By Rik Sharma
MADRID (Reuters) – Barcelona retained their five-point lead at the top of La Liga after beating Eibar 3-0, while Real Madrid scraped a 2-1 win at Real Betis on Sunday.
Here are five talking points from the weekend’s action:
Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari isn’t afraid to put the cat among the pigeons when it comes to team selection.
Despite the club’s injury crisis in attack Solari benched Spain playmaker Isco, for the 11th time in the 11 league games he has spent at the helm, along with defender Marcelo.
Instead he opted to play youthful duo Fede Valverde and Sergio Reguilon against Real Betis.
The decision nearly backfired when Valverde spurned a fine opportunity after he was played in on goal, and Madrid looked like they were going to draw.
In the second half, Solari brought on B team forward Cristo Gonzalez and then midfielders Dani Ceballos and Brahim Diaz while chasing the game, ahead of Isco and Marcelo.
Having performed poorly in Barcelona’s 2-1 defeat by Levante in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, Ernesto Valverde handed Philippe Coutinho a start against Eibar.
It was a valuable chance for the Brazilian, who has been left out of the side in recent weeks, and Coutinho took it with both hands.
The former Liverpool playmaker set up Luis Suarez for the opening goal and pulled off various tricks to dazzle the Nou Camp as Barcelona strolled to victory.
Coutinho’s return to form means he will once again be fighting for a place in the side with Ousmane Dembele, to be the third man in the forward line alongside South American double act Suarez and Lionel Messi.
Vallecas-born and bred striker Raul de Tomas hit a hat-trick to earn Rayo Vallecano a 4-2 win over Celta Vigo on Friday, the Madrid minnows’s third consecutive victory.
The 24-year-old is on loan at Rayo from Real Madrid and has been crucial in their bid to avoid relegation.
The win over Celta takes them two points from safety with 19 from 19 games, nine of those coming in their last three matches.
De Tomas has eight goals for Rayo, making him Real Madrid’s top scoring player in La Liga, as Karim Benzema has seven and Gareth Bale just four.
“I could have been at Real Madrid (this season),” said De Tomas. “But I am a competitive person and I didn’t want to spend the year sitting on the bench.”
YOUCAN’T GO HOMEAGAIN
Dani Ceballos returned to the Benito Villamarin, where he developed as a player with Real Betis, scoring a last-minute winning goal for Real Madrid, but described it as a bittersweet night.
The midfielder was whistled by angry home supporters when he came on as a substitute, who have not forgiven him for leaving to join the European champions in July 2017.
“This is a place that has given me everything,” Ceballos told Movistar. “I grew up here as a footballer and I did not expect this reception.
“I’m happy but I leave with a bittersweet feeling of not having the love of those who were my fans for so long.”
Ceballos wasn’t the only player to score against their former side in the game, with Betis’s strike coming from ex-Real Madrid midfielder Sergio Canales.
You wait ages for a goal and then two come along at once.
Inaki Williams had not scored a goal at home since December 2016 but finally broke that streak with a special double to help Athletic Bilbao sink title hopefuls Sevilla.
The victory helped Athletic climb to 15th and will be remembered for the Spanish forward’s two excellent strikes.
The first was rifled into the top corner after cutting in from the left and the second was an electric charge from the halfway line which ended with him rounding the goalkeeper to finish.
It had been an astonishing 40 games since the striker last found the net at the San Mames, despite netting in 17 away matches in that time.
“It’s incredible what I went through today, we are so happy,” said Williams. “Scoring at San Mames after such a long time is incredible.”
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)