Real Madrid were under more pressure than ever heading into this weekend, with both Sevilla and Barcelona having taken the top position in the league table at different points on Sunday after Los Merengues fell to defeat at Mestalla in midweek. Things didn’t go to plan in Castellon either as Villarreal raced to a 2-0 lead through goals from Manu Trigueros and Cedric Bakambu. However, from that moment on it all went wrong for the Yellow Submarine, with goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo suffering a fourth career cruciate ligament injury before Gareth Bale pulled one back and a controversial penalty allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to draw the scores back level only for Alvaro Morata to score a crucial late winner.
The big game of the weekend on paper came back in Madrid, where Atletico Madrid welcomed Barcelona to the Vicente Calderon for the final time as their opposition in a La Liga fixture. The game was far from a spectacle in terms of quality but Lionel Messi scored the decisive goal after Diego Godin equalised to cancel out Rafinha’s opener. Neymar was subject to most of the plaudits, but Luis Enrique will be relieved to see his side keep the pressure on Zinedine Zidane and co. at the top of La Liga.
For Diego Simeone though, the pressure is growing as his side now sit just one point ahead of in-form Real Sociedad after their narrow, and perhaps undeserved, victory over Las Palmas who have now been beaten in their last four fixtures. Captain Xabi Prieto’s second-half strike made the difference for Eusebio’s side to keep up their remarkable form.
Eibar and Athletic Bilbao too kept up their hopes of European qualification with a 3-0 win over Malaga for the minnows and a 3-1 victory against Granada for the biggest club in the Basque Country, coming not long after former Arsenal hero Tony Adams was given an advisory role by Granada’s new Chinese owners at the club.
Espanyol too could launch a late surge for European competition next season after their 3-0 thrashing of Osasuna with the visitors seeming increasingly consigned to relegation, not that their cause was helped by some poor refereeing to award a penalty and send off defender Oier.
One side who are almost certain to return to the Champions League are Sevilla, who faced a passionate Seville derby only days before the day of Andalucia. The away side, led by Jorge Sampaoli, could not bring any away fans to the fixture due to stadium works and the lack of support showed in a woeful first half in which Rize Durmisi gave Real Betis the lead as they pressed Sevilla high. Vicente Iborra sparked a second-half turnaround, following up from Gabriel Mercado’s equaliser.
That defeat, however harsh it may have been, sends Betis closer to the relegation zone with just seven points separating them from the bottom three. They were aided though by Leganes, who shocked all by scoring four against Deportivo A Coruna, representing a fifth of the goals they have scored all season, in a humiliation of the Galician side. The aftermath led to the sacking of head coach Gaizka Garitano to be replaced by ex-West Brom boss Pepe Mel.
Sporting Gijon kept the pressure on Mel in his new role as they secured a crucial point against Celta Vigo after their midweek travels to Ukraine in the Europa League, though they did have to call upon Iago Aspas to claw them back from behind after Moi Gomez gave the struggling side the lead in the first half.
Here are this weekend’s results in full:
Las Palmas 0-1 Real Sociedad
Deportivo Alaves 2-1 Valencia
Real Betis 1-2 Sevilla
Leganés 4-0 Deportivo A Coruña
Eibar 3-0 Malaga
Espanyol 3-0 Osasuna
Atlético Madrid 1-2 Barcelona
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Granada
Sporting Gijón 1-1 Celta Vigo
Villarreal 2-3 Real Madrid
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Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge
Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.
A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.
However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.
Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…
Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends
But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.
That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.
As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.
Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.
The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.
Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.
Third time lucky for impressive Willian
The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.
But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.
It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.
He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.
Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.
Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.
It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.
Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?
Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say
It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.
Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.
Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.
However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.
A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.
Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.
It could be the decisive moment.
Real Madrid 7-1 Deportivo La Coruña: Five talking points from Bernabéu
In Sunday’s post-match press conference, Zinedine Zidane said: “What changed today is the result, that we scored the chances we made, nothing else.” However, there is always a tale to tell, especially when it comes to Real Madrid and this week’s 7-1 thrashing of Deportivo de La Coruña was no different.
Cristiano Ronaldo made the headlines after taking a boot to the head when scoring a very valiant header, but it was Gareth Bale who got the standing ovation and was the reason behind a pervading brisk smile among the crowd.
He has played a significant part in the games in which he has appeared as a substitute this season and he was arguably the best attacking player Real had on the field last week against Villarreal.
After suffering from numerous injuries, the Welshman has managed to put his time on the sidelines behind him. He is currently the top scorer of the team with seven goals, despite missing out a handful of games.
With the league, all but theoretically over for Real Madrid, the hefty 7-1 win was important in many ways.
Real’s slump has put them 19 points behind arch-rivals, Barcelona, and they are currently sitting fourth on the table. The win, dare we say resurrection, over Deportivo La Coruna could mean a turnaround for Real Madrid.
