La Liga Hangover: Atletico and Barcelona Still Neck and Neck, Bale to the Rescue

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2016

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - APRIL 30:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring goal during the La Liga match between Real Sociedad de Futbol and Real Madrid at Estadio Anoeta on April 30, 2016 in San Sebastian, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/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.

 

Baled Out Again

Sandwiched between two vital UEFA Champions League semi-final legs, it was no surprise to see Saturday's games for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid contain numerous changes to each manager's XI. Both still left a handful of key starters in place, though, more so Real Madrid, and it showed with a less-than-impressive display.

As with the previous week's outing against Rayo Vallecano, Gareth Bale came to Real's rescue, missing three of four headed chances at goal before finally getting one right, timing his run across the defender and powering in an effort inside the near post. With only 10 minutes or so remaining, it looked as though Real Sociedad might put a defining dent in Zinedine Zidane's team's title hopes, but the Welshman proved the difference.

With no Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema, Real's attacking was woefully one-dimensional. Bale's telling impact kept Real's winning run going and briefly sent his side top of La Liga again.

The theme of repeating the previous week continued as Atletico and Barcelona both took turns to go top of the table, too, leaving the end result as you were.

Neither hit top gear, and neither had an easy path to victory, but both deserved the win—although in the case of league leaders Barca, it was a red card for opponents Real Betis that changed the course of the game, while Atleti relied on early second-half substitutions to alter the flow and provide the win.

Three teams, two games left and one point separating them.

That is as much a definition of the title race going to the wire as ever there was.

 

Jornada 36 Results

Sporting Gijon 2-0 Eibar

Real Sociedad 0-1 Real Madrid

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Rayo Vallecano

Real Betis 0-2 Barcelona

Granada 3-2 Las Palmas

Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Celta Vigo

Espanyol 1-0 Sevilla

Deportivo La Coruna 0-2 Getafe

Valencia 0-2 Villarreal

Malaga vs. Levante, Monday 7:30 p.m. BST KO 

 

Unai Emery's Troubling Decisions

Top five last season, UEFA Europa League winners the past two campaigns and in the semi-final of that competition again this season—everything looks pretty good for Sevilla by those standards, so why has Unai Emery been unable to push his team to victory on the road this term?

Sevillas head coach Unai Emery walks on the pitch before the UEFA Europa League semi-final football match FC Shakhtar Donetsk vs Sevilla FC at the Arena Lviv stadium in Lviv on April 28, 2016. / AFP / GENYA SAVILOV        (Photo credit should read GENYA S
GENYA SAVILOV/Getty Images

Sevilla have one away game left this term, at San Mames on the final day of the season, and that will be their final chance to record an away victory in the entire league campaign.

After 18 attempts this year, they still haven't managed it. They've recorded nine draws and nine defeats, the latest of which, to Espanyol on Sunday, typified their inability to be a force on the road, even if a much-changed team selection means not too many conclusions should be drawn from this fixture in isolation.

Even so it represented what Emery has done throughout the campaign: alter key players, especially in attacking positions, and lack fluidity or penetration in the final third as a result.

There shouldn't be any excuse for Sevilla. With Valencia so far off the pace this term, fourth was theirs for the taking. They had a good summer, made good signings and the balance of the squad is fair, with the possible exception of a genuine alternative to Kevin Gameiro up front. Emery has to shoulder the blame for their shortcomings, sat as they are 12 points off Villarreal in fourth.

 

Points of Authority and Tactical Notes

  • Atletico Madrid's altered lineup saw them revert to a diamond midfield partway through the first half of their game against Rayo. Matias Kranevitter was at the base, as he operated for River Plate, Gabi and Thomas were on the sides and Oliver Torres was at the tip.
  • Jese's running in the channels for Real Madrid proved fruitful in terms of opening up La Real, if not in outright chances at the end of them after he came on. If Benzema isn't fit for the second leg against Manchester City, it's Jese who should start.
  • Joaquin's evolution continued at Real Betis; for the past few games the former right-winger has been playing as the second forward in the team's 4-4-2. There wasn't much opportunity to make an impact there against Barcelona, however.
  • Mateo Musacchio played 70 minutes for Villarreal, having made his injury comeback off the bench the previous week. He should be fit to take his place in defence alongside Victor Ruiz for the Europa League semi-final second leg against Liverpool.
  • Celta Vigo were dominant in the opening half-hour at Athletic Bilbao, led and should have been two or three goals to the good before Cabral happened. All the Cabral. More on that below.

 

Stat Attack

  • Real Madrid have won 10 in a row, the best streak in the league. Second is Atletico Madrid, on six.
  • Deportivo La Coruna's abysmal run totals one win in their last 22. They have fallen to 15th and are just four points above the drop zone, but with only two games left, they might be just about safe.
  • Luis Suarez notched his 35th league goal of the season.
  • Roberto Soldado created both Villarreal's goals; he has double the number of assists as goals this season (10 and five respectively).
  • Talk about clinical: Sporting Gijon scored twice from three shots to take the points against Eibar. At the other end of the scale, Depor failed to score from 15 efforts and Rayo attempted 13 without reward.
  • Atletico Madrid's starting front six (four midfielders and two forwards) had an average age of 23.3 years. When Gabi went off at half-time, replaced by Koke, that dropped to exactly 22 years.
  • Three teams had more than 60 per cent possession this weekend: Las Palmas on 61, Rayo on 62 and Barcelona on 73.

 

Good Week, Bad Week

The Good

The excellent attacking-midfield displays in the comeback win for the home side in the Granada-Las Palmas match came from Ruben Rochina and Jonathan Viera respectively.

Antoine Griezmann came off the bench and scored within 40 seconds for Atletico Madrid.

Atletico Madrid's French forward Antoine Griezmann (C) celebrates a goal during the Spanish league football match Club Atletico de Madrid vs CF Rayo Vallecano at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid on April 30, 2016. / AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty Images

Best news for this week in La Liga came for Villarreal. Their win, coupled with Athletic beating Celta, means the Yellow Submarine have officially secured fourth spot and UEFA Champions League qualification. Athletic can catch them on points, but Villarreal have the better head-to-head record, so fourth is theirs already.

 

The Bad

Rayo Vallecano fell into the drop zone and are 19th based on a three-way head-to-head: Getafe and Sporting both have 35 points, the same as Rayo, with Granada one point better off. With Sevilla and Barcelona to face, there's no guarantee Granada will pick up any more points, however. Rayo face bottom side Levante on the final day, and Getafe and Sporting play each other next time out.

Referee Antonio Mateu at Betis vs. Barcelona produced an inept display of officiating. Seven yellows and one red were shown in a first half that contained barely a foul worthy of the name.

There are certain players in La Liga you can count on to make a stupid challenge, be dirty or be overly and unnecessarily aggressive. Weligton of Malaga is one. Cabral of Celta is another. The latter could be off the list in appropriate fashion, though. Out of contract at the end of the season, he received a straight red for clipping Aritz Aduriz in the side of the head as the striker lay on the floor. This, just one minute after being booked for bringing down Aduriz and conceding a penalty.

He won't play again this term, and Celta went from a winning position to a losing one, with Athletic leapfrogging them in the table in the race for European spots as a result.

Nicely done, Cabral. Your soon-to-be ex-team-mates will be extremely thankful, no doubt.