Euro Bites: Brilliant Bale, Jan ‘The Wall’ Oblak and Valencia only love the spotlight

It’s been a week of predictability at the top of La Liga as Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid all won to keep it tighter than a duck’s bum Tyson Fury’s trousers in the race for the title. But it was a different story at the other end of the table as four of the then-bottom six won, dragging new teams into the fray and making it a tense finale to this season’s La Liga.
Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid all won to keep it tighter than a duck’s arse Tyson Fury’s trousers in the race for the title.  But it was a different story at the other end of the table as four of the then-bottom six won, dragging new teams into the fray and making it a tense finale to this season’s La Liga.[/i]

[b][i]THE WINNERS[/i][/b]

[b]All you need is Bale[/b]

Gareth Bale[/b] has popped up in the dying embers of a match to secure a vital three points for Real Madrid.  Fresh after his heroics against Rayo Vallecano last Saturday, he was on hand to do what Barcelona are unable to, and beat Real Sociedad at Anoeta.

I can’t remember a time when Bale has been more popular in Madrid.  Sure, that solo goal against Barcelona was special and so was the first goal during extra time against Atletico in the Champions League final, but it’s different now. In both those games he had to share the limelight with others but, for the past two weeks at least, he’s been [i]the [/i]man at Real Madrid.

The gloom that surrounded the city after hearing of a rare [b]Cristiano Ronaldo[/b] injury has quickly been forgotten as Bale begins to lead this team in the right direction.  [b]Lucas Vazquez[/b], another worthy of praise, has stepped into the fold to support the glimpse into, just maybe, the future of the club going forward.

After missing one or two chances before hand, up stepped Bale to score his ninth headed goal of the season – more than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues.  The cross from Lucas was superb but the leap and finish from Bale even better.  “Madrid are saved by Bale” was the headline last week but equally appropriate this time around also.  With Cristiano set to return the fanfare will switch to the Portuguese hitman but Bale is finally ready to take over in the long-term – IF he can stay fit.

[b]Jan Oblak adds another brick to his defensive wall[/b]

Bayern Munich. Atletico are a bloody good side, you know?

And when that praise begins to trickle down onto the back pages of international newspapers, it’s ultimately the goalscorers that receive the bulk of the accolades.  Now, not for one moment am I discrediting the value and success of [b]Antoine Griezmann[/b] because he’s world class.  Some don’t like/want to admit it, but he’s arguably the second best striker in La Liga right now (behind only[b] Luis Suarez[/b]).  But there is something, or rather someone, who Atletico’s success owes a lot to: [b]Jan Oblak[/b].

It’s no easy feat to be tasked with replacing [b]Thibaut Courtois[/b].  The on-loan Chelsea stopper acquired 56 clean sheets over three seasons at El Calderon but was needed by his parent club.  Atletico signed Oblak for €16m, a record transfer fee for a goalkeeper in La Liga, from Benfica to replace the much loved Courtois.  But it wasn’t all smooth sailing as [b]Miguel Angel Moya[/b] started the season as first choice, leaving Oblak to bide his time on the bench.

An injury to Moya allowed the young Slovenian his chance to establish himself in Spain at the end of March 2015.  He kept seven clean sheets in his eleven appearances.  Not bad.  Enough was seen by [b]Diego[/b] [b]Simeone[/b] to stick with Oblak as first choice for this season and his faith has been repaid ten-fold.

Atletico haven’t been that great in front of goal this season, Griezmann and a rejuvenated Torres aside, but their strength comes from their defensive guile. In 36 games they’ve conceded only 16 while Oblak has 23 clean sheets to his name.  That’s incredible.  Or perhaps the fact he has another 8 clean sheets in the Champions League is even more astonishing.

He hasn’t conceded a goal in over 540 minutes. Courtois who?

[b]Granada fight back to stun Brazil – I mean, Las Palmas[/b]

Jonathan Viera[/b] scored an absolute beauty with just three minutes on the clock before adding another less than ten minutes later.  While the first was all down to Viera, the second was all about [b]Roque Mesa[/b]’s pass over the top.  It was an untidy finish on the volley but still a good goal.

Granada were staring the very real prospect of relegation at that point, two points adrift of safety.  Blackburn Rovers’ legend [b]Ruben Rochina[/b] sparked an immediate reply as he drove forward then unleashed a powerful effort to reduce the deficit.  Ten minutes later and [b]Youssef El Arabi[/b], hero of last season’s great escape, popped up to make it 2-2 after 22 minutes. And so the tide has swung back into the home side’s favour.

It must frustrate fans that players only give their maximum when time is running out and, if they’d done it sooner, there’d be no need for all this panic. The game needed a winner and it duly delivered as [b]Ricardo Costa[/b] rose highest at a corner to power home the goal that might just retain Granada’s place in La Liga for another season.  It was the first time in 22 top-flight seasons that Granada had come back from 2-0 down.  Timing is everything.

