Few could have predicted events in La Liga this weekend, but then that is the nature of the sport. In a week during which Cristiano Ronaldo picked up the Ballon d’Or, Carlo Ancelotti his 500th career victory and Karim Benzema his 100th Real Madrid goal, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid gifted Real a way back into the title race.
Ancelotti’s side held up its side of the bargain in thrashing a hapless Betis 0-5 in Seville on Saturday. That result was enough to persuade the Betis board of to sack its coach for the second time in as many months, Juan Carlos Garrido being shown the door with the baying of the fans still ringing in his ears (fans who still sing the praises of his predecessor Pepe Mel).
Scheduled before its title rivals this weekend, Real spent Saturday night level on points. Plácido Domingo thunders out of Real’s PA before every home game, and Sunday brought a wave of unexpected tranquility to the Bernabéu club: Sevilla was always going to give Atlético a tough match, given the mileage between the sides, but Levante’s clash with Barcelona looked like an easy three-point turn.
Even with Leo Messi back in the team and back in the goals, Levante constructed a brick wall to repel Barcelona’s 70-percent possession and 17 shots. The home side was aided by a bizarre decision from Barça coach Gerardo Martino to remove the two players making inroads into the massed ranks of home defense, Pedro and Cesc Fàbregas.
Atlético similarly found itself short on inspiration against Unai Emery’s Sevilla, which the meticulous coach has constructed with byzantine zeal since his arrival exactly a year ago. Much like Betis, Sevilla was dismantled in the summer, losing Spain internationals Álvaro Negredo and Jesús Navas, midfield cogs Gary Medel and Geoffrey Kondogbia, and some of its young promises in Antonio Luna and Luis Alberto in a book-balancing act. But Emery has made the most of the sum of parts that remained and in Ivan Rakitic has the most decisive player in the league outside the current top three.
With the right coach, teams can be cajoled into feats that defy their individual abilities
Even when reduced to 10 men Sevilla held firm for a 1-1 tie against Atlético at the Calderón, where only Real and Barcelona have won in the past two seasons and no side had managed to avoid defeat until the Catalans rode into the capital last weekend. It is probably too late for any team to arrest the charge of the top three toward the title and automatic playoff places for the Champions League, but one spot remains open and Sevilla is now just six points away from it. Considering the modesty of his resources in comparison to his predecessors, Emery is doing a commendable job.
Much the same can be said of Marcelino García Toral, one of those predecessors. Now at Villarreal, the last side he faced before being axed as Sevilla coach, Marcelino signed his contract on the same day last year as Emery. He subsequently led the Yellow Submarine to promotion from Segunda, despite the club’s best players being sold off the previous summer to offset the costs of its shock relegation in 2012. Villarreal now sits fourth in La Liga, an achievement based partly on hanging on to Bruno Soriano and the prowess of Ikechukwu Uche, last season’s club top scorer who is leading the line again to devastating effect this campaign.
It goes to show that with the right coach, teams collectively can be cajoled into feats that defy their individual abilities; Atlético under Diego Simeone is another case in point. And with the wrong coach, quite the opposite can happen, as Garrido discovered on Sunday.