Levante are back! The Valencia based side put their bad start to 2012 behind them with a 3-1 victory over Betis on Monday night which takes them back up to fourth. All the goals came in a fifteen minute period around half time, Barkero opening the scoring for the locals with a free kick inside Fabricio's near post. Eight minutes later Xavi Torres headed the second after good work by Barkero and Juanfran, but before the half time whistle some slack defending let a long pass through to Jorge Molina for him to get one back. Levante restored the two goal cushion though just five minutes in to the second half, Ghezzal waiting for Koné to come back onside before slipping the ball through for him to beat the visiting keeper with a low shot. Ghezzal went close a couple of times after that, but Juan Ignacio Martínez eventually decided it was time to consolidate, and put on an extra defender to close things down. Munúa had to save from Pereira, Molina and Santa Cruz, and Rubén Castro looped a header on to the crossbar, but there was no time left to turn this one around. Levante had their second win in a row to move on to 38 points, just a couple short of their original objective for the entire campaign. It remains to be seen whether they can hold on for a historic place in Europe, but whatever the case this has already been their best season ever. (05.03.12)
Real Madrid maintain the ten point gap over second placed Barcelona after a convincing 5-0 victory over Espanyol on Sunday. Romaric tried his luck early on, and Coutinho brought a good save out of Iker Casillas a few minutes later, but otherwise the Catalans hardly troubled the local keeper. Midway through the first half Özil intercepted a Raúl Rodríguez pass and played the ball through for Higuaín to set up Ronaldo for the opening goal, and a quarter of an hour later Khedira collected Özil's return pass and ran through to score the second. Only a couple of good saves by Kiko Casilla prevented Higuaín and Ronaldo from adding to the scoreline, but just a couple of minutes in to the second half Higuaín latched on to Kaká's pass to fire home the third. The two combined again twice more after that, Higuaín turning Ronaldo's pass back for Kaká to beat Casilla from a wide angle, and Kaká laying the ball across for Higuaín to poke home his second of the night. It could have been more had Casilla not kept out efforts from Ronaldo, Higuaín and substitute Morata, but with 22 wins and 85 goals in their first 25 league games, Madrid are already re-writing the record books.
Earlier in the evening Valencia beat Granada 0-1 to consolidate their place in the Champions League positions. Unai Emery's side had only won once in their last eight games, and their once safe third spot had come under challenge recently from several teams. Soldado, who had not scored in the league since mid-January, was looking to build on the renewed confidence he got from his hat-trick for Spain mid-week, and he tested Julio César a couple of times early on. And with just over half an hour gone the visitors took the lead, Feghouli picking up a Jonas pass and turning past Siqueira before firing in a shot which went through the hands of the keeper in to the net. Jordi Alba could have scored a second had he been able to keep down his volley just before the break, but Jaime Romero came close to equalising when he fired a shot against the post at the beginning of the second half. That was about it for the locals though, and with some physical defending which earned them nine yellow cards, the Ches sat back to defend for the rest of the game.
Athletic Bilbao are back up to fourth after a 2-0 win over Basque neighbours Real Sociedad. Nine Athletic players were on international duty midweek, but it was one who wasn't, Susaeta, who was the star this weekend. The winger brought a good save out of Claudio Bravo before opening the scoring midway through the first half after Ander and Iraola combined to set him up. Griezmann tested Iraizoz at the other end, but Susaeta came close to a second when his free kick came down off the crossbar before hitting Bravo and going out. The visiting keeper was in action again before the half time whistle to make a triple save from Llorente, Muniain and Susaeta. But a couple of minutes after the restart Real were unlucky that referee Mateu Lahoz didn't see Carlos Vela's shot cross the line before Iraizoz got it away, nor did he see Javi Martínez push the ball with his hand in an attempt to stop it going in. Vela shot just wide a few minutes later and Agirretxe and Griezmann brought good saves out of Iraizoz, but with ten minutes to go it was Susaeta again who wrapped things up for Bielsa's side with a sweetly struck free kick.
