La Liga Analysis Opinion

Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid – This was not Real Madrid back to their best but it was certainly an improvement. It took two late goals, one a superb strike from Casemiro and the other a neat finish from Luka Modric, to earn the victory. Despite the lack of clear chances that Madrid made during a game in which they totalled 67 per cent possession, it was a win against a top-four rival and that – in this season especially – must count for something.

This two-goal win against Sevilla eased the immediate pressure on the shoulders of Santi Solari, the Real Madrid manager. Since being promoted from the Castilla, Solari has discovered the reasons as to why Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinidine Zidane left in the summer and Julen Lopetegui couldn’t last more than four months at the helm. This is a natural trough that Real find themselves in at the moment; irrespective of the change in management, the more sedate style of play and the lack of character coming through the white shirts, a dip was inevitable when they’ve had it so good for so long.

It is a shame for Solari that he finds himself in this job – his dream job, the one which he has longed hoped to be offered but probably later on in his management career – in these circumstances. He has definitely been more of a positive influence than a negative one but will only feel that he has been dealt the trickier hand compared to Zidane when he took charge at the start of three consecutive Champions League triumphs. It has been a steep learning curve for Solari but he has done what he has become accustomed to in the early part of his coaching career and placed trust in youth.

The introduction of players from the Cantera has been one of the major positives to come from this season, for now at least Real cannot consistently rely on superstar footballers conjuring up a moment of genius when there are signs of little else. Tinkering with systems – a 5-2-3 was deployed in last weekends win against Real Betis – and the confidence to select the likes of Vinicius, Fedey Valverde and Dani Ceballos rather than Isco shows that Solari is willing to think for himself; he will live and die by his decisions.

The Real Madrid coach is bold and insists that he will fight until the last. This is what Madrid have to do: fight. They have had many criticisms thrown at them in the past six months and this is the time for Madrid to unite and show the underlying spirit of the club, proving those mere onlookers wrong. But the fact that they are in the top-three, through to the knockout stages of the Champions League and in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey only corroborates with the argument that the issues are not as worse as some suggest.

It is clear that Real are not at the same level as they were last season, or the season before that, and even the season before that, however, even when they were collecting European Cup after European Cup rarely did Los Blancos make anyone sit up awestruck at the sheer brilliance that they were offering. Rather Real were clinical winners, they knew – and don’t be kid, they still do, to an extent – how to beat the opposition, not necessarily through tactics or systems but more through belief. It is this belief, or more specifically the lack of, that has led to Real’s struggles this season.

It is thus against that backdrop that the importance of Saturday afternoon’s victory shines through. This was a triumph that Madrid needed. Although the goals came late, the hosts dominated the match but struggled to create clear goalscoring chances. For a while, it did seem like it might be one of those afternoons for Real. They do have injury issues up front and it feels like a fully fit Mariano could lift the team substantially. Consequently, their midfielders have had to carry the can on the goalscoring front; Casemiro and Modric here whereas Ceballos got the winner last weekend.

The persistence that Real showed was also telling, at times this season it has seemed that those on the pitch representing Real Madrid would rather do anything but that, here there was a show of defiance and greater character. “The three points are always worth more when they come against a direct rival,” Solari said after the match. Sevilla have been Barcelona’s closest challengers for much of the season so far, but they struggled to keep up with Madrid here and were visibility tired. This did feel like a leapfrog over their Andalucian counterparts in more than just the standings.

“Take off!” proclaimed the front page of Marca whilst Mundo Deportivo stated that “Madrid at least achieve a convincing triumph.” Solari spoke up the victory and claimed that “nothing is impossible for Real Madrid” when asked about mounting a rather late title challenge. What is for sure was that this was an improved Madrid performance. They started well and Vinicius forced Tomas Vaclik into an early save when he was sent through by Modric.

Sevilla slowly found their feet and a swift counterattack led by Wissam Ben Yedder should have ended with the visitors taking the lead, but Sergio Escudero made a mess of his shot when Thibaut Courtois rushed from his goal. Following the break Madrid were even more confident and tested Sevilla’s credentials thoroughly. There was incessant pressure but a lack of cutting edge. Ceballos came closest when he took on a shot from the edge of the penalty area which struck the crossbar.

Isco was brought on with the final 15 minutes to be played but it was his fellow midfielder who stole the show. Casemiro collected the ball outside the area and unleashed a powerful, curling effort which Vaclik got a hand to but contained too much venom and determination for him to stop it. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar and rippled the netting. Solari jumped for joy; “It was a really special goal and it went in with certain suspense, you couldn’t see very well if it was in or not. It was beautiful and fully deserved.”

That seemed to be the winner and Madrid were able to slow the game and control the final few minutes of play. A second was added with the last kick of the match; Modric dispossessed Daniel Carrico and ran at goal, with only Vaclik to beat, the Croatian kept a cool head – whilst most others inside the Bernabeu lost theirs – to finish calmly. Modric has taken on more responsibility during Solari’s tenure, rightly so some may say as he was seen as the best footballer of the past 12 months. But like his manager, the skilful playmaker is leading in a quiet and confident manner.

Such is the fine margins at Real Madrid, and in the league as a whole, that more dropped points here would have led to more inquests whereas a win has improved the mood most definitely. “I hope that this hasn’t been a slight bloom and that it will prove to be a turning point,” Modric said post-match. “Little by little, the team is getting better and is determined to go further.”

Los Otros Puntos

“It is true that, in certain moments, we could be more accurate and do things better but we are good in many aspects, especially the dedication, commitment and soul that we show,” Quique Setien said of his Real Betis team. Sunday afternoon had barely begun when the Betis head coach sat in his press conference speaking to the media and already his side and Girona had been involved in an enthralling 3-2 match when the rest of Spain was still waking up. Both teams are credits to ‘mid-table’ La Liga, they are both in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey and continue to play the game in a joyful and exciting manner. Sergio Canales’ late penalty was the winner and this was yet another big display from the Betis midfielder. His mix of quality on the ball and energy that ensures he covers every area of the pitch with the same tenacity make for a splendid player who often goes underrated.

When Jaime Mata struck in Getafe’s fourth there was silence before the eruption at the Coliseum. No one has beaten Alaves so comprehensively this season and it was quite a shock. The 4-0 win took Getafe to within one point of their opponents at the edge of the Champions League places in the standings. Getafe wasted several chances to open the scoring before Mata did so after 33 minutes, scoring from the penalty spot after Seb Cristoforo had been fouled. Cristoforo’s header into the path of Jorge Molina brought the second goal at the beginning of the second half, with the experienced forward beating Fernando Pacheco from outside the area. Mata provided the assist for Molina’s second before completing his own brace two minutes later with the strike that sent the home crowd wild.

Given this tight and compelling La Liga season, there were three mouth-watering clashes on Sunday afternoon. Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao played out a 1-1 draw, Real Sociedad came from two goals down to earn a draw with Rayo Vallecano but it felt more like a win for the travelling Txuri Urdin, and Levante were well worth their 2-0 victory over Valladolid. They were some four hours of La Liga football, there is definitely the sense that every game matters at the moment.

It was heading towards another draw, but that was a big win for Valencia. Whether it will be a pivotal moment is yet to be seen but they were the better team here against Celta Vigo. And what about that Ferran Torres goal?

Los Resultados

Getafe 4-0 Alaves

Real Madrid 2-0 Sevilla

Huesca 0-3 Atletico Madrid

Celta Vigo 1-2 Valencia

Real Betis 3-2 Girona

Villarreal 1-1 Athletic Bilbao

Levante 2-0 Valladolid

Rayo Vallecano 2-2 Real Sociedad

Barcelona 3-1 Leganes

Eibar – Espanyol to be played on Monday

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis Opinion


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