“We had it in our hands,” Bruno Soriano said at the end of his team’s 1‑1 draw with Barcelona on Sunday, to which the most appropriate response, as it so often is with Villarreal’s captain, as it had been virtually all game, was probably: well played, sir. He’d delivered his line deadpan, like he delivers his passes, as if it didn’t matter but it did: calm, controlled, and accurate. You almost expected a wink but all you got was a smile, a glimmer of cheek, and that was coaxed from him.
It had been in their hands, all right; his, particularly. The night the Madrigal became the Estadio de la Cerámica; the Ceramic Stadium. Villarreal led from the 50th minute, heading for a first home win over Barcelona in 11 years, but an 89th-minute Leo Messi free kick prevented them marking the occasion with victory and maintaining their spot in the Champions League places.
A moment’s “genius”, Bruno called it; Messi’s free kick was ludicrously accurate, ridiculously fast, clearing the cobwebs off post and bar as it ripped into the net. Two goalkeepers would not have stopped it. Not Sergio Asenjo, and not Bruno either, even though he had stopped another Messi shot 18 minutes earlier. Now he stood by the touchline, explaining himself.
“My arm was there and the ball hit it,” Bruno said. Which was one way of putting it; another would be that Messi was there, shooting from just inside the area, and Bruno dived to block it with his right hand – a superb save Asenjo would have been proud of, and Barcelona were furious about. As Bruno spoke, the hint of a smile as he was told what replays showed, Gerard Piqué was striding across the pitch behind him, eyes fixed, staring up at the stand like nothing around him mattered, just what lay ahead.
When he got to the touchline, Piqué stopped. He stood there and pointed upwards, singling someone out. He gestured to his eye and pointed some more. “You saw that,” he seemed to say. “You’ll be happy now,” he added, according to some reports, before heading down the tunnel.
“Who were you talking to?” he was asked. “He knows,” Piqué said. Most thought they knew too: in the stands, grinning, was the league president Javier Tebas, there to promote the unveiling of the stadium’s new name and new, lit-up lemon facade.
Tebas is the man who criticised Barcelona’s players’ behaviour at the Mestalla, who the club had formally complained about, and who Piqué says is against them – even though it is the federation, not the league, that is in charge of the referees, and no one hates Tebas like Ángel María Villar, the federation president, hates Tebas.
After the midweek Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic in Bilbao, during which Barcelona were denied a penalty, Piqué insisted that Barcelona “know” what they’re up against. He was asked again on Sunday night. “I believe in what I said, and every week proves me right,” he replied, forgetting all those weeks that don’t. And so it began again, exclamation marks and paranoia littering the place like a Donald Trump tweet. “Hands up!” railed the front of El Mundo Deportivo. “The referee robbed another penalty!”
“Piqué challenged Tebas!” the cover of Sport shouted. Above it, in giant capital letters, the headline ran: “They deserved much more!” Maybe, but.
“It hurts when you’re so close to the shore,” Villarreal manager Fran Escribá said; his team could almost reach out and touch victory. “But,” he admitted, “it is true that they dominated, that they had chances, and that we would have liked to have had the ball more, rather than having to play on the break.”
In the second half there had been just one Villarreal shot and that was the goal – a superb swift, incisive counter, finished off by Nicola Sansone. By the full-time whistle, the shot count read Villarreal 6, Barcelona 20 and Luis Enrique was entitled to insist “we’re in that daft moment when we have to generate so much to win.” Had Bruno’s stop been seen, things might have been different, true; and Piqué had a point when he replied to a question about “the handball” by saying “two handballs”. Bruno handled again four minutes after his first one, although this time it was a slip, not a save.
Yet in between those handballs there was a third, at the other end, when the ball hit Javier Mascherano’s outstretched arm. A handball that Santi Nolla, the editor of El Mundo Deportivo, tried to claim mattered less because it happened “after”. As for Mascherano himself, the centre-back claimed that “the two handballs cannot be compared”. He was right, they were indeed very different, but in one fundamental way they certainly can be compared: both are handballs. Besides, if decisions can be decisive at times, there is something deeper, more concerning for Barcelona. Like the fact that Villarreal too could feel disappointed at this.
Villarreal are an impressive side who counter wonderfully, Bruno and Manu Trigueros forming as good a central-midfield partnership as there is. They began the weekend in the top four, have been beaten just once at home and have not lost to any of the top six – they drew with Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona, beat Atlético 3-0 and defeated Real Sociedad 2-1. They beat Celta 5-0 the week after Celta beat Barcelona. This was not a terrible performance, and a draw at the Ceramic Stadium is no crisis.
That Barcelona needed a late equaliser is not necessarily a problem, that they were rescued by Messi isn’t either, except that it is more familiar than they would like. It happened at the Sánchez Pizjuán, for a start. “Where there’s Messi, there’s hope,” Santi Giménez wrote in AS, but that dependence is troubling, his brilliance hiding flaws.
“It’s frightening to think what this team would be without him,” Giménez added, and if that may be overly pessimistic, it’s a reality that Barcelona seem a step slower; that Sergio Busquets’ form has slipped and with it the collective functioning of the midfield - cause or effect or both? It is also unclear who their third midfielder is, none of them entirely convincing or given continuity. André Gomes is not so much bad as absent, Luis Suárez is not playing well, and it is comical now to look back on polls in which 92.56% had happily forgotten Dani Alves.
