Real Madrid, Barcelona win heavily to maintain lock on La Liga title race
Five thoughts from the midweek action as Real Madrid and Barcelona both won heavily to maintain their head-to-head lock at the top of the La Liga table and things got clarified at the bottom.
1. Madrid's "second unit" dazzle again
Sunday's Clasico defeat made no difference to Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane's rotation policy, as he left Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos at home and made nine changes to his XI for Wednesday evening's potentially tricky trip to Deportivo La Coruna.
But not for the first time in recent weeks, Madrid's "second unit" started really strongly, and Alvaro Morata shot them in front after just 53 seconds. They kept pouring players forward and linking superbly and could easily have been four or five up by halftime.
The fun continued after the break, with James Rodriguez [two], Lucas Vazquez, Isco and substitute Casemiro ending up on the score sheet, while Depor played their part in the entertainment and had goals from Florin Andone and ex-Castilla youngster Joselu.
Postgame, the talk was all about which of the "reserves" had done enough to persuade Zidane to pick them for the upcoming Champions League semifinals against Atletico Madrid. The Frenchman accepted that he had a difficult job picking his XI for each game but also defended his big names.
"The others, those who play a lot, play well, too," he said. "It's not that they do badly."
The performance at Riazor was further evidence that Zidane might not be a tactical genius, but he knows how to manage a deep squad full of exciting talents of various ages and personalities. And level on points with Barcelona with a game in hand, Madrid have the strength in depth to make them still big favourites for the title.
2. From Messi to Mascherano
It was all about Lionel Messi (again) through the opening stages of Barcelona's 7-1 stroll at home against Osasuna on Wednesday evening. Before kickoff, the Camp Nou acclaimed Messi's 500th Barca goal in last Sunday's Clasico, and the blaugrana No. 10 treated himself to his fourth double in his past five La Liga games to have Barca 4-1 ahead before he was taken off for a rest with half an hour left.
That all just paved the way for the night's best moment. When Denis Suarez was tripped inside the box, Ivan Rakitic grabbed the ball, but Gerard Pique persuaded him to hand it over to Javier Mascherano, who everyone knew had never scored for the club in over five seasons at the Camp Nou.
Mascherano showed admirable focus to hammer in an unstoppable spot kick, his first goal for the club on his 319th appearance. The Barca bench, including coach Luis Enrique and unused sub Luis Suarez, giggled with delight as the Argentine celebrated in typically understated manner. "The only thing I wanted was not to go into history by missing it," he said characteristically afterward.
Given how well he struck the penalty, though, and Barca's issues from the spot in recent years, the veteran utility man probably deserves a chance to take the next one, too.
3. Double frustration for Atletico
Atletico Madrid got a dose of their own medicine at home to Villarreal on Tuesday evening. The visitors sat tight, defended well and then capitalised on one of their few chances when substitute Cedric Bakambu took advantage of a rare mistake from Atletico left-back Filipe Luis to set up fellow replacement Roberto Soriano for the game's only goal.
It should not actually have been such a shock. Villarreal have now won three of their past four games against Atletico and have become experts at getting results against the top sides. Colchoneros coach Diego Simeone said afterward that he recognised clearly what had just happened to his team.
"We have won many times in this way," Simeone said. "Today we lost. This is part of the sport."
Simeone was not so relaxed on the full-time whistle. He placed his hands on a linesman's shoulders while remonstrating about what he contended were too few added minutes played. Given it's not the first time the Argentine has been involved in such incidents, a touchline ban is likely, just as his team needs to fend off the challenge of Sevilla, who host Celta Vigo on Thursday, in the race for third spot.
4. Leganes on way to safety
Three goals in six minutes early in the second half saw Leganes beat an already-on-their-holidays Las Palmas 3-0 and leave the very well-run suburban Madrid club in good position to achieve safety in their first Primera Division season.
Asier Garitano's side were cautious through the first half, but a mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas let in Luciano to open the scoring. That eased the tension at Butarque. Another error from visiting full-back Helder Lopes helped Juan Carlos Guerrero make it 2-0, and Brazilian forward Luciano soon gleefully smashed in a third to make the points safe.
With four games left to play, 17th-placed Leganes now have a six-point gap over Sporting Gijon. Hosting Espanyol on Tuesday evening, Sporting went 1-0 up after just three minutes through Victor Rodriguez's free kick, but the visitors' Gerardo Moreno equalised. And now Gijon look all but down.
5. Granada already moving on
Tony Adams' third game as interim Granada coach brought a third defeat, as two fine strikes from the increasingly impressive Sandro Ramirez gave Malaga a straightforward 2-0 win at Los Carmenes on Tuesday night.
Granada were again a sorry sight, with Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa easily their best player, and home fans venting their frustration at just one point from their past nine games.
"Psychologically, they have been down already for many weeks," summed up the AS match report. "Adams' arrival has just multiplied the ineffectiveness of a team which has no idea what it is playing at."
There was better news the morning after the game, with Adams and vice president Kanging Wang presenting Manolo Salvador as the club's new sporting director. Salvador is highly regarded for building a number of promotion-winning sides at Levante, and his hiring is evidence perhaps that Granada's Chinese owners, DDMC, are serious about building a long-term project.
"It's a great relief to me not to talk about football and talk about something positive," a relaxed Adams joked at the presentation. "It's a good day for me, for DDMC and for Granada football club. We've got the right man and the right fit for Granada."
Relegation has yet to be mathematically confirmed, but planning for promotion next season has already begun.
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