Madrid Topple Barca Despite Messi Magic

This weekend saw three crucial matches with title implications across Europe, as well as new league leaders and records maintained and broken.

I start this week in Spain where there is now a new leader at the top of the table. Barcelona were indebted to the talismanic Lionel Messi who twice scored to draw the Blaugrana level at Almeria. The Catalan side shared the spoils with their unfancied hosts – a good result considering the champions were chasing the game with ten men after Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off – which meant that Real Madrid would leapfrog their great rivals, albeit on goal difference, with a win at home to Sevilla. After ten minutes, Sevilla took the lead. Diego Capel’s left-wing cross was turned into his own net by Xabi Alonso, who was under pressure by the visitors keen attacking presence. The visitors then soaked up the pressure and saw the half out. At the start of the second-half, the Andalucíans doubled up in bizarre circumstances. Left-back Ivica Dragutinovic’s seemingly harmless free-kick completely deceived a flat-footed Iker Casillas leaving Real a huge task to salvage anything from the game. Step forward Cristiano Ronaldo. He was the driving force for the hosts for the whole game and he halved the deficit, latching on to a loose ball and firing past Andres Palop on the hour mark. The introduction of substitutes Guti and Rafael van der Vaart gave Real impetus and just three minutes after pulling a goal back, Real were back on level terms, with Sergio Ramos heading home against his former club. Sevilla faced an onslaught from here on in and it was Ronaldo who was central to everything good about the home side. His leadership by example was in stark contrast to the very subdued, anonymous Kaka, who was unsurprisingly withdrawn with 15 minutes left for club captain Raul. Gonzalo Higuain, somewhat peripheral earlier on, became a bigger threat, hitting the woodwork twice in three minutes, and it was the Argentine’s parried header that allowed the rejuvenated van der Vaart to bundle home the winner. Cue jubilant scenes among the players and fans alike. Former Liverpool midfielder Alonso came out post-match and said that Real are unstoppable in attack. Having witnessed the whole game, I would have to agree as they looked destined to score. El Clasico on 11th April at the Bernabeu has the makings of being the title decider.

The result was also good for Mallorca, who now sit fourth after a convincing 3-0 home win against Sporting de Gijon. Elsewhere, Zaragoza put a four point buffer between them and the relegation zone, winning at home 1-0 against the infuriatingly inconsistent Atletico Madrid after Valladolid had gone down 2-0 at Athletic Bilbao, a result that keeps the Basque club in the hunt for a European slot. Bottom of the table Xerez are now nine points off Zaragoza, having picked up a rare yet impressive 4-2 win at Malaga.

Deportivo 3 – 1 Tenerife
Almeria 2 – 2 Barcelona
Real Madrid 3 – 2 Sevilla
Mallorca 3 – 0 Sporting de Gijon
Espanyol 0 – 0 Villarreal
Malaga 2 – 4 Xerez
Osasuna 0 – 0 Getafe
Athletic Bilbao 2 – 0 Valladolid
Zaragoza 1 – 0 Atletico Madrid
Valencia – Racing play on Monday night – result at the end of the blog.

Roma hosted Milan on Saturday night with the game finishing 0-0 – a result that neither sides pursuit of the Scudetto. The result might suggest that the game was devoid of action, but the reality was far from it – Milan were profligate in front of goal, wasting a host of glorious opportunities to turn the heat up on their neighbours. For what seems the umpteenth time, Ronaldinho was the hub of Milan’s creativity. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Marco Borriello were most culpable for wasting good chances. Even Claudio Ranieri, who saw his sluggish Roma side outplayed, came out and praised Milan’s superiority after the game.

