BEVERLY HILLS, February 21, (THEWILL) – Across three of Europe’s top five leagues, upsets trended on Saturday with some surprising, and frankly shocking, results in the matches played in the English Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga involving defending champions and league leaders. Only Real Madrid found the extra burners to take all three points back home from the Estadio Municipal Jose Zorilla of Real Valladolid and barely escaped the ill fortune that befell others.
The Spanish champions took advantage of Atletico Madrid’s surprise defeat to Levante to close what was becoming a yawning gap at the top of La Liga to a surprising three points after their tight lone goal win over Valladolid. But, it was not an easy victory, and with Karim Benzema sidelined through injury, Real struggled for cutting edge throughout the match.
They had the defensive-minded Casemiro to thank for the only goal in the game. In the last two seasons, the Brazilian has sharpened his finishing instincts and found a knack for producing the goods when desperately required, which he did again to provide another important goal for his team.
As Casemiro did double duty delivering the match-winning moment for Real Madrid while defending strongly from the middle, Thibaut Courtois turned up a sterling performance in front of goal to singlehandedly keep Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid in the game long enough for that goal to secure them the maximum points.
Courtois’ series of important saves ensured Valladolid never had the chance to pick the ball from the back of the net. Even one-on-one against Valladolid’s Fabian Orellana, the midfielder found the Belgian equal to the task as he resolutely bailed out defender Ferland Mendy, whose mindless ball into his own penalty box have Valladolid a chance.
The general Real performance was lacking in quality especially against a relegation-battling side but getting all three points was the more important goal than beautiful football as it helped to heap the pressure on their neighbours and league leaders Atletico Madrid, who still have a match in hand but will be having to look over their shoulders as the chase heats up.
It would not have been as hot as it had turned out to be as Atleti had the chance to go nine points clear at the top with a victory at home to Levante with whom they had drawn in midweek, but their 22-match unbeaten top-flight run at the Wanda Metropolitano was brought to a halt in the La Liga upset of Saturday.
The visitors showed a vast improvement from that draw and were clinical with the opportunities they created as first, a deflected first-half strike from Jose Luis Morales put Levante in front and then, Jorge de Frutos sealed their shock win right at the end when he found an empty net from long range with Jan Oblak in no man’s land because he had gone up pitch-side for a corner.
Coach Diego Simeone’s charges had enjoyed the most impressive first half of the season, creatively opening up breathing space from the closest competition. When they drew and dropped points on Wednesday, Simeone have excuses to deflect the blame but now, with more frustration at the hands of the same opponents, it is not easy to simply talk the loss away.
Atletico defender Mario Hermoso scored an own-goal at the stroke of half-hour and Luis Suarez’s best efforts did not get results as he hit the post with a stunning free-kick in the 58th minute while Lucas Torreira had a goal ruled out. Things have come to a crunch for them in La Liga.
In the EPL, another upset was brewing on the grounds of what was, until recently, the fortress of Anfield where Liverpool kept an unbeaten streak that ran up to 68 consecutive matches. On Saturday, however, Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton broke their own 22-year hoodoo at Anfield, thanks to an early Richarlison strike and Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late penalty for a 2-0 win.
The defending champions retained the lion’s share of possession and fought valiantly to find the leveller but rather found an inspired Jordan Pickford standing against them every time. It has been a season littered with individual mistakes for him, yet on Saturday the 26-year-old was excellent. He was the reason Henderson, Mane and Salah did not register in the scoresheet. Another smart stop from Georginio Wijnaldum in stoppage time saw him end the game with six saves and one claim.
To further compound the misery of the Reds, whose defense has lain in tatters since the unfortunate injuries to first team defenders Virgil van Dijk (whom Pickford injured), Joel Matip, Fabinho and Joe Gomez, their skipper Jordan Henderson sustained an injury in his left leg and was substituted at half time.
The victory owes much to Carlo Ancelotti’s tactical know-how, which has never been in doubt. He merits credit for the defensive set up he has engineered at Everton, which consistently makes things difficult for opposing sides.The athleticism and fluidity offered by those flanking the dominant force at the heart of the backline, Michael Keane, Mason Holgate and Ben Godfrey, is a problem for attackers they face to break down helping them deal with the best teams in the Premier League.
As a consequence, a flailing Liverpool suffered a fourth straight Premier League defeat while the Toffees ended their miserable run at Anfield on Saturday, a first away win over their Merseyside rivals since September 1999. Now, the Merseyside teams are level on points in the battle for the Champions League places, with Ancelotti’s side having a game in hand.
There is no consolation for Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp whose depleted defense must now go on without Henderson as he joins Fabinho on the sidelines. If their captain is to miss an extended period, there might be no sign of their form turning around anytime soon. They must now pray that deadline buy Ozan Kabak rises to the occasion and that there are no further injuries.
Meanwhile Hansi Flick might also want to consider some prayers too as Bayern Munich’s stranglehold on top spot in the Bundesliga loosened on Saturday with the string of upsets reaching the German top flight. Flick’s side suffered a 2-1 defeat at Amin Younes-inspired Eintracht Frankfurt, who were without top-scorer Andre Silva for the Deutsche Bank Park fixture.
It was Bayern’s first visit to Frankfurt since the 5-1 defeat in November 2019 that cost Niko Kovac his job, and while this defeat is unlikely to have similar ramifications for Hansi Flick, it was a similarly frustrating day for the champions.
Bayern came into the game having picked up a league-high 19 points from losing positions this term and they were once again forced into such a position after Kamada’s well-worked opener and Younes’ gorgeous second left them 2-0 down at the interval.
Though the dependable Polish striker Robert Lewandowski pulled one back in the 53rd minute, Bayern failed to add to successfully draw level as they did last time out. This leaves RB Leipzig the good chance to come to within two points of the leaders with a win at Hertha Berlin on Sunday at Hertha Berlin’s Olympiastadion Berlin.
A victory for Leipzig will bring the gap down to just two points at the summit, a significant turnaround given Bayern were 10 points clear earlier this month. Good as Lewandowski had been, he scored his 26th top-flight goal of the season which, in Bundesliga history, is another record as no player has scored as many goals after 22 matchdays, they will need to up their game to avoid conceding top spot.
When the final whistle confined Atletico Madrid to only their second loss this season, the manager was real about the result. There were no excuses this time as there was after their initial draw midweek. In his words can be found the wisdom for coaches like Klopp and Flick on the way forward.
“I’m not looking for excuses. Coaches have to find solutions.”
There are no better words to capture how best to recover from the types of upsets that Saturday’s slew of matches brought to the summit of some of Europe’s best sides to the advantage of those chasing them at the top and those they lost against. The coaches must, much like Ancelotti had done at Everton, find solutions to the problems that resulted in the upsets and move forward from there.