- S.D. Eibar ready for maiden La Liga outing
- SD Eibar stengthen ahead of debut La Liga season
- Can ‘Super Mario’ live up to expectations in Madrid?
- MAN IN THE GROUND – Brentford 0 – 4 Osasuna
- Historic Basque derby welcomes S.D. Eibar to La Liga
- Munich to Madrid, via Brazil – Tony Kroos
- Rakitic in Spanish Switch
- Can Spain find redemption in Rio?
- Viva Espana! A season of redemption for Spanish football
- From the old to the new: who can fill the void in years to come for La Roja?
SKIN OF THEIR TEETH – Barcelona save small league hopes as Madrid approach crunch run
- Updated: 26 February, 2012
For observers with a romantic mind like me, it would be easy to see Lionel Messi’s sublime free-kick tonight as a league defining moment of genius that could save Barcelona’s already slim hopes of somehow clawing back the league from Real Madrid.
In truth however, it was the man at the other end of the pitch, Victor Valdes, who kept Catalan hearts beating for one more day. Valdes topped one seemingly impossible springing block from Falcao with a string of ridiculous saves in the last five minutes of the game. In the process the Barcelona stopper proved that Diego Maradona, like Pele before him, is a genius on the pitch who lacks the same quality when analysing a player.
The big news pre-match was once again the absence of Gerard Pique, but Javier Mascherano’s first half performance seemed to give Guardiola the vindication that he admittedly neither craves nor needs.
The Argentine’s composure slipped in the second forty five however, and it fell to Valdes to bail out El Jefecito and the rest of the team, time and time again.
Perhaps the defensive drop was in part down to Dani Alves, who in pushing further up the pitch (and then eventually leaving it) left Carles Puyol with the job of both covering the right flank and making sure a rapidly declining Mascherano was still in the right place at the right time. In any case, Barcelona certainly relinquished their defensive grip on the tie.
Returning to Alves, the work horse produced as good a first half display as ever, and looked more dynamic, well placed and with better timing than in recent weeks. Guardiola’s decision to give the Brazilian a week off along with his suspension last week seems to have paid off in spades.
Alves played so well he managed to draw some lamentable reactions from the Atlético home crowd, who responded like most weak people do when beaten. Chants of “Alves, you’re a monkey” rang out from the Calderon as he left the pitch.
Anyone under the illusion that the high profile UEFA sanction imposed on the Madrid club a few years ago had cleansed them of this kind of vile hate speech was misled. Racism remains a serious issue in Spain both on and off the pitch, something that looks unlikely to change so long as current attitudes prevail.
The sheer relief on the faces of the Barcelona players as the final whistle blew was telling of the kind of war they had been through, and suggests that any motivation they have lacked in recent weeks has been reinvigorated. The Catalans know that Madrid now approach the most difficult run of the season, and if the leaders are to slip up it will be now.
Madrid’s calendar in the build-up to the second league Clásico features Espanyol, Malaga and Valencia at home along with Atleti, Osasuna, Villarreal and Betis away. Not an easy series of games by anyone’s standards, and any hope of the gap between the top two shortening will rely on errors by los blancos in these key fixtures.
Pep Guardiola, at least in public, remains unconvinced. When asked after the match by a Catalan journalist if Barcelona now have a realistic chance of pursuing Madrid, his answer was frank.
“We won’t win the league.”
Whether that’s brutal honesty, an attempt to relieve the pressure on his players or, perhaps more likely, yet another way of motivating his players is uncertain. Jose Mourinho will need to make sure that his own players don’t take Guardiola’s words to heart, and continue to scrape tough victories like they did from Rayo today. If not, Barcelona may just creep up unseen, with the Camp Nou the scene of the perfect sucker punch.