The hunting pack gain ground after Barcelona suffer setback

The La Liga title race has been blown open, and not for the first time this season. A home defeat for Barcelona and a win in Vigo for Real Madrid has closed the growing chasm between the two giants of the Spanish game. Other contenders have also emerged, one propelled by heart and character, one by unlikely glory and one by a mixture of disbelief and momentum.

Sunday afternoon at the Camp Nou turned into the stuff of nightmares for Ernesto Valverde and his shaken Barcelona side. Lionel Messi was back, but that didn’t guarantee victory. An eerie silence filled the ground not once but twice during the first half as Junior Firpo and Joaquín gave Real Betis a half-time lead. That was the first time 37-year-old Joaquín had netted against Barça since 2004. Every time the hosts seemed to haul themselves back into the game, Betis pushed it further away from them.

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Messi converted a penalty but Betis found the net again. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen the guilty party as he allowed Giovani Lo Celso’s tame shot find its way in via his gloves. The match seemed set up for a grandstand finish when Munir squared for Arturo Vidal, even if Ivan Rakitic received his marching orders moments after. However, Sergio Canales struck with 7 minutes to go to firmly put the result beyond doubt. Or did he? After consulting VAR, a second from Messi stood and took the score to 4-3. The referee’s whistle prevented any further twists to this topsy-turvy tie as Barcelona were beaten at the Camp Nou for the first time in over two years in the league.

Despite starting the weekend 7 points adrift of Barcelona, all eyes turned to Real Madrid to see their response. Even when in dire straits, Los Blancos are always viewed as contenders. However, 24 hours earlier, even a dramatic last-gasp win for Atlético Madrid saw them fly under the radar once more. Diego Godín, battled-hardened and injured, was the hero of the day as he hobbled and headed his way to a 92nd-minute winner to put Athletic Club to the sword. Diego Simeone needed that and, with two wins on the bounce, the tide seems to be turning back in his favour. They’re by no means perfect, but neither are Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Their city rivals convincingly pulled themselves back into the title race with all three points in Galicia against Celta Vigo. An unstoppable Karim Benzema scored the first and made the second as Madrid went 2-0 in front shortly after half time. Hugo Mallo netted for the hosts before Sergio Ramos and Dani Ceballos put the game to bed. However, the victory came at a cost. Santi Solari accused Celta of ‘playing aggressively’ and ‘to the limit of the rules’ in comments he made after full time. ‘We suffered’ he added. Injuries for Nacho and Casemiro will see them ruled out for two months and three weeks respectively while Gareth Bale also limped off.

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While they’ve enjoyed a resurgence under Solari’s caretaker management, the international break could prove to be a welcome rest for a threadbare Madrid squad. They know that Atlético and Barça face each other in two weeks’ time at the Wanda Metropolitano, providing them will an ideal opportunity to gain more ground of the leaders. But it’s not only them. Sevilla nabbed three points in added time against 5th-place Espanyol thanks to Wissam Ben Yedder. The Andalusian side have rarely challenged for the league in recent decades, with just one La Liga title to their name (1945-46). They could form an unlikely challenge under Pablo Machín and sit just one point back in 2nd.

The same can be said about Alavés. The Basque club were heavily tipped for a relegation battle prior to a football being kicked this season but are one points off top going into November’s international break. Even at this stage, they’ll admit jostling for a European place would be massively optimistic, but it’s hard to deny it if they keep picking up wins. One of their nicknames is El Glorioso (The Glorious One); glory for Alavés would almost be unthinkable. Almost.

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