La Liga full of surprises

Real Madrid have equalled their unbeaten record of 34 games, but how does this run compare to their 1988-89 record?

On Monday night Real Sociedad, the team on the best run in La Liga, were defeated by Deportivo, the side who had gone into the game in the relegation zone and who had conceded five in their past two games. Not just defeated, in fact: they were hammered 5-1. From battering Barcelona — it finished 1-1 but even Luis Enrique admitted that was a “miracle” — to a kicking in A Coruña in just eight days. It was happening again. Earlier in the season, Celta had gone from scoring four goals against Barcelona in one game to conceding five against Villarreal the next. And that’s just the start.

Fourteen weeks into the season, champions Barcelona have dropped almost half of the points available at the Camp Nou. Real Madrid are unbeaten, true, but it hasn’t exactly been easy and they were held at home by Eibar, the team from a town whose entire population could fit in the Santiago Bernabéu and still leave 50,000 seats free for the home fans. Oh, and Atlético Madrid, European runners-up, have dropped more points than ever before under Diego Simeone having begun the season with draws against Alavés and Leganés: one team hadn’t been in the first division for a decade, the other hadn’t ever been there before.

Spain’s season began as it meant to go on, that’s for sure. The things they say only happen in other leagues have a bit of a habit of happening here, in the only league with four teams still in the Champions League, all seven teams through in European competition, the winners of the last six European titles and the only one that has provided five different European finalists in four years.

On Monday night, Deportivo destroyed la Real. The day before, Betis and Celta played out a wonderful 3-3 draw and the night before that, Sergio Ramos got an 89th-minute equaliser in the Clásico. Málaga’s equaliser on the same weekend arrived later: They got a 93rd-minute goal against Valencia to make it 2-2. And the thing is, it wasn’t even that unusual. Not for Spain, anyway. And not for Málaga, either.

It was the second week in a row that Juande Ramos’ side grabbed such a late goal. In Week 13, the week when Sporting’s coach claimed that his team, boasting “four pals in it together” had “stood up to Madrid,” and the week Real Sociedad dominated Barcelona, Málaga had defeated Deportivo 4-3. The winner was an absolute belter, too, scored in the 92nd minute by 19-year-old Javier Ontiveros. Sevilla won that day too, a comparatively “normal” 2-1 win against Valencia thanks to a save from Sergio Rico in the very last minute.

Valencia are a giant club, the fourth-most successful in Spanish football history and a European Cup finalist in this century. They’re also in a relegation fight. As for Sevilla, “in the very last minute” is a phrase that has been used a lot about them this season. Just ask Deportivo, Alavés and Las Palmas. They’re not the only ones, either. If it was Rico making epic saves in Week 13, it was Carlos Kameni performing two miracles in the last minute against Barcelona, bandaged leg and all, to keen a clean sheet at the Camp Nou.

And so it goes, week after week. Every seven days, there’s more drama.

On the opening weekend, Sevilla beat Espanyol 6-4, Las Palmas won 4-2 at Valencia and there were 40 goals in primera. Playing their first game in the top flight for over a decade, Alavés conceded very late at the Calderón but scored even later: youth team graduate, captain, fan and season-ticket holder, Manu García, hit an absolute beauty, a moment he could never even imagine when he played for the club down in Spain’s regionalised, theoretically amateur, 80-team third tier.

In Week 2, the first-ever primera game at Butarque ended with Leganés holding Atlético, Real Madrid needed a late goal from Toni Kroos to beat Celta, Las Palmas got their ninth goal of the season and Espanyol and Málaga got a 2-2 draw — a result that, like 3-2, has been seen rather a lot this season.

Luis Enrique suggests Barcelona had ‘a lot to lose’ in their 4-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday night.

There’s a collective coronary every week in Spain. In Week 3, for example, when Ruben Castro’s last-minute goal saw Betis beat Valencia 3-2 after Valencia had fought back from 2-0 down. The same week leaders Las Palmas were ahead 1-0 with two minutes to go at Sevilla and lost 2-1, the winner scored by a 19-year-old local boy; it was one of three last-minute winners that weekend. Oh, and it was the same weekend that Alavés beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou for only the second time in their history.

In Week 4, Betis and Granada drew 2-2, a bonkers and brilliant game that Betis might have won but for Alex Alegría’s last-minute miss. (Alegria, by the way, is Spanish for “happiness.”) In Week 5, an 87th-minute penalty gave Valencia a 2-1 victory over Alavés when they needed it most, Bruno dinked in a Panenka to give Villarreal a draw at the Bernabéu and the “other Clásico” between Atlético and Barcelona finished level, too.

In Week 6, Las Palmas and Madrid drew 2-2. The clock showed 88 minutes when Las Palmas scored. It showed 91 and 93 minutes for the goals Espanyol conceded in a 2-0 defeat to Celta. Facing Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao scored against an outfield player in goal. And Mikel Balenziaga scored for the first time, over three hundred games into his career.

In Week 7, the week that saw Zinedine Zidane asked if his team was in crisis and replied “no, but we can’t go on like this,” three last minute-goals decided three games in a row and Celta beat Barcelona 4-3. In Week 8, Celta got beaten back (5-0 by Villarreal), Sevilla won 4-3 at Leganés, Diego Alves saved two penalties in one game and Athletic won the Basque derby 3-2. A last-minute chance for Geronimo Rulli was ruled offside. Rulli is a goalkeeper.

On the Saturday morning the following week, Atlético were top. On Saturday afternoon, it was Barcelona. By Sunday evening it was Sevilla and on Sunday night it was Madrid, who needed a late goal to edge past Athletic. That same weekend, there was another 3-2 (Barcelona scoring a last minute penalty against Valencia) and another 3-3 as Espanyol and Eibar drew.

It wouldn’t be the last time we saw that score. It was 3-3 between Las Palmas and Celta in Week 10, Quique Setien’s side going from 3-0 down to 3-3… oh, and a shot hit the bar in the 91st minute. In Week 11, Málaga beat Sporting 3-2 and Barcelona beat Sevilla 2-1 in a game their manager called “intrepid” as Sevilla’s first shot came after 34 seconds, their second after 48 seconds and their third after 81 seconds.

In Week 12, we saw 3-2 to go with Kameni’s miracle and Madrid winning the city derby for only the second time in their last 10 tries. (Depor 2-3 Sevilla, in case you’re wondering.)

By now you know that Depor need fear not because in Week 14, they beat Real Sociedad 5-1, the team from the relegation zone destroying the men of the moment and the side that had expected to move into fourth place with a win. And yet even that wasn’t the stand-out result. This was: Granada won their first game of the entire season and they beat… Sevilla, the team seeking second place.

Yep, it’s true what they say. La Liga: boring, predictable and non-competitive.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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