This was the weekend of La Liga when hierarchy was imposed, as the Spanish phrase has it. That is: the bigger clubs had read the fairytale stories being written by some smaller ones, nodded, and then downsized them abruptly. The league table had Celta Vigo and Real Madrid on equal terms at the beginning of their meeting on Saturday, in an unlikely scenario, neck-and-neck at the summit. By the end of their encounter, in Vigo, Celta may have lost little of the respect they have gained over the last two months for their chutzpah, their drive, their bumptiousness, but they had lost the match 3-1.
The top three in La Liga now are the same top three as have occupied positions one, two or three in the last two final tables. If the first quarter of the season had been unusually captivating for the thrust of Celta – who did not just beat, but whipped Barcelona 4-1 a month ago – and the vitality of Villarreal, who have also led La Liga this season, and because of the flaws August and September revealed in Barcelona’s defense, and around Atletico Madrid’s substantial restructuring after an active summer of transfers, the season reached the point at which Spanish clocks change by an hour to mark mid-autumn with several reminders of why the so-called Big Three seem to have the stamina and the tried-and-tested methods to maintain a significant gap of class over the rest.
Villarreal stumbled, in a dull draw against Las Palmas. Celta sought the chinks in Madrid’s armor intelligently and courageously but, at 2-0 down, thanks to goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Danilo after 23 minutes, their uphill task in sustaining their status as Liga pacesetters became tougher still. They remained ambitious, the more so when they were reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of Gustavo Cabral with 33 minutes left. Their worse luck was to encounter a Madrid goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, in exceptional form.
Madrid are now top of La Liga with less than four weeks left until the first clasico of the season, the first meeting with Barcelona, who are second, and on the same points as their closest chaser but already with a substantially superior goal difference. The principal reason for that is that Barca have in nine games conceded nine more goals than Madrid have. Take away Navas’s saves against Celta alone, and that statistic might be half as impressive as it is.
Navas has been superb. And to think that at the tail-end of August, Madrid were deemed to have messed up, fundamentally, in their recruitment for the current season when, because of an administrative oversight, or an error of paperwork, or a simple lack of urgency, their summer-long brinkmanship in negotiations with Manchester United for the multi-million Euro signing of Spanish international goalkeeper, David de Gea, was rendered irrelevant when the deal to bring him to his home city failed, and a parallel deal to move Navas to United was also still-born. De Gea, outstanding though he is, would not have been celebrated by madridistas as Navas now is. The Costa Rican, tasked with replacing former club captain Iker Casillas, after a season as second-choice at Madrid, has consigned any regret about the failure to recruit De Gea to history.
The one Celta goal in Madrid’s away win was only the third put past Navas in La Liga. "Navas was the difference between the two teams," said Eduardo Berizzo, the Celta coach, listing "five or six great saves." The Costa Rican goalkeeper himself acknowledged the confidence his popularity with madridistas and colleagues has given him. "The belief I have come from hard work, and the support I have all around me."
Navas was speaking at the end of a week when Madrid came under new, unexpected pressure. A Liga assistant referee has alleged, anonymously, to the Catalan media he had been contacted by a senior official in the Spanish referee’s governing body to tell him to favor Madrid in the event of marginal calls were he to be chosen to run the line in the November 21st clasico. The country’s anti-corruption investigation unit have been informed, as have the police.
Barcelona, for their part, are concerned an inquiry be launched into the allegations. They will be equally concerned, as they nurse the injured Lionel Messi back to fitness from his muscle problem, that Madrid keeper Navas is proving such a guarantee for the current Liga leaders. Barca have had goalkeeping issues this season, concentrated on the errors committed by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who had deputized for Claudio Bravo in league matches until nine days ago, and although they have been encouraged that, without Messi, Neymar, who scored four times last weekend, and Luis Suarez, who scored a hat-trick in the 3-1 win over Eibar to answer Madrid’s scoreline at Celta and have Barca join the leaders on 21 points, can provide potency, the defending champions have now let in 12 goals in their nine Liga matches.
That’s seven more than Atletico Madrid, in third place, two points beneath Real and Barcelona. Atletico, too, saw off a pretender emphatically, producing a vintage display of his-pressure, aggressive soccer to defeat Valencia 2-1. That’s the Valencia who finished fourth last season and who left Atletico’s Vicente Calderon sensing the difference between fourth-best in Spain and number three still looks quite pronounced.