La Liga Review: Athletic Bilbao Misses An Opportunity To Inch Closer to a Champions League Spot
While Real Madrid and Barcelona run away from the rest of the field in the struggle for the La Liga title, the tussle for the next four European spots is just as fascinating. The mix of teams truly runs the gamut from the usuals to the upstarts.
Sevilla and Valencia continue to be the consistent teams that finish in the top five. Deportivo La Coruña is trying to regain their European pedigree that glittered the Galicians from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Athletic Bilbao and Mallorca have ridden the roller coaster in the past decade, from top-ten finishes to relegation scares in other years. Then there is Getafe, the little team from the outskirts of Madrid that has actually competed in European competition more recently than Athletic, Mallorca, or Depor.
In the early Saturday kickoff, Athletic Club and Getafe squared off in San Mamés in a match that included direct consequences to the European race. Unlike most leagues, if clubs are tied on points at the end of the season, the first tiebreaker is the head-to-head record. In the reverse fixture in October, Getafe handled the Basques with little problem 2-0, although that game occurred at a time when Athletic reeled from losing four of their previous six matches. Now that the end-of-season possibilities become much clearer, both of these teams had plenty of incentive to take the three points with Europe in the front of their minds.
This was Getafe’s first match since they received the news that Roberto Soldado would be out of action for a month and a half with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Miku, the striker that Getafe got on a free transfer in January from Valencia, became the natural replacement for Soldado as the lone striker in Getafe’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
Getafe’s back line was a bit of a hodgepodge because right back Miguel Torres filled in as a central defender in place of Cata Díaz, and David Cortés got a rare start at right back. Preparing a makeshift defense to face a fierce three-pronged Athletic attack, especially at San Mamés, was one of the top priorities for Getafe manager Míchel heading into Saturday.
Athletic Club, however, had its regular players ready for selection against Getafe. In their 0-0 draw with Sporting Gijón last weekend, Athletic missed another penalty that cost them points. That time, it was Igor Gabilondo that was denied, and with none of the relevant teams in the European scrap winning last weekend, Athletic threw away two more vital points that would have tied them with Sevilla at fourth place.
When Athletic plays at home, they tend to play more football on the ground than in the air, and they ratchet up their typical physical play. Saturday’s match was no exception, and when Pablo Orbaiz scored in the 14th minute for Athletic, they deserved to be in the lead. Bilbao’s manager Joaquin Caparrós employed his tactics to perfection, as his team pushed around Getafe, and El Geta had no answer. Even though Getafe played with more of the ball, Athletic did not allow them to flow with their usual fluidity. The only way that Getafe could get into the match was through an Athletic mistake, and that mistake transpired in the 32nd minute, when Manu del Moral’ shot/cross somehow sneaked past Gorka Iraizoz to equalize 1-1.
The Getafe attack seemed to have passed, and Manu’s cross from the left flank initially looked harmless, but Bilbao central defender Mikel San José, on loan from Liverpool, decided to let the ball go at the last second towards Iraizoz instead of clearing it, and Iraizoz could not adjust himself in time when he realized the ball was coming toward him. The ball nestled into the side netting, and the shock and frustration from that conceded goal spilled over in the 37th minute when Pablo Orbaiz was sent off with a red card.
After Orbaiz suffered a late challenge from David Cortés, Orbaiz retaliated by viciously kicking David Cortés in the groin. Cortés received a yellow card for the tackle on Orbaiz, but Orbaiz’s indemnity for the tackle was uncalled for and potentially damaging for Athletic in the long run, as he will likely be suspended for more than one match.
Athletic continued their on-the-edge physical style when Carlos Gurpegui was cautioned for studding Javier Casquero’s ankle late in the first half.
To start the second half, Caparrós made an aggressive and positive substitution by inserting Iker Muniain in place of Gabilondo on the left side of Fernando Llorente. Gabilondo ghosted through the first half, and whether David Cortés gave him fits down the left flank, or he had not recovered from his missed penalty hangover, Caparrós made the right move by giving Muniain a chance to spark his ten-man team.
Muniain did just as he was prescribed, catalyzing an attack that nearly gave Gaizka Toquero a tap-in to give Athletic the 2-1 edge. In the 51st minute, Muniain performed some fancy dribbling to lay it off for Andoni Iraola, and Iraola’s hit his squared ball across the face of goal a shade too hard for Gaizka Toquero to get a toe on it, and it flashed just past the left far post.
With the game opened up completely with only twenty-one players on the pitch, Getafe expectedly had the upper hand, but Athletic endeavored into Getafe’s final third quite often, especially since the inclusion of Iker Muniain.
The game came to a lull until Miguel Torres brought down Markel Susaeta in the box to give Athletic a penalty kick to regain the lead. Torres received a straight red card for a “pull” on the shirt of Susaeta in the box on top of his yellow card he received earlier in the match. There was little to no contact from Torres on Susaeta, but Torres caused the problem when he tried to shepherd the ball back to Getafe goalkeeper Jordi Codina but could not reach Codina before Susaeta got there.
The penalty responsibility laid upon their talisman Fernando Llorente, and Athletic’s poor three for seven conversion rate from the penalty spot this year could easily have weighed on Llorente’s mind as he stepped up to take the penalty. Maybe that was on his mind, but he did not show it as he stroked the ball into the back of the net. Codina guessed the right way, but Llorente placed it in the corner, where Codina could not get a hand onto it.
The lead did not last long, as Pedro León completely baffled Carlos Gurpegui with a couple of cutbacks in the box, and Gurpegui could only recover enough to partially deflect Pedro León’s shot and fool Iraizoz as it went past him. A 2-2 final that both teams would feel as though they should have earned the full three points.
What a match for referee Alfonso Pérez Burrull to call. A couple of weeks ago, after a horrific performance in the Atlético Madrid – Valencia match, the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP) suspended Pérez Burrull for a couple of matches. Unfortunately known for his high-profile gaffes, Pérez Burrull had to control a match that was on the verge of chaos. The belief is that a strong referee can limit a match from becoming out of control, and while in most cases that is true, the referee can do little if the players have it in their mind to follow through on their cynical ideas.
Athletic Club is one of the hardest teams for referees to call in La Liga because their physical style borders on the line from legal to illegal. Maybe Pérez Burrull could have warned both teams earlier when the challenges flew around with little abandon, but he could not prevent what Pablo Orbaiz did to David Cortés. In addition, the other talking point was the penalty and subsequent red card he brandished to Miguel Torres late in the match. Yes, the contact was minimal, but Torres did prevent Susaeta from a goal-scoring opportunity, and Pérez Burrull had little choice in the matter.
The referee aside, Athletic can only blame itself for surrendering two points to Getafe. Los Azulones are a solid team, but they lacked their top scorer, and Athletic’s supernal home form would suggest a win against Getafe. Luckily, for Athletic, none of the teams with whom they are involved in the competition for Europe strung a series of positive results that would have put Bilbao in a severe uphill climb. Eleven matches remain, and if Athletic can stay disciplined for those upcoming matches, they can easily qualify for Europe due to placement in the league, not because they were the losing team in the Copa del Rey final.
Fueras de Juego
- Sevilla’s malaise continues as Espanyol thrived on Los Nervionenses‘ impotent performance with an easy 2-0 win. Aside from the match itself, the fans at the Cornellà – El Prat paid a poignant tribute to both teams’ fallen players, Daniel Jarque and Antonio Puerta. All season long, the Espanyol fans all clap in unison during the 21st minute in honor of their previous captain Daniel Jarque, who wore the number 21 and who tragically died in the preseason from a heart attack. If there were any team that would know this pain, it would be Sevilla because in August of 2007, they lost their own player, Antonio Puerta, to a cardiac arrest. When the game reached the 16th minute, the Espanyol fans stood up and clapped for that whole minute in honor of Antonio Puerta, who wore the number 16.
- Three golazos of the week. The golazo for pure technique goes to Felipe Mattioni of Mallorca. Mallorca kept its stellar home form with a 4-1 dismissal of Atlético Madrid, and the exclamation point for the islanders was Felipe Mattioni’s exquisite volley in the 90th minute that astonished Atleti goalkeeper David de Gea. From a curling cross from the left flank, Mattioni side-volleyed a bullet that required perfect timing and technique from twenty-five yards.
- David Silva provided the golazo of the week for pure improvisation as his Valencia team struck an impressive 2-0 victory over an Almería team that could be argued as the third best team in La Liga in the second half of the season. Knocked down on the floor from a Santi Acasiete tackle, Silva still possessed the presence of mind to keep himself involved in the play, and from the seat of his pants, he swept and hooked the ball into goal past a diving Diego Alves.
- In Lionel Messi’s hat-trick in Barcelona’s 2-4 win against a tough Real Zaragoza side when they play at home in La Romareda, his second goal was the golazo of the week for pure determination. Not known for his physical prowess, Messi bullied the ball away from Ander Herrera near the halfway line, and he proceeded to go on a mazy run, skipping past a sliding Jiri Jarošik, then cutting back twice against Matteo Contini, who screwed himself into the ground with the twist and turns that Messi forced them to do, and ultimately shooting across the face of goal and past Roberto to give Barça the 0-2 lead. In contrast to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s glaring misses, Messi’s ingenuity continues to awe.