Ipurua, Eibar – A fine selection of food adorned the table. Beers and wine too. But at five minutes to four o’clock, the spread on the table was abandoned as everyone headed onto the balcony. It was the one day of the year that all of the balconies attached to both apartment blocks situated on the Indalezio Ojanguren road were full – there was virtually no room to maneuver. Family, friends, and even just acquaintances all took advantage of the view that could be had from the balconies that overlooked the town’s small stadium. Barcelona were in town, and there wasn’t a spare seat to be had.
Both of the teams on show on Saturday afternoon were in fine form. Barcelona yet to lose in La Liga this season whilst Eibar had only lost once since early November. Only Atletico Madrid could match the results of these two over the last three months. A match-up of two teams high in confidence, and evidently quality, was in store for those lucky enough to have a seat in the 7,000 seater Ipurua stadium or one of the adjacent balconies.
Many believed that the first time that Barcelona rocked up in Eibar for the first league match between the two sides in 2014 would be the last – a one-off occasion that would be long remembered but not repeated. However, the walk down the steep concrete steps from the main road to the side-door-like entrance to the stadium is one that the Barcelona players are now used to. Even they must be surprised that they keep travelling deep into the Basque mountains each season.
Eibar were in seventh place come kickoff – stay there and they will almost certainly be in Europe next season, what with Barcelona and Sevilla facing each other in the Copa del Rey final. Even if they don’t – and like last season when they found themselves in a similar position but eventually finished 10th, they might not – what they are doing is remarkable, despite being all too rarely remarked upon. Last week Leganes manager Asier Garitano labeled Eibar’s rise as ‘barbaric’ whilst this week Ernesto Valverde said that the team was of a ‘very high level’.
€711m is the difference in value between Eibar and Barcelona’s squads and yet for the first-half at least on Saturday the difference between both sides was far less apparent. Jose Luis Mendilibar – who was alongside a friend and former colleague in Ernesto Valverde on the touchline – reminded everyone that “our aim at the start of the season was to spend another year in primera and we have not reached that objective yet, if we can do that maybe we can enjoy the final 10 games. At the beginning of the season, no one expected this.”
However, at the start, Eibar struggled. Pedro Leon and Adrian – their most important creative players last season – have not played a minute; Adrian left for Malaga while Leon has been injured. Seven defeats in their opening 11 matches led to los armeros fearing that this could be the season that the fairytale ended. “We had to get back up again,” Mendilibar said. They overcame that run and it is strength and stability that has been the basis of their rise up the table. There are parallels between Eibar and other smaller teams such as Girona, Getafe, and Leganes who are also lurking near the final European place. They make the most of what they’ve got, something that the bigger, and more wasteful, teams no longer do.
For the first 15 minutes on Saturday afternoon, Eibar ran the Champions-elect ragged. The decorative rim around the roof of the stadium adorned a pertinent message ‘Otro futbal es possible’ [Another football is possible]. Eibar do what they do well. They do what works. Eibar are not a tough team, as the lazy clichés would lead you to believe. In fact, they’re not an especially defensive team and they’re certainly not a dirty one. They do deny opportunities and space to their opponents, forcing them back, and they do play on a pitch that is so tight and small that it’s no good if your claustrophobic. In the whole of Europe, only Manchester City have faced fewer shots and in Spain only five teams have taken more. They are direct, they press high and they deliver more crosses that anyone else. But despite their simple and somewhat predictable approach, it is effective.
All of the qualities of Eibar were on show in the opening stages against Barcelona. The high press, the quick direct passing, and the tireless workrate. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was tested and tested again, the defence was pushed back to the goal line, and even the Barcelona midfield relented possession far more frequently than normal. But they went behind. Albeit against the run of play, it’s never easy against the worlds best. Leo Messi – instrumental yet again – provided the crucial pass that cut open the Eibar defence and Luis Suarez allowed Marko Dmitrovic to commit before slotting the ball past him and into the net. Eibar weren’t about to surrender and they came straight back at la Blaugrana – Fabian Orellana’s curling shot bounced off the top of Ter Stegen’s crossbar just before Joan Jordan placed his shot just wide of the post.
Barcelona though still had chances of their own but were made to fight for them –Suarez provided a fine pass to Messi but the Argentine’s shot came back of the post. Philippe Coutinho was brought on by Valverde to take control of the match – Andres Iniesta left the pitch to an ovation like he does at most La Liga grounds but it felt more genuine here. The equaliser still looked a possibility for Eibar before an act of stupidity from Orellana left the hosts with a player less. The Chilean who only signed for the club in the winter window and many still can’t believe that such a talent is here at Eibar, took exception to a booking issued to Papa Diop and punched the ball away leading to referee Hernandez Hernandez brandishing a second yellow without hesitation. Mendilibar was furious at his player and only a matter of minutes later the Eibar manager found himself being removed from the dugout by the referee for his over-eager expressions.
Despite the tireless work by the Eibar midfield, Diop and Inui in particular, the visitors got their second goal of the match in the 88th minute – Messi’s shot was blocked but fell nicely for Jordi Alba who ensured that the points went back with them to Catalonia. “We had to win,” Valverde told reporters after the match. “Eibar pushed us very hard and they were on an incredible streak of their own so the win has double merit. Despite the result, there was a lot to take from the game for the hosts. It was the tightest contest between the two since their first league match four years ago. The improvement in Eibar since then, from league novices to seasoned performers with an eye on Europe, is marked. Come the final whistle and as the final straits of the club’s upbeat song faded to a silence, everyone ventured back inside to the buffet. When Barcelona come to town it is like no other day, Eibar’s links to Barcelona are far stronger than those to Real Madrid, whether they be political or the colour of their kits. The team from Catalonia will return again next year, it will be – yet again – an occasion not to be missed for the locals and their relatives, and maybe next time they will go one better.
Los Otros Puntos
- Malaga were 10 minutes away from just their fourth win in the league this season, the fans in la Rosaleda kept checking their watches. It had been over 50 minutes since Brown Ideye had put the hosts in front against Valencia and the crowd believed that they were going to see their side win for the first time since December 10th. But in line with Malaga’s performances this season they collapsed and let a lead slip. Francis Coquelin scored his first Valencia goal since arriving from Arsenal, heading in a corner at the near post. In the 84th minute Ignasi Miquel – another former Gunner – was shown a straight red card for hauling down Rodrigo as he burst into the penalty area. Dani Parejo stepped up to smash the penalty into the bottom-left corner. A night that looked as if it was going to promise so much, ended – once again – in disappointment for Malaga.
- “No matter the opponents, we play the same way …with the ball and without it.” These were the words uttered pre-match by club captain Joaquin in the dressing room to his Real Betis teammates. For the 90 minutes that followed, he and the rest of the team carried out that message just as they have done for much of this season. Despite the fact that they were facing current Spanish, European, and World champions Real Madrid, they attacked aggressively and took the game to their opponents. There were eight goals – five for Madrid, three for Betis – and all had their own touch of quality. There was a brace for Marco Asensio, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema looked much more clinical and confident when taking their goals. Even ex-Sevilla defender Sergio Ramos scored against an old-rival. But perhaps two of the standout performers were for Betis; Loren Moron and Junior Firpo have only five La Liga starts between them but they looked as if they’d each played over 100. They and Betis are not to be missed this season.
- Paco Jemez undone his top button and loosened his Windsor knot, he was not happy. An incorrect offside judgement by the linesman had prevented a late Las Palmas equaliser against Sevilla. Wissam Ben Yedder and Pablo Sarabia had put the away side ahead but Alejandro Galvez’ strike in the final seconds of the match should have added to Javier Calleri’s penalty to give the hosts a share of the points. Such fine decisions can be the difference between a side staying in the league and being relegated. Hopefully, it doesn’t come down to that for Las Palmas.
- Girona pushed aside a Leganes side that Marca called ‘lifeless’ to move higher up the La Liga table. Martin Mantovani’s clear handball presented Girona and Cristian Stuani with the opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot. Christian Portu doubled the hosts lead before half-time and Juanpe headed in a third to keep Girona’s European dream alive.
- The gap between Alaves and the relegation zone widens even further. A 1-0 win against Deportivo saw Los Babazorros move into 15th position – since Abelardo took charge they have won seven of the 11 league matches.
Girona 3–0 Leganes
Las Palmas 1–2 Sevilla
Eibar 0–2 Barcelona
Alaves 1–0 Deportivo
Malaga 1–2 Valencia
Real Sociedad 3–0 Levante
Atletico Madrid 2–0 Athletic Bilbao
Espanyol 1–1 Villarreal
Real Betis 3–5 Real Madrid
Getafe – Celta Vigo to be played on Monday
El Jugador de la Semana: Loren Moron (Real Betis)
|19||Deportivo La Coruna||24||-29||17|