Hurrah…suddenly Spain has a title race again

Date published: Wednesday 6th December 2017 9:28

After dropping two points last week against fellow high-flyers Valencia, Barcelona had the chance to increase their lead over the chasing pack, temporarily at least, with a home victory over Celta de Vigo in the early kick-off on Saturday.

The league leaders did not get off to the best of starts as Iago Aspas put the visitors ahead after 20 minutes. Lionel Messi equalised almost immediately with a low drive, and in the second half, Luis Suárez finished off a lovely move to put Barcelona in front. Eight minutes later, Celta’s in-demand Uruguayan youngster Maxi Gómez drew the Galician side level with a powerful close-range shot.

Barça had their chances to win it, hitting the post twice and forcing a world-class save from Celta keeper Rubén Blanco, but it finished 2-2, and opened the door for Valencia to reduce Barça’s lead to just two points.

But unfortunately for Valencia, the door slammed shut in their face. Los Che lost 1-0 at Getafe on Sunday, picking the worst possible time to fall to their first defeat of the season. Getafe had midfielder Mauro Arambarri sent off after just 25 minutes, but Valencia could not break the ten men down, and fell behind in the second half when Markel Bergara’s shot was deflected past goalkeeper Neto.

Valencia did come agonisingly close to equalising on a couple of occasions, when Dani Parejo’s free-kick was brilliantly pushed onto the post by Vicente Guaita, and Simone Zaza somehow failed to head home a glorious chance in stoppage time.

Having lost for the first time under Marcelino and squandered such a wonderful chance to move within touching distance of the leaders, Valencia must return to winning ways against Celta at Mestalla on Sunday to ensure the momentum of their early-season form is not lost.

The good news for Valencia is that they weren’t the only ones who failed to take advantage of Barça’s slip-up. If Real Madrid had beaten Athletic Club on Saturday night, it would have left them six points adrift of the leaders – not bad considering only last week they were a seemingly insurmountable ten points behind.

But Los Blancos failed to take the initiative, and were unable to break down Bilbao side at a rain-soaked San Mamés in a performance that encapsulated their recent struggles. Aside from Karim Benzema’s early shot against the post, their chances were limited and they again seemed totally devoid of ideas in attack.

The game finished 0-0, leaving the champions eight points short of Barcelona. Perhaps the least surprising outcome of the match was yet another red card for Sergio Ramos – his 24th (twenty-fourth!) sending-off since joining Real Madrid, of which 19 have come in La Liga. It’s hard not to be impressed by such a consistent, prolific level of indiscipline.

Where Valencia and Real Madrid had failed to capitalise on Barcelona’s slip-up, Atlético Madrid succeeded. Diego Simeone’s resurgent side came from behind to beat Real Sociedad at the Wanda Metropolitano, with Antoine Griezmann’s late goal securing the three points. Atleti have now moved two points clear of Real Madrid, are six points behind Barça and just one point behind Valencia.

Although they haven’t set the world on fire this season, they still haven’t tasted defeat in La Liga for a club record 18 games, stretching back to a 1-0 defeat to Villarreal in April. Their form has taken a turn for the better in the last couple of weeks, on account of Simeone’s decision to play Kevin Gameiro in a front two with Antoine Griezmann. This tweaking of the formation takes Griezmann out of his isolation as a lone striker, enabling him to have much more of a positive impact. The switch, coupled with the feel-good factor surrounding the imminent arrivals of Vitolo and Diego Costa, seems to have given Atleti their mojo back.

But Atlético weren’t the only benificiaries of the other high-fliers dropping points. It also let La Liga’s form team Sevilla back into the mix. Sevilla have won four of their last five La Liga games, and are now level on points with Real Madrid in fifth place following a 2-0 win over struggling Deportivo on Saturday.

The Andalusian side now have a fantastic opportunity to gatecrash the party at the top of the table, as they face a depleted Real Madrid at the Bernabéu on Saturday. Madrid will be without the suspended Ramos, Casemiro and Dani Carvajal, and given their shaky recent form, Sevilla will fancy themselves to get a result in the capital.

This was the weekend that truly opened up the title race. It’s still Barcelona’s to lose, but all of a sudden there are five teams within eight points of each other at the top of the table. With the promise of plenty of twists and turns to come, the stage is set for an engrossing five-way battle at the top as we approach the halfway point of the season.

Dan Bridges

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