It was business as usual for Spain's big two as they both won at the weekend, Real Madrid triumphing in La Coruna for the first time in 18 years and a Pedro goal giving Barcelona a 1-0 victory along Spain's northern coast at Sporting Gijon. The Catalans still have a five-point lead over Real, but below that the gap has extended to eight points as third-placed Valencia lost at Sevilla, who have moved up to fourth.
The real drama of the weekend was at Villarreal, who dismissed their manager Ernesto Valverde after they slipped to a dreadful 2-0 home defeat against Osasuna. Valverde had a poor start to his Villarreal career after taking over from the Madrid-bound Manuel Pellegrini last summer. Without a win in their first seven league games, the injury-hit Yellow Submarines were bottom of a league in which they usually occupied a top-four spot. With the sixth highest wage bill in Spain behind Real, Barca, Valencia, Atletico and Sevilla, Villarreal are geared for a finish in the European places.
Their squad, which had also regularly reached the latter stages of European competition, including a 2006 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal, is packed with top players like Nilmar, the Brazilian forward, his strike partners Giuseppe Rossi and Joseba Llorente, plus Spanish internationals Marcos Senna, Santiago Cazorla and Joan Capdevila. Gates plummeted as many of the 20,000 season ticket holders stayed away or watched the "B" team instead, but then six wins in eight league games between October and the end of the year propelled them up the table. Atletico Madrid were beaten away and a point was earned at Camp Nou after an impressive fighting performance. But Villarreal's form has slipped again. Struggling second division side Celta Vigo despatched them from the Copa del Rey and a poor home draw against Almeria was following by an emphatic 4-1 defeat at neighbours Valencia. Sunday's humiliation was the final straw for Fernando Roig, the club president, and he released Valverde after the game. He became the seventh Primera Liga coach to be dismissed this season after Atletico's Abel Resino, Racing's Juan Carlos Mandia, Marcelino Garcia Toral at Zaragoza, Hugo Sanchez at Almeria, Jose Angel Ziganda at Xerez and, yesterday, Real Valladolid sacked Jose Luis Mendilibar.
Valverde will be replaced by Juan Carlos Garrido, initially until the end of the season. Garrido was in charge of Villarreal's B team which plays in the second division. To illustrate the strength in depth at the club, no other Spanish top-flight side apart from Villarreal have a reserve team in the second division. Garrido, who has coached at the club for 12 years, led the B team to promotion last season. They have excelled this year and sit just four points off the promotion places - though Spanish law would prevent them from going up as a club cannot have two teams in the same division.
He took charge in a training session with the first team yesterday morning and has the luxury of a hugely-talented squad and limited expectations following the disappointment of Valverde, who had led Olympiakos to the Greek league and cup double last season. Villarreal are 10th, with just seven wins in their 20 games so far and six fewer points than at the same stage last season. They are eight points off Deportivo in sixth, but just nine from safety at the other end. Their new coach will seek to improve their dreadful away form (one victory all season), starting at a Mallorca side who have won all nine of their home games this season.