Defeated: CR7 and Marcelo failed to impress in Bilbao.
The minute was twenty-sixth. The place: Estadio de San Mamés, Bilbao, Basque Country. The game: Athletic versus Real Madrid. The player: Artiz Aduriz, 34-years old striker, who’s been in an amazing form this season. Andoni Iraola passed the ball to Óscar de Marcos down the right wing, he gave it back into the middle of the pitch to Mikel Rico, who spotted Aduriz’s fine move towards the near post and away from Pepe’s marking. Rico then played a cross that was genuinely precise and the master of headed attempts did not even need to show his outstanding jumping abilities; he simply ran at the ball to direct it into the top-right corner of Casillas’ goal. Despite the strike being made from a good distance, it was too powerful, too accurate for Iker to save. That way, the Basques scored what turned out to be a winning goal; a goal that might have just decided the Primera Division title race. One day later, Barcelona dispatched Rayo Vallecano 6-1 as it was expected and it happened: Real Madrid slipped one point behind their sworn enemies, losing La Liga lead they were holding since October 25th, 2014. With twelve games left for each team in this campaign, the fight goes on – however, it’s hard to shake off the impression that it’s Real who are at a disadvantage now.
After all, there were still 64 minutes of football remaining at that point for Ancelotti’s team to turn the game around – and it’s not like they were facing difficult circumstances against a Basque team for the first time. Not long ago, Sociedad managed to score a 1-0 lead against Real within seconds of a game on Santiago Bernabeu, only to concede four goals in return and suffer a painful defeat. However, this time was different: Madridas hardly got the game going in the first half. The distance between midfielders and forward three was too big; the passes were not exactly stringing together under Athletic’s pressure. Isco, who’s been an instrumental attacking player, hardly made any impact. The man, who glued all the attacking moves together this season, was being closed down too well in the final third. Bilbao still were on a technical disadvantage, but they would find a lot of freedom in passing the ball around on the opposition’s half. Aduriz, in particular, impressed greatly: he’s won many challenges, got fouled by Varane and Kroos who both received unjustly favourable treatment from a referee, eventually scored a great goal only to remain a threat right until the final whistle. The visitors, on the other hand, looked in a loss until the half-time occured.
10 last games by Artiz Aduriz. The class is evident.
Ancelotti surely had some instructions to give in a dressing room. It seemed that the whole team was playing too wide, too spread out and, as a consequence, relied too much on crossing the ball towards Karim Benzema, who’s been easily cut off from any headed attempts by Xabier Etxeita. With Asier Illarramendi and Toni Kroos playing together, Real had one defensively-minded midfielder too many because the German did what he’s been doing all along this season: working on tackling and intercepting balls rather than creating play. Other than that, Marcelo had a poor game and with Cristiano Ronaldo constantly searching for more goals by cutting inside, Madrid’s left flank was in shambles. Whenever players in white shirts tried to tackle, they were a tad too late and their two key midfielders I mentioned earlier both received yellow cards, which discouraged them further from making aggressive tackles. The manager, though, did not change much: he trusted the same players, only ordering the team to push further up the pitch and close the opposition down more, as well as improve the ball retention – exactly what the team needed, because counterattacking style they tried to pull off in the first half, worked horribly.
Real players promptly followed the instructions and enjoyed a good spell between 46th and 60th minute. Two drill crosses towards Benzema were barely, just barely intercepted by Balenziaga, who had a heroic performance out there, trying to tame Bale’s runs. The Welshman, who’s been rightfully criticized this season, again looked as if the team was considering him as an outcast. Despite that, he produced two decent dribbles, out of which the second one would surely turn into equalizer if only Benzema – or anyone, for that matter – attacked the near post. Unfortunately, Benzema from Saturday was not Benzema we knew earlier this season: he wasted one clear chance by smashing the ball straight into Gorka Iraizoz, not to mention couple other mishaps from the Frenchman. The BBC trio was thus eagerly waiting for their “C” to kick in, but Ronaldo, despite being in okay shape, delivered just one dangerous long shot that went wide. Under these circumstances, the last attacking outlet would’ve been Carvajal and Marcelo making forward runs, but they were too occupied with the presence of Iñaki Williams – easily the hardest working, most relentless runner on the pitch. He was everywhere; and nobody from Real could even touch him in terms of the effort put into that game.
It ended with 1-0 and the pressure was on Barcelona to prove that they can take the chance they were given. Against Rayo, Luis Enrique has made a move that’s slowly becoming a part of an ancient history: he fielded Xavi and Iniesta together. “The twins” used to lead both their club and their national team to the enormous success in the past; now, with 3/4 of FCB’s campaign already completed, they can only see each other on the pitch occasionally; the game with Los Vallecanos was only their fourth starting appearance together this season. It worked nicely, albeit not as well as it used to in the past; Xavi needed just 5 minutes to provide Suárez with an assist, completed 72 out of 78 passes he’s made and overall looked dominant enough for a player, who still has enough class in him to overcome fairly weak opposition. As for Iniesta, he was a bit unlucky this time: the pass he’s made 14 minutes into the game, to Jordi Alba, should’ve already resulted with a goal; not for the first time in this game, Rayo’s defences down their right wing were shattered and all that was missing was a player at the end of the cross – as Dani Alves’ rebound finish was far from being perfect. Later, Iniesta took two inaccurate shots, dribbled couple times, took 66 touches on the ball to eventually be subbed off.