Pressure is building on one of Italy’s other Champions League representatives, as Fiorentina went at home to Juventus 2-1. The Old Lady took the lead through Diego, the Brazilian running on to the impressive Antonio Candreva’s through ball, rounding goalkeeper Sebastian Frey and rolling the ball home. Marco Marchionni equalised for Fiorentina, who are now way off the pace for a European slot, taking advantage of confusion between Paolo de Ceglie and goalkeeper Alex Manninger, before Fabio Grosso netted the winner, firing home after good work between Diego and Mohamed Sissoko. However, Palermo, not Juventus, are in fourth, as the Sicilians held on to the spot after excellent work from substitute Nicola Bertolo allowed Fabrizio Miccoli to net his second goal in successive games against Livorno. The biggest win of the weekend has to be Bari’s 1-0 win at home against Chievo. Bari have struggled badly since the resumption of the league in January, but picked up a vital three points to help prevent their recent slide continuing courtesy of Jose Ignacio Castillo. In the final game of the weekend, Inter could only draw at home against a determined Genoa side 0-0. The visitors stood firm in the face of the champions attempts to break them down. To be fair, Inter did not pose too many questions of the Grifoni backline. Despite some half chances late on, Inter failed to carve open the visitors, meaning that the title race is still well and truly on.

Fiorentina 1 – 2 Juventus
Roma 0 – 0 Milan
Bologna 2 – 1 Napoli
Cagliari 2 – 2 Catania
Sampdoria 2 – 1 Lazio
Siena 1 – 1 Parma
Atalanta 0 – 0 Udinese
Bari 1 – 0 Chievo
Palermo 1 – 0 Livorno
Inter Milan 0 – 0 Genoa

The pick of the games on Sunday night was France’s top two clash between leaders and champions Bordeaux and newly-promoted Montpellier at the Stade Chaban Delmas. I witnessed a game that made up for any lack of quality through serious amounts of controversy. Firstly, Marouane Chamakh, perennial transfer-target of English clubs, showed why he has many suitors after 20 minutes, controlling well and volleying past Geoffrey Jourden. Except, the Moroccan striker was penalised for an infringement that I, along with many of the home fans, could not figure out. Montpellier striker Victor Montano burst clear and was tripped in the penalty area by defender Michael Ciani. A penalty was awarded and Ciani was dismissed. Alberto Costa stepped up, but his effort was too close to keeper Cedric Carrasso and the hosts survived. French TV have a pretty strange feature in times like this – they had a reporter in the tunnel to greet Ciani and get his views on the sending off. Suffice to say, the defender was not overjoyed at the decision. The visitors, largely on the back foot for the first half hour, started to make the most of their numerical advantage. Montano leapt highest to meet a left-wing cross to find his header blocked inexplicably by the hand of Matthieu Chalme, who somehow only received a yellow card. This time, Montano stepped up and coolly slotted the penalty. However, the referee decided the penalty needed to be retaken due to encroachment. Carrasso then saved his second penalty of the game, though the referee did not order a third retake, despite what looked to be encroachment again. With the game somehow goalless as it approached the hour mark, Chamakh made the most of a loose ball outside the box and drove a volley past Jourden to give the hosts the advantage. Montpellier pushed forward, desperate for an equaliser, an salvaged an unlikely point in the 93rd minute. Costa atoned for his earlier penalty miss by rifling a free-kick around the Bordeaux wall, pretty much straight at Carrasso, who could only push the ball into the side of the net. For now, the visitors can still dream of Ligue 1 success, though Bordeaux do have two games in hand over them.

Elsewhere in France, the teams behind the top two failed to take advantage, with Lyon, Marseille and Lille all drawing their games. Lyon should really have beat beleaguered Bologne, though the result is perhaps less surprising as Lyon rested Lisandro, Cesar Delgado, Jeremy Toulalan and Miralem Pjanic ahead of the second-leg Champions League trip to the Bernabeu. Not many exciting games elsewhere, with the best of the action coming from Nancy’s 3-2 away win at struggling Nice.

