An interesting round with some great games and a couple of surprise results, leaving Barcelona alone at the top, 3 clear of Valencia and Atletico Madrid, 4 ahead of Sevilla and 5 clear of Real Madrid - a very good place to be heading into next week's El Clasico.
Barcelona 3-1 Sevilla
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Belletti (28' Zambrotta), Marquez, Thuram, Sylvinho; Motta, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Gudjohnsen (83' Saviola), Ronaldinho (73' Giuly)
Sevilla (4-4-2): Palop; Puerta (46' Dragutinovic), Escude, Navarro, Alves; Adriano, Renato (85' Kepa), Poulsen, Navas; Fabiano (46' Marti), Kanoute
Like most Barca fans, I was really pleased and more than a little relieved at this result. Less pleased about being unable to watch what was from all reports a cracking game because of Sevilla's TV contract problems, but that's only a minor complaint in the scheme of things. The win has really put us in a good position heading into two more tough games this week, especially with almost all Barca's rivals dropping points. Shorter analysis this week, since I only got to see highlights.
The general consensus seems to be that Barca are finally finding some semblance of the form that saw them going on that 18-match winning streak last season, and of course Sevilla have been on fire since before the start of the season. Apparently played at a furious pace with both teams really going for it, especially in the first half. Barca attacked with abandon, as usual, but were also careful to not give away possession cheaply in the middle of the park. Things died down a little in the second, but there was still no lack of desire for more goals. The scoreline is fair if one looks at the possession enjoyed by Barca, but a bit harsh on Sevilla if chances are compared instead. It was really a very close game that both sides could have won.
They are a very well organised team who defend brilliantly and are lethal on the break. Kanoute's goal was a brilliant piece of teamwork. Most teams come to Camp Nou to play in the same way they do, but few succeed at it. The reason Valencia, Atletico and Sevilla are able to employ a counterattacking strategy effectively against Barca is that they have real quality and pace in the attacking third. Sounds obvious, but it's not easy to achieve. Excellent pacy wingers like Navas, Vicente, Maxi (or, say, Robben and Joe Cole) combined with strong fast full-backs like Miguel and Alves will always give the Barca defence trouble. The likes of Gio and Puyol have real trouble coping with speedy opponents.
I agree with some newspaper reports that Mourinho will probably have been heartened by Barca's inability to contain Sevilla down the left, but that has to be tempered with the realization that Rijkaard will no doubt ring the changes for that game. This starting XI was designed to suit the opponent, and it worked brilliantly, proving that the coach isn't nearly as tactically inept as his detractors suggest. Chelsea will require a different response. For starters, Gio will probably play on that wing instead of the attacking Sylvinho. The midfield will probably also be beefed up from the comparatively light-weight one put out against Sevilla. I would also suggest that Chelsea need to get their own defensive house in order first, since Ferreira isn't likely to contain Ronaldinho and who knows how Wayne Bridge would do against Leo Messi?
I thought Sevilla coach Juande Ramos made some very fair comments about the referee, despite being sent off for dissent during the match. He basically said that common mistakes had been made, and it was just unlucky that Sevilla were on the end of those mistakes, which is an attitude I wish more coachs would take. The referee in question has never impressed me. This is the man who insisted on booking Messi for diving inside the box last season in the game against Osasuna at the Camp Nou despite there being a clear trip from the opposing defender. After the match, said defender admitted to the trip and declared that it should have been a penalty. Sevilla fans may feel less aggrieved if they know that this guy isn't a Barca fan intent on robbing them of the game - he's simply a bit incompetent and clearly in need of an eyesight check-up.
While the call disallowing Sevilla's goal was very dodgy indeed, I find claims that Belletti dived to win the penalty questionable at least, given the circumstances. Firstly, the challenge was laughably crass, and second, Belletti sustained a dislocated shoulder from the incident, meaning he has to miss at least the Chelsea and Real games. Maybe not a clear-cut penalty, but certainly not a dive.
In the end, at least this ref wasn't as bad as the man who 'refereed' Atletico vs Recre. More on that below.
A good game overall, despite the aftementioned defensive problems of Sylvinho. The new boys are finally being integrated properly into what can actually be a very stubborn and well-organised defensive unit. Thuram was by all reports a rock as usual, Marquez's tackling crucial and his passing still insanely accurate - he was involved in the build-up to Messi's goal - and Zambrotta is settling in better as time goes on. Here's hoping Belletti's injury isn't too serious, though, because he offers a potent attacking option either starting or coming in from the bench.
All credit to Rijkaard here, even though he insisted on heaping praise on the midfield trio themselves after the match. Many thought he would go with the Deco-Xavi-Iniesta combination, but he surprised everyone by starting Xavi and Iniesta together for the first time (!) with Motta providing the steel. It worked like a charm. Rijkaard rightly gave credit to the disciplined performance by all three, both offensively and in defence. This young midfield trio - average age of 24 - managed to control the game without being muscled out of proceedings by a physically strong Sevilla side.
Iniesta linked frighteningly well with Messi, the 22 year old and the 19 year old setting each other up numerous times. Now there's a partnership for Barca's future. (Memo to Laporta: can we renew Iniesta's contract now, please? You know other clubs will start fighting over him soon. Memo to Iniesta: please stop going down so easily. You're getting a reputation, and it's stopping you from getting legit penalty calls.) Xavi was Xavi - Barca's beating heart, the most efficient midfielder around, never wasting a pass, always managing to move the ball with great pace and precision. A great assist as well for Messi's goal.
But Motta deserves special mention here. He gets a lot of flack from Barca fans, many of whom cannot understand why Rijkaard likes him so much. I've wondered the same thing myself sometimes. However, when he has a game like this, all doubts are dispelled, at least temporarily. Defensively it was a very effective performance, with the young Brazilian popping up everywhere he was needed at the right time. Offensively too he contributed with aplomb. He still makes the odd clumsy tackle, like the one that got him booked this time, but that was the only blemish on a great performance. Good news for Barca at a time when Edmilson perhaps isn't in the best of form. More of the same, please.
I did say that people were being ridiculous about Ronaldinho. 'He's back' is the cry, yet to me he returned before the international break. Still, a great performance, universally hailed, has got to be good for his confidence. Finally getting the Spanish press off his back is a big bonus as well. Good to see his free kicks, threaded passes and crazy runs back to their most threatening. The best part for him personally, though, must be the vindication of winning his battle against fellow Brazilian Alves on the left wing, a battle he lost spectacularly last time around. I hope he didn't throw a tantrum at being substituted as some reports have suggested, because as one of the captains and an example to the younger players he really shouldn't be doing that. Plus, Rijkaard was simply resting him for the next game.
Not sure how his substitute Giuly played as part of an unfamiliar frontline. I think I'm right in saying that an attacking axis of Messi-Gudjohnsen-Giuly have never played together before. Looking at the attributes of the players, I can't see it working. Messi and Giuly rely on pace and penetration, two things Gudjohnsen is comparatively lacking in.
Speaking of the Icelandic international, I'm still not convinced by him. His strengths are obvious, and they should probably ensure that he starts against old club Chelsea, but he just seems to fit less comfortably into the Barca frontline's mode of attack. Maybe as he plays more with Ronaldinho and Messi they'll click together better.
His substitute Saviola only got about 10 minutes against his old club, but made the best of them, threading a great pass through to Giuly, who was unfortunately caught offside. Those two have a good understanding already, which could come in very useful. To me, although he offers less strength and ability to hold up the ball, Saviola's pace and skill, not to mention his familarity with the Barca system means that he could start ahead of Gudjohnsen in league games to good effect. Hopefully he will get more minutes to reflect his great form.
Pride of place goes to Messi, who scored a superb goal. Readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of the youngster who will vehemently defend him from unfounded accusations. Thankfully I can take a break now. His goal was astonishing, gliding through the entire Sevilla defence as if it didn't exist and finishing well into the top corner. Even before that, though, he was directly responsible for both of Ronaldinho's goals. The penalty came about after he threaded a perfect pass through to Belletti, who was bought down inside the box. Similarly, he was brought down for the free kick which Ronaldinho converted - a common combination last season, and one I hope to see more of, although it would also be nice if defenders hacked at Messi less. But, of course, that's not going to happen.
Throughout the entire game he gifted threatening balls to team mates as well as running at the Sevilla defence himself. The Argentine was a surprise inclusion after most people expected Giuly to start. Frankly, I was hoping for the same after Messi's miserable showing against Sevilla in Camp Nou last season and in the Super Cup this season. But no, he played the entire game and did very well.
Atlético de Madrid 2-1 Recreativo de Huelva
What a hilarious game, although not so much if you're a Recre fan. First, though, the not at all funny news is that Atletico will be without both of their first choice wingers for six months after Martin Petrov also fell victim to a knee injury. The signs from this match are that the very capable young Argentine Sergio Aguero will step into the role. Even so, Atletico are sure to miss someone who has been one of their best players so far this season.
Moving on to the hilarity, most of it courtesy of a truly poor referee. New boys Recre will no doubt feel robbed after yet another fine performance, but the lousy penalty calls, at least, hurt both sides. Recre's opener was a very soft call, to say the least. I'm not saying that Viqueira dived, but he went down very easily. Galletti did a good job replacing compatriot Maxi Rodriguez, marring his performance with a dive for Atletico's equalizer. Not content with just those lousy calls, the ref proceeded to wave away better cases for penalty calls on both ends of the pitch.
But the controversy wasn't complete just yet. Aguero proved that he perhaps deserved the pressure of the New Maradona tag by scoring Atletico's winner...with his hand. At least Maradona used his hand because he couldn't reach the ball with his head. Aguero all but jabbed the ball home with a punch at about chest height. It was an incredibly comical sight - in fact, I laughed myself silly watching it, but Recre are right to feel aggrieved about that one. Some sign of contrition from Aguero would also be nice.
