La Liga, Week 2: Villarreal-Sevilla, Barcelona-Real Sociedad Both End 2-2

La Liga returns after a completely unnecessary international break. Will this be the week that Real Madrid and Barcelona separate themselves from the pack? (No). Will Van Nistelrooy finally score for Málaga? (Yes).

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Full Time, Espanyol 2-1 Athletic Bilbao: Sergio García Double Gives Pericos Win In Wild Match

Espanyol prevailed 2-1 against Athletic Club Bilbao in a wild match, thanks to two goals from Sergio García, and the saving hands of their goalkeeper, Cristián Álvarez. After going up 1-0 in the first half thanks to a brilliant header courtesy of García, Espanyol seemed to go to sleep after the trip through the dressing rooms, and the leones came out roaring.

After an extended period of possession, the "Lion King" Fernando Llorente smashed home a corner in the 62nd minute to level the score at one all. It's really crazy how good Llorente is in the air--every time Athletic swings in a cross from the flanks, you half expect to see him rise up and head the ball, even when you know he's nowhere near the ball.

After the goal, Espanyol woke up a bit and started fighting back; the action became very back and forth, with the squads exchanging fast paced attacks until the 73rd minute, when Sergio García received a pass in the area, flicked the ball over Athletic keeper Iraizoz with his knee, then athletically volleyed the ball into the back of the net.

It was a truly sensational goal, though I can't help but place most of the blame on Iraizoz, whose very silly-looking save attempt allowed Sergio García to retrieve the ball alone in front of goal. Still, I shouldn't take anything away from García, who is deservedly the man of the match. 

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Halftime, Espanyol 1-0 Athletic Bilbao: Sergio García Strike Gives Pericos Early Lead

Well, Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao might not be putting on as amazing a show as Inter Milan and Palermo did earlier (or, for College Football fans, as Notre Dame and Michigan did last night), but this match has certainly been entertaining for neutrals. And that's not shocking when you have a Marcelo Bielsa-coached team taking on a heavily attacking side. 

Both teams started the match at a really high pace, exchanging attacks in rapid succession, though Bielsa's leones had the lion's share of possession (pun intended). Athletic's young, golden-haired striker Fernando Llorente opened up the chances, striking a ball across the face of goal within minutes of the opening whistle. 

But "El Loco" Bielsa's side started to shrink as the game went on, and within twenty minutes Espanyol had seized the lion by its' mane, so to speak (how many lion jokes can I make? Lots. How many will be funny? Very few). Right after the 21st minute, when Espanyol fans traditionally salute their fallen captain Dani Jarque with a minute-long standing ovation, Sergio García gave the crowd at Cornellà-El Prat something to smile about, heading home a cross from Álvaro.

After the goal, things began to quiet down again; but the leones would roar once more before the stroke of halftime. The "Lion King" Llorente chested a long cross down to Marcos in front of goal, but the young Basque playmaker's volley flew over the crossbar; too bad, really--it would've definitely been a candidate for goal of the week had it gone in. 

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La Liga Sunday Afternoon Recap: Betis Grabs Share Of First As Bottom Feeders Battle For Points

The LFP treated their loyal viewers in Asia to a set of relegation-level battles today, as recently promoted, and recently-almost-relegated sides did battle across Spain Sunday afternoon. It's the we-changed-the-schedule-to-broadcast-WHAT? bowl here in Spain, so let's check out the action!

  • In the early game, recently-promoted Real Betis grabbed a share of the Liga lead (absurd) with a 1-0 win at home to Mallorca. The game was dominated in equal parts by a very fit-looking Betis side, and the heat, which reached 37 degrees Centigrade (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Roque Santa Cruz made his debut for the Sevilla side, though his presence was overshadowed by Rubén Castro, whose two goals in two games have amounted to six points for Betis. I'm guessing that Mallorca looked so tired because they didn't practice once during midday all week. That's gotta have something to do with it.
  • In the second round of the we're-really-broadcasting-these-games-internationally? bowl, Racing Santander and Levante battled to an exceedingly boring 0-0 draw. The "highlights" include a dubious non-call on a possible penalty when Racing's only creative player, Acosta, tripped in the area after possibly being touched by Levante's defender Ballesteros (who was, ironically, the consensus man of the match). Oh, and Diop was sent off, deservedly, after picking up his second yellow (no, not even a fight...sad, really).
  • In a shocking display, Osasuna managed to score twice at home, and defeat Sporting Gijón 2-1. This game was actually surprisingly fun to watch as a neutral, as Osasuna scored twice in two minutes (Nino's first--in the 28th minute--was pretty routine, but Cejudo's--in the 30th--was a golazo, a volley after a nicely-played short corner), then hung on for dear life as Sporting rallied. Sporting's Barral grabbed one back in the 75th minute--not nearly as pretty as Cejudo's--and then almost tied it up a couple minutes later with a long drive from out of the box. Osasuna stuffed their entire team in the box for a long stretch, and the strategy paid off, as Sporting were unable to find an equalizer. 
  • Finally, Rayo Vallecano and Real Zaragoza earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw that I have almost nothing to say about because I was watching Osasuna-Sporting. I'm being told that Raúl Tamudo missed a couple of opportunities, and that Zaragoza almost scored a few times. I'm not shocked. I'd lay down some pretty heavy cash that these two and Granada will be the teams to drop down at the end of the year. The main highlights came at the very end, when, within the span of a minute, both teams had goals called back for offsides. Unfortunately, both goals were scored by players in offsides positions, which made the referee's decision to call them back understandable. 
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Full Time, Valencia 1-0 Atlético Madrid: Roberto Soldado Goal Wins It For Chés Despite Late Atleti Rally

