Real Madrid recovery shows La Liga too tight to call
Barcelona must have arrived at the Bernabéu on Saturday feeling that it was all set up for them to take control of the title race. Having unexpectedly taken back leadership of La Liga the previous week, they faced a Real Madrid team under immense pressure from the home crowd. Zinedine Zidane’s men had drawn one and lost two of the previous three home games, leading to an exit from the Copa del Rey and moving to the brink of the same in the Champions League, as well as slipping from top spot. That’s without mentioning that Barça had won their last four La Liga visits to the Bernabéu.
So El Real’s 2-0 win might be seen as a surprise as well as having a galvanising effect on their season at precisely the right time. Zidane‘s position had begun to be questioned again – as one must expect given the dimensions of the club – and is still the subject of discussion. His choices in this game were strong ones, though, with Vinicius Junior shining again and even the lesser-spotted Mariano Diaz chipping in with the clincher, after he rather than Gareth Bale was sent on.
There was a certain sadness about the spectacle. It felt a long way from the best Clásicos of recent years in terms of quality, and laid bare the reality that both teams are in a state of transition. Yet it also made clear that with neither one of these giants completely trustworthy at present, this wasn’t a decisive blow. We can expect plenty of twists and turns yet in the title race in the months to come.
Inter face fixture quandary
A strange week for Inter ended with them putting their feet up at home – not via choice, as Sunday’s Derby d’Italia at Juventus was postponed – after their home game with Sampdoria had met the same fate – as the Italian authorities try to contain the Coronavirus outbreak. On Thursday, they had completed a Europa League last 32 win over Ludogorets in an empty stadium as part of the same precautions.
Clearly a public health emergency is more important than anything, but there’s no doubt that this is beginning to affect Inter’s hopes for the season. Antonio Conte and his men face a fixture pile-up, and also face a physically exacting last 16 tie with Getafe in the Europa League – just ask Ajax. Thursday’s Coppa Italia semi-final, second leg is still going ahead as stands.
How Conte deals with this will be fascinating. His squad was reinforced in winter but he still has a strong idea of his best XI and will want to protect them. You wouldn’t blame him, in the circumstances, for simply writing off the Europa League, although there’s no suggestion yet that is the case. With Lazio winning at the weekend to go top for the first time in 10 years (and they don’t have Europe to deal with), Inter will need every bit of energy they can muster.
Is Ajax’s title procession under threat?
Super Sunday in the Netherlands represented an opportunity for Ajax to definitively break away from the rest – and it was a chance that loomed even larger after PSV and surging Feyenoord, under Dick Advocaat, drew 1-1 earlier in the day. They couldn’t take it.
Facing AZ, their most consistent rival for the Eredivisie title this season, Ajax lost 2-0 at home meaning that their visitors from Alkmaar drew level on points at the top. After a run of three defeats in four games – and the win on Thursday night against Getafe was ultimately meaningless as they crashed out of the Europa League – it is clear that Erik Ten Hag needs a rethink of sorts.
They have been here before – they started the calendar year of 2019 terribly – but this season has seen Ajax shoulder a totally different type of pressure after last year’s title win and run to the Champions League semi-finals. Their intrinsic quality, plus the extra money from the European run and the sales of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, made many assume that the Amsterdammers were bulletproof. Now, diminished and looking tired after a series of injuries in recent weeks to players including Daley Blind and Hakim Ziyech, they have to motor – and AZ, packed with their own young talent including Myron Boadu (who scored Sunday’s opener) and Calvin Stengs, have the appetite to push them.