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Spanish La Liga: Week 18 Roundup


| mpantelidis@queenscourier.com

There were tight matches at the top of the Spanish La Liga in Week 18, with Barcelona and Real Madrid narrowly escaping with three points following hard fought bouts.

Madrid faced a defensively resilient Mallorca side in front of 20,000 fans at the Iberostar Estadi on January 14. After a 39th minute goal on a glancing header by Tomer Hemed, the Madridistas found themselves in the unfamiliar position of playing from behind. Los Blancos controlled possession for the majority of the game (73 percent), but beyond a Sergio Ramos header that struck the post, they found it challenging to break down the stingy Balearic Island side.

Los Merengues were able to ultimately equalize in the 72nd minute. Mesut Ozil found Gonzalo Higuain behind the defense on the left side of the box, after which the Argentine calmly chipped the ball over the outstretched arms of Mallorca keeper Dudu Aouate. After getting their first taste of goal, the visitors went in search of a winner, and Cristiano Ronaldo nearly provided one with a thunderous long-range strike that jolted the crossbar. Madrid concluded their comeback six minutes from time, when Spanish starlet Jose Maria Callejon blasted a rebound that fell to his feet passed the out of place Aouate.

Reigning champions Barcelona also met stiff competition at the Camp Nou in the form of Real Betis. The Blaugrana were ahead 2-0 by the 12th minute thanks to an open netter by Xavi and signature Barcelona ball movement leading to an easy goal for Lionel Messi. Andres Iniesta stormed at the Betis defense and found Alexis Sanchez on the left wing. Sanchez delivered a pinpoint pass across the box to the 2011 FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, whose touch sent the ball racing passed Betis keeper Castro.

The Verdiblancos fought back to equalize with strikes by Ruben Castro and Roque Santa Cruz – the first goals surrendered by Barcelona at home all season – but the Seville-based club was undone by a second yellow card issued to Mario in the 70th. Sanchez restored the lead by displaying his powerful right foot on a brilliant strike in the 75th, which Castro got a hand to but was unable to keep out of his net.  Barca struck four on a penalty by Messi four minutes from time.

Valencia was stunned by 14th place Real Sociedad at the Mestalla, where they had previously lost only once thus far this campaign. Despite dominating most statistical categories, the home side was thwarted by a 56th minute goal by Antoine Griezmann.

Elsewhere in Spain, Atletico Madrid added to the misery of Villarreal with a 3-0 thrashing at the Vicente Calderon. A brace by Radamel Falcao and an 80th minute goal by Diego further buried the sinking yellow submarine, now placed second from the bottom.

Sporting Gijon topped Malaga 2-1 in thrilling fashion. After Ruud van Nistelrooy equalized for Malaga in the 87th minute, Oscar Trejo gave Gijon the victory in the 90th.

Osasuna’s 11-game unbeaten run at home came to an end, as Los Rojillos were bested by Racing Santander 2-0.

Athletic Bilbao thrashed fourth place Levante 3-0 with a brilliant first half that left them two goals ahead at the break.

Granada was beaten by Rayo Vallecano 2-1, and Sevilla and Espanyol played to a scoreless draw.

Bottom dwellers Real Zaragoza, who had managed only 10 points before the weekend, were unfortunate not to secure their third win of the season after an own goal by Javier Paredes 11 minutes from time gave Getafe the 1-1 draw.