Cheering Cholo

Celebrations: for Eibar, a point against Los Blancos is like a victory.

If Diego Simeone was ever prone to celebrate the successes before actually getting his hands on the trophies, we might imagine him jumping from joy today. But even being the person he is, he probably could not repress the smile after what has transpired this weekend. Not only his beloved Atlético won a traditionally troublesome fixture at Estadio Mestalla – also, the most prominent rivals of Los Colchoneros have just proven how shaky their play can be.

It all started with Real Madrid, who were hosting a home game against Eibar. The Basque visitors are basically one archetypical example of an average mid-tablers: it’s only their third-ever season in the Spanish top-flight and all they want to do is comfortably stay up – a feat they’ve proudly accomplished for two years straight, by finishing 18th and 14th. They had a fairly decent start to the current campaign, taking out Granada and Sociedad as well as scraping a home draw against Sevilla – but at least on paper, going to Santiago Bernabéu promised them nothing but misery.

However, in the end, things have turned out quite differently. Already three minutes into the Sunday contest, Keylor Navas has spilled an easy backpass header and was lucky not to have any visitors’ striker near him – otherwise, it would’ve been 0-1 there and then. Still – an early strike of good fortune did not prevent him from conceding a goal just 180 seconds later. A very long, floating cross from the right-back Capa has reached Fran Rico, who directed it right into the back of Madrid’s net. Dani Carvajal was late to mark his man, Navas had his hand on the ball but couldn’t block it – and there it was: the first lemon of the day.

What happened afterwards for Zidane’s team was more or less a mixture of nagging, painful problems with his team and some encouraging positives that are definitely worth preserving. For instance: Danilo at the left-back position didn’t handle Pedro Leon too well – but he was very dangerous going forward. Mateo Kovačić had a terrific game and had to be fouled to be stopped – but he wasn’t as impactful as the injured Luka Modrić usualy turns out to be. Two pillars of Real’s attacking play – Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale – both had good games; however, Karim Benzema (only 6 touches in 45 minutes!) and Isco (0 dribbles won, dispossessed 5 times) were rather useless… etc. etc.

 

The best and brightest asset in Zizou’s very suspicious hand was undoubtedly Gareth Bale. Once again, the Welshman was hard to control down the right and created two dangerous chances even before the first goal of the match went in. His hard work was finally rewarded after 17 minutes, when he feasted on Ronaldo’s far-post cross to head in the equalizer from a point-blank range. From that point on, the hosts were supposed to find their cruise-control mode – but it was actually Eibar, who gained focus and did not allow too many further dangers until the break; in fact, it was them, who created the best chance of this part of the game, when Navas parried Pedro Leon’s fierce shot from a tight angle.

Only in the first minutes of the second half, we’ve seen Real Madrid as it was supposed to be. Zidane withdrew Varane and Benzema and sent out Nacho, along with Morata. Eight minutes after the restart, the ex-Juventus loanee should’ve already registered an assist. After another terrific switch of play by Bale, he flicked the ball into the middle of Eibar’s penalty area, where Ronaldo and Isco both waited for their chance. Sadly, the Spaniard had his shot blocked, his Portuguese colleague skied his chance on a rebound and the result remained the same. 120 seconds later, Morata could’ve shown those two how it’s done – but he didn’t dare to shoot in a tight one-on-one with Riesgo and the chance went begging…

At this point, the frustration has crept in into the team’s performance. Morata, unsuccessful with honest efforts has tried a dirty dive and received a yellow card; earlier on, same happened to Bale, who bad-mouthed the referee. Even Ronaldo, despite having a quite decent 90 minutes, looked tense and devoid of confidence – so much that at one point, he badly miscontroled the pass that would’ve otherwise yielded him a 100% clear goalscoring chance. His teammates tried everything to feed him with killer passes: crosses, one-touch combinations, over-the-top balls… Nothing worked. It was not CR7’s day – and the white side of Madrid had to wait for the news from Vigo in a foul mood.

