LaLiga’s bests so far: From Jude Bellingham to Girona, Griezmann and more


Real Madrid‘s match against Deportivo Alaves was over, Week 18’s final game finished; it was time for the party to begin, right there on the pitch at Mendizorroza. The last of LaLiga’s footballers had been liberated — or they would have been the last, if Sevilla‘s rained-off trip to Atletico hadn’t been rescheduled for Saturday, Dec. 23 — and Madrid had joined everyone else in setting off for Christmas holidays with a win, but the release still felt bigger. It was only 1-0 against a team hovering just above the relegation zone and yet here they were, acting like they had won the league, one reporter said.

“Yes,” Carlo Ancelotti replied.

Madrid had scored in the 92nd minute to win it and with 10 men, they had reason enough to celebrate. They had been this close to dropping two vital points. Meanwhile, in the night’s other match, Girona had been two minutes away from gaining two more, only for Real Betis to equalise in the 88th. A few minutes had changed everything. From going into Christmas four points behind Girona, Madrid were now top; no wonder they celebrated.

Alaves manager Luis García, meanwhile, went into a total tantrum for one of the season’s standout moments so far. Luis Garcia — who, earlier in the season, disappeared down the tunnel in the hope that the referee wouldn’t give him a yellow card, only to find the official standing there waiting when he finally reappeared — had always said that his team would lose a lot of games and had to be ready for it. Just not like this.

Frankly, given the pressure these guys are under and the way the goal happened, it’s no surprise he lost it; in fact, it’s a minor miracle they don’t lose their heads more often. That said, this was special.

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Lucas Vázquez, the shortest guy on the pitch, had stood alone inside the six-yard box and nodded in the goal that defeated his team, leaving Garcia booting the drinks box in the air, grabbing one of his subs and shaking him, screaming at everyone, looking like he was about to cry and thundering round his technical area, throwing his jacket on the floor and hopping up and down like it was Yosemite Sam’s hat.

And so Alaves enjoy their Christmas just three points off the relegation zone, down where Almeria are on course to become the worst team in first-division history and Granada are not much better. One week shy of the official halfway point after everyone has played everyone once, Madrid go into it top.

In a season that’s been a lot of fun so far, they also go into it with the season’s best player. In fact, rarely can it have been so easy to choose.

Jude Bellingham, the man one paper described as the “Corcovado of Stourbridge” — it’s fun to imagine a giant Jesus over his hometown — must have big pockets because he has fit the entire Santiago Bernabeu inside. He’s Spain’s top scorer, and it’s not even about the goals. “Yeah, but nobody’s perfect,” Carlo Ancelotti said. “He could improve his Spanish.”

There have been others that have stood out. There are few players as exciting to watch as Nico Williams … except, perhaps, Iñaki Williams. Having two Williamses in the same team feels like it’s cheating.

No one has been as good across the whole of 2023 as Antoine Griezmann. When he was handed the Man of the Match award for the fourth time in week four, Take Kubo said: “Yeah, and maybe this time I actually deserved it.” Oh, and Isco won so many of them that his Real Betis teammate, Héctor Bellerín, joked: “He wins them when he doesn’t even play.” Both have deserved plenty of them, that’s for sure: they have been so much fun to watch and even though it finished 0-0 when they met just before Christmas, even that was good. It was 1-1 in nutmegs, for a start.

No one has created more chances than Isco. Just behind him is Celta’s Iago Aspas — the problem is that it’s one thing making chances and another taking them. Borja Mayoral has more goals than anyone except Bellingham and has provided more points to his team than anyone else.

Want more stats? No one has played more passes and been involved in more actions than Aleix García at Girona. A more surprising name follows: Kirian Rodriguez. And how about this for a shock? Álvaro Morata is not the player caught offside the most. That’s Vedat Muriqi. Alvaro is second, though.

No one has tried more dribbles than Granada’s Bryan Zaragoza, a tiny, old school winger running at everyone and sadly off to Bayern Munich. “Bryan Munich,” one paper called them. Mind you, Nico Williams has completed more. And only two goalkeepers have saved 100% of the penalties they have faced: Unai Simón and Sergio Herrera. And yes: the latter has only been included here because it’s a handy excuse to recall how he got the season’s most unexpected injury so far. Unexpected to everyone but him, anyway: he’d warned them, he said, and was left screaming at the kit man after being forced off against Alaves. It turns out his socks were too tight.

Others had their moments, and for all sorts of reasons.

Bellingham’s arms out celebration has been everywhere, emulated by everyone. Take Kubo twerked, and Williams senior polished Williams junior’s boot, albeit the wrong one, but the one that really sticks in the mind is João Félix, feeling all vindicated and victorious, standing atop the advertising board at Montjuic having just scored against his former club Atletico Madrid. Oh wait, no, that’s not right: against his current club Atletico Madrid. Albeit one that it’s very hard to see him going back to now — which was exactly the way he wanted it, bridges deliberately burnt. Looking at the way his former teammates laid into him, they don’t want him back either.

“I don’t read or hear what people say,” João Félix told ESPN afterwards, sounding very much like someone who had read and heard what people say, not least because it’s inevitable. “Every week they talk about me, good or bad. People that are not inside my life don’t know what really happened before, so sometimes it is unfair what they say …. one day the haters become fans.” The problem for Joao at Atletico is his fans became haters and, as Simeone had said, “anyone can play one good game.” Which may just be the year’s best put down.

The following week, Xavi complained it wasn’t right that defender Eric García, on loan to Girona, should play against Barcelona. More striking was one of his best excuses: apparently one of the reasons Barcelona were so bad is … erm, us. The media. Sorry about that. It took a while, but he did eventually turn on the players instead, which tends not to end well, calling the first half of their final official game of 2023 against Almeria “unacceptable” and saying they had no “soul.” They did have a plane waiting to take them straight to Dallas, though, for a friendly against Club America, so merry Christmas everyone!

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Xavi: This is not the Barca I want to see

Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez rips into his team’s first-half performance vs. Almeria in LaLiga.

Looking back, there was an earlier warning of what perhaps no one wanted to admit, at least not yet, when Ilkay Gündogan produced the best rant … which still wasn’t as good as he wanted it to be. After the 2-1 Clasico defeat to Madrid in October, Gundogan said he was not happy, not least because his teammates were not not happy. “I have to be honest, [but] not as much as I wish. I don’t want to say something wrong …” he said, the “but” hanging heavy in the air.

But?

“Of course people are disappointed, but after such a big game, I wish [there was] more frustration, more anger, more disappointment, and this is a problem. There has to be more emotion, especially when you lose and you know you can do better and you just don’t react. We need to make a huge step in that, otherwise Real Madrid and even Girona is going to run away. And I didn’t come here to lose this type of games.”

What everyone else had come for were the league’s most inevitable puns, after the Clasico became the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. With Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood in the directors box, the Stones’ iconic tongue on the Barcelona shirt and Jude Bellingham in the Madrid team — “Hey Jude” is his song now — it was, they said, the “rock ‘n’ roll Clasico.” It was “the battle of the bands” and of the hackneyed headlines: “Stones 1, Beatles 2,” from AS. “Jude sticks out his tongue,” said Marca. Barcelona can’t get no satisfaction, everyone said. “The Beatles have always been our favourite group,” said Madrid’s official Twitter account, while Jude himself was heading down to Abbey Road with Fede Valverde, Edu Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni.

As it transpired, Gundogan was right: Girona would end up running away, not least because of that Barcelona vs. Girona game in which Eric played and very well. Won 4-2 by Girona, that may just have been the best game so far this season. Although for the whole thing, the fans as well as the football, the wildness of it all, there was something breathless and brilliant about Athletic vs. Atletico, a destruction that could well be the single most outstanding performance from a team. Real Sociedad vs. Granada was a belter, too. As for poor Luis Suárez, it’s hard to think of many players who have ever had a game like Granada vs. Almeria: a first-half hat-trick in 5 minutes, 17 seconds, before being carried off in an ambulance with a broken ankle.

“What do you want me to say?” Granada manager Paco Lopez said afterwards. “Football is ridiculous.” And so they sacked him. Granada aren’t fun any more. They aren’t any better, either. Nope, swapping coaches doesn’t always work, with Almeria’s Gaizka Garitano rightly noting: “I’m No. 3 — it’s not a case of getting to No. 30, you know.”

If his team is the worst — and my goodness, are they! — Girona are the best, along with Madrid. Their manager, Michel Sanchez, is also No. 1 by miles, easily the league’s best coach. There was something very nice about seeing him return to Vallecas top of the table, a real pride at seeing their boy — “Maria’s grandson,” as the banner welcoming him back to the ‘hood had it — way up there above everyone.

The league’s most hopelessly optimistic manager, meanwhile, proved to be the eternally likeable Pacheta, who arrived at Villarreal in September after they had sacked Quique Setien and declared: “It excites me to think of where we can go.” Where he was going was back out the door again, exactly two months later, another indication that the issue might not be on the bench.

If Fernando Esteva gets sacked one day, at least he has an alternative career. LaLiga’s most overqualified manager and the season’s hero so far, the Eldense boss is also a doctor who dashed up into the stands to attend a medical emergency during their meeting with Racing Santander. The supporter was soon stable and quickly fine; the team drew 3-3.

Another man finally released after the longest reign was Diego Alonso at Sevilla. For 67 days he was in charge, and it was already felt like far, far more days than it should have been, a miracle that he managed to make it that long. He left without a word and without a win too, not one victory secured in 12 matches across the league and the Champions League, officially making him the worst coach in the club’s history. Quique Sanchez Flores managed in a third of a game what Alonso could not in a third of a season, going two goals up 30 minutes into on his debut en route to a 3-0 win. “It was about time,” Sergio Ramos said.

Which is not to say that all is fine now, on or off the pitch, where there is a battle for control at the league’s least harmonious club and in its most dysfunctional family with the ex-president calling the current president a “s—“; which would be bad enough anyway, but the former is the latter’s father. Yep, Christmas dinner round the Del Nidos’ will be fun this year.



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