La Liga Hangover: Star Forwards Continue to Deliver, Neville Still Needs a Win

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La Liga Hangover: Star Forwards Continue to Deliver, Neville Still Needs a Win
JOSEP LAGO/Getty Images

Welcome to La Liga Hangover, a weekly column running throughout the season in which we take a light-hearted, though in-depth, look at the key stories and talking points from the most recent weekend of action in Spanish football's top flight. With a focus on the biggest teams, such as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and a worthwhile nod toward the rest, we examine how the league is shaping up each week and what to look out for going forward.

Just When You Think 1 is Leading the Way...

The bitterness and bile along the way in the years-long argument over whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player has progressed through extreme, exciting and cutting-edge right into the land of boring, banal and nonsensical, especially when considering the only real criterion involved is favouritism in most cases.

Imagine the endless possibility, then, for further scope and impartiality—or insults and capital letters favoured over logic and analysis, if you prefer—when a further two players are added to each mini team? BBC vs. MSN. The Real Madrid European troika against the Barcelona South American triumvirate. Questions of talent and unpredictability on an individual level aside, when they click as a collective, they really click.

Real Madrid had the earlier fixture this time around, and as with the previous week, the first game saw plenty of phwoar moments from the front line. And watching live, it's tough not to end flowing moves with a thought akin to: "Gareth Bale is really hitting top form now. He's the one really pushing these on here."

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The problem with that is five minutes later the thought is repeated—with a different name. And a few hours later, Barcelona take over and the process repeats itself. Cristiano Ronaldo looked immense early on for Real, but Bale was the star of the show for a time—and then he got injured. For Barcelona, Neymar was scintillating against Athletic Club—but then Luis Suarez notched a hat-trick.

Focusing defensively on one just leaves room for another to flourish. Attempt to shackle them all and they'll beat you for physicality, anticipation, skill and pace. One way or another, one of them—and thus all three of them—will win.

The only real takeaway is it's absolutely phenomenal to watch a group of players perform in this way, and individualism becomes redundant after a point. Which isn't to say we don't appreciate those instances of sublime one-on-one skill, of course...

Jornada 20 Results

Sevilla 2-1 Malaga

Celta Vigo 4-3 Levante

Villarreal 0-0 Real Betis

Real Sociedad 1-1 Deportivo La Coruna

Valencia 2-2 Rayo Sociedad

Real Madrid 5-1 Rayo Vallecano

Las Palmas 0-3 Atletico Madrid

Getafe 3-1 Espanyol

Barcelona 6-0 Athletic Club

Eibar vs. Granada, 7:30 p.m. GMT on Monday.

And the Rest

Fear not: BBC and MSN are not the only strikers on show in La Liga—and this week we're penning a special ode to the forwards.

While it's true the top five scorers in Spain's Pichichi race come from those two sides (Suarez 18, Karim Benzema 16, Neymar 16, Ronaldo 16 and Bale 13) there are plenty of other attackers in fine fettle of late, with most of the notable ones hitting the back of the net this gameweek.

Kevin Gameiro of Sevilla, who should simply start every game yet, for some reason, still doesn't, scored twice—his 10th and 11th goals of the campaign—to give his team three points on Saturday. Malaga's Charles also scored in that game; he isn't as clinical or as regular on the scoresheet as Gameiro, but he does have eight of his team's 15 goals this season so deserves a mention.

CRISTINA QUICLER/Getty Images

Iago Aspas hit the back of the net once more for Celta—he has nine for the season now—in a topsy-turvy win over Levante. Both of Valencia's forwards, Alvaro Negredo and Paco Alcacer, scored—an occasion far too rare this term. Finally, on Sunday evening, Atletico Madrid treated onlookers to a rare three-goal haul, with Antoine Griezmann hitting a brace late on to move to 12 for the season in La Liga.

Out of the rest of the top scorers, Aritz Aduriz was suspended, Borja Baston plays on Monday night and Imanol Agirretxe missed out through injury. Only Lucas Perez of Depor played and didn't get on the scoresheet, a fourth game in a row without a goal for him following hitting the back of the net seven matches in succession.

Onward and upward, good scorers of La Liga.

Points of Authority

  • Jornada 19 was something of an anomaly in La Liga, while this week reverted to type: not one red card was issued in J19 following a run of four, one and three in the previous weeks. Back to J20, we've had three already with one game still to play. Gorka Iraizoz (Athletic), Vicente Iborra (Sevilla) and Arthur Boka (Malaga) saw red this time out.
  • Celta Vigo haven't kept a clean sheet since selling holding midfielder Augusto Fernandez to Atletico Madrid on New Year's Day, conceding seven goals in three games.
  • While Atleti have the best winning streak (four in a row), the second-longest winning run in La Liga now belongs to the unlikely outfit of Getafe, whose consecutive wins over Sporting, Betis and now Espanyol have lifted them up to 10th.
  • Monday night's game could see Eibar rise one place to sixth with a win, while Granada can move up one spot to 16th. A draw would see them both stay where they are. The form guide suggests a home win.

Tactical Notes

  • A fourth-minute red card for Iraizoz denied onlookers the chance to see Iker Muniain make a meaningful return for Athletic, as he was subbed to make way for replacement 'keeper Iago Herrerin on his first start since tearing his ACL in April. A front-line pairing of Muniain and Inaki Williams could have been hugely effective on the counter, but once Aduriz returns from suspension, we may not get to see it again.
  • Atletico continue to gradually make the switch: 4-3-3 was their starting system again this week before Diego Simeone later switched to a 4-4-2 for the second half—and then back to a three-man midfield late on.
  • Gary Neville continues to favour a 4-3-3 variation for Valencia, with Negredo starting up front this time and Alcacer replacing him. Dani Parejo, as the deepest midfielder, aids transition from back to middle thirds, but they need much better penetration of the penalty box to make this system work in attack.
  • Celta Vigo's reshuffle of players didn't result in a new system, with Iago Aspas moving right to make room for John Guidetti up front. The rotation of players made for a varied offence, but Celta continue to look horribly exposed defensively.

Good Week, Bad Week

The Good

Guidetti made just his second start of the season in La Liga for Celta and netted twice in his hour on the pitch. That's three league goals and four in the Copa del Rey, giving the Swedish attacker a strike rate of a goal every 87 minutes this season. You can't say he isn't taking his chance when given the opportunity!

MIGUEL RIOPA/Getty Images

Guidetti's eam-mate Aspas netted once but also provided two assists. Aspas has contributed 12 goals overall this term for Celta.

Betis kept a clean sheet for the first time in six matches, so we'll award a dubious "good" in the name of gradual progress, but new boss Juan Merino still hasn't won a fixture or scored a goal since being appointed earlier in January. Next up? Real Madrid.

The Bad

Cristiano Ronaldo should have received a straight red card, no question, for a pointless and petulant kick out on Nacho Cases with his team 5-0 up. Real Madrid were awarded the free-kick instead.

In the late Sunday game, Xabier Etxeita could count himself similarly fortunate to not see red after a blatant forearm smash in the face of Luis Suarez, having looked to judge the run of the striker and moved right across him to make contact.

LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Sporting have lost nine of their last 11 matches in all competitions and eight of their last nine in La Liga. Unsurprisingly, they have dropped to 19th.

Valencia watch: Los Che remain in 11th. It's now 72 days since they won in La Liga and 77 days since they kept a clean sheet in the Primera Division.

We can't really end the bad section without a mention for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid: Transfer bans for the pair were confirmed just before the weekend for one year (two windows) apiece, pending appeals.

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