Hard to swallow
The presenter of El Punt Avui TV’s The Week in Football, Barney Griffiths, analyses the situation at Catalonia’s leading clubs as the season draws to a close
Last month I wrote “It is hard to see how things could have gone much better for Barça since Athletic knocked them out of the Copa del Rey.” Well it doesn’t take long for things to change in football, and it’s hard to see how things could have gone worse for Xavi’s side than in the last two weeks of April. They did gain a hard-fought three points away at high-flying Real Sociedad, grinding out a 1-0 win thanks to yet another goal from January singing Aubameyang and an all-round spirited performance, but that came in the middle of three shock home defeats that rocked Barça’s world.
There was mass disapproval around the city and condemnation from the footballing world and media in general when almost 30,000 German fans took over not only the Barcelona streets but also the stadium for the second-leg tie of the club’s quarter final against Eintracht Frankfurt. An internal enquiry was launched by president Joan Laporta after Barça crashed out of Europe’s second tier tournament in a 2-3 home defeat fuelled by huge numbers of white-shirted German fans taking over various sections of the Camp Nou. Something had clearly gone wrong to allow so many away fans to get hold of tickets, and despite Laporta’s claims that the club were responsible but not guilty for the mass resale of tickets via agencies and the club’s own fans, the impression that Barça and their fans were more interested in money than progressing in the Europa League lead to scathing comments. The fact that the following two home games saw the side lose 1-0 to lowly opposition – Cádiz and Rayo Vallecano, two teams battling relegation - highlighted the feeling that the Frankfurt game may have done more harm than originally thought.
So what has gone so horribly wrong for Xavi’s side on the pitch? The basic pattern is that Barça are unable to break down tenacious and well organised opposition, and need far more chances to score a goal than their opposition. Those dreamy days of 4-0 wins outplaying Madrid in the Bernabeu are now a distant memory and although Xavi’s number one goal when he arrived, that of dragging the team into the Champions League places for next season, appears to be all but achieved, questions now abound around the prodigal son’s ability to motivate a side that has wilted under pressure and seen either bad luck or poor preparation when it comes to serious injuries to key players. The “we have X number of finals left to secure Champions League football” mantra has been whittled down to five games but surely a six point cushion over Betis is enough…?
For their part, Espanyol’s April also left a lot to be desired, with five league games producing four defeats and one important victory. To be fair, the periquitos faced a month with three of the most challenging away fixtures imaginable, at Real Sociedad Atlético and a title-chasing Real Madrid, but the 1-0 home defeat to Rayo in the penultimate game of the month felt like a big blow for a side that had been on a three-game home winning run. The one win of the month came at the expense of lowly Celta at home, a Wu Lei goal from yet another Sergi Darder assist sealing three points that left Vicente’s side safely clear of the relegation places on 39 points.
The defeat at Atlético was a particularly hard one to swallow after a controversial 100th minute penalty for handball against Raul De Tomas deprived Espanyol of a point, a bizarre case of lightning striking twice after they had also lost to a goal by Atlético in 10 minutes of added time in the reverse fixture earlier in the season. Vicente did not agree with the use of VAR to award the penalty, and it was cruel blow for a side that looked to have won a hard-earned point in a difficult stadium.
Espanyol now have four games remaining to try and climb into the top half of La Liga, a goal that does not seem out of the question with home games against Osasuna and Valencia and away fixtures at Alavés and Granada.
Two wins and two defeats to nil for Girona in April mean that Michel’s side find themselves among the play-off places with just five games remaining. Fans will not be holding their breath at the prospect of promotion given the club’s atrocious play-off record over the past ten years, but at least it gives them something to look forward to if they can keep their composure and end the season in the top six. The other sides currently in the play-off places are Valladolid, Tenerife and Oviedo, the latter having gone on a blistering run of five straight wins to leapfrog Ponferradina into sixth, just one point behind Girona. Girona themselves have only a four-point cushion from seventh place, so the race for the play-off places is really heating up, although a home game with Tenerife on May 9 is the only one against a rival in the top ten, meaning Girona’s destiny is very much in its own hands.
Returning to last month’s action, Girona won both their home games (1-0 v Malaga and 2-0 v Real Sociedad B), and lost both of their away games (1-0 at Zaragoza and 3-0 at Cartagena). Despite the score line, the loss to Cartagena did not leave coach Michel concerned, as his side just failed to take their chances in a very equal game, while the hosts took all of theirs. “I’m very satisfied with the team’s display, despite the result,” he declared after the game. Girona will need to be more ruthless in front of goal if they are to maintain their hopes of promotion to La Liga through the play-offs.