With the eventful burden of an international break sending stars far and wide to play for their countries, the yearn to return to club football wasn’t as strong as usual. The UEFA Nations League had provided games of high intensity, games of intense drama and games that you’d actually choose to watch. Distraction isn’t the right word, but you could say certain players have taken their eyes off the La Liga ball. And those players were in for a shock in the tiny Basque town of Eibar at lunchtime on Saturday.Embed from Getty Images
Four wins in a row had steadied the rocking ship of Real Madrid and earned temporary boss Santiago Solari a shot at the job for real. Los Blancos had moved to within a few points of the leaders Barcelona with wins over Real Valladolid and Celta Vigo. Eight of the eleven that started for Madrid at Eibar on Saturday had featured for their nations over the previous fortnight. No one in the Eibar squad had gone on international duty. But that doesn’t explain the total capitulation and lack of desire that followed from the men in all white.
Kike fired a warning shot inside the first three minutes, striking the upright with a looping effort from distance. Gareth Bale hit an equally stunning opener, only for the linesman to raise his flag. Gonzalo Escalante was in the right place at the right time to bundle home Eibar’s first during an impressive first-half display from the hosts. Their guests of honour at Ipurua looked like they didn’t want to be there. Things got worse after the break. Álvaro Odriozola, one of those who sat out the international break, was caught on the ball by Barcelona loanee Marc Cucurella on the edge of his own penalty area.Embed from Getty Images
Cucurella, who proved to be a thorn in Madrid’s side for the entire 90 minutes, spotted Sergi Enrich in acres of space across the pitch and laid it into his path. Thibaut Courtois stretched but couldn’t keep the striker’s driven shot out and Eibar doubled their advantage. Kike pounced to tap in an improbable third and all but confirm the Basque club’s first win over one of the big three (Real, Atletico or Barcelona) for the first time in their history. After the final whistle, the players in red and blue celebrated as if they’d won a trophy. And they had. The face of Real Madrid will hang on their wall for as long as the club exists. This win will always be remembered as the first major victory.
In the other dressing room, the Madrid players were trying to forget what had happened. They’d trudged, dejected, down the tunnel past their president’s watchful gaze in the directors’ box. Solari, the man entrusted with beginning this new era at the club, was back at square one. Worst of all, they’d passed up the opportunity to gain ground on their main rivals. Later that day, Barcelona would travel to the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid. With both clubs vying for the title, Real Madrid could only sit and watch.
The game offered little in the way of incident. There wasn’t a shot on target until the 77th-minute when Diego Costa headed in his first goal since February. Diego Simeone seemed to have masterminded the perfect performance in order to beat Barcelona in the league for the first time as Atletico manager. That was until Ousmane Dembele popped up with an 89th-minute equaliser to steal a point in a match in which neither deserved all three. ‘Dembele, on time’ was the headline in Mundo Deportivo while Sport led with ‘Dembele wakes up Barça’. The Spanish press used the Frenchman’s documented impunctuality to best describe the situation. Turning up late for training can be easily forgiven when you earn 7 points from your goals alone.
That Dembele goal denied Atletico a spot at the top of the table; a position that was eventually taken up by Sevilla the next day. Andre Silva’s headed finish gave the Andalusians all three points against Real Valladolid as they leapfrogged Barcelona into first. Elsewhere, Villarreal finally secured their first win at home this season with Santi Cazorla providing assists for both goals in a 2-1 win over Real Betis. Valencia have found a much-needed goal-scorer in Santi Mina while Espanyol were beaten at home for the first time this campaign by Catalan neighbours Girona.