If you pause the replay from Real Madrid‘s visit to Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday night and cast your eye over to the right side of the screen, away from the action, you can see the moment where Fede Valverde thinks that all is lost. As the ball travels through the air, he stands on the wing with his head in his hands, convinced that he has just horribly overhit his cross, which is now sailing out of play with just three minutes left.
Suddenly, though, Casemiro appears, leaping through the air to rescue everyone. Somehow, the Brazilian keeps it in, Karim Benzema scores and Madrid are now just a goal down. Four minutes later, deep into injury time, another ball is launched into the box and Casemiro pounces to complete the comeback, coming from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. Madrid have been on edge, but the mission ends successfully, their work here done.
At about the same time, back in Madrid, Joao Felix was scoring at the Wanda Metropolitano. From 2-1 down, Atlético beat Salzburg 3-2. The following night was a little more convincing. Sevilla defeated Rennes, with Luuk De Jong’s superbly taken goal somehow the only one they score on a night in which they racked up 23 shots. Meanwhile in Turin, Alvaro Morata grabbed a hat-trick of offside goals disallowed by the VAR, and an
Three wins and a draw clinched at the death, another one for that collection of epic comebacks: all in all, it had been a good week for La Liga teams in the Champions League. It had to be, too; by the end of it, it felt like it wasn’t just Madrid and Atlético that Casemiro and Joao Felix had rescued, but maybe all of them. That it wasn’t just Barcelona and Sevilla who would have felt vindicated by what followed, but the place they play.
At the end of Barcelona’s win, Andrea Pirlo admitted: “We were playing a great football team; right now, Barcelona are a step ahead of us.” In Turin, that was true — more than a step, in fact — but that “exceptional” above is meant literally. This wasn’t what anyone had expected: Barcelona had arrived having failed to win any of their past three games in the league including the clásico, their problems mounting, doubts engulfing everything.
They were not alone. Madrid, ran the headlines, had “caught the last train,” while Atletico had “avoided a monumental mess.” Madrid had arrived in Monchengladbach knowing that they needed a win after a 3-2 defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk in the first game, supposedly the weakest team defeating them at home. Atletico had gone into their game against Salzburg having conceded four against Bayern Munich.
Only Sevilla seemed sure-footed: they had impressed at Stamford Bridge, where they drew, and defeated Rennes convincingly. But then, look at the league table and they’re 13th. Barcelona are only one place above them.
Yes, it’s asterisk time: the teams playing in Europe have all got games in hand because they started the season later. Atletico are fifth, by the way, and Madrid second. Win those and this looks different: all four of the Champions League teams could find themselves either top of within a point of top.
Seven games into the season (or six, or five, depending on who you are), this is a time when the table means nothing much, and we’ve been there before. It’s fun this way: it’s nice to see Real Sociedad top and Granada third, tiny Cadiz in a European place, Osasuna, Elche and Getafe within a point of them. It’s nice to see different leaders, too: Valencia, Granada, Betis, Getafe, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad. But early leaders tend to slip away, reality intervenes, familiar faces overtake them and the same sides compete for the title.
Giants find their feet, even if they are made of clay.
“It’s not even worth looking at the table until the final five games,” insisted Imanol Alguacil, coach of league leaders Real Sociedad. His side are the only team to have held onto top spot so far. Until last week, every leader the league had lost as soon as they went top. That’s enjoyable too, and long may it continue.
And yet there are doubts, the hint too of something more profound being played out. Maybe those giants won’t find their feet this time, in a season played out in silence. Maybe their problems go beyond a slow start, too.
At the end of the latest round of games, two former players were talking on TV. One was saying how much he was enjoying the sense of competition, the unpredictable nature of the league. Yeah, replied the other, but I’d like that to be because they’re all good, not by default, not because of their defect.
Even as early as this, only one team have not been beaten this season. And yet they, Atletico, have been held to a 0-0 at newly-promoted Huesca as well as at home by Villarreal. Sevilla lost to Eibar last week and at Granada the week before.
Gab Marcotti sees Barca’s iconic stars like Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi as crucial to the club’s future.
It hasn’t been crazy and unpredictable, posing questions of empty stadiums and freak results like elsewhere. If empty stadiums suggest anything here, it is sense of loss, and perhaps that pessimism conditions all else, leading to overly gloomy judgments. But it hasn’t been a wild ride of random fun. Look at the results so far domestically: there are no fantastic comebacks, no blockbusters, goals flying in at each end, all of it feeling even flatter without fans.
There has been just one 2-2s and no higher score draws, and just one 3-2: Madrid’s win at Betis. There’s been one 4-2 (Valencia-Levante), one 4-1 (Sociedad-Huesca) and a 6-1 (Atletico-Granada), and that’s pretty much it. The most common score for a team this season is nil: teams have registered zero goals on 39 occasions, and just one goal on 33 occasions. In over a hundred scores, only three times have both teams scored two or more goals. Spain has fewer goals than any of Europe’s biggest leagues, and the Premier League almost doubles their figure.
