La Liga, week seventeen
La Liga’s seventeenth week ended much like it had begun, with Barcelona atop the table, only now at a comfortable 45 points, Atletico Madrid second at 36, followed by Valencia at 34 and Real Madrid at 31. The top scorer remained Barcelona’s Lionel Messi at 15 goals and his closest followers were Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas at 11, and Valencia’s Simone Zaza and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez at ten apiece.
In a week with a highly anticipated Clasico other games might have gone unnoticed, but some should not have been. We had four games with red cards, seven games featuring a team with a clean sheet, and four games with three or more goals scored.
On Tuesday Levante and Leganes played a toughly contested 0-0 draw which saw 11 yellows (including two doubles for reds). On Wednesday Real Sociedad surprised Sevilla 3-1 and Getafe defeated visiting Las Palmas 2-0. On Thursday, Eibar brought Girona down a notch with a 4-1 home win while hosts Alaves squeezed by Malaga 1-0.
On Friday, Espanyol pulled off the second surprise of the week defeating Atletico Madrid 1-0, the first league loss for the Colchoneros this season. Real Betis had a goal go unrecorded as the officials missed it crossing the line then lost J Amat on a deserved direct red, for an ugly kick at a prone opponent. Athletic Bilbao took advantage of a horrific night for the hosts to score on a penalty and benefit from an own goal to pull a 2-0 away win.
On Saturday Celta Vigo came to life and defeated hosts Deportivo 3-1 while in Valencia another red card bath ensued in their game with Villarreal. Mestalla witnessed a 12-yellow card match with two double-yellow reds. Carlos Bacca at the 24th sealed the deal with a brilliant one on one. But Valencia had a lot to talk about having a goal annulled by an off sides call, two brilliantly saved shots, a cross bar and what seemed a hand-ball on an attempted defensive clearance in Villarreal’s box. But the main event was the Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Once again, this season, the Merengue’s match came down to a unrepentant Madrid coach making the same mistakes and thinking they would nonetheless garner him a different result. Benching Asensio, Isco, and Gareth Bale to start the consistently ineffective Karim Benzema, and attempting an ultimately ill-fated defensive option that went awry, Zinedine Zidane was outfoxed by Ernesto Valverde who kept two of Madrid’s second half substitutes awaiting entry for nearly 20 minutes on the sidelines.
As to that defensive ruse, the one that had Mateo Kovacic shadowing Messi the entire match, it turns out Kovacic either didn’t think paying attention to anyone else was part of the job, or Zidane told him it wasn’t. The opening Barcelona goal, by an ultimately wide open Luis Suarez, included a forty-plus yard run by Ivan Rakitic directly down the middle of the field, reaching to about where Casemiro usually plays, and concluded with a pass right to an open Sergi Roberto who simply slotted an uncontested pass across the entire box, from right to left, to an unmarked Suarez.
Replays will show that about half-way through that long run Kovacic–who was standing in the center circle about two strides away from Messi—could have intercepted his countryman, but chose to ignore Rakitic because trailing the play several yards to the right was Messi. So, Mateo first took an instinctive stride left, toward Ivan, who was leading the counter, but then, inexplicably, he turned right, letting Rakitic go free. A wider-angle replay would show he did this to keep track of Messi, as surely he was told to do.
One can only imagine Zidane’s pre-match chat with Kovacic—“Messi is your only responsibility. Got it? He cannot be the one to beat us, like he did last time. Anyone else steps up, that’s football, but not Messi. Got it?” If only Zidane had added, “But use your head, if any Barca player comes down the field in a straight forty-yard run at our goal, please get in his way before he reaches our box.”
At game’s end Messi and company were 14 points ahead of Ronaldo and his crew on the La Liga table, and another embarrassing home defeat (Barca 3-0 Real) brought the all-time competitive Clasico tally to Real 95-92 Barca, with 49 draws.