Getafe 1-0 Real Madrid
Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. The result itself isn't disastrous for Real, since I'm right in saying that they've never won away at Getafe. It was more the manner of defeat which concerned Real fans - 0 shots on goal says it all, really. Ronaldo got 45 mins and showed that his suspension for the Barca match might not be a bad thing for Real. However, let's put things in perspective.
Real had an almost entirely make-shift backline, with Sergio Ramos suspended, and Cannavaro, Salgado and Cicinho injured. Roberto Carlos was the only first-choice defender left. In attack, they were deprived of their best performer so far this season in the form of Reyes, who was also injured. So that's 5 injuries to key players. Given the patched together defence, one would expect them to have problems in that area. It's the offensive woes that I don't understand. Van Nistelrooy is a classy finisher, Beckham can still send in the crosses, Guti is underrated as a creative force, and Cassano has shown signs of revival since the beginning of the season. So what's going wrong?
My own theory about Real's problems - beyond Capello's tactics - is that the squad is too small. Yes, you read that right. I know they had one of the most bloated squads in the league last season. But how many of those were good enough to start for Real? If we break down Capello's version of the team, defensively they lack cover in almost every position. Helguera is alright, but Raul Bravo was never good enough for the Real first team. They face a crisis at left-back with Salgado injured.
The two holding midfielders have no back-ups should either of them be injured. Van Nistelrooy is irreplaceable right now. I'd say the same thing about Guti. Real have lacked the options that would allow proper rotations for the past 2 seasons, and the problem hasn't been fixed this time round. Much as I admire Capello for his relative honesty about Real's performances - 'horrifying' was the word this time - there's not much he can do about this particular problem.
Getafe, on the other hand, must be very pleased indeed. They're a formidably organised team. Perhaps no real star players, but they defend as a unit and break very quickly. Schuster would probably have been a great choice as Real coach, if only for the entertainment value to be derived from his utterances. But what he's done with few resources at Getafe - which started as a bit of a Real fan club - has been nothing short of amazing.
Betis 1-1 Deportivo
Both teams finished with ten men, and Betis continue their run of poor results, but the signs are at least encouraging this time against a fairly good Depor side. Betis' late equaliser was richly deserved, and hopefully it will spur the team on. Maybe Rafael Sobis will start scoring again. After a brace against Sevilla, he seems to have forgotten how.
Villarreal 0-0 Espanyol
Yet another frustrating result for Villarreal after it looked like they were finally getting back on track. To be fair, the Espanyol keeper Kameni played a blinder, letting nothing past him as the Yellow Submarines peppered the goal. Still, file under 'need to do better' for a team with European ambitions facing a side in supposed disarray.
Levante 0-1 Mallorca
A huge result for Mallorca. This is exactly the type of match they should be winning, against a side on a similar level. They were a bit lucky, scoring with their only shot of the match, but deserve credit for holding on for the win. I thought they'd be in relegation danger this season, but if they continue to grind out results like this, that obviously won't happen.
Real Sociedad 1-3 Zaragoza
Poor Sociedad. They've had rotten luck with injuries, but 1 point out of a possible 18 is just dire. Zaragoza aren't an easy side to play when they're clicking, which they definitely were here, the two Argentine playmakers Pablo Aimar and Andres D'Alessandro gradually coming into their own. Real Madrid reject Diogo was outstanding in defence, scoring the second, while striker Diego Milito continues to make his case for a place on the Argentina squad with a classy brace that leaves him joint top scorer in La Liga.
Nástic Tarragona 2-3 Athletic Bilbao
Athletic badly needed this result, their first win of the season. Nastic were probably the perfect opponents to get it against, since the newly-promoted Catalan team aren't exactly striking fear into the hearts of their enemies. Still, Athletic had to work for it. Yeste, who is a fantastic player, at least from what I saw against Barca, got a brace to carry his side through.
Celta 3-2 Valencia
A great win for Celta, who haven't had the best start to their season but performed brilliantly to overcome Valencia. It was an exciting game, full of incident and some lovely football. Baiano was very impressive for the home side, while Fernando Morientes cannot stop scoring for Valencia at the moment. Before the match Celta's coach was busy talking up Valencia, and maybe that did get to them, because they performed below their best - as pointed out by Valencia coach Flores, who was scathing in his post-match assessment.
That said, Celta have two blunders from opposition keeper Canizares to thank for their victory, and Flores has no one but himself to blame for fielding an unfit David Villa. The worst news for Valencia fans must be the ankle injury suffered by winger Vicente, who is so crucial to the team. Valencia don't play nearly as well without him, and what seems like a recurrence of the injury that ruled him out of the World Cup, not to mention a big chunk of last season will no doubt be worrying Flores.
Osasuna 0-1 Racing Santander
Osasuna won't be too pleased to lose the points to a dodgy penalty, but this is a huge result for Racing. Their first win of the season, and about time too. The most notable thing about this fixture, for me, was the surprisingly excellent performance of former comedy Argentine defender Lionel Scaloni. He performed very well starting out wide on the right wing. Perhaps Scaloni just wasn't cut out to be a defender and never found his real calling all this time. I know I've written scathingly about his qualities as a right-back before, but this is definitely great to hear. Good for him.
Coming up, a Champions League preview.