Sevilla failed to show up against a desperate Real Valladolid side. Mallorca could only muster a draw against Real Zaragoza at La Romareda. Athletic Bilbao knew that a win against Valencia on Thursday would ascend them to within one point of Mallorca for the final Champions League spot.
Sure, Athletic has not won away from the San Mamés since the middle of December, so they were not expected to win at the Mestalla against a Valencia team looking to lock up the final automatic Champions League place. Coming off an impressive 4-1 dismantling of an in-form Almería on Sunday, however, Joaquín Caparrós and his men seemed to have the confidence necessary to defeat Valencia.
As for Valencia, they went back to the future because of their sheer amount of injuries. Vicente Rodríguez, David Albelda, Joaquín, and Rubén Baraja all started for Los Che, hearkening back to the days when Valencia regularly competed in the later stages of the Champions League.
The apparent rift between Éver Banega and Unai Emery seemed to be repaired after Banega’s choleric behavior in being substituted against Mallorca on Sunday, but again, Banega’s inclusion in the starting eleven had more to do with the lack of midfield players at Emery’s disposal than any other factor.
With any match against Athletic Bilbao, the opposition should expect a physical affair and have a muted emphasis on quelling Bilbao’s direct style of play. Fortunately for Valencia, Athletic played with a languid style that did not suit their personnel.
Joaquín Caparrós lamented his team’s lack of energy and intensity in his press conference after the match:
“Today we have not been at the competitive level we can show at home. We knew it was a very good chance, but things do not go as one wants. In the locker room, it feels like the season is already over. We had hopes, but we knew that Valencia does really well in their home matches. We still feel anger that we did not come out with greater aggression.”
With Athletic ceding most of the possession to Valencia, David Villa, David Silva, and the Valencia attack needed to figure out how to break through the obstinate Athletic defense. Valencia plays it best football on the counter-attack, and it is no surprise that after Barcelona and Real Madrid, Valencia has the best away record in La Liga. Through the first half-hour, there was no constant threat on goal from either team. Joaquín and Rubén Baraja had headers that endangered Gorka Iraizoz’s goal, but Iraizoz handled them with relative ease.
When David Silva scored from a goal-line scramble in the 35th minute, Athletic neither stepped up their game nor fought back with anger, in line with Caparrós’ assessment of his team after the match.
Athletic’s lack of confidence away from home was clearly evident against Valencia, but they missed two key players that would have been vital in raising the spirits of their teammates: Gaizka Toquero and Pablo Orbaiz.
Gaizka Toquero has been the loyal sidekick to Fernando Llorente as the right-sided forward this season, but his contributions have gone well beyond his seven goals scored this season. A journeyman throughout most of his career in the lower divisions of Spain, the twenty-five year old would appreciate his opportunity to play with a top-level club more than most players, and his never-ending engine only helps to endear himself to his teammates and the Basque faithful.
Toquero wears the number two jersey, a number usually designated for a fullback, but many times, he helps Andoni Iraola on the right side of defense. Whereas Wayne Rooney sometimes receives criticism for running all over the pitch instead of focusing on his duties up front, fans laud Toquero for his abundance of energy and his willingness to help his defense when necessary.
With Pablo Orbaiz, he provides the steel in front of the defensive live that breaks up the opposition’s play as well as providing that extra slice of intimidation that comes with the Athletic Club brand. Orbaiz has gone over the line in a couple of instances this season, including receiving a two-match ban for his part in the ugly fracas at the end of the Villarreal match in February and receiving another two-match ban in March for kicking the cajones of David Cortés.
Athletic needed that extra bite in the midfield (the legal bite) against Valencia because of their skill players up front, and Carlos Gurpegui, Javi Martínez, and David López did not supply the girth necessary to bother Valencia.
After the halftime break, the insertion of Fran Yeste and Ander Iturraspe for the lagging David López and Igor Gabilondo brought a sense of vitality into the squad, but when David Silva scored his second goal in the 62nd minute, the fight and tenacity intertwined with Athletic Club players dissipated slowly into oblivion as Valencia cruised to a facile 2-0 victory to fortify their third-place position in La Liga.
This column has covered Athletic Club’s struggles when they have had a chance to threaten fourth-place, but to come up so small with the season reaching its climax is inexcusable for a team so close to qualifying for the Champions League. A common theme in La Liga this season has been the failure of the second tier teams below Real Madrid and Barcelona to fulfill their potential. Sevilla, Villarreal, and Atlético Madrid have seen significant dips in form, and while Athletic Club may not have been in that tier to begin the season, they have been consistent in the top ten.
To Bilbao’s advantage, four of their final six matches are at the San Mamés, and with their Dr. Jekyll – Mr. Hyde act, they should consider themselves favorites to garner at least ten out of twelve points from those matches. A Europa League berth based on league standing would be a good achievement for Athletic Club, but if they can finish in fourth and negotiate the playoff round in the Champions League, any European team would dread traveling to the San Mamés on a European night.
Fueras de Juego
- The golazo of the week must go to Pedro Rodríguez of Barcelona in their 3-0 win over Deportivo La Coruña. With Barça holding a slim 1-0 lead, Víctor Valdés went long with his goal kick, a rare occurrence for Valdés, because he saw Dani Alves streaking down the middle of the pitch with only one defender back. Depor goalkeeper Daniel Aranzubia came out of his area to clear the ball away from Alves. It was not the greatest clearance, but it went as far as the halfway line. From that point, Pedro kicked a soaring, curling ball first-time nearly from the halfway line into the back of the unguarded net. In a season full of awe-inspiring moments for Barça, that Pedro goal ranks near the top of the list in terms of pure difficulty and technique.
- Whenever a club from the bottom half of the table needs a signature victory over a top-five team, Sevilla is the most charitable team to give those lower clubs that sense of belonging. In Round 32, Real Valladolid took advantage of a below-par Sevilla side, and with their 2-0 victory on Wednesday evening, La Pucela climbed to within four points of Málaga and relegation safety. As much as Quique Sánchez Flores pulls his hair out for Atlético Madrid’s inconsistency, Manolo Jiménez and now Antonio Álvarez cannot understand how their collection of talented players have shut it down for the most part at the end of the season. Injuries took its toll on Los Nervionenses, but that is no excuse for the dearth of passion late in the season as they try to qualify for the Champions League for the third year running.
- Tenerife and Xerez, the other teams besides Valladolid in the drop zone, also won on Wednesday to increase their chances of staying in the top flight next season. With Málaga and Real Zaragoza just above them but hardly running away from the relegation fight, a surge to end the campaign is not out of the question for the bottom three teams.