Bullish Barca, rickety Real Madrid among La Liga lessons learned
Barcelona and Real Madrid both overcame scares to record important wins in La Liga this past week -- here's what we learned from another memorable round of fixtures ...
Barca show resolve
In recent seasons Barcelona have not always reacted well to going behind. Even as recently as early January, they had 88 minutes to turn the scoreboard around at Real Sociedad but huffed and puffed and lost 1-0.
On four occasions in their last two games, however, Luis Enrique's men have conceded goals, and each time they have hit back quickly. In the Copa del Rey on Wednesday night, both of Atletico Madrid's goals were answered within eight minutes, with the second equaliser followed quickly by Neymar's eventual winning strike.
On Sunday evening a hugely impressive Villarreal side twice shocked the Camp Nou by taking the lead, but each time Barca regrouped and regained control of the game. Lionel Messi set up the first two equalisers and then hammered in the winner from the edge of the box.
"The team is prepared to overcome any game situation," a very happy Luis Enrique said afterwards.
"At the Calderon, after going 1-0 down, we went for the game. Today, against a good Villarreal side, we did it twice."
Such resilience is a very, very good sign.
Madrid corners issue still there
Real Madrid's 4-1 win over David Moyes' Real Sociedad at the Bernabeu was very comfortable in the end. But La Liga's leaders did have an early scare when the visitors' young right back Aritz Elustondo ghosted in completely unmarked at a corner to head his team ahead on just 38 seconds.
This brought back an issue which has dogged Madrid for a few seasons now, dating back to Jose Mourinho's time at the club. They have a weakness when it comes to defending set pieces. They know it too.
"We must keep improving at dead balls," centre back Sergio Ramos admitted after the game. "Each player must pick up their own man, and not suffer."
Whether Madrid are actually improving at defending set pieces is open to debate. This season Carlo Ancelotti's side have already conceded eight times from corners, up from six over the whole of last year. Research for sports paper AS found that of the 26 goals conceded in 35 official games, eight have been corners, four penalties and 14 in open play.
Next up for Madrid are two teams adept at punishing such frailties -- first Sevilla at the Bernabeu on Wednesday and then Atletico Madrid at the Estadio Vicente Calderon next Saturday afternoon.
Atletico have fancy tricks too
The loudest reaction from Atletico's Copa exit to Barcelona last week came from Los Colchoneros players and staff angry at what they felt was disrespectful showboating from Neymar.
On Saturday morning Barca coach Luis Enrique made the argument that "it was strange that one nutmeg was more offensive than four or five rough challenges," and said that Neymar had just been playing in a typical Brazilian way.
Saturday afternoon showed that it was not just Brazilians, or Barca players, who like to enjoy themselves on the pitch when their team are winning the game. With Atletico 3-0 up at Eibar, their centre forward Mario Mandzukic pulled out a "Rabona" cross. When Mandzukic tried another trick soon afterwards, the Basque side's left-back Lillo upended him and got a yellow card.
Atletico's senior players apparently admonished double goal scorer Mandzukic for his behaviour after the game. They must have been doubly embarrassed at how the Croatian had shown up their petulant reactions to the Copa exit.
Real Sociedad not much left now to look forward to
Real Sociedad's surprise lead at the Bernabeu lasted only a couple of minutes until James Rodriguez equalised and all hope of an upset seemed extinguished by top scorer Carlos Vela limping off with just 15 minutes played. From then on it was a painful experience for Moyes and his team, and the 4-1 score line would have been worse had Gareth Bale brought his shooting boots.
The rest of the season might not be much fun either for La Real, who are already out of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. Moyes has lamented the January transfer window closing without any new faces arriving. Mexico forward Vela faces a reported six weeks on the sidelines, and no teammate has scored more than two goals all season.
Their remaining fixture list does not look friendly. Having been humbled at the Bernabeu already, they must still go to the Camp Nou, Calderon, Mestalla and San Mames -- tough tests for a team which has not won on the road all season. Achieving mid-table mediocrity via by grinding out home wins now looks the best case scenario for Moyes' boys.
Three points make a big difference near bottom
Moyes' side are currently in 13th place in a very tight bottom half where just one win can make a huge difference.
Granada's first victory in 17 La Liga games, 1-0 against Elche on Saturday evening, immediately lifted them from bottom to outside the relegation zone. Almeria's first home win all season, 1-0 over Getafe on Sunday, then saw them leapfrog Granada to move to 18th place.
Deportivo La Coruna's first away goals since October helped them to a 2-1 at Rayo Vallecano which moved them up to 14th. Celta Vigo's first three points since they won at Barcelona on Nov 1 -- a 1-0 home win over Cordoba -- allowed them to return to the top half.
Things are so close that each week between now and the end of the season is likely to bring further reshuffles.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan