Goals rain in Spain as Eto’o leads from the front

SPANISH football is known for the spectacular, but even by La Liga standards Saturday was extraordinary.

Barcelona enjoyed another of their goal feasts in Camp Nou, while Real Madrid produced another cliffhanger in the Bernabeu.

The big two are certainly giving the fans their money’s worth, although both Valencia and Villarreal are up there with them, suggesting that La Liga will again be more competitive than the Premier League.

Just two points separate the top four in Spain, whereas there is already an eight-point gap in England, even if Manchester Utd have a game in hand.

Barca have been scoring at the rate of three goals a game in all competitions — and that after losing their first match of the season, to newly-promoted Numancia.

Six goals in the Champions League against Sporting were followed by another six against Atletico Madrid, five against Basel and Almeria, four in Malaga, and then another six on Saturday night against Valladolid.

Samuel Eto’o led the way with four in the first half, and the frightening fact for Barca’s rivals — in Europe as well as in Spain — was that they simply used the second half as a training exercise.

Eto’o was the target of abuse from the fans last season as the team constantly slipped up when the opportunity was available to put pressure on Madrid. But in Catalonia as elsewhere, the fans are quick to forgive a forward who finds his shooting boots and his name was chanted to the stars as he left the pitch to a standing ovation with 15 minutes to go.

He’s been known for his egotism in the past, but true to Barca’s new team spirit Eto’o stayed on his feet after he was subbed and jumped for joy as goals from Thierry Henry and Eidur Gudjohnsen completed the rout.

The two former Premier League players seem rejuvenated with a new manager in charge. When Pep Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard in the summer, both of them were listed as likely to leave — along with Eto’o.

Now Henry seems to be have recovered the acceleration that was missing, while Gudjohnsen is playing a lot more matches and revelling in the link role behind the front three.

Top scorers in Europe, Barcelona’s other strength is that they seem to have sorted our their defence.

Victor Valdés is a lot more secure in goal this season and Gerard Piqué looks as though he’d never left the club. It’s unusual for Alex Ferguson to lose a good young player, but Piqué seems to be one that got away.

Most impressive of all is Carles Puyol. The captain is best-known as a central defender, but last season he impressed at right back, and on Saturday he played on the left and looked completely at home.

Valladolid might have scored early on — Guardiola modestly described the result as “a little deceptive” — but just like Atletico Madrid and Almeria before them they could easily have conceded 10.

It was an utterly different story in Madrid — except that Gonzalo Higuain also weighed in with four goals.

“It’s a day I will never forget,” declared the young Argentinian, who is usually a midfielder, but on this occasion was selected in attack, ahead of club captain and Madrid legend Raul.

That seemed a strange decision by coach Bernd Schuster, especially given the absence of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. It looked even stranger when Malaga led 2-1 inside 20 minutes, and downright suicidal when Madrid’s right back Sergio Ramos was dismissed a minute before half-time for stamping.

In fact it was a match in which referee Iturralde Gonzalez played a decisive role, awarding three penalties as well as seven yellow cards in addition to the red for Ramos.

The stamp seemed accidental — although reckless — but Ramos has a reputation. He has now been sent off eight times in four seasons. But the real blunder was the penalty 12 minutes from time that gave Madrid their 4-3 victory.

It was a savage blow to Malaga — who have never won in the Bernabeu — and even more of an irony given the referee’s record.

Gonzalez had previously been in charge at the Bernabeu on six occasions when the home team went down to defeat. His appointment on this occasion seemed like a red rag to a bull, given that Madrid’s Director of Sport Predrag Mijatovic has been complaining bitterly this season about officials.

“Some people seem determined that we should not win the title again,” he remarked a couple of weeks ago. Presumably Senor Gonzalez is no longer considered one of them.

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