The wall is there to stop the ball, or that is the plan. The wall of men lined up between the free kicker and the goalkeeper is to give the latter an advantage he would not have if left exposed to the boot and ability to surprise of the taker. Because the line of men forms an obstacle that prevents the ball from following a certain path, the keeper has a smaller space to guard and can position himself accordingly.
But this all falls apart when the wall turns out to be made of straw instead of brick. Poor Sporting Gijón stopper Juan Pablo took a position near the far post from where he could stop a curling shot to his left or intercept a high ball intended for a headed shot. What was covered was the near post, or so he thought, with a generous three-man wall lined up before the wide position of Granada’s Carlos Martins — three men who decided to turn sideways and open like shutters when the Portuguese midfielder unleashed a powerful, but given the position of the wall, optimistic near-post shot.
Giving such a boost to the home team after just two minutes was not what a club among the bottom-three relegation likelies (along with Zaragoza and Racing) needed, and Sporting never recovered. Granada, up to 15th, can breathe safely for now.
Also just above the drop zone, Villarreal’s (and now ex-coach José Francisco Molina’s) black day at Levante was made complete when Javier Camuñas removed his head and shoulders from the approximate path of Rubén Suárez’s thunderbolt free kick in injury time. After an afternoon of close shaves at the other end, Villarreal’s poor luck continued in its own goalmouth, the ball cannoning off a post and bouncing along the line where Xavi Torres was following up. Monday saw Miguel Ángel Lotina installed as the third commander of the Yellow Submarine this season.
Forget it, we're not going to win the league," said Guardiola
In the Bernabéu the wall looked solid enough, but there was a great kerfuffle between the players from both teams and the referee over whether it was fully 10 yards back. The Real Madrid players were concerned that their string of close-range misses after establishing a 1-0 lead over Málaga would be punished by the right boot of Santi Cazorla in stoppage time. They were right. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas was right about the corner the Málaga man was aiming for — but he still could not prevent an equalizer that clipped Real’s lead over Barcelona to eight points.
And it is Barça that is first back in action this week, the champion hosting Granada tonight (9pm, Gol TV) without a single thought of retaining its title, according to coach Pep Guardiola. But surely there is a chink of light now.
Barcelona had kept up its (forlorn?) pursuit of Real Madrid in La Liga on Saturday, dispatching Míchel's Sevilla 2-0 at the Sánchez Pizjuán without exerting itself unduly. Leo Messi and Xavi provided the goals, the Argentinean becoming the youngest player in history to reach 150 Liga strikes, in a match played out in much the mood that Guardiola has found himself in since his side first let a 10-point deficit accrue - on the frozen pitch of Osasuna’s Reyno de Navarra.
"Forget it, we're not going to win the league," he told reporters after the Sevilla match. His players do not toe the same downbeat line, professing in public that the towel will not be thrown in and pressure kept up until the final kick of the season. But in reality all thoughts in Catalonia are likely now bent on a projected Champions League final against Real. No team since AC Milan in 1990 has retained the European crown, and that will suffice for Barça this season.
For Míchel, who only took on the Sevilla job in February, a relegation battle is still some way off, largely because there are at least three teams considerably worse than Sevilla, but his chances of a contract extension if he doesn't achieve at least Europa League action next season are more remote still.