Athletic Bilbao’s Mikel Balenziaga the surprise star on La Liga’s weird weekend | Sid Lowe


The door opened and there they were, waiting for him: all of Athletic Bilbao’s players and all the staff, the president too, like a secret birthday party.

When Mikel Balenziaga appeared, they started cheering and clapping, piling in to slap him on the back and head. Then they burst into song, bouncing about. If no one shouted “Surprise!” it was because they weren’t the surprise; he was. Ten years Balenziaga has been playing, more than 300 games, and he had never scored. On Saturday, he did – and it was a beauty, too, bursting through to belt in the winner in a game his coach called a “clásico”, against Sevilla. “The nicest thing was seeing how happy it made my team-mates,” he said.

It was that kind of weekend, one in which Balenziaga scored – putting Athletic on four wins in a row and extending Sevilla’s record without an away win to 22 – and Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t; a weekend that started with people asking if Barcelona would miss the injured Argentinian and ended with them asking if anyone missed Dani Alves instead after a 5-0 victory where Luis Suárez and Neymar both scored, sure, but where the right-back Sergi Roberto was the outstanding player in a collective performance that was nowhere near as good as the 5-0 score suggests, three of the goals coming in the last final 10 minutes and Luis Enrique calling it “misleading”.

“Who remembers Alves now?” the headlines wondered, remembering Alves.

“I’m starting to like this position,” Sergi Roberto said after he got his fourth assist of the season – as many as the Brazilian provided last year.

Sporting’s pre-match Lord’s Prayer did not help them much and the absence of the man that Leganés had called “God” did not hinder their visitors much, either. Barcelona got a good result that got better still when, a few hours later, in a different time zone, Ronaldo watched from the bench as Real Madrid lost a 2-1 lead at Unión Deportiva Las Palmas.

Ronaldo had departed, unhappy, 20 minutes earlier. “Is too much being made of it?” one poll asked on Monday morning. The answer was of course yes (and it has dominated everything since), not least by Ronaldo himself: it’s not like he tried to hide his irritation. He looked away as he shook Zinedine Zidane’s hand, gave the delegate Javi García Coll a piece of his mind and muttered his way through the next few minutes. The decision made sense – Madrid were on course for win, having taken control, Ronaldo had not played well and is still not fully fit, he knows he needs to be more conscientious about rest, and Zidane admitted Dortmund was on their mind – but maybe it backfired when Araujo scored an 85th-minute equaliser, his blocked shot bouncing off Kiko Casilla, off him and running towards the line.

“We had a bit of luck,” the Las Palmas coach Quique Setien admitted; “a bit?” came the reply. Marca’s cover ran with “REBOUND” and called it a “fortunate” goal. Madrid had the chances in the second half and should have killed it, while the goal came from Las Palmas’s only real opportunity. Yet that was not entirely fair, the dismissive tone even more so. Las Palmas are seventh and their start is no fluke; it is, rather, a continuation from last year. They had more possession and while the deflection favoured them, the short corner routine that brought it was superb. Besides, why is it luck when it happens to you but never when it happens for you? It’s not like Madrid’s two goals had not come from rebounds, too.

And so Madrid dropped points with a second draw in four days on a weekend in which Atlético won 1-0 against Deportivo but lost Augusto Fernández for six months; the weekend when the league got even more interesting and a lot happened, from the Canary Islands to Catalonia – and there’s still Alavés and Paco Jémez to come. There is just one point from first to second and one more from second to third. And if the top three look familiar – Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético – there are two teams level with Diego Simeone’s side and just four points separate the top eight. It is true that it’s only six weeks in, but Madrid have now dropped points to Villarreal and Las Palmas; Barcelona have lost against Alavés; and Atlético have been held by them and by Leganés.

They might have been held by Deportivo on Sunday too, but the truth is that, results apart, in three home games this season Atlético have played well each time and created loads of chances. They created plenty again on Sunday, with Koke central, Filipe Luis flying and Antoine Griezmann everywhere.

