Lessons from La Liga: Man United set for difficult Athletic Bilbao test
Tom Wellman looks back at another enthralling weekend of Spanish football, including Real Madrid's 5-0 win over Espanyol
Bilbao won’t budge for Old Trafford visit
Athletic Bilbao travel to England on Thursdy for the first leg of their last-16 Europa League tie against Manchester United, and the Spanish side will be in confident mood after beating Real Sociedad 2-0 in the Basque derby. Markel Susaeta scored both Bilbao goals as they continued their recent good form which has left them challenging for a Champions League spot. Marcelo Bielsa’s side have lost just two of the previous 12 league encounters and boast flair players like Fernando Llorente, Javi Martínez and Iker Muniain. Their stadium, San Mames, has become a cauldron of late, and one that should worry a travelling United in two weeks, especially if an in-form Bilbao can continue their scintillating run.
Gerard Pique continues to underperform
Pique saw red in Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Sporting Gijon on Saturday, adding to the growing concern over his recent performances. The 25-year-old has been below par this campaign, partly blamed on his new lifestyle with his celebrity girlfriend, Shakira. Pique brought down Miguel de las Cuevas just after half-time, and he received a straight red for the challenge. Soon after, Sporting equalised. Javier Mascherano will slot into the centre-half role and could remain there for the remainder of the season should Pique’s form not improve after he serves his suspension. Guardiola needs to get the best from the young Spanish defender again because this season Barcelona have developed a habit of leaking soft goals, which is very unlike the Catalans.
Blunt Barça need another striker
Even more unlike Barcelona is to lose Lionel Messi to a suspension. The usually mellow Argentine picked up his fifth booking of the season last week, and he missed the 3-1 win over Sporting at Camp Nou. In his absence, Barca produced an uninspiring display and the reigning champions relied on three midfielders to score their goals. David Villa has been out injured for three months with a broken leg, and suddenly a team devoid of Messi appears rather more toothless than Barcelona of times gone by. Messi has accompanied talented strikers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o over the years, but now with the crafty Messi missing, Barcelona desperately require another centre-forward when they aren’t firing.
Madrid will be worthy La Liga winners
Espanyol were swept aside by champions-elect Real Madrid in a comprehensive 5-0 victory at the Bernabeu, courtesy of Gonzalo Higuaín’s brace, and goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Sami Khedira. Jose Mourinho continues to get the best out of his squad, and but for a lapse of concentration in Moscow in the Champions League, the capital’s side would be near invincible in 2012. Karim Benzema has been injured since that disappointing draw in the Russian capital against CSKA Moscow, but Higuaín and the ever-reliable Ronaldo have stepped into his goal scoring boots in emphatic style. Mourinho has the depth and man-management skills to see out their 10-point lead over Barcelona until the end of the season. While the controversial Portuguese boss may not be able to defeat his former employers in El Clásico, and reports continue to link him with a return to England, his job is almost complete in Madrid, with European success firmly in the 49-year-old’s sights.
Real Zaragoza aren’t buried yet
Real Zaragoza managed to secure a crucial victory over Villarreal after scoring two goals in the final five minutes to pull themselves within reach of 19th placed Sporting, winning 2-1 at Estadio La Romareda. Luis Garcia and Abraham Minero grabbed the goals which secured Zaragoza’s comeback and further boosts their hopes of remaining a Primera Division club next season, despite trailing Villarreal in 17th by nine points. This victory, coupled with the recent won over Espanyol, will reinvigorate a team which really struggled to get going at the beginning of the season. Manolo Jimenez made an impact in his short spell at the club, and despite all of the off-field tribulations concerning President Agapito Iglesias, Zaragoza are refusing to accept the prospect of relegation.