Bottom club Zaragoza clocked up a last minute 2-1 win over Villarreal on Sunday lunchtime to keep their hopes of survival alive. The Maños hadn't won at home since mid-October, and they went behind again when Martinuccio finished off a quick passing move on the quarter hour mark. Roberto had to save a couple of times from Nilmar and Martinucchio fired a shot over the top as Villarreal looked to press home their advantage, but Diego López did well to keep out Pablo Alvarez, and Gonzalo cleared off the line from Abraham shortly before the break. The visitors slowed the game down in the second half, and only a couple of efforts from Ortí and Luis García troubled the visiting keeper. However with five minutes to go and many fans already out of the stadium, Luis García fired home the equaliser. Soon afterwards Roberto had to be at his best to keep out Borja Valero, but in the third minute of injury time Aranda's pass deflected in to the path of Abraham for him to fire home the winner. The victory takes Zaragoza to within nine points of their opponents, who stay in seventeenth spot as a result. A long way to go yet, but where there's hope.... (04.03.12)
Barcelona had more problems than expected against struggling Sporting Gijón, although in the end they won 3-1 to close the gap on Real Madrid to seven points pending their game tomorrow. With Messi suspended, Abidal injured and Alexis tired after a gruelling trip to America, Guardiola put out a makeshift side. His opposite number Javier Clemente made his intentions clear though when he put out a "5-5-0" line up without an orthodox centre forward, and right from the start they sat back to defend. That made it difficult for the locals, and their only chances in the first 40 minutes were a strike from Fàbregas which was ruled out for offside, a shot across goal from Adriano and a couple of appeals for penalties on Alves and Keita. When Iniesta opened the scoring late in the first half however, it still looked like Guardiola's side were on for a comfortable win. But a minute after the restart Piqué was sent off for bringing down De las Cuevas, and three minutes later Barral got on the end of Mendy's cross to make it all square. Despite being a man down, Guardiola brought on forwards Tello and Alexis, and Alexis missed an easy chance within minutes of coming on. Another penalty claim for hands by Nacho Cases was also waved away, but with ten minutes to go Keita finally made the break through with a shot over Juan Pablo in to the far top corner of the net. Eight minutes later Xavi wrapped things up with a Messi type lob over the keeper after Iniesta had put him through, but they had to sit out the last few minutes with nine men when Alexis hobbled off with all three substitutions already made.
This season there is a tremendous battle for the fourth Champions League spot, with no less than eight teams separated by four points as we stand at the moment. Málaga are the current incumbents though after they came from behind to beat Getafe 1-3. The locals dominated the first forty-five minutes, and Miku in particular went close a couple of times before Diego Castro put the locals ahead after Valera set him up shortly before half time. Güiza came close to increasing the lead when his lob hit the bar soon after the restart, but Seba headed over at the other end, and a couple of minutes later Eliseu picked up the ball outside of the area after a corner came back out to him, and fired an impressive shot wide of Moyà. If that was good, what came after was better, Toulalan collecting the ball even further away from goal before striking a fierce shot which went in off both posts. And with the game in injury time Cazorla scored the third from over 40 yards out, catching Moyà off his line with a shot from wide out on the right wing. Málaga are firing on all guns at the moment!
Osasuna are two points behind Málaga in sixth spot after they drew 1-1 at Mallorca. The islanders had the better chances in the first half, with Alfaro and Chori Castro shooting wide and Víctor firing a shot straight at keeper Andrés. Osasuna's only reply was a timid shot by Nino, but with the first half coming to a close they took the lead, Cejudo firing a low shot past Aouate after Nunes headed back a long ball from Lolo. Half time substitute Hemed headed over for the locals after the break, but otherwise there was little action until another substitute Nsue got above the defence to head in a Tejera corner. Aouate had to be on his toes to turn a long shot by Roberto Torres round the post, but Víctor and Pereira could have won it for the home side late on if they had been able to keep their shots on target.
Rayo Vallecano are now just a point outside of the European places after a high scoring 4-2 victory over Racing Santander. The Cantabrians were up against it from the second minute when keeper Toño was sent off for bundling over Diego Costa outside of the area. But even so they put up a brave fight, Torrejón giving them the lead after Stuani headed across a Cisma free kick, and Colsa running on to Stuani's through ball to make it two midway through the first half. With the first half coming to a close however Michu headed one back from Piti's wide free kick, and the on-form midfielder levelled the scores midway through the second half after replacement keeper Mario could only push out a angled shot from Diego Costa. Four minutes after that Tamudo headed in another Costa assist to put Rayo ahead, and five minutes later it was all over when Piti collected a return pass from Costa before drilling a low shot past Mario once again.
Sevilla and Atlético Madrid kicked off the last match of the evening knowing that the winner would be up in the top six, but in the end they both remained two points off the Europa League spots after they cancelled each other out in a 1-1 draw. Simeone was missing first choice players Falcao, Diego and Turan, but Salvio took advantage to put in his claim for a more regular place with the opening goal, the forward heading in Gabi's cross in the ninth minute. After that Salvio tested Palop a couple of times later on in the first half, with Reyes firing a shot across goal and Kanouté heading wide in reply. Eight minutes in to the second half Babá levelled the scores after connecting with a Jesús Navas cross, and the locals could have won it after that, Courtois saving a couple of times from Reyes, and Manu del Moral having a late strike ruled out for a tight offside. A fair result in the end though, and the jury is still out as to which of the two will prevail come the end of the season. (03.03.12)