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» » Euro Bites: La Liga - Barcelona on the rocks, Madrid ready to pounce and Valencia improving

Euro Bites: La Liga - Barcelona on the rocks, Madrid ready to pounce and Valencia improving

Well, well, well. One week on from most journalists telling you ‘the league title race is on, but not really’ and it’s all change, writes Yahoo's Andrew Gaffney.

Barcelona are on the rocks, Real Madrid are ready to take advantage and everyone is worried about the quiet team in the middle of them both, marshalled by the wily Diego Simeone. It’s all kicking off.

THE WINNERS

Gary Neville far too much this season and, surprise surprise, once he’s gone there isn’t a great deal of praise/coverage of Los Che. This is a side that has just taken six points from Sevilla and Barcelona in a single week after a very real flirtation with relegation.

Even today, when you read your newspaper or match reports there will be little or nothing on Valencia but instead it’ll focus on Barcelona and their failings. Let’s ignore the job Pako Ayestaran has done, winning two out of his first three matches, against two La Liga heavyweights no less (imagine the fanfare if Gary had done the same). Valencia were chewed up and spat out by certain sections of the media but now things are better – although it doesn’t mask an awful season – there’s nothing to report. Back to reality.

I thought Valencia were fantastic against Barcelona. Did they ride their luck in the first half? Sure, but then so did Barcelona in the same fixture last season. Everyone knew the Camp Nou would be rocking but Valencia rode the storm, thanks in large to Diego Alves, and they picked their counters to perfection. A bit of luck came with the first goal but the second was something the Catalans themselves would’ve been proud of. The much maligned Dani Parejo, who has been poor this year, had arguably his best performance of the season – even better than the 5-1 victory over Celta.

Lionel Messi got goal number 500 of his career but it wasn’t about him, but about a resurgent Valencia showing there’s reason to be hopeful again next season. Valencia had numerous chances to finish the game off but were guilty of overcomplicating matters. Some might argue on the balance of play Barcelona didn’t deserve to lose but I’d argue they certainly didn’t deserve to win.

Well done, Pako.

Could the La Liga title be heading to Madrid?

Isco and James Rodriguez. He rightly saw this as a match where the best form of defence was to attack. To be fair, Getafe offered very little at either side of the pitch, with the exception of the lively Pablo Sarabia, and it quickly descended into the pummelling we all expected. All of the attacking players got on the scoresheet with the exception of Jese, who selflessly passed it to Cristiano Ronaldo to score in the final minute.

Atletico had a tougher test as they welcomed Granada to the Calderon but an inspired performance from Koke, who has found his best form again, was the difference. He opened the scoring after 15 minutes to settle any potential nerves but Granada stepped it up against their more illustrious opponents, pegging them back for periods of the game. Fernando Torres scored a wonderful second after a through ball from Koke and it was a route-one goal that sealed all three points. Saul headed on Jan Oblak’s punt up field and Angel Correa raced away to score his seventh goal of the season.

Rayo breathe new life into survival bid with victory over Villarreal

Manchester United legend flop. He’s capable of the sublime but it’s his inconsistency that lets him down. After running past two, three or four defenders his cross will end up outside of the stadium. The next time he’ll force the keeper into a good save from 30 yards out.

Another golden oldie got them on the right track against Villarreal as Javi Guerra scored less than 10 minutes in. Adrian Lopez scored a beautiful volley to make it 1-1 at half-time but Paco’s men dug deep, and with the returning Jozabed on the pitch, they didn’t buckle under the pressure. Miku rose highest to power in a thumping header in the 81st minute and Rayo held on to a valuable three points.

Honourable mentions: Giuseppe Rossi – might not be back to his old Villarreal form but what a contribution he’s made to Levante’s fight for survival. Sporting Gijon – played some nice stuff against Las Palmas but Tonny Sanabria’s miss may come back to haunt them. Lucas Perez – often forgotten about these days, unfairly I might add, but produced a wonderful assist for Depor to grab a point away at Sevilla. Athletic Club – didn’t dwell on the disappointment of going out in the Europa League and moved closer to securing European football for next season, up to 5th. Eibar – it took a while but with victory over Basque rivals Real Sociedad they secured another season in Spain’s top flight.

