Monday, May 11, 2015

Real trip up in the home straight

THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW


Real Madrid draw hands Barça a four-point lead, while Messi weaves his magic wand to curse Guardiola's return 


Things got a whole lot clearer in the race for La Liga: After Barcelona maintained their momentum with a 2-0 win over Real Sociedad, Real Madrid could only draw 2-2 at home to Valencia.

The gap at the top is thus now four points with two games to play and Barcelona have not lost for 19 matches or conceded a goal in eight. In other words, barring an incredible miracle, the title will be heading to Catalonia.

BARCELONA  90 +88
REAL MADR.  86 +73

GAMES TO PLAY:

17/05/15       Atletico Madrid v Barcelona, Espanyol v Real Madrid
23/05/15       Barcelona v Deportivo La Coruna, Real Madrid v Getafe

The Manzanares is not an easy place to come away with three points from of course but even if Atletico win that one and Real beat Espanyol, the blaugrana would enter their final game with a one-point advantage.

A draw at home to relegation-fighting Deportivo therefore and a win for Real would send the title to Madrid.

But Deportivo are sitting third from bottom and have not won for fifteen games. The idea that they could draw or win at on-fire Barcelona when the blaugrana have all to play for appears fanciful.

Real had hopes that David Moyes' Real Sociedad could take points off Barça having beaten them at the Anoeta Donastia earlier in the season.

Indeed, the Basque side held out for 50 minutes before Neymar gave the home side the lead when Mikel Gonzalez inadvertently back-headed a Messi cross into his path.

Pedro added a second with a bicycle kick in the 84th after work from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The triangulated attack Barça have used to effect this season once more bore fruit, creating space and confusion in an opposition defence forced to twist and turn.

The clinching goal had a familiar ring to it as Barça chalked up another win in a seemingly inexorable march to the finish.

Real meanwhile, perhaps wilting from the fact they were starting second again and playing catch-up, entered the dressing-rooms two goals down at the break thanks to Alcacer and Javi Fuego. A well-organised Valencia found Real's weak spot to be diagonal balls whipped in to just outside the six-yard box and found the net twice from them.

Cristiano Ronaldo's lacklustre penalty in first-half injury time capped the first half disaster. His run-up lacked confidence, his body language made the kick predictable and it was blocked comfortably by Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves. To cap it all he mis-kicked what had been a fortunate rebound.

Watching the title evaporate before their eyes, Carlo Ancelotti's men came out fighting in the second half but Valencia's massed ranks were not giving them any space and a comeback looked unlikely.

Pepe headed a simple goal back in the 56th minute but it took until the 84th minute for an equaliser. While Ronaldo was failing to shine and Gareth Bale looked shackled by the system once more, Isco shone to score an individual golazo with a delightful turn and curling shot past the diving Alves.

Bale to be fair had won the penalty Ronaldo missed and supplied Isco with the pass to score. He also drew a fingertip save from Alves, who also saved twice from Chicharito and once from Sergio Ramos.

Iker Casillas was getting stick from the home fans and the camera caught him abusing them back. All in all a far from successful night despite the two-goal fightback.

Valencia too were in a battle with Sevilla for the last Champions League spot and were not merely playing for pride. 2-2 seemed about right.

Sevilla worked wonders in Europe on Thursday but could only draw 1-1 with Celta Vigo on Sunday, meaning they stay fifth, three points behind Valencia and headed for the Europa League again.

Atletico Madrid drew 2-2 at lowly Levante with Fernando Torres rescuing a point ten minutes from time, his third goal of the season. A a point was useful to both sides. Diego Simeone's men are four points clear of Valencia in the race for third and a passage to the Champions League group stages, while Levante moved five above the drop zone.

With Sevilla's draw at Celta on Sunday night, Atletico are now guaranteed Champions League football next season.

Villareal qualified for next season's Europa League by beating Elche 1-0. The Yellow Submarine were La Liga runners-up in 2008 and Champions League semi-finalists two years earlier.

Down at the bottom, Granada beat already relegated Cordoba 2-0 in the Andalusian derby to give them a glimmer of hope of survival.

Deportivo La Coruna meanwhile, claimed what might prove to have been a valuable point away to Athletic Bilbao by Alberto Lopo's 94th minute leveller.

THE RACE TO ESCAPE:

14. Getafe                 36
15. Levante               36
16. Almeria                32
17. Eibar                   31
--------------------------
18. Dep. La Coruna  31
19. Granada              31
20. Cordoba              20

It is possible that three Andalucian sides could go down if Almeria swap places with Deportivo.

As it stands, Spain's regions are represented thus in La Primera:

ANDALUCIA - 5 - Almeria, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga, Sevilla
BASQUE COUNTRY - 3 - Athletic Bilbao, Eibar, Real Sociedad
CATALONIA - 2 - Barcelona, Espanyol
GALICIA - 2 - Celta Vigo, Deportivo La Coruna
MADRID - 4 - Atletico Madrid, Getafe, Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid
VALENCIA - 4 - Elche, Levante, Valencia, Villareal

Aragon, Asturias, Cantabria, Castille La Mancha, Castille & Leon, Extremadura and Murcia have no representation in the top flight.

Real Betis from Andalucia and Girona from Catalonia look set to ascend to the first division next season. The other place is currently between Las Palmas (Mallorca), Real Valladolid (Castille & Leon), Real Zaragoza (Aragon) and Sporting Gijon (Asturias).

PICHICHI race (goals):

1. Cristiano Ronaldo 42
2. Lionel Messi 40
3. Antoine Griezmann 22
    Neymar 22
5. Carlos Bacca 20

*Football in Spain could sensationally come to a standstill this weekend however as the Spanish Football Federation (FFE) have weighed in against the government forcing a redistributive TV contract on La Liga clubs and called a halt to proceedings.

The Spanish League was meeting on Monday morning to discuss its course of action, with the players' union also complaining the new collective bargaining agreement does not help second division clubs enough.

The directive demands a fairer share of TV money for clubs outside the big two, who up until now have taken the lion's share.

The FFE's intervention seems curious given the grotesque gap between Barcelona, Real Madrid and the others, but they obviously have sympathies for them.

Plus with the egregious Angel Maria "all the fish are sold" Villar in charge, any madness is possible.

We should know by Thursday if the strike will go ahead or not, but it is hard to see the league stopping for long with little time between now and end of the season commitments such as the Champions League and Copa del Rey conclusions.

*The big two were in Champions League action as well of course and their respective results only underlined Barça are having the better of this season.

Real kicked off on Tuesday in Turin, where they lost 2-1 to Juventus but scored a vital away goal.
Alvaro Morata grabbed a poacher's goal in the eighth minute when he tapped in at the far post after Iker Casillas saved from a classic Carlos Tevez drive.

The Spanish international did not celebrate scoring against his old team, but gestured to the visiting fans who had been taunting him.

Juve's marking went astray in the 27th minute however as an unchallenged Cristiano Ronaldo headed in a vital leveller. Juve were back in front ten minutes after the break when Tevez charged down the field on a breakaway only to be hacked down by Daniel Carvajal.

The former Man City and Man Utd man hit the penalty down the middle to dig the knife in, but Ronaldo's goal means a 1-0 win at the Bernabeu will be enough. Yet Juve's attacking intent and traditionally mean Italian defence means it is by no means guaranteed.

Karim Benzema missed out for Real, for whom the returning Gareth Bale once more did his invisible man impression.

Barcelona's 3-0 win over Bayern Munich was a mirror of the scoreline two seasons ago when Jupp Heynckes men won at the Camp Nou.

That game, part of a 7-0 aggregate thrashing of Tito Vilanova's side, appeared to signal the end of tiki-taka and Catalan Euro dominance.

In the event, with much of the same personnel, Barça have successfully reinvented their playing style and returned to the top again.

Luis Enrique may not have the suave sophistication of former teammate Pep Guardiola and the press were on his back earlier this season, but the Asturian could end up with a clean sweep of league, cup and European Cup in his first season in charge despite a transfer ban, which surely puts him on a par with Pep.

