The “Boring and predictable” league proves to be anything but
For years, pundits and fans (Mostly residing on the British Isle) have bemoaned the fact that La Liga was strictly a top-heavy league. They provided evidence of this by the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona have often made the smaller clubs of the division look like target practice, posting ridiculous scorelines that included 6 or 7 goals scored. They also argued that these smaller clubs just came into the matches with the mentality of inevitable defeat, allowing either Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Atletico to win the league in each of the past 12 years.
I typically find these debates pointless and tedious, with each person having their personal preferences and built-in narratives. With that being said, even the most staunch La Liga critic could admit that this season has not only been wildly entertaining, but also refreshingly competitive. Granted it’s early, but a mere two points is what separates the top five and just five points separate the top 11. This week saw 26 goals in 10 games and three last-minute goals that won the match for each of those respected sides. Eibar scored their first ever goal against Real Madrid and got their first ever point against them too, becoming the first Basque team to get a point at the Bernabéu in a decade.
Celta again proved to be Barcelona’s bogey club, winning the match while putting up a 4 spot on the Catalan defense for the second year-in-a-row at the Balaídos. It was a surprising result for many but hardly shocking. The La Liga title race is open, Champions League and Europa League spots are there for the taking, but will any of them even pay attention?
Atlético Madrid are Europe’s most in form team
"If we continue like this, we're only going to fight to avoid relegation," said Antoine Griezmann in late August, after Atletico had drawn 0-0 on their first ever visit to newly-promoted neighbors Leganes, having finished 1-1 at home to another newly promoted side, Alaves, the week before.
Panic had taken hold of the corridors of the Vicente Calderon, as thoughts began to creep into the heads of supporters that maybe we aren’t as good as we thought we would be. Fast-forward just six weeks later and Atletico now find themselves top of the La Liga table -- having since won four games and drawn the other (at Barcelona.) Antonie Griezmann’s six goals have him leading the Pichichi race, while Kevin Gameiro has began to settle into his surroundings with no clearer evidence than his expertly taken goal at Valencia. But just like death and taxes, Atletico’s defense is once again something that you can always count on. Their latest clean sheet at the Mestalla means Atletico have only conceded twice in their nine competitive games in 2016-17, including Champions League wins against PSV Eindhoven and Bayern Munich. While Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to struggle with injuries and their subsequent depth, Atleti have taken full advantage to become the team we expected all along.
Injuries begin to take their toll on Real Madrid
Contrary to their cross-town rivals, Real Madrid started the season in blistering form. Los Blancos were in the midst of a La Liga record-tying 16 consecutive wins and it appeared nothing would be able to stop them from making history. A midweek match saw them welcome Villarreal to the Bernabéu only for their fortunes to change. A 1-1 draw ended any dream of besting their eternal rivals Barcelona, while also beginning the theory that Madrid had somehow been engulfed by the dreaded “yellow team” curse.
Draws against Las Palmas and Borussia Dortmund would follow, before they would welcome everybody’s favorite minnow, Eibar, to Madrid this past weekend. The color of the away sides kit on this day may have been been red and blue (Their away kit is you guessed it - yellow!) but the results remained the same. Its no coincidence that their form began to turn with an injury to Casemiro, giving Madrid no defensive midfielder to hold the center of the pitch while everyone else attacks. Even worse, their chief play maker and, IMO, most important player, Luka Modric, suffered a knee injury forcing him to the sideline for a month. Luckily, Madrid’s fieriest rivals have not been able to take full advantage in the table, delaying the nuclear reaction that would've inevitably followed. Less than 12 months after taking his first real (no pun intended) managerial job, Zidane’s honeymoon has begun to come to a halt. He know must prove his technical acumen and change the results, fast.
Cesare Prandelli has a ton of work to do, but teaching Diego Alves how to save penalties is not one of them
Cesare Prandelli will officially go to work this week, becoming Valencia's ninth coach since 2012, and will be tasked with resurrecting a once proud club that was able to challenge the heavyweights of the league. Defense will be at the top of the Italians priorities, with his side suffering through years of mismanagement and flawed techniques.
All of these mistakes have led to a plethora of penalties (5 in 7 games), giving goalkeeper Diego Alves more than his fair share of practice. Whether or not a factor, their is no denying that the Brazilian is quite possibly the greatest penalty stopper in La Liga’s history. This weekend saw the keeper save another two penalties, giving him three this week and seven of his last 11. In total, Alves has now faced 45 penalties while in Spain, with only 21 having been scored and 22 saved in all competitions. 19 of those occurred in the league (from 41 penalties), three more than the previous record holder Andoni Zubizarreta – who faced more than twice as many, 103 in all. It’s a record that may one day be thought of fondly by Diego, but as long as his side keep losing in the process, there will be nothing to smile about.
Beware when Leganés comes into town
There’s a famous old saying — or at least one that my grandmother told me — that home is where the heart is. But for newly promoted side CD Leganés, it’s not where the wins are. So far this campaign — the Madrid clubs first in it’s history — Leganés have played three games at home, drawing one and losing two by an aggregate score of 2-7. Meanwhile, on the road they have played four, winning three and losing one by an aggregate of 5-3. They currently sit 11th in the table with 10 points, just a mere 3 away from 4th placed Barcelona. Their incredible start is La Liga’s best start by a debutante in nearly 50 years.
Whether they can continue this form or actually even stay up in the division is different proposition altogether. At the very least, they have provided a blueprint for similar clubs that if you play positive football and function as a cohesive unit, moderate success can be achieved.
Musings and other random thoughts
- Barcelona lost a game when scoring 3+ goals for the first time since 03-01-2009 (4-3 at the Vicente Calderón).
- This is Barcelona’s worst start after the 7th week (13 points) since 2005-06 (10 points, ended champions).
- Real Madrid have drawn four games in a row for the first time since March 2006 — Zinedine Zidane's last season as a player.
- Ryan Babel’s goal in the 92’ gave Deportivo their first added time win in La Liga since 11-21-2009 (defeated Atlético).