Barça’s excellent February under new boss Quique Setién saw the blaugrana reclaim first place in La Liga after four straight league wins took them to 55 points from 25 games, two ahead of arch rivals Real Madrid. The four league games yielded the following results: 2-1 against Levante and Getafe and 5-0 against Eibar at the Camp Nou, and a 3-2 win away at Setién’s former employer Betis. As for Madrid, Zidane’s men lost only their second league game of the season, 1-0 at Leganés, to cede top spot to Barça, who have lost four league games this season but drawn four fewer than the merengues. Barça’s goal difference is also slightly better, with +33 versus Madrid’s +29.
Barça’s latest victory against Eibar was more than comfortable ahead of challenging visits to Naples in the Champions League and the Santiago Bernabéu clásico on March 1, and a much-needed fillip for the club’s hierarchy after a turbulent week. Leo Messi’s first-half hat trick ended a run of four straight games without a goal and offered hope of an inspirational run-in. It also brought some respite for the board and president Bartomeu, who suffered loud calls for his resignation prior to the game. The latest scandal revolves around the club reportedly paying a company to discredit players, ex-players and club legends on social media. On the pitch, Barça are getting it right, however. The 1-0 Cup defeat away at Athletic seems to only have focused the team more on La Liga, and this week’s visit to Naples will tell us whether the same can be said of this year’s Champions League campaign.
Given the packed schedule, Setién gave some regulars a break for the Eibar game. De Jong and Ansu started the game on the bench, as did new signing, Dane Martin Braithwaite. Rakitic and Arturo Vidal came in. With the game over by half time, Busquets and Piqué were also given some rest. Braithwaite came on for his debut and played a part in the last two goals, receiving a welcome ovation from the Camp Nou.
Next Sunday’s clásico at the Bernabéu now constitutes a six-pointer between two teams fighting for the league title.
Meanwhile, February saw Abelardo’s Espanyol make life difficult for themselves in La Liga, as well as suffering a heavy defeat in Europe. The league table makes chilling reading for the periquitos, with first division salvation now five points away.
Espanyol will need to keep their heads and find a leader among their ranks if they are to again survive the drop. They have been guilty of too many individual errors this season, something both David Gallego and Pablo Machín can attest to. Abelardo will end the season as head coach, but the players need to take more responsibility for their performances and many are not playing well.
The latest league game – a relegation six-pointer away at fellow strugglers Valladolid – saw them play the last hour with 10 men after David López became the third man sent off since Abelardo took the reins, the same having happened at Villarreal and in the Sánchez Pizjuán. Although they managed to take four points from those two games, this time they paid the penalty. López’ unnecessary sending off left the team flat and short on resources, allowing Valladolid the opportunity they needed to wear down their opponent.
The 4-0 walloping at Wolves in the Europa League did not help matters, and there must now be question marks over keeper Diego López’ confidence after he failed to deal with an Oscar Plano shot and Sandro opened the scoring for the home side. A second goal made the task a hopeless one, even if a late Embarba penalty made the scoreline look a little less severe.
Much more is needed if Espanyol are to survive, and the road ahead is full of pitfalls as every game now looks like a mountain to climb. March sees visits from Atlético Madrid and Alavés and away trips to Osasuna and Getafe. Prior to the duel against Valladolid, Abelardo said “I am optimistic about survival. Otherwise I would not have come and I would have stayed in Gijón”. Fans will hope that optimism does not soon wane.
Girona’s latest victory, a 2-0 home win over mid-table Ponferradina, meant five games without a loss in the league and pushed them closer towards a return to top-flight football. Given the absence of their and the division’s top scorer, Uruguayan Cristhian Stuani, due to an accumulation of yellow cards, there was a certain degree of unease around Montilivi prior to the game, but Girona have hit cruising speed recently (winning 11 points of a possible 15) and were helped here by an overly generous Ponferradina goalkeeper and defence.
Brandon (10 mins) and Borja (41 mins) scored the goals that left Pep Lluís Martí’s men in fifth position with 45 points from 29 games, looking good for a play-off position and six points off automatic promotion back to La Liga.
The schedule for March will give fans further cause for optimism, as all five opponents – Mirandes, Las Palmas and Elche away, and Racing Santander and Albacete at Montilivi – look beatable, a mere total of two wins from their accumulated last 15 outings between them. A similar return to their last five games would do nicely.