After its brief winter break, La Liga recommenced this weekend, with important wins for what is now the top three: Barcelona, Valencia and Real Madrid.
FC Barcelona 3 – 1 Real Mallorca
Barcelona started the weekend on Saturday evening, at home to Real Mallorca. Lionel Messi was rested, so Alexsandr Hleb started on the right. Another player familiar to English fans, Eidur Gudjohnsen, made only his sixth league start of the season. While it was not Barca’s strongest starting eleven, the Camp Nou was shocked as Mallorca took an early lead through Aritz Aduriz.
Even a side as good as Barcelona miss a player of Messi’s quality, and their play lacked the spark Messi provides. When they did equalise, it was from exploiting the second ball from a corner, Thierry Henry smashing it home from a tight angle.
A relatively pedestrian second half improved with the introduction of Dani Alves and Andrés Iniesta, the latter for the lacklustre Hleb. And it was Iniesta, returning from months out injured, who put Barca ahead with fifteen minutes left. He started a move from the left, which went through Xavi and Eto’o before he got on the end of Gudjohnsen’s cross to slot home. Yaya Touré scored the third in stoppage time, with a nice run and shot.
Valencia 3 – 1 Atlético Madrid
One of the ties of the weekend, between two sides separated only by goal difference. With thirty points from the first sixteen games, they were both strong contenders for the 2009/10 Champions League places.
As good as the pairing of Diego Forlan and Sergio Agüero has been this year, they were outshone and outdone by Valencia’s front two, Davids Silva and Villa. It was Villa who put Valencia ahead with a penalty on 34 minutes, won by Baraja’s exaggerated fall. It was Villa’s thirteenth league goal of the season. Valencia went two ahead five minutes later, as Miguel burst down the right and found David Silva, who finished with the outside of his left boot.
Atlético pulled one back in first half stoppage time, Diego Forlan converting a penalty. Baraja received the booking he should have got for his earlier dive after pushing over Kun Agüero in the box. There was no serious second half fightback thought from Atlético, pinned back as they were by Joaquin and Mata on the wings. David Silva scored Valencia’s third on 68 minutes with a great strike from twenty five yards out.
Real Madrid 1 – 0 Villareal
The big story was the debuts of Real’s two £20m Christmas presents, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lassana Diarra. Diarra partnered Gago in central midfield, in the absence of Guti. Huntelaar replaced the flu-struck Gonzalo Higuaín up front with Raúl.
But the star performance was from Arjen Robben. The former Chelsea winger is having his best season yet at the Bernabeu, and started this game from the right wing, rather than his usual outside-left role. While Raul and Huntelaar were kept quiet, Robben gave left back Joan Capdevila a torrid time, racing past him both inside and out.
It was when he came inside onto his left foot that he produced the game’s one moment of exceptional quality, dropping his shoulder and beating three defenders before finding the top corner from twenty yards out. It was a ludicrously good goal, and a hint that when form and fitness are on his side, Arjen Robben is not very far away from the Ronaldo/Messi bracket.
The rest of the game was less good. Iker Casillas had to make a few very good saves, as the Heinze-Pepe-Cannavaro-Ramos back four again looked less good on the pitch than it does on paper. Royston Drenthe came on for Huntelaar with forty minutes left and proved that, if he does make his unlikely move, Jermaine Pennant will not be the worst ever player to play for Real Madrid.