Here are the five talking points of the tie…
Gareth Bale – the long-awaited return of the Welshmen
Real Madrid have had their fair share of creating chances in matches, half or full – they squandered them all. The quality of the chances was missing and misguided crosses were thrown to yield no results. Bale has brought the finishing-touch back to the team and his ability to run past defenders, creating space for an extra touch, has helped his side in scoring.
Bale, for the first goal against Deportivo, chested down the ball, took a touch and curled it around the defender past the goalkeeper – a famed finish he has personified over the years. He dominated the flank and his understanding with Dani Carvajal and Luka Modric was transparent. Meanwhile, his second reminded the hosts how they have missed him in the air.
For a team like Madrid, with players like Ronaldo, Ramos, Casemiro, Varane, and Benzema, scoring headers should be a norm. Although the case in the past, this term they have failed to replicate the same dominance in the air and the Welshman has reminded the crowd what he is capable of in this respect.
Squad rotation has played a massive role in Real’s recent triumphs and Zidane deserves credit for this. However, this season, the quality from the bench is not there. The contribution from the substitutes is lacking and their inefficiency to provide something concrete has let the team down.
Zidane stuck to his usual principles by putting out a B-team against Leganes for the club’s Copa del Ray clash, resting his star players.
Perhaps for the first time in the season, the squad looked fresher and near 100% if not fully fit.
This victory was a hard-earned one – Marco Asensio’s beautiful finish averted the eyes from an awful performance, but they managed to get the result.
That allowed the ageing squad members to take a breather and the performance against Deportivo was the subsequent result.
Lucas Vasquez and Mateo Kovacic were substituted and since contributed to the win, with the former providing an assist and the latter holding up the ball masterfully during the counter-attack, finished by Modric a few seconds later.
A comeback for BBC
The decision to switch back to 4-3-3, with no Isco on the field, asserted the fact that Real is a better side with a front three, instead of a no. 10 behind two strikers. Due to various injuries, it had been more 270 days since the famous trio were in action and it is clear that Madrid have dearly missed them.
Borja Mayoral started up front against Deportivo, only to be substituted by Karim Benzema, who has recently recovered from the injury. 4-3-3 resolved the issues Real were facing with a 4-4-2 diamond. The overlapping runs were seamless and during the transition, it was easy to defend. What that means for the future Isco is a separate debate.
The midfield three
It has been quite a while since fans have seen the midfield trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos in full swing. As glamorous as it was, the link-up play had become damaged and Casemiro’s defensive cover was not proving up to par.
Against Deportivo, however, they were back to their brilliant best.
Casemiro bossed the game, winning seven balls, while weighing with a 92.3% pass success percentage and a brilliant lofted cross that was buried into the net by Ronaldo. He has been labeled as Claude Makélélé of Zidane’s Madrid – rightfully so, as well.
The link-up play between Kroos and Modric was also improved. The former didn’t suffer defensively, like he has done in his recent outings and his confidence seemed restored. Meanwhile, the latter scored a screamer, while proving his understanding with Bale is far greater than that with either Lucas Vasquez or Marco Asensio.
The big guns fired for Real Madrid, as Bale and Ronaldo both scored braces on Sunday, but the fact is that victory came against a struggling team – although Real needed a win like this to make a statement and build some momentum before the Paris Saint Germain showdown on Valentine’s day (you can predict this result with M88 betting in China).
In hindsight, the defensive frailties are still there to solve. Raphael Varane is solid, almost, and the Frenchman is having a great season. A downside to his game is his partnership with virtually anyone but Sergio Ramos – who is out due to injury.
In Ramos’ absence, Nacho Fernandez comes in. As good as they both have been individually, the understanding is not there – at least not yet.
Marcelo has improved his attacking play. He is great going forward but the concern is still there when it comes to tracking back, especially when the likes Neymar and Kyliann Mbappe will be running the show down the flanks.
Against Deportivo, Dani Carvajal had a solid game after some time and Nacho was undoubtedly the best defender of the night – scoring two goals and cleared one off the line with a brilliant sliding tackle.
A win like this could definitely boost the morale of a team which has been underperforming quite significantly. However, Real should not get too complacent with the victory as the tougher fixtures lie ahead.
Why Zinedine Zidane is still the right man for Real Madrid
If Real Madrid was to be added to the dictionary, the meaning would be something like this: “A football team with a lustrous history established in 1992, based in Madrid, Spain.” However, if that dictionary has to be football explicit, per se, the meanings would be somewhat different.
The definition of Real Madrid is, as spoken by many, to give it all until the end – to never back down from the challenge and success knows no limits. Hence the narrative was established “Hasta El final, Vamos Real” which, when translated, means ‘Until the End, Go Real.’
Speaking of limits and success, Real Madrid – both the club and the fans, is a very different breed, a one of a kind, a forerunner in almost everything in footballing world – records, accolades, stats, best coaches, best players, best stadium, best training facilities, so on and so forth.
But success comes at a certain price. It was the start of the European cup that put Madrid on the globe; at the time when the internet was a scarce entity. Real could sign big players and they ruled Europe for years.
As the story goes on, Real Madrid becomes synonymous with big-money signings (Proyecto Los Galácticos) and sacking managers at will.
The world got the wind of this Real Madrid in late 90’s. Real lifted the UCL (their seventh) in ’98 and then again in ’00 – and again in ’02.
The appointment of Vicente del Bosque was in many ways the best decision taken by Real Madrid in their recent history. His stint started way back in ’94 but was never given the full authority – Benito Floro, Jorge Valdano, Arsenio Iglesias and then John Toshack had their time in the famous white house.
But, as recurring as this statement has become, their stint lacked success. For Real Madrid, winning everything one year and failing to replicate the same form in the next, doesn’t quantify the success.
Del Bosque was modern-day Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid, so to speak.
They resemble in many ways; calm, poised, composed, tactically sound, and modest. The Spaniard ushered Real to its finest era in modern history – only Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano’s Madrid have enjoyed more success by then.
Del Bosque lifted two Uefa Champions League in 2000 and 2002, La Liga in 2001 and 2003 and numerous other cups. These numbers are better than most coaches’ entire career, but for Real Madrid merely winning a league doesn’t count as a success.
Del Bosque was sacked and so were the hopes of Madridistas who thought Real might be becoming Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United under him.
47, the hitman number, then becomes the latest to fall under the umbrella of Real Madrid’s notorious synonyms. Four years and seven coaches without a single major trophy.
Revulsions were revved, stars with stellar egos took hold of the dressing room, managers deserted, and fans were all but not sated. In the competition personified by Real Madrid, they failed to make it to the last-eight for years to come. Until Jose Mourinho was appointed.
Though Real didn’t win a Champions League under his reign either, they did make it to the semis in all four years of his tenure.
History has an awkward way of repeating itself. And in 2014, it did when Carlo Ancelotti was named the manager of the club. Real won their long-awaited La Decima with a victory over city rivals Atletico Madrid.
Despite winning a Champions League trophy for the first time in 12 years, the following year Real fell short to Juventus in semis and were knocked out of the competition. And so, ended the Ancelloti era.
Players loved him, liked him, he won over the Bernabeu, many tears were shed reminiscent of when Fernando Redondo was sold, but that is Real Madrid – the perfect definition of ‘No Untouchables.’
The appointment of Rafael Benítez was short lived. He was never an upgrade on Carlo Ancelloti – tactically, mentally or in managing squad’s ego, a factor that has found its true meaning in Real’s dressing room over the years.
After being labeled as defensive-minded coach, and failing to win matches in a steamrolling fashion, he found himself standing at the wrong end of the Valdebebas.
In comes, Zinedine Zidane, the bald Frenchman who knows it all. He was there when Madrid sacked Del Bosque and he was there when they failed to win a major trophy for years.
He was the product of Los Galacticos himself, and after retirement, he has served in the office as Sporting Director.
If there was any guy best suited for the job, it was him. To put the cherry on the cake, his relation with President Florentino Perez is near perfect.
What Zidane did in his first year in charge, was unexpected and anticipated by no one. He surpassed and surprised everyone – pundits, writers, columnists, fans, managers, players, even someone hard-to-please socios.
Mentioning the trophy haul and the records fall under his feet, is a no-brainer here. But, the start to this season was underwhelming.
19 points short of Barcelona – they are closer to the relegation zone than to the top. Only twice there has been a gap this big in the history of the club.
This is the worst start to a league campaign in almost a decade.
Having said that, Zidane is still the right man for the job. He still has the fans, players, and management behind him; all of which are a necessary ingredient to cook something special.
Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the behemoth of a stadium in all its glory, has seen it all. Megastars, massive failures, huge celebrations and tearing nights.
As flawed and frenetic tactics Zidane has, his achievements are a little too much to ignore. One reason for not sacking him immediately could be the lack of availability of less popular figure.
Guti and Solari are not ready – while the former may ever be but the latter has shown no signs to be considered a reliable option.
Joachim Löw and Mauricio Pochettino are both linked but none is ready to take the job right away.
Real Madrid’s squad is in a dire need of shake up. Ageing and underperforming players are pulling the team in the opposite direction – too complacent to perform at the highest order.
The squad needs a refresh and that should be done regardless of its effects; unsettling the nerves of already established stars.
To complete the transition from already established players to world-class youngsters, Real needs someone who understands club inside out and there is no one else better than Zidane for that job.
However, Zidane knows he is walking on the wedge and he needs to find the solution sooner than later.
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