Stade Rennais FC 1 – 0 AS Monaco FC
RC Lens 1 – 1 PSG
US Boulogne 0 – 0 O. Lyon
OGC Nice 2 – 3 AS Nancy-Lorraine
AJ Auxerre 1 – 0 Valenciennes FC
FC Sochaux 1 – 0 Toulouse FC
AS Saint-Etienne 1 – 1 Lille
Marseille 1 – 1 FC Lorient
Grenoble Foot 38 1 – 1 Le Mans UC 72
Bordeaux 1 – 1 Montpellier HSC

Before the weekend, the top two of Bayern Munich and Leverkusen had proud records. Leverkusen had not suffered defeat in 24 games before facing lowly Nuremburg, but perhaps the pressure of being expected to win given their excellent form this season is beginning to take its toll on the side as they went down 3-2. Nuremburg raced to a three goal lead after a brace from Eric Choupo-Moting and a goal from Mickael Tavares. Bundesliga top scorer Stefan Kiessling and Patrick Helmes reduced the deficit for the visitors, but they could not find an equaliser. The result leaves them third now because in-form Schalke won again, this time demolishing Eintracht Frankfurt 4-1. Only a couple of weeks ago, Nuremburg had ended Bayern Munich’s consecutive winning streak which stood at 13. However, the Bavarians managed to extend their unbeaten run to 18 this weekend, after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s equaliser at Cologne saved a point for the leaders. Perhaps it was supposed to be, but former Bayern Munich striker, Lukas Podolski, scored against his old club. Werder Bremen came fought back from two goals down, scoring twice in the final 15 minutes to grab a draw against Stuttgart, while Bosnian hitman Edin Dzeko scored twice to help champions Wolfsburg beat Bochum 4-1.

VfL Wolfsburg 4 – 1 VfL Bochum
Werder Bremen 2 – 2 VfB Stuttgart
Eintracht 1 – 4 Schalke 04
SC Freiburg 1 – 2 Hannover 96
FC Köln 1 – 1 Bayern Munich
Hamburg 1 – 0 Hertha BSC
Borussia Dormund 3 – 0 Mönchengladbach
Nürnberg 3 – 2 Bayer Leverkusen
TSG Hoffenheim 0 – 1 Mainz

It is Champions League week, hence I have put together my predictions – if you have been a regular reader of my blog, you will know that my predictions have had very limited success, so do not place any bets off the back of these!

Arsenal v Porto (1-2 agg) – I predict Arsenal to go through, though this depends on Cesc Fabregas’ fitness. If he is fit, Arsenal will win. If not, I am less sure of my prediction. I still think the Gunners will have enough as the Portuguese side do not travel well and are not doing particularly great in the league. With Fabregas, I will say 3-0 to Arsenal; without, a nervous 1-0 or maybe even extra time.

Fiorentina v Bayern Munich (1-2 agg) – Fiorentina are desperately unlucky to not be on level terms after the first leg. However, I do not know if it really matters – the Viola are out of form and Bayern Munich have not lost in 18 games now. I cannot see Fiorentina progressing here as I can see Bayern scoring an away goal and the game ending in a 1-1 draw.

Manchester United v AC Milan (3-2 agg) – The result here depends on the fitness of Wayne Rooney. Dimitar Berbatov did a competent job as a lone frontman, but only had one blocked shot in 90 minutes. His hold up play, workrate (surprisingly) and link-up play were all very good. I think Rooney will play some part in the match. Milan will have chances though – United’s defending is not at the level of a year ago with player’s searching for fitness and form after injuries. I think this could really go any way, especially Milan’s if Pato is fit, but I will back United to progress with a 2-1 win.

Real Madrid v Lyon (0-1 agg) – Real might be concerned that they did not grab an away goal. I think they should be more concerned about Iker Casillas’ recent performances, which have not been up to his own high standards. However, having seen both Real and Lyon at the weekend, I have to back Real to go through here. If Ronaldo can turn it on like he did against Sevilla, Lyon will be in for a long night. Lyon should not sit back against Real – they will get picked apart if they do. I think they will though, so I predict Real to win the game 3-1.

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