It is a reality that the strength in depth summer supposedly brought hasn’t happened yet; that Neymar’s willingness to go at people is not producing results as good as his performances; that it takes little for them to concede and a lot for them to score; that they are not controlling like they did. And then there’s the other thing, always there when it comes to Barcelona: Real Madrid.
Under normal circumstances, Messi’s equaliser might have been seen as the goal that rescued the title for Barcelona, but few were looking at it like that this time round. These are not normal circumstances. This weekend, Real Madrid matched Barcelona’s Spanish record with their 39th game unbeaten in a row; it increasingly feels like they might take their title too, a first league in five seasons. Win at Sevilla next weekend, and that feeling will increase further. Lose and it will be all ‘Hay Liga!’ again, of course.
It’s not just the stats, it’s the sensation – Madrid have added playing well to their winning – but the stats are stark. Barcelona are third now, not second; they trail Sevilla by a point and Real Madrid by five. The leaders have a game in hand to play, against Valencia next month. It’s not in Barcelona’s hands.
“We’re convinced we can win the league,” Piqué said.
“We’re still in the first half of the season, so of course there’s still a chance to win the league,” Luis Enrique agreed. “I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity to fight for the title, but it doesn’t depend on us: we depend on Real Madrid.”
• Previously, on La Liga: over Christmas, three managers went: Joaquín Caparrós, Valencia’s Cesare Prandelli and Málaga’s Juande Ramos. Tonight, two of the new men face each other: Osasuna, whose sporting director has made himself the manager, play Valencia, whose crisis gets worse and worse, and whose matchday delegate has just been made their manager for the fifth time – just over three months since he last left, saying he never, ever wanted to be back again.
• This week, Valencia’s sporting director, Richard Madeley-alike Suso García Pitarch resigned too, nine days after he threatened to resign, then decided that his late father would be ashamed if he did. Good job they’re not in a transfer window or anything. Oh. So, in summary: Valencia’s matchday delegate is their manager, their youth academy director is the sporting director, their captain is persona non grata, their owner is absent, and their president is their owner, or at least says she is.
• Málaga’s new manager is their former assistant coach, Clever Marcelo Romero Silva. And yes, Clever really is his name. Only he goes by the nickname Gato (the cat). That’s Gato Romero to you and me, and everyone else. Well, almost everyone else. The club’s president, Sheik Al-Thani, announced that he had full faith in “Mr Cat”. He then linked to a Wikipedia page, in case anyone wanted to know who the manager was, which suggested that he had been having a look there himself. Clever. Gato lost his first game to Celta, the opening goal scored by Iago Aspas, Spain’s most in-form player (after Messi).
• Another day, another win for Zinédine Zidane, and another decision vindicated. Isco comes in, Isco scores two. Real Madrid beat Granada 5-0. Casemiro scored, meaning that every single outfield player has now scored this season, if you don’t count Fabio Coentrão. Which, let’s face it, you don’t – although he did get on here for his first 22 minutes of the season and managed to do nothing wrong. His is a very curious case. The man he replaced was brilliant; a decade on and Marcelo might finally be getting recognised.
• Before the game, Ronaldo was handed the Ballon d’Or, alongside the club’s other surviving winners of the award. Kaká and Fabio Cannavaro sent video messages, while Raymond Kopa, Luis Figo, Michael Owen and the original Ronaldo joined him on the pitch. “I thought I was piling on the pounds until I saw my old mate Ronnie,” Owen tweeted later. Around the stadium, fans held up golden cards, as (Cristiano) Ronaldo stood behind a table with his four trophies on it; quite the achievement. “It’s nice; none of us there have four,” Zidane said. “We only have one; maybe Ronnie has two.” He does: 1997 and 2002.
• Abelardo once described Sporting Gijón as “revolutionary”. At the weekend, they were defeated by El Zhar (and he was assisted by Prince). Sporting currently look more likely to end the season relegated than revolutionary. It was only 1-0, but it could have been many more. And while Las Palmas are very, very good, and always worth watching, Sporting are pretty dreadful. They have won just one match in 14, picking up five points from the last 42. Every time he speaks now, Abelardo seems to be begging to get sacked, too. “I must have some special contacts; I’m still here,” he said this time.
• Sevilla were a cyclone, blowing la Real away in San Sebastián. They scored four, and in the week in which everyone has been talking about the desperate need for a striker, Wissam Ben Yedder got three of them. That’s 15 in all competitions for him this season, as Sevilla climbed to second. They have not been as well-placed as this for 10 years, when they came agonisingly close to winning the league, and really should have done. Next up, they host Real Madrid twice in four days – once in the league, once in the Cup.
• Well, everyone else has cracked this joke, so why not here too? There were no celebrations for Leganés against Betis (still unbeaten at home under Víctor, who took over from Gus Poyet), despite them signing a new goalkeeper in the winter window. Nereo Champagne let in two at the Villarmarín.
• “We went back to being Atlético again,” Antoine Griezmann said after they had beaten Eibar 2-0, the Frenchman scoring his first goal since October. “Eleven defending and up front hoping to take the few chances we get.” It was effective, but that other version was more fun.
• Pity they didn’t go the whole way at Villarreal and replace ‘stadium’ with ‘bowl’, too.
Results: Espanyol 1-1 Deportivo, Real Madrid 5-0 Granada, Eibar 0-2 Atlético, Las Palmas 1-0 Sporting, Real Sociedad 0-4 Sevilla, Athletic 0-0 Alavés, Betis 2-0 Leganés, Celta 3-1 Málaga, Villarreal 1-1 Barcelona.