10 La Liga Lessons: A terrific title race and a Segunda-bound Betis

Our Spain expert Tim Stannard on the weekend in La Liga... 

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Betis are so, so doomed. Really doomed

Rubén Castro can knock in as many as he likes for Betis, but all the strikes are worthless if the defence is going to continue to play like a giant bag of hapless spanners. The Andalusian side have shipped 14 goals in the team’s last four games, the latest disaster being Saturday's 5-0 loss at Valencia, prompting full-back Juanfran to fume that “this is an awful season. We are a disaster. Our fans don’t deserve us, nor does the club.” Zing!

Javier Aguirre learns his lesson for Espanyol

With Perico manager Javier Aguirre having recently finished serving a four-match touchline ban for a potty-mouthed explosion at the referee, there was a sharp intake of breath when Espanyol defender Víctor Alvarez was sent off after 30 minutes. 
However, Aguirre bit his lip and thus remained very active for the rest of the match – which ended up as a 1-0 victory against Granada in Cornella. “I learned my lesson,” admitted the Mexican coach. “I still maintain that I said this particular word ['son of a bleep'] a lot, but not to the ref.”

Tottenham’s Falque finally finds some form

At last, Rayo turned possession, intensity and effort into something useful – goals and points. The 4-1 win over Málaga saw a fine brace from Spurs loanee Iago Falque, who looked very sprightly indeed in the victory in Vallecas. “Our best first half of the season,” announced a proud Paco Jémez, who for once got to do something other than lament defensive mistakes. 

Luis García is on borrowed time at Getafe

LLL suspects that the Getafe boss may be deep-down desperate to get fired from the Coliseum club: the coach is only capable of getting so much out of his players, who continue to be as flimsy and flaky as they come. “It’s football, it doesn’t matter,” said García on the prospect. The 2-0 defeat on Sunday at Osasuna leaves Getafe with just the single victory in 10 league games… not that anyone tends to notice.



Levante are still the immovable object

The Valencia club may not score many – 22 in 23 La Liga games this season – but this doesn’t matter too much when the defence is quite capable of keeping the other side out. Sunday’s goalless draw in San Sebastian against the normally prolific Real Sociedad was Levante's fifth 0-0 and ninth clean sheet. More proof that Joaquín Caparrós is always able to squeeze every drop out of the resources he has at his disposal.

Valencia show improvement under good eggs

Life's a little bit merrier in Mestalla after back-to-back wins for Valencia. However, on paper, the side that beat Betis 5-0 on Saturday seemed flimsy in the extreme. Pablo Alcácer and Pablo Piatti are hardly line-leading strongmen, and Eduardo Vargas has only just joined La Liga. However, the whole ensemble was vibrant and vivacious, especially with midfielder Sofiane Feghouli having one of his intermittent good spells.

Gareth Bale buys himself some time

Ahead of Saturday’s game, the stories in the Spanish press concerned the amount of time Gareth Bale has been off the pitch for Madrid – about 50% of available minutes – rather than his exploits on it. So when the Welshman's various muscles aligned adequately (not least with the start of a three-match ban for stroppy Cristiano Ronaldo) to allow him a run-out against Villarreal, his performance was timely in a victory that lifted Madrid alongside Atlético.
The 4-2 home win included an assist and a goal, but there's still the feeling that a fine footballer is only playing at half his capacity. What the mythical neutrals of the world want is to see the former Spurs man and Ronaldo in perfect balance and at full pelt on the wings. That really could be a sight to see.
The other narrative in the Spanish capital has been the 2014 of young forward Jesé Rodríguez, who scored again to drive more stories – somewhat premature and a bit too breathless – about a World Cup berth in the Spanish squad.

Gareth Bale, shortly before dislocating his index finger

Gareth Bale, shortly before dislocating his index finger

Atlético Madrid finally show signs of fatigue

Although Diego Simeone offered no excuses for the surprise 2-0 defeat at Almería, aside from congratulating the opposition, there was a certain flatness to the visitors' play. Indeed, there were times in the second half of Saturday’s encounter that the plastic bags floating around the stadium were more entertaining to watch than the clash itself.
Atlético certainly created chances but as the batteries ran down, Almería started to push in the final quarter of an hour and knocked in two goals (including a soft penalty that midfielder Gabi failed to save after Dani Aranzubia was sent off) to overcome Atleti in the type of scrappy, blue-collar game where the Rojiblancos normally thrive. However, one swallow not making a summer, Simeone’s side deserve more chances to show that the campaign is not coming to a steady close at a critical phase.

Messi leads Barça back from the brink

"The brink" is relative to each club, but for Barcelona it has been a worrisome week after the Camp Nou defeat to Valencia – and those doubts grew even further when Sevilla took the lead in the rain-sodden Sánchez Pizjuán. The southern side were inches from a second, but that missed opportunity allowed Barcelona and Leo Messi back in to roar away to a 4-1 win in what was a particularly hazardous encounter. 
The victory moved Barcelona back to the top of the table in a massive old tie with Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, and proved another reminder to those who needed it that Messi is a fairly handy footballer on his day. 

The title race keeps on getting better

Each team has its weaknesses. Atlético Madrid's worry will be their strength in depth and energy levels. For both Barcelona and Real Madrid it's a leaky, lacklustre defence that relies on its outstanding attack to dig it out of trouble, again and again. 
All these factors are cancelling each other out in a huge tie at the top of the table. Logic says that Real Madrid and Barcelona will begin to pull away, but Atlético Madrid have earned the right to be counted as true title contenders too. 
Next week, Atlético Madrid host Valladolid and Barça welcome Rayo Vallecano – both of which should be comfy home wins. Real Madrid are in the most danger of dropping points with a trip to Getafe, a side who can cause an upset if the wind is in the right direction. Each weekend is going to be a three-way sizzler. And in a clean way, too.