The prodigal son's relished return to the Camp Nou seemed to be headed for a 0-0 finish. Bayern's wide spacing - they began with a 3-3-2-2 shape, led to a very open game but the Germans denied Barça any goals and looked headed for a point.

Suarez fluffed a one-on-one in the 12th minute and Robert Lewandowksi five minutes later but neither side looked likely to score until Leo Messi cast some magic spells thirteen minutes from time.

The warning signs had been there when Messi and Neymar combined on the edge of the box in the 56th and the Argentinian fired into Manuel Neuer's arms.

In the 77th Dani Alves found the Argentinian again in that danger area around the D. A quick sidestep of a defender and a rifled shot inside the post finally billowed the net.

With the pressure released, Messi then scored a fabulous second, putting Jerome Boateng on his back before chipping the advancing Neuer delicately. Neymar's breakaway third seems to have clinched the tie, a three-goal shower from nowhere, which left Guardiola grimacing.

Bayern finished up with more possession than Barça but without their clinical strikes. Barça had seven shots on target to none, a clear illustation of the gap between the two teams.

Ominously, before the match, Guardiola had said of Messi, "He is too good. There is no way to stop him." Quite.

Spain met Italy again in the Europa League on Thursday but Iberia emerged triumphant as Sevilla won decisively 3-0 in their semi-final first leg.

Aleix Vidal scored a brace and Kevin Gameiro added a third to send the Andalucians to Florence confident of yet another Europa League final.

* With Real losing in Europe this week and effectively blowing their title chances, talk of replacing Carlo Ancelotti has surfaced once again.

Should Real president Florentino Perez choose to give the Italian the heave-ho, the Spanish bookies have installed the following in order as favourites to replace him:

1. Zinedine Zidane
2. Juergen Klopp
3. Jogi Low
4. Fernando Hierro
5. Arsene Wenger

* Spain remained tenth in FIFA's World Rankings for May. La Roja play Costa Rica on the 11th of June in a friendly in Madrid before travelling to Belarus for a European qualifier on the 14th.

*In this week's transfer rumours, Pep Guardiola was claimed to have inked a deal to join Manchester City this summer, but the club quickly denied it.

AC Milan were also claimed to be recruiting the Bayern boss.

Manchester City could pip Arsenal to Karim Benzema with a £40 million carrot for Real Madrid, but Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd are also interested.

Chelsea are said to have opened talks with Atletico over Diego Godin and Koke moving to London in the summer.

Blues full-back Cesar Azpilicueta has denied he wishes to return to Spain, with the big two reputed suitors.

Barcelona could recruit German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund in time for next January's transfer window.

England's Daily Mail is convinced Luis Enrique will leave Barcelona in the summer, as pigs fly past their windows.

Sevilla's ride in the Europa League has not gone unnoticed in Italy, where Milan could make coach Unai Emery an offer.

Atletico Madrid are hoping to pip Liverpool to Villareal's Argentine striker Luciano Vietto.

Chelsea were also linked with a £40 million deal for Atletico's Spanish international midfielder Koke.

Deportivo goalie Fabricio Agosto is attracting the attentions of Aston Villa and Everton.

Real Madrid assistant coach, Englishman Paul Clement could be offered the manager's job at QPR.

Chelsea and Liverpool were once more said to be on the trail of Barcelona's Pedro.

Liverpool are following Real Sociedad defender Inigo Martinez and Barcelona right-back Martin Montoya.

Atletico's Toby Alderweireld, on loan at Southampton, could be heading to Tottenham.

Man Utd could offer Angel Di Maria back to Real Madrid in the summer, taking Gareth Bale in the opposite direction.

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

Tue 12th May CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Bayern Munich (0) v (3) Barcelona 7.45pm

Wed 13th May CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Real Madrid (1) v (2) Juventus 7.45pm

Thu 14th May EUROPA LEAGUE
Fiorentina (0) v (3) Sevilla 8.05pm

Sun 17th May 2015 LA LIGA all 6pm
Deportivo La Coruna v Levante
Atletico Madrid v Barcelona
Real Sociedad v Granada
Getafe v Eibar
Espanyol v Real Madrid
Valencia v Celta Vigo
Sevilla v Almeria

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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