Sid Lowe's sees Real Madrid extend their unbeaten run in a thrilling encounter against Sevilla. Plus, why normal rules don't apply to Lionel Messi.
Getafe, Villarreal, Rayo Vallecano, Manchester City, Real Sociedad, City again, Valencia, Deportivo, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Celta, Osasuna, Sporting Portugal, Espanyol, Villarreal, Las Palmas, Borussia Dortmund, Eibar, Betis, Legia Warsaw at home, Athletic Club Bilbao, Cultural Leonesa, Alavés, Legia away, Leganés, Atlético, Sporting Portugal again, the other Sporting: Sporting Gijón this time, Cultural in the second leg, Barcelona, Dortmund, Deportivo in another season now, Club América, Kashima, Sevilla, Granada and, last night, Sevilla again.
Sevilla were seconds away from doing what no one had done since April last year, including themselves. Twice they had tried; many more times everyone else had tried. For thirty-nine games, going all the way back to defeat in Wolfsburg, Real Madrid had been unbeaten, but in the 93rd minute they were losing 3-2 at Sevilla. In the 83rd, they had been losing 3-1. It didn’t matter when it came to the Cup – Madrid had won the first leg 3-0 – but it did matter in terms of the record. 39 equalled Barcelona’s best, the longest run in Spanish football history; 40 would beat it. Madrid, though, weren’t going to get to 40. Or so you thought.
And then along came Karim Benzema, dribbling through to hit a deflected shot that earned a draw in a brilliant game and clinched an astonishing record. “We weren’t thinking of that; we go game by game,” Marcelo claimed, but it looked very much like they did care about that. Zidane was celebrating. He admitted that Sevilla “maybe deserved more” but, somehow, Madrid had equalised. They had believed too. How could they not, with the evidence of the last few months before them? ‘Few’? That’s nine months now without defeat. There was something about the way they did it – another late goal, another comeback – that symbolised the whole run.
Now, they have Juventus to catch, and three games to do it in, Next up, Sevilla again. Back at the Sánchez Pizjuán on Sunday. And it’s first versus second, too. Asked if they can really fight for the league title, Jorge Sampaoli said: “If we play like this, yes. This is the path to follow.”
Next up in the Cup, meanwhile, are Celta de Vigo. The competition crammed into January, occupying every midweek for a month, keeps on. The morning after the night before, the draw was made: Real Sociedad-Barcelona, Madrid-Celta, Alcorcón-Alavés, Atlético-Eibar.
On the morning of Barcelona’s second leg with Athletic Bilbao, the club’s CEO Oscar Grau was asked about Leo Messi’s contract renewal – an issue which is gathering pace, nerves growing by the day. He has only one more season left after this, at which point of course he could walk way for free. Grau was cautious, citing the club’s accounts, insisting that they could not take any financial risks. And renewing Messi costs money, of course. “We have to have a cool head and common sense,” he said.
That night, Messi sent Barcelona through with a perfect free kick – his third in a week. This season, Messi has been extraordinary, even by his own standards, disguising many of his team’s flaws, carrying them. So, common sense? Common sense probably means keeping the best player in the world at your club. Certainly, Luis Suárez thinks so – and his comments were another hint as to the tension there is between players and club right now. “Messi is the best player in the world: what you have to do is renew him, not have ‘common sense’,” he said after the game.
This is the fifth time that Salvador Gonzalez Marco, Valencia’s former player and eternal match-day delegate (the man whose job involves looking after the players, writing down substitutes, making sure everything is in place) has been their manager.
But this is different: for the first time, his contract actually says he is their manager. Valencia’s very own Mr Wolf, the man you call on in an emergency to clean up the mess, hiding the trouble that lies beneath, is back as coach – less than a hundred days after he last walked from the bench to, erm, the bench, insisting that he hoped “never” to be back.
Being back, you see, what have meant that something had gone wrong. And, boy, did it go wrong. Cesare Prandelli walked, and Voro’s phone rang again. He has the best points per game record of anyone at Mestalla ever, although maybe not for long. This time it won’t be one game, or two, or five; they have officially named him as coach until the end of the season. Having previously overlooked him and told everyone he didn’t want the job, when you suspected that, actually, maybe he did.