Pablo Hernández has just scored the most bizarre goal of his life.

Fortunately for them, Estadio Balaídos, also known as Barcelona’s Graveyard, has confirmed it’s reputation again. It might’ve all started nice for Luis Enrique and his players, who only needed 45 seconds to win a free kick from a dangerous position – but it was all downhill from there. Without Messi (will go back to training next week) and Iniesta (resting on the bench) all we’ve seen from Blaugrana were fairly transparent, one-two plays between Neymar and Luis Suárez. Arda Turan, nominally filling  Leo’s shoes down the right wing, has barely participated in his team’s attacking efforts – and the same applied to Rafinha, who looked far, far from providing the quality of Ivan Rakitić.

If only Barca’s troubles were limited to just their firepower… But no! At the back, their usual unsung hero and watchful protector, Sergio Busquets, has been pulling off some truly unexcusable bloopers. After only 22 minutes, he had so much difficulties taking control of ter Stegen’s awkward pass, he actually gifted the ball to Iago Aspas. The ex-Liverpool player, already known for unleashing his A-game against FCB, has played a pitch-perfect, through ball to arriving Pione Sisto, who’s found the net despite a rather difficult angle. Less that 10 minutes have passed and Busquets messed up again, missing a must-win defensive header, which allowed Aspas to break through and score a long-ranger. Terrible!

Just like the other two, the third Celta goal has been yet another result of a very simple, very direct attacking plan by Eduardo Berizzo’s team. Wass to Aspas, Mathieu tries to clear it, the ball skims past ter Stegen and lands in the back of the net… Shocking. It was the last year all over again – except that this time, Celta didn’t even need Nolito’s class to humiliate the champs.

To be fair to visitors: in the second half, they’ve really turned this blowout into a close contest. Mostly thanks to the invaluable skills and experience by Andres Iniesta, who replaced Rafinha during the break. The man who secured Spain’s first World Cup win looked like the only player still believing in a comeback – and he gradually infected his teammates with that faith. It was him, who assisted Piqué’s first goal; it was him, who provided the key pass to André Gomes, who’s been then fouled and thus won a penalty. Under the relentless, well-organized pressure from the hosts, it was him who’s been able to constantly escape his man and create space for others – so often that a remontada has become a serious possibility.

 

And then, there was that moment of madness… 77 minutes in, with 2-3 and a draw still well in grasp, Marc-André ter Stegen, the definite Barça’s #1 goalie after Claudio Bravo’s departure, has ruined it all. He’s just received an easy backpass from Jordi Alba, controlled it well and… decided to give the ball back from where it came instead of just booting it forward like every other sane keeper. Pablo Hernández closed him down, he cut off the path to Alba, nudged the ball with his head and it landed right into the net. This was Fabien Barthez-level fuckup; a Manuel-Almunia-vs-Leicester-City type of mistake; a throwback to the times when old good Victor Valdes used to pull off such moves occasionally.

Obviously, by this point, the game was pretty much over. Another substitute, Denis Suárez, has managed to set up Piqué’s second goal – but on that day, Celta were simply one goal too far. Just like Real Madrid without Modrić, Barcelona without Iniesta has utterly disappointed their fans. After the game, both ter Stegen and Busquets admitted their responsibility for the defeat; but to tell the truth, on Sunday, every single FCB starter has been mediocre at best.

Meanwhile, at Vicente Calderon, an undefeated, super-tight team continues to win matches and pick up clean sheets. They’ve only conceded two goals in 9 competitive matches this season, already took out that dangerous Celta team 4-0 (at Balaídos!) and won 2-0 in Valencia despite wasting two (!) penalties. Could it be that this time, Los Colchoneros will win the league convincingly, maybe even with few weeks to spare? Or maybe those are only the hiccups – though the last time Real Madrid drew four games in a row, Zidane was still kicking the ball in a white shirt…

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