Barcelona finally shrugged off the ghost of Butarque but Atlético and Real had their own battles as La Liga’s threads all came together in Madrid
Sid Lowe– The Guardian
“The Ghost of Butarque: that’s a good name for a novel,” Ernesto Valverde said. It was coming up to midnight three days after Halloween and, Barcelona’s manager admitted, “everywhere we turned the Ghost of Butarque appeared.” His team were back in Madrid for the first time since September, the final leg of a Grand Day Out in the capital – Leganés v Atlético at 1pm, Real Madrid v Valladolid at 4.15pm, Rayo v Barcelona at 8.45pm – and it was happening again: the same feelings, the same fears. Back then, Barcelona lost at bottom-placed Leganés, their only defeat to date; five weeks on and 15km east, they were losing to second-bottom Rayo Vallecano.
Twice The Final Countdown had boomed out – the song, made all the more brilliant by not being Seven Nation Army, that celebrates every Rayo goal – and now they really were counting down. 2-1 up, Rayo were four minutes from their first home win all season; Barcelona were minutes from another defeat in Madrid, the team at the top beaten only by the bottom two.
“The plot wasn’t what we expected at all,” Valverde said. There was, though, a twist as loosely connected threads on a Saturday in the city came together six teams, 11 hours, five posts and nine goals later. And by the time Barcelona left, they had defeated their demons, departing four points clear at the top, a gap opening for the first time in a season (although Espanyol could close to within a point on Monday night).
It all started at the only place where Barcelona had been beaten. At Butarque, a sign at the gate tells Leganés supporters to put their phones down, stand up, stop eating sunflower seeds and sing, which they did. Antoine Griezmann had scored a wonderful free kick but, Saúl admitted and Diego Simeone denied, Atlético Madrid “lacked ambition” and Guido Carrillo got an equaliser, denying them a place at the top and sending Butarque bonkers. “We could have won,” Simeone said. They could have lost too, and anyway, not winning is kind of what they do away this season: that’s just one league win and five goals in six on the road.
Next came the Santiago Bernabéu, 24km away, where they were trying out video urinals, and where Madrid defeated Real Valladolid 2-0, amid an odd stillness punctuated by whistles. Valladolid twice hit the bar before a late shot from substitute Vinicius Junior hit Kiko Olivas and spun into the net before Sergio Ramos clipped in a penalty.
That was enough to win a match that said as much about fortune as football, and politics as play – Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and especially Ramos were whistled while an 18-year-old protégé was projected as the saviour – but which Toni Kroos summed up best. “We won a league game,” he tweeted, dead pan. It had taken six weeks, and they needed it, interim manager Santi Solari admitted.
From the Bernabéu, the Saturday’s final stop was the self-styled Independent Republic of Vallecas, 10km and a world away, the home of the last of the barrio teams. There, Barcelona took a 1-0 lead after 10 minutes, Ivan Rakitic’s wonderful pass finding Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Luis Suárez. And that, it seemed, was that. Barcelona dominated. Only at Vallecas you’re never in control – “it’s different,” Valverde said afterwards – and25 minutes in, a roar went up from the end. “To arms!” it demanded, and Rayo bore arms. José Pozo bent in a brilliant equaliser and, after Suárez curled a wonderful shot off the post, substitute Álvaro García scored with his first touch to put Rayo ahead.
Vallecas went wild, palms hammering against metal fences. There was half an hour to go but at every turn Barcelona saw the Ghost of Butarque. Rayo were relentless. “The thing is, Rayo are very good,” Valverde said afterwards, and for almost an hour they were. “They may not have won at home this season but they have had everyone on the ropes,” Valverde added and they certainly had his team on the ropes. “Look at them! Look at them! How they shit themselves!” the fans chanted. Their version of the Marseillaise followed, and Yankee Doodle. The Final Countdown didn’t, although it might have done, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Ousmane Dembélé went on. Nothing. Munir went on, Arturo Vidal too. Still nothing.