And if they were helped by the sending off of Faycal Fajr just before the break for two daft yellow cards, this was also the weekend in which the Depor manager Gaizka Garitano and goalkeeper Germán Lux did not even need to be asked to insist that the red card which changed the game was entirely deserved, a bout of honesty as refreshing as it was unexpected; in which they sent on a late substitute, signed as free agent, named Ryan Babel. And, yes, it is that one; and, yes, he is still only 29.

It was also the weekend in which Villarreal, getting better all the time, looked a bit like they used to, Nicola Sansone scoring a lovely third and Alexander Pato getting the first. Yes, that Alexander Pato. And, yes, he is still only 27. He’s looking pretty good, too. The weekend, too, in which the Espanyol manager Quique Sánchez Flores said he was worried about his players’ heads after they conceded in the 91st and 93rd minutes, the second an 80-yard run from Sisto Pione, and Betis’s resident comedian and captain Joaquín ended up with a bloody bandage around his – but not before scoring the winner against Málaga with it, superbly made by Charlie Mousonda – and in which Salvatore Sirigu lost his, elbowing Aritz Aduriz to leave the midfielder Vicente Iborra facing a last-minute penalty at San Mamés.

Iborra didn’t save it – no outfield player ever has in primera. So Aduriz scored too, just as Balenziaga had. Eibar’s Pedro León didn’t. He missed a penalty that would not have gone in if they had stacked up six goals together, when his standing foot lifted a divot that lifted the ball next to it, lifting the shot over the bar, over the wall and into the street on the other side. And nor did cucumber connoisseur and Leganés winger Alex Szymanowski.

Cristiano Ronaldo is grounded as Real Madrid struggle against Las Palmas. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

It was 2-1 to Valencia at Butarque – where two women presided over the game – Layhoon Chan and María Pavón – and where the now traditional basket of veg was waiting for the visitors in the dressing room, when the Argentinian, whose sister plays for Valencia, had the chance. Szymanowski had scored the opening goal with a header then missed an almost identical chance to get the second, but now he had another go. The problem was that the man standing before him was Diego Alves. And fewer than 50% of the penalties Diego Alves has faced in Spain have gone in.

And so it proved. Alves dived to his right to push the ball away, his 17th La Liga penalty save – a record. In all competitions, his stats read: penalties faced 43, 20 saved, 21 scored, one post, one wide.

The decision to give the penalty was questionable in the first place, although not quite as questionable as the decision to allow Valencia’s first, despite Rodrigo ploughing into the goalkeeper Jon Serantes. He got up apologetically as Nani, impressive throughout, collected the loose ball and scored calmly into a virtual open net – an “amazing play”, the club’s Twitter feed called it. Super Deporte said the referee got the one that went Valencia’s way right and the one that went against them wrong, which will surprise you no doubt.

The Valencia manager Salvador González Marco, “Voro”, has now won two out of two in three days, after a run of seven successive league defeats under Pako Ayesteran, who was sacked last Monday. They are off the bottom and Voro has done it again: this is his fourth spell in charge – 2008, 2012, 2015 and 2016 – and he has taken charge of 10 games of which he has lost just one, winning eight. No manager in the club’s history has a better record.

Not that he was claiming the credit; instead he claimed it was all about the players, noting: “I’ve taken almost as many press conferences as training sessions.” Nor does he have any intention of asking for the job permanently; and Valencia have no intention of offering it to him, either.

“Nothing changes,” Voro said.

But this weekend proved that some things do. Sometimes, even Balenziaga scores; sometimes, the sun shines. “Whenever it rains, it brightens up,” as Luis Aragonés put it. Up in Bilbao, they were cheering, while down in Butarque Voro was smiling. And no one has done that at Valencia for a while.

Results: Real Betis 1–0 Málaga, Eibar 2–0 Real Sociedad, Sporting Gijón 0–5 Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao 3–1 Sevilla, Las Palmas 2–2 Real Madrid, Leganés 1–2 Valencia, Atlético Madrid 1–0 Deportivo de La Coruña, Villarreal 3–1 Osasuna, Espanyol 0–2 Celta Vigo. Monday: Alavés-Granada.

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