In the first of a new weekly feature, Ryan Hunn reflects on a big weekend in La Liga, including Lionel Messi’s 400th league goal and Iñaki Williams’ brilliant brace.
There could have been worse weeks to launch a weekly La Liga column and, with so much happening in Spain’s top flight this weekend, it’s hard to know quite where to begin. But let’s start in Barcelona, where Lionel Messi scored his 400th league goal in a 3-0 win over Eibar, the second player to do so in Europe’s top five leagues after Cristiano Ronaldo. Luis Suárez opened the scoring in the 19th minute, after linking wonderfully with Philippe Coutinho, to make it six straight games in the league that the Uruguayan has scored against Eibar. In the 53rd minute, and after having a quiet game up to that point, Messi’s moment came. He actually started the move on the half way line, his through-ball intercepted before being won back by Coutinho. Coutinho played in Suárez who teed up Messi to make history and doing so in 435 games, 63 fewer than Ronaldo. The Argentine should have had his 401st just five minutes later but side footed his finish straight at Asier Riesgo. Suárez got his second seconds later, poking it home from a tight angle, making it 34th straight league games that Barcelona have scored in, maintaining their five-point lead at the top.
To Bilbao where Athletic Club beat Sevilla 2-0, shedding some unwanted trends in the process. After last week’s victory at Celta, Sunday’s win - three days after losing to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey - meant Athletic have won back to back league games for the first time this season. Iñaki Williams scored his first goals at San Mamés since the 4th December 2016. The way that Williams controlled, cut inside and finished at the far post in such effortless fashion will make many question how a player with such ability can go over two years without a home goal. That same question would no doubt have been asked again after Williams’ mesmerising second. Flicking the ball around Sergi Gomez deep inside the Athletic half, Williams exploded towards the Sevilla goal at breath-taking speed. Gomez tried to catch Williams but couldn’t. Three touches and eight seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net.
Athletic are unbeaten in the league since new manager Gaizka Garitano took over in December, after a 13 game winless run cost Eduardo Berizzo his job. The timing is very handy indeed: Athletic are now three points clear of the relegation zone and travel to El Madrigal next week for a six-pointer with Villarreal. Having lost 2-1 at home to Getafe, Villarreal have fallen to 19th and haven’t won in the league since November. With this week’s fixtures marking the half way point of the season, a return to the Segunda after six seasons in the top flight is looking increasingly likely.
It wasn’t much better for the green and white half of Seville as Betis lost 2-1 at home to Real Madrid, in a tale of players haunting their former clubs. Despite having over 70% possession, Betis struggled to create chances and found themselves 1-0 down inside 13 mins after Luka Modrić drove home from the edge of the box. Former Real Madrid man Sergio Canales equalised for Betis, which would have been the story had it not been for the introduction of Dani Ceballos in the 73rd minute. Ceballos’ Betis exit, in 2017, was far from amicable and it was his first time facing his former club since he made comments suggesting Betis ‘dragging their feet’ with a contract renewal played a part in his move to Madrid. He was given a hostile reception by the Villamarín after his introduction on Sunday evening, but responded by firing home a free kick two minutes from time, his first direct free kick attempt for Real.
As for Betis, maybe a piece about them in more detail might be needed in order to analyse one of the most intriguing sides in Europe. Betis spent the early stages of the season being great fun to watch, unable to score goals but great defensively. Then they hit a phase of scoring and conceding goals for fun: defeating Barça at Camp Nou 4-3 during this run. They have now lost two games in a row where they registered 70% possession, dropping to 7th whilst Real Madrid climbed back into the top four.
At the Wanda, Atlético Madrid beat Levante 1-0 thanks to an Antoine Griezmann penalty, awarded somewhat controversially. Atléti had Koke’s goal ruled out in the first half, thanks to VAR spotting a foul in the build up, but had better luck in the second. Nikola Vukcevic had gone to ground attempting to intercept a Thomas cross. The ball struck Vukcevic’s hand, which was planted on the turf and the penalty was given after consulting VAR, despite the Montenegrin having his back to the ball and appearing to pull his hand away. It caused Levante to officially ask for a clarification of the criteria applied through VAR. From Atléti’s point of view, it was all so Atléti-ish: a single goal, another clean sheet. They have scored more than one goal just six times this season, conceded just thirteen whilst keeping nine clean sheets. After Sevilla’s defeat in Bilbao, Atléti stay second, extending the gap to Sevilla to five points whilst remaining five being leaders Barcelona.