Depth of quality on show as La Liga heats up

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Football fans can be quick to summarize the dominance of La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona as simply ‘routine’, due to the abundance of quality that those two sides possess. They are global powerhouses with realistic ambitions of challenging for league, cup and European success every season. Yet La Liga as a whole is often overlooked, especially regarding the sides that are perhaps just one tier down from Real and Barca’s level. The performances of Sevilla in the Europa League is one great example.

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Another can come from this weekend’s results alone, where Real Madrid were once again held at home to a draw, while Barcelona were stunned by Celta de Vigo for the second year in a row. Former Real Madrid academy graduate Fran Rico gave Eibar a shock lead at the Santiago Bernabeu, before a Gareth Bale equalizer assumed there would be a return to normality. Instead, Madrid never really looked likely to take all three points, hitting the target just three times from 15 attempts.

An entertaining and chaotic match was played out at the Estadio de Balaidos, where Celta de Vigo beat defending champions Barcelona 4-3. Victory for Barcelona would have placed them at the summit of La Liga, but it was not to be as a heavily shuffled line-up by Luis Enrique fell apart. A mixture of slick passing and counter-attacking paid dividends for Celta, as well as being the beneficiaries of some awful decision making by Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

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Celta found themselves in an unlikely scenario just half an hour into the game, up 3-0 with goals from Pione Sisto, Iago Aspas and a Jeremy Mathieu own goal. Andres Iniesta’s substitute appearance in the second-half completely changed the momentum, as he whipped in a pin-point cross for Gerard Pique’s goal before winning a penalty that Neymar coolly slotted home. At 3-2, Barcelona appeared able to get something out of the game, before ter Stegen’s horror show killed off their comeback.

Earlier in the day, an interesting tie played out between struggling Valencia and title-challengers Atletico Madrid. Atleti took the points with a 2-0 win, but it was Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves who stole the show by making two fantastic penalty saves. The first was from Antoine Griezmann, who placed his shot with the side of his foot to the right side of Alves, who went full extension to tip the strike wide of the post. Griezmann would avenge his miss, though, as Kevin Gameiro reacted to Fernando Torres’ parried strike to find the Frenchman, smashing his shot inside the near post for the 1-0.

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Griezmann was then taken down inside the penalty area to win Atletico’s second penalty, this time with captain Gabi stepping up to take the shot. The result was the same, as Alves dived to his left to increase his penalty saving record to 22 saved from 45 penalties. A truly astonishing record for the former Almeria keeper, averaging nearly a penalty save for every second one faced. Unfortunately for the home side it couldn’t do much for the result, as Gameiro easily outpaced his marker before slotting the ball through the legs of Alves to seal the game and put Atletico at the top of La Liga.

Previously mentioned Sevilla continued their solid start to the season, picking up a 2-1 win at home to Deportivo Alaves. A piece of individual creativity by Paulo Ganso put through Wissam Ben Yedder to open the scoring, but his goal was cancelled out when Victor Laguardia popped up at the far post from a corner. The game would be decided in the 90th minute, when Ben Yedder scored from point-blank range after a purposeful surge down the flank from Vitolo. The win puts Sevilla in third place, just one point away from leaders Atletico.

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In other results, Athletic Bilbao’s four game winning streak was put to an end in a 2-1 loss at Malaga, while fifth placed Villarreal were held to a scoreless draw away at Espanyol. Atletico and Real sit at the top end on 15 points, separated only by goal difference, with Real having drawn three league games in a row. Barca’s poor showing away at Celta won’t be as significant for them considering Real’s slip-up, but their goals conceded tally, at 10 from seven games, is reason for concern.

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