[b]Honourable mentions[/b]:  [i]Messi and Neymar[/i] – both showed signs of getting back to their best against a woeful Real Betis side. [i]Villarreal [/i]– secured their place in next season’s Champions League by beating a Valencia side already on the beach. [i]Espanyol, Getafe and Sporting[/i] – all struggling at the bottom of the table, all won.

[b][i]THE LOSERS[/i][/b]

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Euro Bites: Brilliant Bale, Jan ‘The Wall’ Oblak and Valencia only love the spotlight

[b]Valencia show there’s no quick fix – unless the focus is on them[/b]

I reserved special praise for [b]Pako Ayestarán[/b] earlier this month after he secured crucial victories over Barcelona and Sevilla to extinguish relegation worries for the season.  It can’t have been an easy situation to take over with players and coaches in disarray but to his credit, Pako turned it around and achieved what was asked of him: save us from relegation.  Job done, but the task of rebuilding the squad has a long way to go yet.

Valencia supporters can be tagged as demanding, fine, but they’re certainly not stupid.  There’s an uneasy feeling amongst the fan base as they believe the team only turns up when the spotlight is on them.  Sevilla have become the most-hated rival for Los Che in recent seasons and, with the spotlight shining bright, the side produced a moment of magic at the end.

Next up was Barcelona, with the world watching to see if their bad run would continue.  There was a fire in the bellies of the Valencia players as they raced into an early 2-0 lead.  In amongst the missed chances and bits of luck, Los Che rolled back to form seen only last season and, even when [b]Lionel Messi [/b]scored, you sensed they would hold on.

A limp defeat to local rivals Villarreal, with the pressure and spotlight off, has reopened old wounds.  There’s an argument to be made that the players had a right to lower their guard after safety was secured but the warning signs were apparent after Getafe.  It takes a special group of players to not be up for a derby the club hadn’t lost at home since 2006/07 when [b]Manuel Pellegrini[/b] was in charge.

You watch them play out of their skins against Real Madrid though.

[b]Deportivo could be the surprise team to be relegated[/b]

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Euro Bites: Brilliant Bale, Jan ‘The Wall’ Oblak and Valencia only love the spotlight

The fans are worried in Coruña.  Here is a team that dared to achieve the impossible in the opening half of the season as they showed how good recruitment and a tight-knit squad, coupled with a young manager with clear ideas, could break the norm and push for European football.  They sat in 6th place just after Christmas.  Phenomenal.

But since that winter break they’ve been an absolute car crash from start to finish. Gone is the defensive stability, gone too is the creativity in midfield and gone are the goals.  It’s an implosion on the scale of Eibar last season and if they aren’t careful, it might end up with them falling into the bottom three on the last day as well.

Against Getafe it was arguably one of their worst performances of the season. They looked out of ideas and were thoroughly out-played by a side that simply wanted it more, as if Depor were in a position to be charitable.  They’ve dropped nine places in the league table since Christmas. To put that more bluntly, they’ve won just one game out of their last twenty (9L, 10D).

They sit just four points clear of safety and face Villarreal and Real Madrid in their last two fixtures.  There’s a very real possibility Depor go down.

[b]Real Betis have improved under Merino but not by much[/b]

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Euro Bites: Brilliant Bale, Jan ‘The Wall’ Oblak and Valencia only love the spotlight

It’s been a strange season for Real Betis fans as initial encouragement was replaced with worry, then came a managerial change, and finally safety was secured.  I still think that despite the improvement under [b]Juan Merino[/b], there isn’t a strong case for him continuing on beyond this season.

Merino’s best run of form came while he was in the caretaker role but that initial buzz has worn off now and the same familiar problems are popping up.  In their last eight fixtures they’ve won just two, both at home, and lost five (1D).  The defence is of major concern as they’ve conceded 15 in those games, although admittedly some were against tough opposition.

The over-reliance on [b]Ruben Castro[/b] is another problem that’ll need solving over the course of the summer, alongside a new director of football, after Eduardo Macia left his post last week.  That’s a lot of work to do be done and it’ll be interesting to see if Betis stick with Merino or plump for someone with a bit more experience instead.

[b]Honourable mentions[/b]: [i]Sevilla [/i]– qualified for European football next season but were woeful against Espanyol. [i] Eibar[/i] – there’s a worry the wheels are coming off at the Basque club, mainly in the boardroom, and the team slumped to another defeat last Friday. [i]Rayo Vallecano[/i] – it seemed like everyone around them (who played) won at the weekend, but Paco Jemez’s side failed to take their chances against a much-changed Atletico Madrid side.

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