Barcelona seem nailed on to win the league while Gary Neville's mini-revival at Valenica comes unstuck. Sid Lowe on the latest from Spain.
Zinedine Zidane walked in, sat down, looked at the journalists gathered in the press room at the Santiago Bernabéu and decided that he wasn’t going to wait for the inevitable question.
“Before you ask, it’s over,” he said.
Real Madrid had just lost the Madrid derby, but that was not all they had lost. It was six days since Sergio Ramos had admitted “if we slip up again we can forget it” and, while the talk was of “professionalism” and “not giving games away,” of competing for every match, when it came to the league title it was time to forget it. It was finished, in February.
The 1-0 defeat, secured by Antoine Griezmann’s goal on 53 minutes, left Real Madrid four points behind Atlético and twelve behind Barcelona. Twelve points and a head-to-head goal difference.
In other words, even if they won every game between now and the end of the season, Barcelona would have to lose four times – and one of those defeats would have to be in the clásico and by 4-0 or more. If not, Barcelona would need to lose four and draw another. They would have to drop points five times in twelve games when they had only dropped points five times in the twenty-six matches played so far this season.
In fact, maybe it was time for Madrid to shift their sights a little: they have a fight on their hands for second place, trailing Atlético by four points and a now unassailable head-to-head record, and maybe even for third place. Villarreal, in fourth, are just two points behind now. They’re unbeaten in thirteen.
If anyone is going to challenge Barcelona for the title, it will be Atlético. Only Atlético don’t think they will. They already thought that, in fact.
“Barcelona are the best side. It’s very unlikely that they lose three games,” Simeone said. Asked before the derby if the team who lost would have to bid farewell to the league, full-back Filipe Luis replied: “No. We’ve already said goodbye to the league: Barcelona are beyond us all.”
All? Well, yes. The following night, they proved it. Not only do Barcelona have an eight point lead at the top of the table, they have now gone and entire vuelta of league games without losing. The cycle was completed against Sevilla, the last side to defeat them, back in October. Back then, they lost 2-1; now they won 2-1. Nineteen teams played them, every other side in the first division, and nineteen teams failed to beat them. Sixteen wins, three draws and a new record. Add those league games to the Copa del Rey, Champions League and World Club Cup matches and Barcelona have now gone thirty-four without a defeat – equalling the record set by Leo Beenhaker’s Real Madrid in 1988-89.
Gary Neville’s revival fell down in seven minutes against Athletic Bilbao, during which the visitors scored three goals. Neville described the referee as a “joke”, saying it was “embarrassing” that his team didn’t get two penalties, but insisted that was not the only reason they had a lost a game in which he thought they had been the better side for seventy minutes. Which they probably had, too. But then they conceded and then they collapsed.
“It looks like a terrible defeat which it is but that wasn’t a 3-0 loss: I think at 0-0 Bilbao were happy,” Neville said. “I’m mystified with it.”
Guilty for giving away one of the Athletic goals was the former Valencia captain Dani Parejo, who found himself whistled by supporters. It was Neville who took the captaincy off him, believing that he simply didn’t have the leadership qualities necessary, despite being one of those that most speaks up in team meetings, and thinking that the armband actually weighted him down.
The risk might have been that it singled him out, and now the fans were doing the same. Neville defended him, a man who never hides on the pitch.
“Since the moment I came here he has taken every single ball, every pass, trained every day, played every minute in every game,” Neville said. “We had the discussion with the captaincy but he took it like a professional because it benefited both parties. But to blame one person after that game is ridiculous.”
The president of the Spanish league Javier Tebas was asked about his political past, and his political present, in an interview by the newspaper El Mundo.
Once a member of the far right Fuerza Nueva party which sought a Franco-style political agenda after the dictator’s death in 1975, he was asked why left-wingers always admit what they are and right-wingers don’t. “Because some are cowards,” he said.
As for him, he admitted that he said he still feels the same way twenty years on, defending a Catholic, nationalist view of Spain, one that he thinks no existing party represents. None of them are right-wing enough for him.
“I miss a Le Pen a la española”, he said. The same Le Pen against whom Zinedine Zidane and his French team-mates once spoke out.
Oh, and this from the president of the league who keeps saying that politics and sport should not mix, whilst accusing Barcelona of being “kidnapped” by the political interests of the Catalan independence movement.