Valencia turns Liga tables

Barça held at Mestalla home of leader as Real stumbles to goalless tie

Four shots on goal: the sum total of Real Madrid's huffing and puffing over its past two matches. After a shock 1-0 loss at Levante last weekend, José Mourinho's side traveled to Racing's Sardinero stadium with goals in mind on Wednesday evening. But Racing, perhaps buoyed by Levante's defiance, had other ideas and a well-marshaled defensive shield of two fixed lines held the attacking guile of Real at bay in a goalless stalemate.

So effective was Héctor Cúper's rearguard action that Real - despite at one stage having five attack-minded forward players on the field and enjoying more than 70 percent of the ball - mustered just two shots on target in 90 minutes.

"We have lost five points in two games and obviously that is worrying," said Mourinho, while carefully avoiding criticism of Cúper's tactics; the exact same ploy that the Portuguese used against Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semifinals. Mourinho did, though, accuse the referee of indulging Racing's play-acting. Clearly, the Real coach's vision encompasses some sort of Ángel di María filter. Food for the Portuguese's brooding; this is Real's poorest start to a season since the ill-fated reign of Wanderlei Luxembourgo, two purveyors of soccer rarely mentioned in the same breath.

For Racing, the hard-fought tie lifted it out of the relegation places, where Athletic Bilbao now finds itself after a dismal start to the campaign. The ideas of a new coach often take some time to translate to the players and Athletic certainly has the appearance of a bumbling tourist under Marcelo Bielsa.

Málaga's 1-0 win over Bilbao at La Rosaleda lifted the south coast club to the dizzy heights of second place, a point behind leader Valencia, which together with Barcelona in Wednesday's late game provided a scintillating 90 minutes of the sort Real can only scowl at moodily at present.

Unai Emery warned ahead of the game that he felt he finally had Barça's number after three seasons without beating the Catalan side, and although a late equalizer from Cesc Fàbregas denied the Valencia coach his spoils, the 2-2 tie was valiantly earned. Had Roberto Soldado, so assured in bagging five in his last three games, not skewed wide when presented with an open goal in the first half and Valencia leading 2-1, Emery may have taken his inaugural three points from Pep Guardiola.

The Barça coach had deployed Dani Alves on the right of attack, as he has done before when seeking to overwhelm opponents early on in big games. Valencia, however, countered this tactic with its own marauding full-back, the 6' 3" Jérémy Mathieu. Crashing into the space left absent by Alves' advanced position, Mathieu's fizzing cross on 11 minutes was turned into Barça's net by his compatriot, Éric Abidal.

Mathieu provided the ball for Valencia's second after Pedro had equalized for the visitor, pulling two defenders out of position on the left and stroking the ball past the penalty spot for Pablo Hernández to fire home unchallenged before Fàbregas found the net for the fourth successive match. It is early days, but Valencia, Málaga and Betis make up the top three in La Liga, with the latter playing at press time on Thursday night for the right to go top. Barça sits in fourth.

Luis Milla, the Spain under-21 coach, said it is "interesting to see Real and Barça in difficulty," a view shared by the fans of at least 18 teams in Primera and echoed across Spain after the heavyweights' recent woes.

However, perhaps the sagest voice in a cacophony of premature hope was that of Sevilla president José María de Nido; again, words that do not sit frequently in the same sentence. "Do I think It isn't a league of two now? Ask me the same question in May," he responded to a reporter.

Cristiano Ronaldo in frustration mode against Racing.
Cristiano Ronaldo in frustration mode against Racing.FÉLIX ORDÓÑEZ (REUTERS)
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS