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On Sunday, there were two teams in La Liga celebrating as vociferously as if the Champions League had just been lifted, even though neither club had won their games. However, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid had been so hard to beat over the current campaign that even a point taken off two-thirds of Spain's New Big Three is being seen a huge champagne-corking victory. That was certainly the case for Levante and Sevilla, who had hugs a'plenty when walking off the pitch after their respective games.
However, only one true winner came out winners in the opening round of the second half of the Spanish league campaign, and that was Real Madrid, an outfit that has clawed its way back into the title race contention to sit just a tiny, single point behind Barça and the Rojiblancos at the top.
The first step in that journey back into title contention was their two rivals canceling each other out at the Vicente Calderón last weekend, when the immobile object met the unstoppable force to produce a goalless draw. Madrid took advantage of that with a 1-0 victory over Espanyol last weekend, and had no problems on Saturday with the most fodder-some of cannon-food in the shape of Betis, who were beaten 5-0 in Seville, to bring about the sacking of Juan Carlos Garrido who had only been in charge for 48 days.
This left Madrid momentarily on the same number of points as the top two, but both Atlético Madrid and Barcelona were expected to trundle over their respective opponents on Sunday to pull clear again. Of the two matches, Barcelona were certainly expected to have the easier time of it at Levante. Whilst the Valencia team under Joaquín Caparrós can be stubborn old mules sometimes - and kick like old donkeys too - the challenge should not have been too great. Indeed, Caparrós compared playing Barcelona to a trip to the dentist, wise comparison considering the first match between the two teams this season ended in a seven nil tonking. But instead in the second game, the return of Messi as the attacking focal point seemed to have left Barça bereft of their previous fluency and the team were exposed once again to a familiar Achilles heel - set-pieces.
A corner sailed in early doors and Levante's Loukas Vyntra was left unmarked for the header. That was sixth goal scored from a corner by opponents in this league campaign alone. Fortunately, Gerard Pique was able to repeat the feat soon after at the other end, but that was the last goalscoring action for Barça, a team who trudged off the field with the home fans going a little bit mental in the stands.
In the game taking place straight after the Barça clash, the excitement in the Vicente Calderón was so tangible you could have put sauce on it and eaten it for lunch. Barça's stumble had left the door wide open to clear at the top of the table by two points.
Everything went to plan for the much of the game with David Villa taking the lead for the Rojiblancos but Sevilla are tough old boots these days under Unai Emery and had gone seven matches unbeaten after a fairly disastrous start to the season. The Andalusians hung on in and eventually grabbed a point to leave Atlético still stuck behind Barcelona at the top of the table but equal on points.
Indeed, it is a measure of the heady times the Madrid side are living in these days that this is being considered as a missed opportunity and a disappointment, something that Diego Simeone certainly disagrees with. "It really doesn't bother me, not being leader on my own."
Sunday's results certainly opened up a couple of questions, the first being how Barcelona can ever hope to win the Champions League when sides like Valladolid and Levante can unpick their defence with a cross and whether Atlético Madrid are starting to finally run out of steam in campaign which has seen the metaphorical 160% commitment and energy levels in La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League.
Either way, both teams dropping four points in two rounds to allow Real Madrid back sees a full-on exciting title race that is not dominated by the usual Big Two. And for that, Levante and Sevilla, La Liga thanks you.
Round 20 Results
Málaga 0-0 Valencia
Espanyol 1-0 Celta Vigo
Granada 0-0 Osasuna
Elche 2-0 Rayo
Betis 0-5 Real Madrid
Getafe 2-2 Real Sociedad
Villarreal 2-0 Almería
Levante 1-1 Barcelona
Atlético Madrid 1-1 Sevilla
Athletic Bilbao 4-2 Valladolid
Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter
Nice article as always, Tim. Looking forward to the Barca-City games and your pre-match analyses of the same. The match at the Etihad would be a massively important one for both teams.- altamont