Sevilla Shackle Messi To Blow Title Race Wide Open

Lionel Messi had scored 36 goals in his 37 previous meetings with Sevilla. On his last visit to the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuan he scored a hat-trick which even by his high standards rates as one of his best. 

But Sevilla stuck to their task well on Friday night and limited the Barcelona talisman to a peripheral role for much of the game. Arguably his most significant contribution was his reaction to a challenge from Diego Carlos in first half stoppage time, which could easily have seen him issued with a card of either colour. With Messi looking jaded, the decision to play him for the full 90 minutes against both Mallorca and Leganés must be called into question. 

Since Quique Setién replaced Ernesto Valverde, Barça have repeatedly come up short in big games away from the Camp Nou, with defeats at Valencia, Athletic Club (in the cup), Real Madrid and now this draw, which saw them surrender the initiative in the title race.

Óscar keeps Leganés alive at the bottom 

If Leganés manage to stay up this season, they will probably owe a huge debt to Óscar Rodríguez. His nine goals this season have helped win them 11 of their 24 points and with no one else 

For the majority of their relegation six-pointer against Mallorca, they struggled to make an impression from open play so a set-piece was always going to be their most likely way back into the game. And so it proved, Óscar scoring his fourth, and without a doubt, his best, direct free-kick of the season – only Lionel Messi has scored as many in La Liga – to ensure the points were shared. 

A defeat to Mallorca, who are two points above Lega and before Friday were the only other team still to collect a point after the restart, could have been fatal. They’ve been written off several times this season already, when they were bottom with two points from nine games, when first Youssef En-Nesyri and then Martin Braithwaite departed, but there’s still a belief at Butarque that they can pull off a great escape. 

But even if they go down, Óscar will not be short of La Liga suitors should Real Madrid decide to loan the 21-year-old out again.

Celta Find Their Shooting Boots To Ease Relegation Fears

Going into their clash with Alavés, Celta Vigo boasted two unenviable records. First, they were the only team in La Liga who were still to score since the restart and they were the league’s lowest scorers overall. 

By half time at Balaidos, all this had been forgotten as they led 4-0 with goals from Jeison Murillo, Iago Aspas and two in two minutes from Rafinha putting the result beyond any doubt. 

An impressive second half cameo from Nolito, signed during the week as a replacement for injured back-up goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez – an interesting interpretation of La Liga’s emergency signing rule – rounded off a great day for the Galician side. He scored a penalty and then provided the assist for Santi Mina’s sixth goal which completed Celta’s biggest La Liga win since 1947.

With the players they have, particularly Mina, Rafinha, Denis Suarez and the talismanic Aspas, Celta have been underperforming massively compared to expectations this season but this will surely give them the confidence they need to avoid getting dragged into the relegation battle. 

VAR Controversy Overshadows Significant Madrid Win

Real Madrid regained the leadership of La Liga on Sunday night with a hard-fought win at Real Sociedad but it was overshadowed by a number of contentious decisions going their way at key moments. 

Of the three decisions, the penalty which gave Madrid the breakthrough was by far the least controversial. Vinicius Jr went down under pressure from Diego Llorente and Sergio Ramos calmly slotted home from 12 yards for his 68th career league goal. 

But it was the decision to rule out a potential Real Sociedad equaliser which really turned attention on the officials. Mikel Merino was clearly in an offside position, but was he interfering with play? And then barely a minute later, when Benzema scores what would turn out to be the winner, he controlled the ball with his shoulder, or was it his chest, in the build-up. 

Both these decisions depend on the officials’ personal interpretation of the rules and this endless video replays will never be a perfect solution.

Away from the polemica, it was another extremely professional away performance from Real Madrid against a side who, let’s not forget, took them apart on their own turf in the Copa del Rey back in February. It was hugely significant for Zidane as well, benching Eden Hazard in favour of Vinicius was a big call but the Brazilian teenager repaid his manager’s faith in him.

Adiós Rubi!

One of the 2019-20 season’s longest-running storylines finally came to an end this weekend as Real Betis fired Rubi after their 1-0 defeat to Athletic.

The former Espanyol coach has been under pressure almost since he arrived in the Benito Villamarín hotseat last summer and this latest defeat leaves Betis in 14th position with 34 points from their 30 games. They have only won consecutive games once all season (a run of three in late November/early December) and big signing Borja Iglesias has flopped, unable to produce the form which made Betis part with €28m to reunite him with Rubi in the summer. 

Some of the problems he has had to deal with are leftover from the end of the Quique Setién era, such as an unbalanced squad and a lack of depth in defence. 

Given all that has gone on, it was hard to see him lasting beyond this season anyway, but Betis have obviously decided that the risk of them falling further down the table with him in charge was too great and have entrusted Alexis Trujillo, previously caretaker manager at the end of the 2016/17 season, to see them through to the end of the campaign.

As for Rubi, this makes it nine consecutive coaching jobs where he has lasted only one full season or less in charge. But having won promotion with Huesca and taken Espanyol into Europe in his two jobs prior to Betis, he’ll probably not be out of the game for long.

Andrew Gillan