| Manuel Labor reports.....
|First Division - Day Twenty Eight|
Deportivo de La Coruña 2 - Valencia 0
Manuel Pablo, Schurrer, Donato, Romero; Flavio Conceiçao, Jokanovic;
Víctor, Djalminha, Fran; Makaay. 4-2-3-1.
Team changes: Depor: Donato, Jokanovic for Naybet, Mauro Silva / Valencia: Bjorklund for Pellegrino
Deportivo kept their top spot for the seventeenth week in a row and staked a serious claim for the championship with a comfortable win against Valencia. Eliminated from the UEFA cup midweek, they can now concentrate fully on their number one objective, a title they have never won in their long history. Irureta was without two of his first choice players, Naybet and Mauro Silva, both suspended, but Donato returned to the defence, and with Jaime suffering a late ankle injury, Jokanovic came in to the defensive midfield pivot position alongside Flavio. There was still no place for Spanish international defender César despite his return to fitness, and he expressed his concern before the match that his chances of playing for his country in the upcoming Euro 2000 championships were getting slimmer by the minute. Héctor Cúper brought Bjorklund into defence in place of the suspended Pellegrino. Deportivo showed their intentions right from the start, with an inspired Djalminha hitting the bar and forcing a save from Cañizares in the first two minutes. Manuel Pablo and Romero attacked down the two wings, and the right back set up the first goal for Fran, unmarked near the penalty spot. Just before half time, a first time shot from Djalminha on the halfway line caught Cañizares off his line, and the visitors breathed a sigh of relief as the ball bounced once and brushed the crossbar on it's way out. Another opportunist goal from Flavio put Deportivo further ahead shortly after the interval, and the leaders were in overdrive. Cúper brought on Angulo for Kily and replaced his two forwards with Juan Sánchez and Oscar, but their first real shot at goal came ten minutes from the end when Songo'o pushed Mendieta's free kick out for a corner. Referee Megía Dávila finally lived up to his reputation, sending off two players near the end (Jokanovic for a tackle from behind and Farinós for two silly hand balls in a few minutes), taking his tally past 100 red and yellow cards this season. Deportivo now go into next Saturday's crunch match with Barcelona full of confidence, with a four point lead over Alavés and five over Barcelona, Real Madrid and Zaragoza. Valencia are still sixth, but a six point gap has opened up between them and the leading group. Their interests are still divided between the league and the Champions competition, but they could find themselves out of the running for both at the end. On Wednesday they visit Bordeaux, a game they really need to win to be sure of reaching the European quarter finals. It would be better for their chances of playing in Europe next year if they lost, but they have to go for it. Good luck to them I say.
Athletic Bilbao 0 - Barcelona 4
Etxeberria; Ferreira, José Mari, Larrazábal; Lacruz, Alkiza,
Urrutia, Felipe; Guerrero; Joseba Etxeberria, Ezquerro. 3-4-1-2.
Team changes: Bilbao: Imanol, Urrutia, Guerrero for Lafuente, Carlos García, Tiko / Barcelona: Abelardo, Xavi, Kluivert, Rivaldo for Reiziger, Guardiola, Gabri, Dani.
If matches were decided by shots at goal, this match would have ended 8-5 to the home side. However what counts are the number of times the ball enters the onion bag, and Barcelona took advantage of their opportunities with an efficiency that must have sent out a warning to their rivals for the championship this year. Van Gaal had his first choice forward line on display, with Kluivert returning after suspension and Rivaldo back after being rested, joining Figo up front. He was however forced to leave out playmaker Guardiola, nursing a muscle injury, and Xavi came back into the side. Bilbao were without Carlos García and Tiko, both suspended, and their manager Luis Fernández also had to watch the match from the stands after he was sent off last week. Fernández changed his formation back to the 3-4-1-2 line up, with José Mari switching to an unfamiliar defensive role (Alkorta just failing to recover from his injury in time), Lacruz playing out at right wing back, and Julen Guerrero back in the side, but playing further forward than his natural position. Imanol returned in goal after his one match suspension. After Barcelona scored with their first attack of the game, Bilbao attacked strongly, with Julen putting a couple of shots wide and hitting the post with a header, and Hesp saving from Lacruz. Just before the half hour mark, Barcelona went further ahead under controversial circumstances, Kluivert racing through the offside to trap to control Figo's pass on the edge of the area. Everybody stopped, including Kluivert, thinking the Dutch striker was offside, and Kluivert, just in case, lobbed the ball over the stationary Etxeberria. To the amazement of everyone, referee Fernández Marín pointed to the centre spot, and the goal was allowed. He was right however, as television cameras later verified. A few minutes later Ezquerro had to leave the field with a twisted ankle, Urzaiz coming on, and just after half time Edu Alonso came on for Ferreira to strengthen midfield. Ten minutes into the half Hesp crashed into Joseba Etxeberria and the Bilbao striker had to leave the field on a stretcher with concussion, Sivori replacing him. The crowd whistled as the referee only showed a yellow card to the visiting keeper. Van Gaal decided that Xavi was not pulling his weight and brought on Gabri, with Ronald De Boer dropping back to the organiser role. Gabri could have scored but the referee disallowed the goal for a dubious offside, and the young midfielder was involved in an elbowing incident with Larrazábal which left the Bilbao defender with a cut above his eye. Both Etxeberria and Larrazábal spent the night in the local hospital. After the third goal Bilbao gave up the fight, and Figo added insult to injury in the last minute with another goal. This was Barcelona's first away win in the league for over two months, and they moved up to second temporarily pending the result of the Alavés game on Sunday. Bilbao's season has gone right off the rails, and Fernández maybe has to decide who his first choice eleven are and stick with them, instead of changing four or five each week. True that injuries, bookings and suspensions have complicated matters, but right now nobody knows where they are supposed to play. They drop down the table, and if they don't get their act together they may get embroiled in the relegation struggle rather than pushing for a place in Europe.