Anybody who sends professional athletes down to Andalucia in May, and asks them to test their nerves there in a tight title-race as well as absorb the region’s soaring late-spring temperatures must have a streak of the torturer about them. The fixture-list for Matchday 35 of La Liga had a cruel design.
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid, now the only remaining contenders for that title, were sent down south on an especially hot day. The pacesetters, Barca, coolly dealt with the heat; the challengers, Madrid, had to sweat loads to stay just behind them.
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Barcelona’s 8-0 victory at Cordoba looks, from the scoreline, more leisurely than it was for the first 40 minutes. The asphyxiating 90-plus degrees, the anxiety ahead of an imminent two-leg Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich, and the delicate, and the vulnerable advantage Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and company hold in the Spanish table seemed to inhibited them all. At the very least, the combination seemed to impede their best finishing instincts.
"For the first 39 minutes, we began to fear that we weren’t going to inspire," admitted Luis Enrique, the Barcelona head coach. "And it is only to be expected the heat did have an affect. We then managed to sort things out, in quite a spectacular way."
By the time the afternoon turned toward evening, Barcelona had equaled their highest margin of victory in an away match in all their La Liga history. Messi, with two goals, had taken himself to the top of the goal-scoring list for the league this season — he might have anticipated his perch there would be brief â and Suarez had recorded his first hat-trick as a Barcelona player.
Neymar, Ivan Rakitic – who broke the deadlock on 40 minutes – and Gerard Pique scored the remaining goals. Dani Alves had an excellent game as provider of passes — a good moment to remind his employers that he can still look peerless as an attacking right-back and needs a new contract if he is to stay at Barcelona beyond the end of next month.
There was a moment, too, in which Messi made the sort of gesture that encourages students of the sport’s elite two players to compare him favorably with Cristiano Ronaldo. He had put his foot to a ball that Neymar might have expected to play — and score from — for one of his goals.
As if acknowledging he had ‘robbed’ a goal from his colleague, Neymar was invited to take Barcelona’s penalty later on, instead of Messi, the usual spot-kicker. Here’s the difference between that and Ronaldo: Three days earlier, Ronaldo had reacted angrily, theatrically, when, against Almeria, his Madrid teammate Alvaro Arbeloa scored a goal from a cross apparently making its way toward Ronaldo.
In Seville, the mildly cooler but still sapping Andalucian city where Ronaldo and Madrid were obliged to go a few hours after Barcelona had experienced the Cordoba cauldron, Ronaldo’s mood was happier. Madrid’s three goals in a thrilling 3-2 win over Sevilla all came from the Portuguese, who in the process reinstalled himself ahead of Messi at the head of the goal-scorers in La Liga and put his club in good spirits ahead of their trip to Turin to meet Juventus in their Champions League semi-final.
Madrid perspired, and they danced with disaster at times for their three points. Ronaldo’s majestic header, from an Isco center, and his determined opportunism after Chicharito had nodded on a James Rodriguez center provided a flattering 2-0 lead by 40 minutes. The lead provided and an unfamiliar sensation for the crowd at the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium: Sevilla had not lost at home all season.
It was on 45 minutes that Madrid’s own Andalusian totem lost his cool. Sergio Ramos, a son of Seville and former Sevillista, fouled the excellent Alex Vidal blatantly and unnecessarily in the Madrid penalty area. Carlos Bacca converted the penalty just before half-time for 2-1.
The second half was gripping. Sevilla strove to protect their proud home record, and players from both sides displayed symptoms of fatigue from the warm evening. After Ronaldo had headed in his third goal, meeting a looping cross from the substitute Gareth Bale â who confirmed his return from injury for Turin â there were tantalizing opportunities for Sevilla to score not once â as Vicente Iborra did 12 minutes from the whistle â but twice, or three times.
In one episode of pinball around Madrid’s six-yard box, Sevilla shots squirmed agonizingly close to Iker Casillas’s goaline three times within three seconds.
Sevilla, for their part, have an intriguing run-in for the next three weeks, too. They are in the league’s fifth place, just behind Valencia, who occupy the last of the positions that will earn qualification for next season’s Champions League.
But should Sevilla win the Europa League, a title they claimed last season, they would qualify for the Champions League as champions of that tournament under new UEFA rules. They play Fiorentina in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday.
Ancelotti respects Sevilla and did not mind coming back from Andalucia having conceded two goals on the same day Barcelona went to the region, let in none and scored eight. "It is better to win nine matches by one goal than one match 9-1," he said. And yes, the title race is still winnable, even with three games left and a twoâpoint gap. "The last thing you give up on is hope," said Ancelotti.