Not that it matter a lot. Rayo is one of the teams involved in a battle to avoid the relegation. It shows: their tactical discipline is lacking, they tend to always give the ball to Trashorras even when he is marked tightly, they lose the grip on the ball under pressure way too often. This time, however, none of those shortcomings mattered: it was all about their right-back, Tito, who had an absolute nightmare and allowed at least five, deadly through balls that resulted with one-on-one situations for Barca players – and all of them in just 20 minutes of the first half! Once Blaugrana noticed this weakness, Suárez has joined Pedro on the flank and they kept breaking through again, again and again. After scoring the opener that was a result of a messed up Rayo’s throw, the Uruguayan could’ve and should’ve scored once again. The net was open after Cristian Álvarez’s misjudged tackle outside of the box; the angle was difficult but not too difficult for a player of Suárez’s calibre. But he tried to pass to Pedro, who got dispossessed. To be fair to him, he did score again late in the game and Barcelona deserved a penalty after Abdoulaye Ba’s bad tackles from behind. The towering Senegalese centre-back almost let another goal in in 33rd minute; the demolition was only a matter of time.
The Partnership of these two is growing in strength.
You could really see the frustration on players’ faces at that point; Rayo were being hopelessly outplayed and they knew it, while Barcelona rightfully thought that they deserved more than just a one-goal lead. The only bright spot in visitors’ game was a well-curved free kick from Barcelona’s homegrown player, Trashorras. He missed the top corner by a whisker, while all his partners could not possibly pass the ball forward to create any additional danger. On the other end of the pitch, the lack of Rayo’s first-choice centre-back, Zé Castro, was showing. Offside trap discipline hardly even existed, Suárez’s pace cut the defences through and it only took some more composure from the Catalan side to seal the deal. Eventually, they found it in the second half. After a string of defensive calamities from La Liga’s #12, Pique tapped the ball in for a 2-0. Álvarez somehow managed to save vicious Iniesta’s shot immediately afterwards, but Tito’s trail of tears continued: he fouled Messi, caused a penalty and was sent off. The Argentinian butchered the penalty on a first occasion, but he was given a second chance by the referee. This time it was spot-on; 3-0, game over Ladies and Gentlemen.
But it wasn’t over for Messi. Being two goals behind Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga’s top goalscoring battle at that point, he seized the chance to close the gap completely. In 60th minute, his shot was blocked; seconds later, he almost robbed Rayo’s goalkeeper of the ball after he took a hazardous touch on a backpass from Ba. Eventually, Rayo messed up again and Emiliano Insua was rooted to the spot instead of marking his compatriot, who collected a rebound from Suárez’s shot and scored another goal. Then, Messi’s free kick from 66th minute was powerful but not good enough to get in; however, afterwards, it took him less than 60 seconds to collect the ball played by Rafinha, run past the defenders, fool Álvarez and score from a tight angle. He and Ronaldo have now 30 goals each; more than thirteen La Liga teams at the moment; thirteen more than Neymar, who’s been suspended for this game. Just a standard year in Spain; yet, it’s also a testament to the weaknesses of this league’s lesser teams, as Messi’s Saturday victims are currently living on loans and free transfers. In fact, Paco Jémez’s entire club is being valued around €50m – less than Barcelona paid for Luis Suárez this summer. From this perspective, scoring one penalty goal against FCB is already a success.
So in the end, it’s all down to the two giants: just as it used to be for years. As Atletico botched their chance by drawing Valencia 1-1 despite dominating that game, Real and Barcelona are six and seven points clear over the reigning champions, respectively. The calendar looks good for Real. Yes, they are going to Camp Nou in thirteen days and they most certainly cannot lose this game if they’re still dreaming about the title; however, apart from that, they have only one difficult visit before them. Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán will be greeting Real early on the 3rd of May, while Barca shall go there three weeks earlier. But the Catalan side has still yet to pay a visit to Estadio Vicente Calderón, as well as to beat Valencia and Sociedad at home. Of course whichever team is eliminated earlier from the Champions League, should gain a slight advantage in La Liga race, but judging from recent performances, it’s fair to say that both contenders will end up at least in semifinals of continental struggle. Will it be Sergio Ramos’ anticipated return to fitness that decides the issue? Or maybe The Decider is going to be the other Sergio – Busquets, whose injury rules him out of El Clasico and who’s going to be sidelined till April? We shall know more in exactly two weeks…