Maybe the defending is better than ever — or maybe something is slipping. Even last year, one columnist likened the clásico to two injured men racing each other, hobbling towards the line. This year, Barcelona and Madrid came into last week’s clásico having both been beaten in the week leading up to it — by Getafe and Cádiz respectively — for the first time since 2003. Which, again, is great, but which also makes you wonder.
Of course, 2003 does not feel like such a long time ago, but a lot has happened since then, seeming to take Spanish football to a different place: a World Cup, two European Championships, eight European Cup wins, 10 UEFA cup wins, more than one all-Spanish finals in both of the content’s cup competitions. The emergence of Madrid and Barcelona as the biggest clubs in the planet. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the cast.
Blanket conclusions and sweeping statements make hostages of fortune, and what applies to one Spanish team does not always apply to the others, but some are asking now whether all that has gone. Or, at least, is going. If the balance of power has shifted elsewhere; if, of course, the economics have too. There may be opportunity for an outsider — a season in which Real Sociedad, Sevilla or Atlético can compete for the league would be very welcome — but the worry is why, and if those results at home and abroad reveal something concerning.
In their past three games against Spanish sides, Bayern Munich’s aggregate score is 14-3. “Bayern are a team that goes around telling people the truth,” Jorge Valdano suggested. “They scored eight goals against Barcelona, a measure of their decadence, and four against Atletico, taking the diagnosis further: the league is losing competitiveness by the bucket-load.”
Valdano wrote that in the Spanish paper El País on the morning of the Clásico, which Real won 3-1. “Not so long ago,” he said, “this was the highest peak in football …”
… only no more. Ronaldo has gone, Messi tried to go and soon will, whether via a transfer or retirement. The summer transfer market told a story of Spanish teams. In the Champions League, nineteen teams had a net spend: of the Spanish sides, only Sevilla were among them. There is a reason — well, many reasons — why it is Spain’s biggest teams pushing hardest for the European Super League, with one executive quoted as saying “it’s that or sinking in deep mediocrity.”
Self-interest speaks, of course. Greed, too. And it’s hard to swallow the complaints of Spain’s super clubs, whinging about how they are getting the “p— taken out of us, getting squeezed for a few pennies.” Frankly, the temptation is to tell them to leave, then, to enjoy someone else winning. But there is also fear there — namely, a fear of being left behind, watching power shift elsewhere.
Barcelona teammates Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente play a Halloween edition of “Never Have I Ever.”
Power can often be seen through players, the sport’s genuine box-office attractions. The absurd decision to cancel this year’s Ballon d’Or might have saved Spanish blushes, their absence for the first time in over a decade.
Take a look at the UEFA Team of the Year. Yes, it’s full of flaws. In fact, it’s laughable at times, but it’s not without meaning, if only as an echo of what’s happening. Last year there was just one La Liga player in it. How many would be in this year’s? None? In 2018 and 2017 it was six, in 2017 and 2016 it was eight. The year before that, it was five. Mostly, that shift hangs on European results, fluctuating from one year to the next. Victory and defeat are imposters at times, for sure. Transitions take time — and there is no doubt that both Madrid and Barcelona are at a very particular point that needn’t necessarily be permanent.
If Europe is the barometer for Spain’s footballing health, it is an uneven one, too: after an all-Premier League final, supposedly the start of something permanent, it was then Germany and France who reached the last game in Lisbon. Sevilla won the Sevilla Cup again, and now head into this season’s Champions League. Where, if we’re talking reliability, they may just be the Spanish team you most trust this time around. Left behind in the Europa League, Villarreal, Real Sociedad and maybe even Granada must be taken seriously.
But on the biggest stage of all, that automatic list of favourites at the start of each season might not include Spanish teams any more. The headline on the front of one Spanish paper the day the competition began this year said: “Harder than ever.” This week, after the opening round of games, after what had been seen domestically, that feeling was maybe even more acute.
La Liga’s teams needed a reaction and they got it, a rebellion. A revival, too. They will not give in so easily, nor will they renounce their right to a future. There is time, margin, room to grow — not just now but in the future.
If Casemiro rescued Madrid, the men who led Barcelona and Atletico were boys. Kids who dominated the stage, elevating everything. Who knows, maybe even announcing a new era, better times. Hope. Tomorrow is another day and Pedri and Joao Felix will be there.
In the tunnel before the second half on Wednesday night, Saul Níguez and Jan Oblak were talking admiringly about Joao Felix, who had impressed in the first 45 minutes and would get even better in the second, changing the game and changing the mood too.
“Madre mía, he’s so good,” Oblak said.
He is good; he is also theirs.