La Liga Analysis Opinion

Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal – Luis Garcia, the Villarreal head coach, looked on. His frown suddenly turned into a growl. He is relatively new to this job but this – his fourth match in charge – looked to be ending in defeat following three draws. A stoppage-time penalty could have brought a draw – another one, but still desirable given their situation. But rather it was squandered over the bar allowing Getafe to take all three points. And with that Garcia turned on his heels and headed back to his seat in the dugout. The situation at Villarreal continues to depress.

But should it? It is proving difficult to truly examine most of the teams in La Liga this season. It is difficult to analyse who is performing above or below their standards; to say that the league is congested would be an understatement. Villarreal sit in 19th place with 17 points but they are only two points away from the borderline of the relegation zone and only 11 points behind their opponents on Saturday Getafe in 6th and the European places. Getafe are closer to Villarreal than to Barcelona at the top of the table. If the league table is an accordion, then this season certainly represents the squeezing compression rather than the extending pull.

Thus with such congestion and seemingly anyone being capable of beating anyone, it is all rather fun. Some say the most entertaining and unpredictable for many seasons and it would be hard to disagree. There is a dynamism and energy to La Liga this season that has been lacking for a while; a sense that every game matters. Last campaign, in particular, saw most teams adopt a position in the league fairly early on and stay there for much of the following 30-odd matchdays. Now, whether it be in the higher positions of the table and the tussle between Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Real Madrid and Alaves (yes, Alaves!) to secure Champions League football or the tight and ferocious relegation battle – which more or less accounts for every other team – the football is meaningful.

But this only makes it harder to judge teams, when the margins are so tight. Villarreal’s situation doesn’t appear great, having not won in the league since late November with six games passing, but is it really that bad? Are they not just marginally poorer than the marginally better Celta Vigo and Rayo Vallecano in 17th and 18th respectively? It is tight and tense and this will only continue. Only 19 of the 190 games so far this season have seen a winning margin of three or more goals. That is only 10 per cent, quite remarkable for a league which is often sighted as predictable, lopsided and all that. There really is not much between the teams from fifth place and below, and even those higher up have been susceptible to being frustrated by the smaller teams including leaders Barcelona.

What remains to be seen is, with the margins being fine and the pressure starting to increase on some, whether a heavier element of pragmatism starts to develop as the season reaches its climax. Will not losing become more important than winning, especially when playing surrounding teams? One could argue that Villarreal have already started being more pragmatic, currently though it is not working for them. But a single win is capable of changing the picture for many of the sides in the bottom half, Eibar have – to my eye at least – played their best season in La Liga thus far, and yet are still only three points above the relegation zone. Real Sociedad went away to Real Madrid last weekend, were the better team and won their first three points at the Santiago Bernabeu in fifteen years; that lifted them up five places.

Increasingly, the teams close to the relegation zone will be interested in how their competitors are performing; rather than themselves, their destiny may depend on others. In fact, that could be the case at the top too where for a time it appeared that no one wanted to take the onus and lead from first place. Barcelona have taken the responsibility – more through default than anything else one could argue – but the battle up top is as ferocious as it is further down.

Garcia was planning for Villarreal’s match late into the evening on Friday. Watching and re-watching Getafe’s matches against Barcelona last weekend and their win against Real Valladolid in the Copa del Rey in midweek, trying to establish any margin where his side could gain an advantage; such small details will be the difference this season. Also on Friday evening, Rayo Vallecano came from behind against Celta Vigo in an entertaining match which saw Raul De Tomas score a hat trick to bring the hosts back from a two-goal deficit. It meant Rayo overtook Villarreal and only heaped more pressure on to Saturday’s match.

It would not be wide of the mark to suggest that Sergio Asenjo in the Villarreal goal has ensured, with his repertoire of fine saves, that his side are not in a worse position. Against Getafe he was called into action in the first half to reactively deny Fran Portillo’s close-range effort having latched onto a low cross from Dimitri Foulquier. David Soria in the Getafe goal was also required to repel a forceful header from Funes Mori to keep the scores level. It was a first half that saw a lot of the play in the central areas and little in the way of goalmouth action.

Jorge Molina scored the first goal of the match seven minutes into the second half when he struck a shot from the edge of the penalty area into the near bottom corner. On this occasion, Asenjo had no response. The goal urged Villarreal on, to attack more and commit. Santi Cazorla shot straight at Soria but soon enough the equaliser came. Carlos Bacca, a second-half substitute, delivered a straight cross into the area only for Leandro Cabrera to lose his bearings and slide the ball past his own goalkeeper at the front post and into the net.

A draw would not have been a bad result for Villarreal, although not ideal, it would have been both merited and useful. And yet with one minute of normal time remaining Getafe conjured a superb counterattack which finished with Angel Roriguez, fresh from the substitutes bench, dinking the ball over the advancing Asenjo. The killer blow, or so it seemed. Following a minute of penalty area bedlam which featured two Villarreal headers coming back of the crossbar, another being deflected wide of the post, then the consequential corner being met by another header which struck the post, Karl Toko Ekambi was then kicked in the head with a high boot and Villarreal had their lifeline, a penalty in stoppage time.

Ekambi himself stepped up to take it, the crowd inside the Estadio de la Ceramica were almost expectant of a late equaliser and another valuable if not spectacular point, the manager on the touchline now desperate for his fourth successive draw since taking over. But it was casually lifted over the crossbar by the Cameroon international. Such fine margins, such slight mishaps, such pieces of luck – both good and bad – are playing a more telling role in this La Liga season. And although Villarreal continue to struggle to find a win down towards the bottom of the table, it will only take one win to lift and resurrect them in this tight and compelling season.

Los Otros Puntos

In other news in the tight battle towards the bottom of the league: Huesca lost 1-0 to Leganes, Valladolid drew against Valenciawho else?, that’s now 12 draws from 19 La Liga matches for Marcelino’s side, and Athletic Bilbao beat title-chasing Sevilla thanks to Inaki Williams’ first goal at San Mames in over two years and 40 home matches, what a goal it was too. Naturally his second came 60 minutes later.

Another game in which Atletico Madrid only scored the single goal, this was the 11th game this season that a solitary goal was scored by Diego Simeone’s men, luckily for them Levante had little in attack and so the one was enough for a win.

New system, new players and three points for Santi Solari’s Real Madrid. Yes, they were a little fortunate – a late Dani Ceballos free-kick pinched the victory against his former side Real Betis – but this was a win for trying something different. The current moment at Real Madrid is testing to say the least: the Bernabeu is seeing record low-crowds, there are quips that this Madrid are boring, uncompetitive and lacking quality. But most importantly they are lacking confidence. Solari is trying his best to improve the mood by using new systems – five at the back in this case – and new players – Vinicius was heavily involved here and Brahim Diaz came off the bench to get his first taste of La Liga action since joining from Manchester City. Sergio Canales got Real Betis back into the game following Luka Modric’s first half goal but Ceballos’ goal in the 88th minute gave Los Blancos three valuable points.

Everyone rose; in all corners, wearing all colours, everyone applauded. 400 goals in 435 La Liga matches for Leo Messi. ‘400 and rising,’ shouted the front page of Diario AS; he is just remarkable.

Los Resultados

Rayo Vallecano 2-2 Celta Vigo

Leganes 1-0 Huesca

Valencia 1-1 Valladolid

Girona 1-1 Alaves

Villarreal 1-2 Getafe

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Levante

Athletic Bilbao 2-0 Sevilla

Barcelona 3-0 Eibar

Real Betis 1-2 Real Madrid

Real Sociedad – Espanyol to be played on Monday

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis Opinion


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