

*Barcelona were 5-0 up at half-time but they tend to perform better after the break. If half-time scores were taken into account alone, they would be third in La Liga behind Real and Atletico.

*Keeping the ball is not everything: Ninth place Celta de Vigo enjoy more of the ball on average than Real Madrid - 55.6% v 55.5%.

* Diego Simeone celebrated his 200th game as Atletico coach with a 1-0 win at Villareal Going into that match he had won 146, drawn 40 and lost 33, a 63% win rate.

*PICHICHI race (goals)

42 - Cristiano Ronaldo
40 - Lionel Messi
22 - Antoine Griezmann
21 - Neymar
20 - Carlos Bacca

* On Thursday the Madrid government announced that from 2016 TV rights money will be distributed more evenly to clubs, ending the individual negotiations which hand Barcelona and Real Madrid the lion's share of the loot.

The absurdity of the Spanish system is evident when relegated Cardiff City earned more than La Liga champions Atletico Madrid last season.

Under the new rules, all La Liga clubs are guaranteed a minimum €8 million more per season for the next six years, with Liga Adelante (second flight) sides netting €4.5 million more. The big two will still remain the highest earners but the ratio of their TV rights compared to those of the poorest teams will reduce from seven to one to three and a half to one.

For too long La Primera has been such a top-heavy league that Barca and Real's weekly hammerings of poor teams have damaged the league's credibility.

But perhaps we should not overdo the champagne, or perhaps the Cava, at this announcement. The Premier League is far from a level playing field, with realistically only Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and possibly Arsenal title contenders.

On that basis, La Liga could become a three or four horse race with Atletico Madrid and Valencia becoming richer and the big two signing one or two fewer stars a season. It's not utopia, but it's a start.
*Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are in FIFA's line of fire after investigations on signing underage overseas players, with fines or transfer bans apparently imminent. Barcelona are already banned until next winter but it looks like the same prohibition will hit the other big two clubs.

Fear of an imminent ban for an infringement of FIFA's Article 19 explains Real shelling out recently for Martin Odegaard, Danilo and Lucas Silva, though Atletico only recruited old boy Fernando Torres.

Angel Maria Villar, the Spanish football president of the famous last words before the 2018/2022 World Cup votes ("All the fish are sold") apparently begged FIFA President Sepp Blatter to forego the sanction, but to no avail.
*With James Rodriguez playing, Real have won 80% of their matches, without him 60%.
*Real Betis, in pole position under Pepe Mel for promotion to the Primera, this week commemorated the 80th anniversary of their first and only league title in 1935.

* Chelsea target Jose Luis Gaya is said to have penned a five-year contract extension at Valencia.

*Southampton legend Matthew Le Tissier received a standing ovation at the San Mames as Athletic Bilbao, who sign only Basques, handed him a newly-created "One Club Player" trophy in tribute to his loyalty to The Dell.

Le Tiss doubtless felt at home amid the red and white stripes at the San Mames.
* While Real Madrid tour Australia and China, Barcelona will summer in the USA, playing friendlies with Chelsea, Fiorentina, LA Galaxy and Manchester United.

*Atletico have loaned Uruguayan winger Cristian Rodriguez to Gremio in Brazil.

*Thoughts now turn to Europe and the Spanish trio in semi-final action this week.

Real Madrid hope to welcome back Karim Benzema for their trip to Juventus on Tuesday night, though Chicharito's recent form will give Carlo Ancelotti pause for thought.

Juve, who boast a pair of Spanish strikers Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Morata, are on a high having just clinched the Serie A title at a canter. Massimiliano Allegri's side could even end up with a full house this season as they are in the final of the Coppa Italia too.

Barcelona v Bayern Munich on Wednesday is hotly anticipated too for the return of Pep Guardiola to the Camp Nou in enemy colours.

The new German champions are a little war-torn, having lost Arjen Robben for the season and with Franck Ribery and Robert Lewandowski doubtful. Bayern lost 2-0 at Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday but no one will underestimate their danger on Wednesday.