THE LOSERS

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Euro Bites: La Liga - Barcelona on the rocks, Madrid ready to pounce and Valencia improving

Messi hits 500 but Barcelona can’t break losing streak

Luis Enrique has never been truly embraced by the Catalan press. It’s funny because we all know how biased the likes of MARCA and AS can be due to the huge amount of Real Madrid fans that buy them, but up in Barcelona the press can be just as ferocious. On the face of it the club is fantastic, with a wonderful squad and a manager with a more than respectable CV, but behind that it’s as poisonous and petty as anywhere else.

The coach deserves to take his fair share of the blame here. People have admired the fact Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi haven’t missed many games (when available) but that lack of rotation, or lack of squad depth, is beginning to show as the season enters it’s final stretch. Yes, the transfer ban didn’t help but what happened to the famous Masia academy – where is the next superstar ready to grasp his chance? Answers on a postcard.

Barcelona weren’t bad against Valencia but with a misfiring frontline that fragile defence is falling further under the microscope. If you’re two or three goals up then it works to perfection as you pen the opposition in and repeatedly go for the kill but when it’s even, or they’re losing? Valencia aren’t the best team in the league but had various chances on the counter in the second half to make it four or five-one.

Neymar is struggling to recapture his early season form and Luis Suarez, when starved of service, is like carrying a spare tyre. Gerard Pique was thrown up front as an emergency striker towards the end. For all the talk of Messi failing to score, the young Brazilian has gone five matches without scoring himself. He seemed more interested in picking fights than picking up points. It looked like the treble was back on but now Barcelona face the very distinct possibility of walking away with nothing to show for this season.

Sevilla lacking a genuine alternative to Gameiro

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Euro Bites: La Liga - Barcelona on the rocks, Madrid ready to pounce and Valencia improving

And it’s not just up north were the pressure is beginning to show as down in Sevilla they failed to win for the second match in a row at home. Perhaps they were guilty of a Europa League hangover but the performance against Deportivo wasn’t good enough regardless of fatigue. Maybe motivation is the driving force behind this mini-slump with Champions League beyond them, although European football is far from secured.

It’s ironic in a way that Sevilla’s great form last season was due to having Kevin Gameiro as backup to Carlos Bacca but fast forward to the current campaign and there’s no one filling that ‘Gameiro role’ now the Frenchman has been promoted. Fernando Llorente just isn’t cutting it and, in fact, Vicente Iborra has proven himself to be a better option at centre forward than the Basque target man. Without options to freshen up the offence from the bench it allowed Depor the chance to equalise, which they duly did. A pinpoint cross from Lucas Perez found Oriol Riera to smash home. No Gameiro, no party.

Thinking you’re already safe is a dangerous game to play, Espanyol

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Euro Bites: La Liga - Barcelona on the rocks, Madrid ready to pounce and Valencia improving

Espanyol are playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the relegation zone. It’s been a common factor of this season’s La Liga that teams go on a decent run then ease off, slipping down the table before they go again and pull away. On Friday night Espanyol slipped to defeat against Levante, their third match in a row without picking up a win, and now find themselves only seven clear of Sporting.

Now it’s true that even if they lost all of their remaining games Espanyol would probably stay up. The bottom four clubs, maybe even Rayo too, are guilty of doing Incy Wincy Spider impressions as they try, but ultimately fail, to get out of that soaking wet water spout. But that doesn’t mean they should rest easily as Las Palmas have shown to expect the unexpected this season.

And I know I’ve said this about other teams but it isn’t necessarily the fact they lost but more how they lost. Espanyol took the lead through Hernan Perez but then dropped way off the pace and a desperate Levante weren’t in a forgiving mood as Giuseppe Rossi and Medjani completed a comeback that sent the home fans happy and dreaming of safety. I’m not sure Espanyol fans are dreaming of anything other than just wanting this season to just end.

Honourable mentions: Villarreal – a poor performance against Rayo won’t help ahead of their trip to a rejuvenated Real Madrid midweek. Getafe – you won’t find a worst side than them in Spain this season. Such a shambles all over the pitch, look doomed. Real Sociedad – a lack of consistency continues to haunt them.

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