Barcelona pushed, and almost got caught. At the other end, there was no way through, time slipped from Barcelona, Rayo tiring but getting ever closer to the line. Alba crossed, Suárez headed, Alberto saved. “When you can’t win one way, you try to win another,” Valverde said. Gerard Piqué went up front and Barcelona went longer. With four minutes left, he nodded down an Alba cross and Dembélé struck it brilliantly on the bounce and the ball flew through three sets of legs and into the far corner – 2-2.
Immediately, there was applause from the fans: appreciation despite the fact the victory had escaped them. And, anyway, a draw against Barcelona was still brilliant. What they didn’t realise was that this was about to get worse. A throw-in, a deep cross from Sergi Roberto and there was Suárez sliding in to score his ninth league goal of the season, his sixth in three games. On the touchline, Rayo’s manager threw down his bottle. They had been so close.
“It was a great game but we’re hurt. We’re pissed off and it’s our own fault,” Míchel said. “You can’t defend a throw-in like that in the 90th minute. You just can’t, you can’t.” He thumped the desk, sadness in his eyes. “I don’t understand it. Yeah, yeah, we’re proud of how we played and all that but I’m pissed off,” he continued. “That’s no good to me, it’s not. We tried to beat them with our arms; you can win playing well, and we thought we had it under control. But when you have to defend, you defend, and that’s it. Look, Barcelona can beat you doing what they do, but not like that. This hurts, but I want it to hurt. Let it hurt.”
Oh, it hurt. At the full-time whistle, Rayo’s players stood, barely moving, a lost look in their eyes. The fans clapped and the players tried to clap back but there was little enthusiasm. They departed, leaving Suárez alone on the pitch, talking to the TV, the last man off. Eventually, he walked away, Rayo shirt over his shoulder. It had been close, he knew, but the ghost of Butarque had been beaten and the significance wasn’t lost on anyone. “You can lose leagues in games like this,” he said.
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- It wasn’t just Barcelona leaving it late on Saturday; it was the whole of Sunday too. A 90th minute goal from Pape Diop defeated Alavés at Eibar; a thundering 93rd minute shot from Alfonso Pedraza saved a point for Villarreal, and maybe saved the manager’s job too; and Jorge Molina’s brilliant 90th minute goal got Getafe an equaliser at Huesca. Then, Sergio Canales scored a sensational free kick in the 87th minute to make it 3-3 for Betis against Celta de Vigo.
- When the board went up towards the end of the Betis v Celta game with three minutes on it, there was only one reaction possible: you utter, utter bastards. The game of the season so far, wild and wonderful in the final 20 minutes or so, you wished it could have lasted forever. Betis were 2-0 up then 3-2 down, Maxi coming on for Celta and changing everything. Canales’s outrageous goal gave Betis an equaliser, taking it to 3-3 with three minutes left. And even then it wasn’t over, Iago Aspas thumping a brilliant free kick off the bar. Canales’s wasn’t even the best goal: the first, scored by Loren Morón, was ridiculously good, a move started with a brilliant pass from Pau and ended by an even better pass from Lo Celso, backheeled into the box. Pau, by the way, is Betis’s goalkeeper.
- Uruguay no má! Suárez, Stuani, Maxi: 23 goals between them already this season.
- Identified as a kind of Captain Culpable, Sergio Ramos was whistled during Saturday’s 2-0 win over Valladolid. He claimed not to really notice, but he did. When Karim Benzema won the penalty, there were chants for Vinicius to take it, even as Ramos stood over the ball, and when the defender scored he celebrated in the corner, rather pointedly, in a kind of Zen pose. There were whistles too for Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio, with hope projected upon Vinicius. This week the debate around him – should he start? why hasn’t he played more? – was intense, universal, ubiquitous and exaggerated. Now, there’s no stopping it. “Vinicius brings good luck,” Marca and AS agreed, the latter pointing out that he has had a “fantastic week” – because he’s been on their cover three times. He brings a lot more, besides.
- Valencia still haven’t found what they’re looking for, and mostly because it was a beautiful day for Girona goalkeeper Bono who left them looking like lemons on an afternoon day in which he chose to rise up, turning all acrobat with a string of incredible saves. Valencia weren’t bad but, not for the first time, they couldn’t win. Eleven games, one win, two defeats and eight draws but manager Marcelino says there will be no surrender.
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