A lone goal from scoring machine Roberto Soldado in the 52nd minute allowed Valencia to scrape out a win against a strong Atlético Madrid side in the Mestalla in Valencia. Soldado rose above the entire Atlético defense to head home a perfect cross from Valencia right back Miguel, and despite newly-acquired Atlético playmaker Diego's best efforts, Valencia managed to hang on to win. 

Valencia came out really strong at half time, pressing Atleti over the entire field, and their efforts would be rewarded early in the period when Miguel robbed a ball in midfield, sprinted down the right wing, and dropped a perfect pass right onto ex-Real Madrid canterano, Roberto Soldado, who's in the middle of an incredible run of form. 

But they seemed to calm down after the goal, and Atlético clawed their way back into the match. New acquisitions Diego and Arda Turán made their debuts for the robiblancos, and really turned the game around: they provided solidity and attacking flare in midfield, and finally managed to string together some decent counter attacks. 

But, like last week, Atleti were left feeling impotent in front of goal. They just couldn't put one past Valencia keeper Guaita, who saved los chés on various occasions. All three of Atleti's new acquisitions had legitimate chances, and all three--Radamel Falcao, Diego, and Arda Turan--either found Guaita or shot wide. I'm still sticking to my conviction that this team has some good days ahead of it, but wow, the really need to learn how to score.

In a karmic sense, this match was very even however: in the first half, the referees disallowed a legal goal for Valencia, and in the second they (main official González González (actual name) and sideline official Rodríguez Rodríguez--not real name) missed a pretty clear penalty on Diego. Sometimes, things work out. 

Try telling that to Atleti fans.

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Real Madrid Vs. Getafe: Ronaldo Stars, Benzema Scores Twice In 4-2 Madrid Win

In case you missed it, Cristiano Ronaldo is really good at that foot, kicking game. The Real Madrid man ran the show at the Bernabeu on Saturday, influencing the match in every way and helping Karim Benzema pick up a brace as the home side defeated Getafe, 4-2. As good as Ronaldo and the Madrid attack looked, they looked equally shaky at the back and the match never really seemed in hand, even when they were twice ahead by two goals.

It was Benzema who opened up the scoring just 14 minutes in when he was able to finish a Mesut Ozil pass and put Madrid on top. That lead didn't last until halftime though because Miku was able to equalize before the break and put the pressure back on the favorites in the second stanza.

Madrid was able to jump back on top in the 60th minute, but not without some controversy. Cata Diaz was whistled for having fouled Ronaldo and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. There was some contact, but it was minimal and Ronaldo did his best Greg Louganis impression. Worse, replays showed Ronaldo to have been outside of the box when he was fouled, but it was called a penalty and Ronaldo finished to put Madrid in front, 2-1.

Ronaldo made his impact on Madrid's third goal, hitting a sublime ball from the left near the midway line all the way across to Benzema running in behind the defense. Benzema got to it and easily finished, putting Madrid up by two, but then Miku came back with another goal.

Only up one with their defense looking shaky, Madrid looked to be in trouble. Getafe were playing well and threatening, but then Gonzalo Higuain found himself a goal just two minutes from time to finally put a bow on the match.

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Halftime, Valencia 0-0 Atlético: Piatti's Legal Goal Called Back Despite Protests

Well, it didn't take la Liga long to make me look like a fool. The day after I jokingly predicted that Barcelona and Madrid would win their games by a combined score of infinity to one, both teams played very poor soccer and either dropped points or could easily have dropped points. 

But man, I don't feel nearly as stupid as Valencia-Atlético Madrid match official Gozález González (is this seriously his name?) should: in the 14th minute, Valencia broke down Atlético's right flank, and crossed the ball into the center, where Roberto Soldado dropped the ball to Piatti, who slotted his one-on-one past Atlético keeper Courtois. The goal was quite pretty, and quite legal. But González González (with the help of his sideline official, who I can only assume is named something like Rodríguez Rodriíguez), called back the goal for offsides. 

Replays clearly show this to be incorrect, and Valencia fans at the Mestalla are certainly still fuming. Atlético, meanwhile, has looked to be the better of the two teams since the goal-that-wasn't. They've pressured a weak and surprised-looking Valencia defensive front, and almost scored one of their own, off the boot of center midfielder Thiago. 

