AP Photo/Andres Kudacki
La Liga
Vamos: Goals, nuts and political intrigue in Spain
Barcelona’s juggernaut hit a pebble at Valencia it seems. And you can’t smoke at the Nou Camp any more.

SO WHERE ARE we? Has the La Liga world inexorably changed? Can whispers of a challenge to the big two be taken seriously?

Valencia certainly put their hand up last Wednesday night by drawing 2-2 with Barcelona at the Mestalla. Uni Emery got his tactics spot on and exploited Barca’s new system of three at the back. Ever Banega was the best midfielder on show – quite a complement given the company he was in and should Roberto Soldado have scored his simple chance they would have won. As it was, Cesc Fabregas equalised and Barca survived.

Saturday then would be another test for Barca. Atletico and free scoring Falcao arrived at the Camp Nou with more than the usual glimmer of hope. That was brutally extinguished within a half an hour though as Barca and Messi ran riot and went three up. They finished with five and could have had what they wanted.

The juggernaut it seems, had merely hit a pebble at Valencia.

Things are not quite as smooth off the field in Catalonia however. Saturday saw a vote by club members on whether or not to accept the Qatar foundation’s sponsorship deal. Barca president Sandro Roswell warned that should they fail to do so they “would be a poorer club”.

The socios approved the €165m deal that sees an end to Barca’s policy of having no shirt sponsor. You never noticed the Nike swish right?

It is a thorny issue with some, despite the overwhelming percentage of yes votes (697 for, 76 against). One member Marc Ferrer urged others not to let a dictatorship sponsor Barca, while the Madrid-based paper Marca and their columnist Miguel Serrano went down an altogether crazier and offensive route “You can’t rule out the players having to wear turbans and do stonings every Thursday. Now Barça is more than a club: it’s an Emirate”.

They also banned smoking at the Camp Nou over the weekend which somehow didn’t get as much attention as the shirt deal.

Real Madrid have only problems on the pitch to contend with. Jose Mourinho had to dismiss talk of a crisis after Real were held to a scoreless draw with Racing Santander on Wednesday night.

They recovered to smash Rayo Vallencano 6-2 on Saturday despite going behind after 14 seconds. Jose continues to look a man in distress though. I’m basing that purely on his t-shirt and pants combo. Until he returns to the smooth suits, his team will resemble his clothes; more Penny’s than Prada. Even Ronaldo’s hat-trick was a little glum.

Two penalties and a goalkeeping error? Try harder Ronnie.

It would be remiss of this column not to mention Real Betis who currently top La Liga. A 4-3 win at home to Real Zaragoza did the trick. The scoreline is a little misleading as Betis were 4-1 up before their goalkeeper Castro was sent off and the game opened up.

Valencia followed up their draw with Barca by going down 1-0 away to Sevilla. They ended the game with 10 men and Ever Benaga missed a penalty. Perhaps they are not contenders despite Rafa Benitez claiming otherwise during the week.

We leave with more Barca. Thiago is living up to his billing as the next big thing in La Liga, here is with a nutmeg. Mint.

Results: Mallorca 2-1 Real Sociedad, Levante 3-1 Espanyol, Granada 1-1 Osasuna, Sporting Gijon 0-0 Racing Santander, Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Villarreal, Sevilla 1-0 Valencia, Real Madrid 6-2 Rayo Vallecano, Barcelona 5-0 Atletico Madrid, Real Zaragoza 0-0 Malaga.