Five thoughts gleaned from the weekend’s action, as Barcelona beat Valencia and Real Madrid overcame Malaga but suffered some more injury issues.
1. Messi, not Luis Enrique, helped Barca overcome Valencia’s pressure
Although Barcelona went ahead inside the first minute against Valencia through Luis Suarez at the Camp Nou on Saturday afternoon, the visitors absolutely battered Barca for most of the first half — missing a penalty, hitting the post and generally controlling the game.
Barca were unable to bring the ball out from the back against Valencia’s hard-pressing forwards and midfield. The issue was also at least partly caused by Luis Enrique having chosen both “holders” Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano in midfield, alongside 35-year-old Xavi Hernandez, and no Barca player could overcome the opposition’s pressure to start passing moves. Then, as the first half went on, Lionel Messi began to drop deeper and deeper into midfield, get on the ball and help move his team further up the pitch. From there, Barca got a foothold in the game — and they eventually ran out deserving 2-0 winners with Messi netting his 400th goal for the club in the final minute.
At the news conference afterwards Luis Enrique put the change in momentum down to his own half-time substitution, when he fixed his XI by removing left-back Adriano Correia, sending on Ivan Rakitic in midfield, and bringing Mascherano back to defence. That definitely helped. But during the game, it certainly looked like Messi had taken control of things on the pitch.
2. Madrid not having much luck with injuries
A fortnight ago, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti was talking about how happy he was to have a full squad to choose from for the first time all season. Such joy did not last long.
Winger Gareth Bale pulled up just two minutes into Saturday’s 3-1 win at home to Malaga with an apparent pulled calf muscle and looks likely to be out for two to three weeks. Even worse for Madrid fans was midfield playmaker Luka Modric exiting on the hour holding his knee after a coming together with Boquerones midfielder Recio. The Croatian is out for six weeks and neither star will be available to start Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Atletico Madrid.
Centre-forward Karim Benzema is also a doubt for the game, with a knock to his knee picked up in the first leg, and won’t play barring a miracle, say Marca. Meanwhile, left-back Marcelo is suspended for their biggest fixture of the season so far.
All the talk last week was how Ancelotti would fit all his big names into one XI when everyone was fit and available. He has a different, much more difficult, problem now.
3. Griezmann a one-man Atletico attack
This not something particularly new, but Antoine Griezmann is one of Atletico Madrid’s most important players. Griezmann’s sharply taken double strike, a spectacular overhead volley and sharp first-time finish, were again the difference as Atletico won 2-1 at relegation-threatened Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday afternoon.
The France international now has 20 La Liga goals for the season (in 23 starts) and, most importantly at the moment, he has scored six of team’s eight goals over their last four domestic outings. Given Mikel Gonzalez’s own goal in Real Sociedad’s defeat at the Vicente Calderon, the only other Atletico player to have found the net during that time has been young midfielder Saul Niguez against Cordoba. They’ve also scored just once in their last three Champions League games — a deflected Raul Garcia shot against Bayer Leverkusen.
Ex-Real Sociedad attacker Griezmann’s form is proving to be very useful given that Fernando Torres and Mario Mandzukic have scored just once between them over the last six weeks. €30 million seemed a big price for Atletico to pay for Griezmann last summer, but his recent contributions have been almost priceless.
4. Athletic Bilbao still fighting
Athletic’s season appeared all but finished last November, when they crashed out of their first Champions League campaign in 16 years after failing to overcome Shakhtar Donetsk or FC Porto. They were also down in the bottom half of La Liga and were quickly eliminated from the Europa League by Torino too.
Most teams might have thrown in the towel for the 2014-15 season at that stage, but not Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic. Sunday’s 4-0 win at home to Getafe, with Aritz Aduriz scoring twice more, was their biggest victory of the season. That took Los Leones up to eighth in the table and there’s still talk of qualifying for Europe next season.
Sunday was Athletic’s 50th game in all competitions this season, including eight so far in the Copa del Rey. Valverde’s men are also through to May 30’s Copa del Rey final, against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Their campaign is sure to be a long one, but it’s coming good towards the end.
5. Villarreal have run out of steam
For many months this seemed likely to be a glorious season for Villarreal, as they impressed on three fronts — in La Liga, the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. The Yellow Submarine have taken a dive through recent weeks though, and that continued through Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home to Cordoba.
Villarreal bossed proceedings throughout, having 28 shots on goal, with centre-forwards Uche and Gerard Moreno both hammering 25-yarders off the crossbar, but it finished goalless. With injuries and exhaustion taking a toll, Marcelino’s team have now not won in eight games, and have netted just one goal in their last six La Liga outings. There were even whistles at El Madrigal during the second half, as the home team were unable to find a breakthrough against already doomed Cordoba.
Despite the poor run, Marcelino’s side remain sixth in the table, with a healthy lead over those challenging for the last automatic Europa League qualification place. A few more wins will probably be enough to secure that spot, but a season that promised so much is limping towards the end.