A Point Too Far

Pedro’s goodbye shot was quite spectacular.

 

That’s it. On a fine, Saturday afternoon, La Liga’s race has come to an abrupt end.

Make no mistake about it: it was much closer than the final results would suggest – also, much closer than the expectations predicted it to be. And not without a reason. Barcelona needed to break David Moyes’ Sociedad in a home game. They had to take out a team that cashed £24 million for their best player this summer and never brought a good enough replacement; a team that won only one out of their previous six league games and kept floating in the middle of the table for the entire season; a team so inept when travelling away from Estadio Anoeta, it only picked up one win in all their 2014-15 La Liga voyages and their form as visitors so far was LDLLDDLDDLDLWDLLD, aka: horrendous. They could not ask for a better opponent this weekend, could they?

Unfortunately, regarding RSSS, there’s the catch: they really do know how to play against strongest Spanish teams. This year, under Moyes’ guidance, it went to the point of ridicule. The trend raged so much that in the middle of this season, Sociedad scored a ridiculous achievement: out of their 27 points they’ve collected by the end of February 2015, 13 were stolen directly from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico, Valencia and Sevilla – five top sides of the league so far. Defensively prepared to survive the worst storms in front of their own goal, Moyes’ boys were also incredibly lucky in all these prestigious games – not to mention their sudden bursts of goalscoring form, as they’ve netted four against both Sevilla and Real – the most goals they’ve scored in a single game for the entire season.

 

However, for the Camp Nou game, the Scotch manager has prepared the most defensive tactics possible. His 4-4-2 with both central midfielders dropping deep to support the defence was surely inspired by Atletico Madrid’s ideas by Diego Simeone. Non-aggressive on the opposition’s half, RSSS players focused mostly on tracking Rafinha, whose responsibility was to create the play from midfield and Messi, who dropped deeper as usual to spread the passes forward. It wasn’t particularly difficult to neutralize those two – at least not in the first half. Barcelona might’ve been heavily outnumbering the visitors by committing many players to the attacks, but the main idea from Luis Enrique’s team was to play many, little balls over the top to Luis Suarez – not a big problem for a competent backline.

In terms of creating chances, it could’ve been better for FCB to unleash more variety out there. On the other hand, even with this single-minded policy of hoofing the ball over the heads of Iñigo Martínez and Mikel González allowed them to break through couple of times. Geronimo Rulli in the goal had enough work before the break to earn his salary: he denied one Messi’s header, clumsily dealt with yet another cross to Gerard Pique and eventually pushed away Dani Alves’ strike from distance. In the meantime, Suarez has made a poor claim for a handball is Sociedad’s penalty area and Vela nearly scored a goal from what might’ve been the only serious chance his team had in this match. Just like against Bayern earlier this week, Blaugrana fans had to arm themselves with patience.

The opening goal just couldn’t slide in. Twenty seconds after the restart, Suarez received a decent through ball from Xavi and was surely through. Well – at least we though he was, because, uncharacteristically to his style, he stopped to bring his partners in instead of blasting the bouncing ball from what looked like a good position. Just like last time around in Champions League, it wasn’t the Uruguayan’s day: soon enough, he was stopped in the nick of time by Martínez while Bartra’s header got swept by Rulli.

 

And then, just when Sociedad though they could count themselves lucky once again, the weirdest goal occurred. Barcelona have just messed up their corner and they did a good job reclaiming the ball while pretty much all their players were out of position. Messi, typically first to jump in and provide some quality, picked up the ball down the right wing and crossed it to Pique, who was still in RSSS’s penalty area when it happened. Martínez, rumoured to be one of Barcelona’s potential centre-back signings this summer, panicked and decided to get the touch on the ball that would’ve likely missed Pique’s head anyway. He flicked it, it changed the direction completely, and Neymar, with his 174 centimetres, put it away with a header at the far post. This time, Rulli had no answer.

Everyone on the stadium could breathe a big sigh of relief. Moyes’ team was so bad going forward, they’ve had absolutely no hope of turning this around in any way. Barcelona would have to literally score an own goal somehow to make it equal again and it’s not like Basque team was even pressing them to produce such a blooper. In the end, the ex-Sociedad goalie Claudio Bravo has kept the clean sheet and, on the other end of the pitch, it was Pedro who sealed the deal. The winger, who’s almost sure to leave his native club this summer and emigrate to the other league, scooped the rebound in the penalty area and turned it into a brilliant overhead kick that was too powerful to not succeed. Just like couple times before, these three points meant that the ball was on Real Madrid’s court…

Diego Alves – the Hero they needed.

 

Los Blancos’ game against Valencia was completely different. Unlike Moyes, Nuno had no intention of making Real’s life easy. His team, equipped with one of the ugliest away kits I’ve seen, has actually shown a lot of pretty, exciting football, leaving the significant gaps in their own backline but exploiting opposition’s weaknesses as well. This resulted with a game of uncountable chances for both sides. After the dust has settled, Carlo Ancelotti’s lads have registered 29 shots while the visitors responded with 13 strikes of their own. At times, it really did look like somebody has lifted the suspension for the entire Liga BBVA, but forgot to lift the suspension for defending in it. Apart from maybe Otamendi, no member of the two, four-men backlines on Santiago Bernabeu could be satisfied when the final whistle was blown.