Radamel Falcao made his debut, and has looked very dangerous on the attack--he hasn't had a ton of service, but he has been lurking on every play that Atleti has had in Valencia's half. He reminds me a bit of Ruud van Nistelrooy: you don't see him all the time, but when you do you'd better watch out. (And yes, he has been running away from a pants-less Éver Banega for the entire match--you heard me!)

We'll be back with the full time wrap soon.

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Real Sociedad Vs. Barcelona: Champions Stumble In 2-2 Draw

Well that was unexpected. After going into half time absolutely cruising against Real Sociedad and 2-0 up thanks to goals by Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona ended up conceding twice after the break and help to a draw by their rather less renowned opposition. It all seemed so easy for the European and La Liga champions, too, with absolutely no sign of any sort of Sociedad comeback on the cards.

Wrong! Xabi Prieto got things started for the hosts in the 59th minute, when his excellent cross found Imanol Agirretxe's head and ended up buried in Victor Valdes' net. Moments later and things would get much worse for Barcelona. For some reason, David Villa opted to pass backwards from the right forward position, aiming the ball vaguely at his defence and letting fly. That turned into a 50-yard raking through ball to Agirretxe, who rounded Valdes and... well, that's when things got complicated.

First, Sergio Busquets, tracking back to cover, deflected the ball onto the crossbar with his hands, which was quite naughty. Then midfielder Antoine Griezmann followed up the initial shot with a header into the back of the net, but with the flag up (for Busquet's handball), nobody was quite sure if the goal was legitimate or not, least of all Griezmann, whose 'celebration' was basically an impression of a rather bewildered duck. Eventually, everyone determined that the goal would stand and that Busquets would not be sent off for handling a goalbound shot, a lucky escape for him*.

*And no, handling a goalbound shot isn't cheating, unless you think committing a foul is cheating, in which case I hate you.

More bizarre scenes would follow - Valdes nearly conceded from 70 yards when Sociedad tried to return the ball to Barcelona while their goalkeeper wasn't paying attention. The little mishap led to a rather amusing scramble as Valdes was alerted to the 'shot' about half a second before it crept into his bottom corner. Equally odd was Lionel Messi being booked for diving in virtually the last action of the match, the little Argentinian (who came on as a  substitute was a baffled Pep Guardiola found himself having to chase the match) going down after being tripped in the area only to find Antonio Lahoz brandishing the yellow card at him. Odd.

Anyway, Sociedad probably didn't deserve the points, but they got them anyway, and we have our first major twist in the La Liga title race. Interesting!

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Villarreal Vs. Sevilla: Full Time, Ten Man Yellow Submarine Earn Draw

Villarreal had a man sent off just 22 minutes into their game against Sevilla, but managed to put together a fantastic performance to gain a 2-2 draw against a very solid Sevilla side. The visitors appeared as if they were going to completely throw away their opportunity to gain some tough road points until the very end, when Alexis scored an equalizer to split the points one apiece.

Diego Lopez, Villarreal's keeper picked up a straight red in the 22nd minute for hauling down Alvaro Negredo and denying a clear goal scoring opportunity, with Negredo converting the penalty two minutes later. Between the man advantage and Sevilla's performance last week, the match appeared all but wrapped up at that point.

However, Villarreal continued to look good despite being a man down, culminating in Giuseppe Rossi earning a penalty in the 34th minute. Javi Varas made a nice save on Rossi's attempt, but the Italian international scored on the rebound to send the teams into the halftime break tied 1-1.

Surprisingly, Villarreal looked like the better side throughout much of the second half. They finally got a (deserved!) goal in the 73rd minute, through Marco Ruben. The goal was an absolutely brilliant one, with the striker hitting a vicious shot from a narrow angle that Veras had little chance to save, despite the angle.

At that point, the Yellow Submarine got a bit more defensive, and that would come back to haunt them. Alexis scored the 86th minute equalizer with a fantastic header to make the score 2-2. That score probably constituted a justified result, as both teams played fairly well but neither did enough to clearly deserve a win.

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Alexis Sanchez Injury: FC Barcelona Forward Reportedly Tears Hamstring

In their La Liga match against Real Sociedad, FC Barcelona elected to rest both David Villa and Lionel Messi to start the match, with new signings Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas taking their places along Barcelona's front three. It appears that Barcelona will now be without the services of Sanchez for quite some time, though, as the Chilean international star is believed to have torn his hamstring in the match.

Alexis Sánchez sufre una rotura muscular en los isquiotibilaes de la pierna derecha. Mañana se le realizarán más pruebas #directomd #fcbliveless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

 

Sanchez was subbed off in the 32nd minute of the match for David Villa. At the time of the substitution, Barcelona lead 2-0. At the time of this posting, the match is still ongoing, with Real Sociedad having surprisingly scored twice to tie up the match at 2-2.

Sanchez will likely be evaluated by doctors and the FC Barcelona training staff over the coming days to determine the extent of his injury and how long he'll be out of action. If the injury is comparable to other recent hamstring tears in world football, Sanchez will probably miss one to two months. We'll update as more information becomes available.

For more on Sanchez and FC Barcelona, head over to Barca Blaugranes.

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