Even so, all eyes will be on Barça's former leader, trying to read any future intentions from his words and faces. Barcelona play a trident of talent now (Messi, Neymar & Suarez) instead of tiki-taka, but if anyone knows how to dismantle them it must be Guardiola.

Finally Sevilla, this season's unsung hero, host Fiorentina in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday. This is another clash too close to call, as both teams sit fifth in their respective leagues.
THIS WEEK'S TRANSFER RUMOURS:

PSG midfielder Marco Verratti is said to be on his way to Real Madrid in the summer. The Italian is believed to be No.1 on Real's shopping list, before David De Gea and Bayern Munich's versatile Austrian David Alaba.

Barcelona are still interested in prising Ander Herrera away from Old Trafford and may pitch in with a £25 million carrot for Manchester United.
"I have sent him away already" was Louis Van Gaal's curt response to whether he might bring Chicharito back to the Red Devils.

Murmurs about the Mexican have been ubiquitous after his surprise four goals in five games, but Real have kept schtum following Hernandez's purple patch, conscious that he has a €20 million price tag.
The deadline for deciding has apparently been pushed back until the 7th of June.

Liverpool are said to be planning a £22 millon swoop for Denys Cheryshev of Villareal. The Russian midfielder is on loan from Real Madrid.
Chelsea are contemplating swapping PFA Player of the Season Eden Hazard for Gareth Bale, it has been claimed in England as well as acquiring Atletico's French forward Antoine Griezmann, who has been one of the stars of this season in Spain.

Once again the British press spoke of a £100m megabucks move from Man Utd for Gareth Bale, or a swap deal involving David De Gea, on whom they have slapped a £45 million price tag.

The Daily Mail went overboard in its fantasy football, claiming Bayern Munich are willing to spend €135 million to secure the Welshman's signature.

The British press has been running Bale-back-to-Britain rumours for weeks but their Spanish equivalents have declined to indulge in such speculation. There is no expectation here that Real's record signing will leave the Bernabeu so soon.

Arsenal meanwhile could sign Real's Iker Casillas. The veteran goalie was said to be "very clear" in wanting a Premier League move, with Ashburton Grove top of his wish-list, yet later in the week insisted he wanted to stay at the Bernabeu.

The Gunners are still eyeing a £24 million deal for Barcelona's Pedro but face competition from Chelsea, and Arsene Wenger's team are still being linked with a £32 million swoop for Real's Isco.

North London rivals Tottenham as well as Newcastle are looking to sign Almeria goalkeeper Julian Cuesta this summer.

The 24 year old has only been picked 15 times by the Andalucian side this season but is highly rated for his aerial play, which should stand him in good stead for the Premier League. Everton, Man Utd and West Ham already use Spanish goalkeepers.

Sevilla's strong season has not gone unnoticed in Italy, where Milan are apparently preparing an offer for Carlos Bacca and manager Unai Emery too.

Real Sociedad boss David Moyes scotched rumours linking him with West Ham United. The Scot dismissed the talk as pure invention and said he remained committed to his Spanish enterprise. The Sunday Mirror in England remains convinced he will pitch up at Upton Park however.

Rayo Vallecano manager Paco Jemez is said to be on Newcastle's wish-list for next season.

THIS WEEK'S BIG GAMES; kick-off times GMT

Tue 5th May CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SF
Juventus v Real Madrid 7.45pm

Weds 6th May CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SF
Barcelona v Bayern Munich 7.45pm

Thursday 7th May EUROPA LEAGUE SF
Sevilla v Fiorentina 8.05pm

Sat 9th May LA LIGA
Granada v Cordoba 3pm
Barcelona v Real Sociedad 5pm
Real Madrid v Valencia 7pm
Athletic Bilbao v Deportivo La Coruna 9pm

Sun 10th May LA LIGA
Levante v Atletico Madrid 11am
Almeria v Malaga 6pm
Celta Vigo v Sevilla 8pm

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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