On paper, this turn of events should favour the team with stronger attacking players; implicitly – Real. They also had an extra motivation to win – back in January, it was Valencia who beat them 2-1 and ended their three-and-a-half months long, 22-game winning streak. But things were never so simple in this particular game. Against Los Che, the Bale – Hernandez – Ronaldo lineup played slightly out of tune all over again. Benzema, the man who’s been slammed by both fans and press way too often, was sorely missed. Without the Frenchman, there was no striker on the pitch who would actually flesh out the attacking moves of the home side. Instead of keeping their cool and patiently building the moves, Bale and then his two other companions, opted to bombard the other teams’ posts and crossbars – for a long time, in vain.

 

Less than a minute after yet another test of metal parts in Valencia’s goal, the result suddenly changed. Gaya, who just picked up yellow card for fouling Bale, this time joined the attack down the flank, put in a vicious cross and watched Alcácer finishing the job. Was it Casillas’ or Pepe’s fault? Neither. Instead of them, Arbeloa should take the responsibility for not pressuring VCF’s left-back on time. If anybody had any doubts that the right-back position is a problem in Madrid, he should remember what happened this week: after Carvajal’s poor showing against Juventus, Arbeloa had a stinker in a domestic game. Soon enough, the lad fouled Piatti roughly, earned his own yellow and Parejo used the set-piece he was gifted with to deliver the ball to Javi Fuego. A header, a big screw-up in marking and suddenly, we had 0-2.

The first sign of improvement by Real was Gareth Bale’s powerful strike in 31st minute. He did everything right: first touch that allowed him to keep the defender away, a good aim at the top-right corner and enough power there to hope for a good result. However, Diego Alves had other plans. The Brazilian goalie, who watched the last World Cup on TV, on Saturday looked like a prime choice for his national team – in fact, a choice that would’ve probably stopped the 1-7 and 0-3 humiliations, if it was made back in 2014. Near the end of the first half, Alves brilliantly swept Bale’s shot, proceeded to clear one, rough corner ball, nearly messed up his kick which rebounded off Hernandez and had to be reclaimed by Otamendi – and, eventually, saved a penalty that might’ve turned the game around.

At the same time, that penalty was a game-defining… excuse me: it was a season-defining moment for Cristiano Ronaldo. After referee Carlos Clos Gómez got deceived by Bale’s dive in the penalty area and blew for a spot-kick to punish Gaya’s hand on the Welshman’s shoulder – CR7 had it all in his hands. He took a short run, then he stopped, he restarted the run, hesitated… and finally took a shot. A bad shot. Ronaldo has surely found the power with that strike, but apart from that, everything went wrong. His attempt was directed into the corner Alves moved to before going down and the ball went straight to his gloves. Cristiano could only blame himself, as he even got a second chance on a rebound – and wasted it as well, using his left foot to kick the pitch instead of the ball. Unbelievable – but it happened.

 

Ancelotti was so disgusted with the course of events, he reacted radically and used the half-time to sub off both of his full-backs. He was right: Carvajal and especially Marcelo immediately gave the team a lot of quality down the wings. Because of that, the second half quickly turned into a rather one-sided affair. Diego Alves managed to get his hand on Chicharito’s header, but after Pepe tried his luck with a corner ball – the game was, once again, in doubt. Down just one goal, Real smelled blood; Valencia, on the other hand, regained some composure and finally started to defend fiercely. They got exposed on the counterattacks two or three times, but Ronaldo & Co. had no other attacking ideas other than crossing the ball to Hernandez. It wasn’t really hard to deal with, even despite home side’s advantage of possession.

Weary of defending with very little strength upfront, Nuno picked Álvaro Negredo to bolster his teams’ attacks. It didn’t help much, though: instead of ex-Manchester City striker, Valencia needed an attacking midfielder because Piatti and Feghouli just could not cut it that day. Nevertheless, Negredo has found himself in a golden opportunity very late in the game, when Real committed everything to scoring a goal. It was literally one-on-one chance against Casillas, providing Negredo made a decent first touch on the ball and controlled it. But he didn’t – instead of winning the game for his team, he tried to hit the pass from Rodrigo de Paul on a volley and missed horribly. Seconds later, Negredo was kicking himself again: he missed a free header after receiving Parejo’s cross from a free-kick. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

The justice was served very quickly. Diego Alves, the absolute hero of the entire game, parried two Hernandez’s headers, performed a miracle by saving a close-range attempt from Sergio Ramos, saved at least three dangerous long shots, look straight-up invincible. Until the 83rd minute. Frustrated with his teams’ inability to break the deadlock in the middle, Isco skinned two defenders, found himself some space and fired a shot that was beyond Alves’ superpowers – beyond any goalkeepers’ superpowers, to be specific. It was a fair conclusion to a crazy match – however, with their backs against the wall, Real pushed further to win it all. Ronaldo’s crucial freekick took a deflection and went wide, another Pepe’s header from a corner missed the target and Chicharito’s last-ditch shot got saved.

Now, it’s very simple. Blaugrana are four point clear with two games to go. All they have to do is winning their final, home game against Deportivo La Coruna – the team bad enough to struggle in a relegation dogfight. If they do so, the result of their nearest clash, against Atletico Madrid, won’t even matter. In other words – so far, Ancelotti and his lads were counting on Diego Simeone to at least steal the draw from the Catalans. But now, with four points being the margin between the contenders, it is indeed A Point Too Far to keep the hopes alive.

Who would’ve thought that Diego Alves will be the one to seal FCB’s title?

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