Real Madrid beat Barcelona in El Clasico, Atletico hit five vs. Betis
Five thoughts from the latest weekend of La Liga action as Real Madrid beat Barcelona in El Clasico and Atletico Madrid hammered Real Betis.
1. Zinedine Zidane can coach
Zinedine Zidane went into his first Clasico as Real Madrid coach on Saturday evening with many pundits predicting another big game defeat which would see a rudderless Madrid spiral further out of control.
That did not really come to pass. Barcelona had plenty of possession and the better chances early on, but Zidane's side were impressively organised and committed. Holding midfielder Casemiro, preferred to €80 million James Rodriguez in midfield, did not have a great game, especially in possession. But the Brazilian's presence and physicality allowed his more talented teammates to do their jobs better.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema both scored, while Gareth Bale was also key to the late comeback as, for the first time ever, all of the "BBC" frontline started together and won a Clasico.
All this reflected very well on Zidane, who now follows fellow Blancos legends Alfredo Di Stefano and Vicente del Bosque as only the third man ever to win with Madrid as both player and coach at Camp Nou.
Madrid remain seven points behind Barca in the title race with just seven games to play and they could well slip up again versus lower profile opponents. But on Saturday they showed they remain very dangerous on the big occasion and Zidane was happy to go along with a reporter's suggestion this could be a turning point in their season.
In Zidane's first season as a Madrid player he and his team struggled domestically but gelled in time to win the 2002 Champions League. Saturday's Clasico suggested something similar could well happen this year.
2. Barca's inevitable Treble not so inevitable any more
Barcelona went into Saturday's game with many observers expecting Luis Enrique's "double treble" chasing team to confirm their status as the best team in Spain, and anywhere else, at the moment.
That did not happen. The expected attacking display, to mark the passing of Blaugrana spiritual leader Johan Cruyff, never materialised. Their South American trident did not fire, perhaps due to fatigue after the international break, or because Madrid showed more desire and fitness when the game was up for grabs late on. Lionel Messi has just four shots now in his last four Clasicos.
Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano all lamented tactical and positioning mistakes which allowed Madrid to counter so effectively. Luis Enrique looked uncomfortable when questioned about his decision to remove hard-running midfielder Ivan Rakitic with the less disciplined Arda Turan -- a switch which lead almost immediately to the momentum swinging in the game. There remains a feeling that Barca's first XI is peerless, but their bench is weak.
Barca's seven point lead over Madrid -- six over second placed Atletico Madrid -- should be enough for the Catalan outfit to retain the title. But Champions League opponents including Atletico on Tuesday, and potentially Los Blancos later in the competition, will have been heartened by what happened late in Saturday's game.
3. Koke clicks
Atletico Madrid's 5-1 stroll past Real Betis on Saturday afternoon was the first time Diego Simeone's side had scored four goals or more in La Liga in over a year -- and perhaps showed a new formation that allowed midfielder Koke to play his best game in quite a while.
The key opening goal on 36 minutes came from Koke's precise through ball flicked expertly over Betis keeper Antonio Adan by Fernando Torres. While the finish from Torres was quite like his Euro 2008 winning goal, the pass was reminiscent of the assists Koke regularly supplied for Diego Costa a few seasons back, and something which Atletico have been missing recently.
As Betis crumbled, Atletico eased to a handy victory with an Antoine Griezmann double [26 in all comps now this season], and Juanfran and Thomas Partey also on the scoresheet. Simeone admitted afterwards he had trialled a new formation in the game, with Koke given a freer central role ahead of base formed by Gabi, Saul and Augusto Fernandez.
"We played with a 4-3-1-2 and the players interpreted it very well," said the former midfielder at his postmatch news conference. "We had depth in our play, and got better as game went on. It's not an easy system to play."
4. Top four race
The race for the final Champions League spot looks a lot clearer after Villarreal bounced back from a difficult period to win at Eibar, and chasers Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo all surprisingly dropping points at home.
Celta drew 1-1 with neighbours Deportivo La Coruna in Saturday evening's Galician derby at Balaidos, with Celso Borges and Nolito swapping early goals, and Celta being unable to find a winner even after Depor's Alejandro Arribas was red-carded in the second half. "It is one more point," said Celta coach Toto Berizzo afterwards. "We lacked patience in attack."
Sevilla's run of 13 straight victories at home was surprisingly ended by Real Sociedad, who went 2-0 ahead early at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan and held on for a 2-1 win despite playing the last 25 minutes with a man less. "Villarreal remain favourites for fourth spot," admitted Sevilla coach Unai Emery.
Athletic Bilbao also slipped up, with Aritz Aduriz missing a penalty with his team 1-0 ahead, and Granada equalising late on at the new San Mames. "We have dropped two points, it is a setback in our objective," lamented Los Leones coach Ernesto Valverde.
Villarreal had only taken two points from their last four games, and went 1-0 down early at Eibar. But Adrian Lopez equalised and Roberto Soldado's bundled in the winner [only his second in his last 18 appearances] for a crunch win which means they now have an eight point cushion over the chasing pack.
5. Valencia still not very good
Three minutes into the post-Gary Neville era on Saturday afternoon it seemed like Valencia's luck had already changed -- with Rodrigo Moreno taking advantage of an error from Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas to make it 1-0.
But that quickly looked like a false dawn, when once again Valencia paid for horror show defensive mistakes. Javi Fuego's unnecessary concession of a penalty was punished by Jon Viera for 1-1. Then Los Che centre-back Aderlan Santos somehow smacked the ball against teammate Shkodran Mustafi and into the net for the decisive goal.
Valencia have now conceded in 21 straight La Liga games, their worst run since 1933, and with seven games remaining have their worst points tally since their last [and only] relegation in 1985-86.
Next up for new coach Pako Ayestaran is Sevilla [home] and Barcelona [away], while they must also face Villarreal and Real Madrid in a very tough run-in. It is clear Neville did not do a great job during his four months in charge, but it now looks like nobody will be able to save Valencia from the drop.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan