DAVID SHONFIELD: Atletico threaten Big Two’s reign in Spain

Something most unusual is happening in Spain. There are signs that La Liga could turn into a genuine competition.

The weekend’s results were a setback for the outsiders Atletico Madrid. They lost 2-0 at Almeria, while the Big Two both won, each scoring four times in the process. Even so all three sides are level on points at the top of the table, with Barcelona in the lead on goal difference.

Spanish football has been so dominated by the head-to-head between Barcelona and Real Madrid that you have go back more than 30 years to find a three-way tie at this stage. In 1983 the outsiders were Athletic Bilbao and the Basque side went on to take the title by a single point ahead of Madrid.

In goal for them back then was the legendary Andoni Zubizarreta, who went on to win the European Cup and four league titles with Barcelona, and is now their director of sport. “No-one will be in the lead next Saturday,” he said, “and no one has won La Liga in February, and that’s the situation we’re in.”

All the contenders are being very polite about each other, perhaps as a reaction to the polemics of the past few years. Instead the referees are coming in for criticism, some of it justified.

Atletico were without their on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois against Almeria and it showed. Coming off their 3-0 defeat in a fractious cup semi-final at the Bernabeu, this was a further blow to morale, and as against Real Madrid the chief problem was their striker, Diego Costa.

The Brazilian who opted to play for Spain was sensational earlier on in the season, but the goal stream has dried up to such an extent that he’s scored just twice in 10 matches since the start of the year. The last two games have been worse still: not one shot on target, never mind a goal. Against Real he seemed less concerned with scoring than getting opponents booked. Against Almeria, without the support of David Villa in attack, he was toothless.

His manager Diego Simeone refused to make excuses for the defeat, not so his team-mates who complained bitterly about the referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes, for being both whistle-happy and letting dangerous challenges go unpunished.

Keen observers of Spanish referees may remember Senor Teixeira’s name cropping up on previous occasions. He was the official José Mourinho accosted in the car park at Camp Nou a couple of years back with the words “you are a real artist, you have no respect for professionals”, followed by one or two expletives.

On this occasion he failed to spot penalties at both ends and ended the match by sending off Atletico’s stand-in goalkeeper Aranzubia for dangerous play when he appeared to have won the ball cleanly. Madrid sports paper Marca is not always objective about decisions against local teams, but on this occasion its mark of 0/10 for the ref may have been justified.

Over in Seville, a revitalised Lionel Messi scored twice in Barcelona’s 4-1 win, but this too was a match influenced by a refereeing error: Alexis Sanchez was clearly offside when he scored Barca’s first-half equaliser.

“I didn’t see the goal,” was Zubizarretta’s diplomatic post-match comment. As luck would have it, the referee on this occasion was also Senor Teixeira, this being Fernando’s less controversial but equally accident-prone brother, José Antonio. Marca’s mark on this occasion was 2/10. You wonder if the family tots up the scores at the end of the season.

Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti was his usual genial self after their 4-2 win against Villarreal, possibly because his players performed well in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, but also because the referee managed to avoid any controversial decisions. “Officials have a difficult job in Spain,” said Ancelotti afterwards. “It’s like Italy, they’re under a lot of pressure.”

If Atletico can keep up with the Big Two, the pressure is likely to grow. Their final match is away to Barcelona, just as it was in the most thrilling title-race of all, back in 1971, when Barcelona and Atletico could both have won it but could only draw, leaving Valencia to take the crown.


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