Brand New Race in Spain

Cristiano Ronaldo missed a good chance – and it backfired.

Primera Division was bound to bore us to death this season, wasn’t it? With Real Madrid dominantly leading and breaking more and more records by scoring 22 consecutive victories in all competitions; with Barcelona chasing them slightly from behind and having “only” 11 undefeated games streak since their November blooper against Celta Vigo; with defending champions, Atletico Madrid, losing way too many games (they were beaten by Valencia, Sociedad and Villarreal) to keep up the pace against their arch-rivals. It all seemed so simple: unstoppable Ancelotti’s side was destined to regain the trophy they’ve lost in 2013 while Barça was just a bit too weak to overtake them but also a bit too strong to be threatened by any other team. We were all basically waiting for Gran Derbi rematch in March that was thought to be the only chance to swing the momentum in Blaugrana’s favour because truth to be told, the two giants of Spanish football were never vulnerable to losing against anyone else, were they?

As it turns out – actually, they were. Yesterday, on Mestalla, Valencia quite convincingly took out Real after coming back from a poor start while Barcelona managed to channel all the gloom and boredom of possession-based football and eventually succumbed against Sociedad – all thanks to quite ridiculous own goal header by tiny Jordi Alba. Those two surprising defeats, combined with Atletico’s comfortable win against Levante pretty much restarted the title race. Of course Real Madrid remains in a driver’s seat thanks to having one extra game in their pocket, but that particular game will be a rather uncomfortable clash against Sevilla in February. Four days after completing this chore, Real is going to Vicente Calderon and if they can’t bring six points home from these two fixtures, we’re more than likely to see another massive shift in La Liga’s momentum – especially since the three-horse race we knew from last season seems to be back again.

In Valencia, the Champions League holders seemed to have everything under control. Fielding nearly optimal lineup – only injured Modrić was missing – Real looked much in control and took the lead after Negredo’s handball followed by penalty call. One thing to note here: when it comes to top La Liga sides, Spanish referees are inconsistent to the point of ridicule. So – Negredo was hit in hand by a ball coming from the wing and that was a penalty – fair enough. But, soon after than, Órban was hit in a hand by Bale trying to deliver a cross and there was no penalty this time. Have the rules of football changed in the meantime? No. But, because of these circumstances, Ronaldo scored a flawless penalty first only to hit the side of the net on a second occasion, once the ball from Bale went past Órban. The way I see it, it should’ve been two penalties or no penalties at all, depending on referee’s interpretation of the rules – yet, we had only one penalty, which didn’t make any sense at all.

As it often happens, 1-0 had a massive impact on a game. This time though, strangely enough, the benefits of it went to those who conceded first. Whether it was Nuno Espírito Santo’s sideline instructions and half-time team talk or the outrageously amazing, inspirational fan mosaic saying “Yes, We Can” – Valencia got back into the game thanks to the discovery of just one simple trick (and Real Madrid hated it!). To put it simply – even though the visitors didn’t allow Los Che into their box, they were also defending too deep not to be exposed to the long shots – and long shots just kept on happening. At first, Los Blancos got lucky – Parejo hit Carvajal, the rebound hit the post and was eventually collected by Casillas. On a second occasion though, Barragan smashed it off Pepe’s legs and there was no stopping it. From then on, Real would pass and shoot but it was Valencia that remained a real threat in the third half, as they missed two golden chances before Otamendi’s header sealed the deal. And the deal was a well-deserved win for the home side.

Real Madrid vs Valencia: goals & highlights

The supporters believed. So did the players.

Thus, Barcelona had it handed on a silver platter; all they needed to close the gap was a win in San Sebastian, against David Moyes’ Sociedad. Unfortunately for them, this was that day again – the day, when team does everything as usual and despite being in a firm control – nothing, absolutely goes their way. It happened against Chelsea few years ago, it happened against Celtic few months ago, and it also happened few weeks ago, against Celta – the pattern just keeps repeating. Alba kicked the day of disappointments off by brilliantly finishing Canales’ cross into the back of his own net – and the rest was equally depressing. The visitors just barely edged the whooping 70% of overall possession, took 17 shots to Sociedad’s six and forced RSSS keeper to make no less than ten saves. The little-known Argentinian Geronimo Rulli, playing only third game of this season held his nerves brilliantly against Barcelona’s forwards and when it was the time to commit even more players and bring midfielders into attacking play – Barcelona didn’t do that at all.

To be fair to Luis Enrique – it’s not that he didn’t try. At first, he opted to rest both Neymar and Messi, hoping that Luis Suarez’s class as a #9 will prevail just as it did when he was playing for Liverpool. Unfortunately for him, what Barcelona needs to make their short-pass, positional attacks work is dribbles – dribbles that get past the defenders and create the space for a successful finish. Suarez has the pace, power and determination, but he isn’t a genius dribbler and neither are Pedro or El Haddadi. In the absence of his more famous partners, the Uruguayan would lead the charge on Sociedad’s goal but, to his great frustration, other players missed all the chances he set up for them. And when it was Suarez’s time to finish rivals off, he got on the end of a through ball, he surged past the goalkeeper… only to slip horribly and fall when all there was left to be done was a finish. With that, the fortunate RSSS, got up to 18 points – and 9 of them were collected on Anoeta, against Real, Barcelona and Atletico!

Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – goals & highlights

Utter frustration: Suarez got his chance, then had his chances – but, of no avail.

What’s going to happen next? Well, as it turns out – a lot. This Wednesday, Atletico and Real will test each other in a warm-up to their league rivalry – Copa del Rey’s Round of 16. Right after that, on Sunday, Los Colchoneros will be visiting Camp Nou for a league game – and, considering their record on that stadium, they might be able to get something against Barça, who’ll be facing Elche earlier this week. All things considered, Diego Simeone’s boys don’t seem to miss Courtois, Filipe Luis or Diego Costa anymore – Miguel Moya and Guilherme Siqueira turned out to be a suitable replacements to the former two, while Antoine Griezmann is proving himself not only as a skilled winger but also as a top-class finisher. Like their domestic rivals, Los Rojiblancos stormed through the group stage of Champions League and they’re main favourites to take out Bayer Leverkusen in February. But, here’s the thing: the Champions League. The Champions League might be the factor that decides La Liga. Whoever crashed out from it early will save the legs needed for a title race in Spain. Or perhaps, those who’ll get far in CL can gain the confidence and repeat Atletico’s run from the last season?

Hard to say.

The odds now seem surprisingly even.

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