Real Madrid face fixture pile up as Barcelona put the pressure on
Five things from a controversial weekend in La Liga as Barcelona closed on leaders Real Madrid, whose game was postponed due to damage to Celta Vigo's stadium.
1. Madrid fixture mess
Real Madrid might not have been playing on Saturday, but they still dominated the headlines in the local sporting press for much of the day with their game at Celta Vigo on Sunday being postponed.
Confusion and speculation continued for hours after Vigo mayor Abel Caballero said before lunchtime that winds of over 150 kilometers an hour in Galicia had dislodged parts of the roof at the Balaidos stadium, and there was no way a game could be played for safety reasons.
This seemed straightforward enough, but Madrid began briefing friendly local journalists that they were definitely travelling anyway and they would find a way for the game to be played. Different ideas were floated, from a partial ground closure to it being moved to another stadium -- such as the Estadio Multiusos de San Lazaro in Santiago de Compostela or Sporting Gjion's El Molinon. There was also a suggestion on social media that Celta had somehow contrived the situation as they were distracted by their midweek Copa del Rey semifinal, while Madrid really wanted to play the game for that same reason.
Such ideas seemed crazy -- for example Gijon is 400 kilometers from Vigo by road -- but they filled the vacuum as hours passed without any official statement. The decision apparently got caught up in the usual power struggles between La Liga and the RFEF (Spanish FA), two organisations which rarely if ever agree about anything. Adding to the confusion was a statement from Alaves saying Celta had to play on Sunday as a postponement would give an unfair advantage ahead in their Copa tie.
Finally around 9.30 p.m. local time, La Liga announced the postponement, while adding that the RFEF would have responsibility for setting the date of the postponed game. That is tricky as Madrid already have one rearranged game, at Valencia and now confirmed for Wednesday, Feb. 22. Champions League and Europa League commitments further complicate matters, unless Celta are knocked out by Shakhtar Donetsk, so expect more behind the scenes pressuring and arguing.
Meanwhile, Zidane's side remain top of the league, but fixture congestion in April or May could be a factor.
2. Barca vs. Athletic was all about comebacks
Less than two months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Athletic Bilbao centre-back Yeray Alvarez started at the Camp Nou on Saturday afternoon -- meaning that even before kick-off he had won a huge personal battle.
"I felt pretty good, I need to play more now, but I am very happy even though we didn't win game," Yeray said after the match.
For Barcelona, back-up right-back Aleix Vidal had been completely out of the picture at the Camp Nou, and seemed sure to leave the club in the January window. However, a recent turnaround in his fortunes was completed on Saturday as he scored a fine solo goal to seal a 3-0 win which moved Barca to within a point of Madrid, though with two extra games played.
"It wasn't my best game," Vidal admitted. "But I'm very happy with how it went."
It was also a good day for Alcacer, who finally scored his first La Liga goal for his new club at the 11th attempt.
The game itself was more or less decided by half-time. Barca's better finishing and poor goalkeeping from Athletic's Gorka Iraizoz saw Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi on the scoresheet before the break, while Inaki Williams also had an afternoon to forget for the visitors.
3. Asenjo thwarts Sevilla
Ex-Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo did his former side a huge favour on Sunday lunchtime, with a man of the match display as Villarreal escaped from Sevilla with a 0-0 draw.
It was 27 games and 525 days since Sevilla were held goalless at the Sanchez Pizjuan, but Asenjo first saved Samir Nasri's weakly struck penalty and then pushed away Vicente Iborra's late close range header to ensure the game ended all square.
Two more points dropped means Jorge Sampaoli's side now look to be leading the race for third spot, rather than realistically fighting Madrid and Barca for the title. Villarreal are also, as usual, in that race for a Champions League qualification place, with Asenjo on track to win La Liga's "Zamora" best goalkeeper award as his team have conceded just 14 goals in 21 games so far.
4. Torres gets his ton up
Fernando Torres has had a mixed 18 months since his return to Atletico Madrid -- but the lifelong Colchonero still has an undeniable sense of timing.
Almost 16 years after making his debut for Atletico against Leganes in a Segunda Division clash, Torres returned to the starting XI for Saturday afternoon's game at the Calderon against their struggling neighbours.
And the striker, who turns 33 next month, took full advantage. He got his first when reacting quickly after Antoine Griezmann's penalty miss, and second with a confident clip into the net soon after half-time which recalled his Euro 2008 final-winning finish against Germany.
Amid all the nostalgia it was easy to forget that Torres had not scored in La Liga since September, but coach Diego Simeone is not one to get too carried away with emotion. "Torres has had four fantastic days," Simeone said afterwards, without having to add that the veteran has had a poor last five months and must do a lot more to earn a contract extension past June.
The goals took Torres to 100 in league competition in Spain -- seven of them coming in the Segunda and a further 93 in the top flight.
5. "Voro" effect over
The "Voro" effect, which had seen Valencia rise up the table with two wins under their local coach, looks to be over already going by their embarrassing 4-0 hammering in front of their own fans by Eibar on Sunday night.
Without the suspended Dani Parejo in midfield, Valencia were completely outclassed by their Basque visitors, and January signings Simone Zaza and Fabian Orellana made no difference at all in what was a totally abject display.
Less than a year ago Valencia were 22 games unbeaten at Mestalla -- but they have now lost 11 of their last 18 La Liga home games. The ground had emptied long before the final whistle, with supporters understandably angry and disillusioned with the team's continuing slide into ignominy under owner Peter Lim.
The only saving grace for Los Che fans is that Sporting Gijon (beaten 3-0 at home by Alaves), Osasuna (slightly unlucky to lose 3-2 at Real Sociedad) and Granada (at home to Las Palmas on Monday) are all just as bad, if not worse.
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