FEATURE | 5 talking points from week 34 in La Liga

Valladolid deserve more credit

Real Valladolid all-but secured their La Liga status at the weekend with a 1-0 win against Alavés. Indeed, since the resumption of La Liga, they’ve only lost once – a narrow defeat against Atlético.

With one of the lowest budgets in the league, the job that manager Sergio has done to keep them in the top flight following their promotion through the pay-offs in 2018 is nothing short of sensational. He has constructed a solid side, who are difficult to break down – in centre back Mohamed Salisu they’ve produced one of the revelations of the season – but are undoubtedly lacking in cutting edge going forward. It was hoped that Hatem Ben Arfa could provide a bit of that, but he has been limited to little over 90 minutes action since joining on a free transfer in January. 

Castilla y Leon is too big a region in Spain to not have a regular presence in the top flight and it’s great that Valladolid continue to represent it. Perhaps with the experience of the last two campaigns behind them, they can consolidate and aim to push into the upper mid-table region and avoid being involved in the end of season relegation scrap.

Time is running out for Espanyol

It’s 27 years since Espanyol last faced up to starting a season outside the top flight but that seems inevitable to change this year.

The fact they have burned through four managers in 12 months is not a good sign. The first, David Gallego, started the season in mid-July in the qualifying rounds for the Europa League, but always looked a little out of his depth having stepped up from the B team. Pablo Machín, with his dogmatic adherence to a 3-4-3 system and high-intensity pressing, fared little better when trying to implement those ideas mid-season. Abelardo arrived in January and initially looked to have made the difference, thanks in part to €40m worth of new signings but even he couldn’t last and so it fell to Rufete, the man who as sporting director hired and fired the previous three managers, to complete the job they started and take them down.

And go down they almost certainly will, as defeat by Leganés on Sunday left them eleven points from safety with twelve left to play for. Next up? Barcelona. It would be especially cruel for Espanyol’s fans to have their hated local rivals apply the killer blow.

Ramos gonna Ramos

It was just a normal day at the office for Sergio Ramos on Sunday afternoon. The Real Madrid captain converted a penalty for his tenth goal of the season to put his team within touching distance of their 34th La Liga title. Somewhat surprisingly, no other player has scored more than Ramos since La Liga returned in June.

But there are two sides to Ramos, as we all know, and moments later he was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty himself, when he stood on Raul García’s foot and a VAR review wasn’t called for. Then he later picked up a booking which rules him out of the game against Alavés this midweek. 

A seventh successive victory was thus overshadowed by more post-match discussion of VAR and refereeing decisions, just as it was on Madrid’s previous visit to the Basque Country. Speaking after the match, Ramos dismissed suggestions that referees were favouring his club at key moments. “We’re not going to win La Liga because of referees nor are we going to lose it because of them,” he said. “We don’t have to give any credit to the referees because we are top, they haven’t been decisive.”

Too little, too late for Barça?

Against Villarreal on Sunday night, Barcelona put in a performance that their fans had been waiting a long time to see. 

On paper, an in-form Villarreal were the toughest opponents they had left and it looked like they were in for a real test, especially when Gerard Moreno swiftly cancelled out Barça’s opener. Perhaps a touch overconfident due to their good run, Villarreal went at their opponents all-guns blazing but found themselves picked off by the forward line of Messi, Suarez and Griezmann, clicking in a way that hasn’t been seen recently.

Setien had switched to a 4-3-1-2 formation, using Messi in the hole behind the other two and the extra space he found there worked wonders as he picked out Suarez and Griezmann with brilliant assists which basically killed the game before the break. 

Messi finished off a superb team move, reminiscent of the Barcelona of old, only for it to be chalked off by VAR for an offside in the build-up but Ansu Fati added a fourth in a cameo from the bench late on.

While this kind of performance is surely too late to save Barça’s hopes of retaining their title – Madrid’s four point advantage, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker looks too much to overcome with four games left – it does give them renewed hope that they can make a serious impact in the Champions League in Lisbon next month, assuming of course, that they get past Napoli first.

Ocampos is Sevilla’s hero – at both ends!

Anyone who has watched Sevilla this season will know how important Lucas Ocampos has been to them. The €15m fee which brought the Argentinian to Andalucía last summer certainly represents one of Monchi’s best deals in his second stint at the club. He’s their top scorer with thirteen goals, the latest of which was the only goal of a 1-0 win over Eibar which edged Sevilla ever closer to a return to the Champions League next season.

But that wasn’t the end of Ocampos’ heroics at the Sánchez-Pizjuan on Monday night. With Sevilla doggedly holding on to their lead in the dying moments of the game, goalkeeper Tomåš Vaclík collided with Kike García and had to be stretchered off but Lopetegui had already used all five of his permitted substitutions. So who should strap on the gloves but Ocampos! 

The injury meant there was a lot of stoppage time added on and Eibar threw everything they had at Sevilla to try and snatch a point which would ease their own relegation fears.

As the clock ticked over to 100 minutes, Eibar crossed the ball in and it fell to goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic, who stabbed the ball goalwards only for Ocampos to get his body behind the ball and parry it away. 

It means Sevilla have a six-point advantage over Villarreal going into the final four games, which contain some pretty tough fixtures for both sides. But with the points on the board already, the Andalucían side will feel confident that fourth place is theirs for the taking.

Andrew Gillan

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