By Iain Rogers
BARCELONA left it late to snatch a 1-0 win at Valencia on Sunday after Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 victory at home to Deportivo La Coruna was overshadowed by the death of a visiting fan hours before kick-off.
A 43-year-old Deportivo supporter had to be pulled out of the freezing Manzanares river near Atletico’s Calderon arena after dozens of rival fans, who police said belonged to radical ‘ultras’ groups, battled in the streets.
The man, who was identified by Deportivo as Francisco Javier Romero Taboada, suffered cardiac arrest, hypothermia and head injuries and died shortly after 2 pm local time when he failed to respond to efforts to revive him in hospital.
“It’s disgusting, such scum have no place in football,” Atletico chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin said on the club’s website (www.clubatleticodemadrid.com).
“I just hope that they identify those responsible so they can’t repeat actions as regrettable as these,” he added, just one voice in widespread condemnation of the violence.
Barca and Valencia each had plenty of chances in a scrappy game at the Mestalla that was settled when Sergio Busquets pounced on a loose ball and smashed it high into the net in the fourth minute of added time.
The ugly side of La Liga was again on display when Lionel Messi, who had a quiet night after setting a La Liga scoring record last weekend, appeared to be struck on the head by a plastic bottle thrown from the crowd during the goal celebrations.
The Argentina captain did not look to have been hurt and gave the thumbs up as he left the pitch.
Barca’s victory trimmed the gap to Real Madrid back to two points after the leaders set a club record of 16 straight victories in all competitions when they won 2-1 at Malaga on Saturday.
Real have 33 points from 13 matches, with Barca on 31 and champions Atletico on 29 in third. Valencia dropped to fifth on 24 points, two behind Sevilla who thrashed visiting Andalusian rivals Granada 5-1.
Barca should have been ahead in the 14th minute when Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves produced a superb save to deny Luis Suarez, who is yet to open his account in La Liga since his ban for biting expired at the end of October.
The Uruguay international, who joined from Liverpool in the close season, then had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside in the 69th minute.
Barca keeper Claudio Bravo was also on fine form and conjured brilliant stops against second-half efforts fromSofiane Feghouli and Alvaro Negredo.
“We are never satisfied with a draw and we pushed until the end,” Busquets said in an interview with Spanish television.
“The ball fell to me after Alves saved and I put everything into the shot,” added the Spain midfielder.
After the shocking events outside the Calderon in Madrid, midfielder Saul Niguez put Atletico ahead two minutes before half-time and playmaker Arda Turan made it 2-0 10 minutes into the second half.
It was Atletico’s fifth victory in their last six La Liga outings as they seek to defend the Spanish title they won last season for the first time in 18 years.
“We came into the game after two wins and we wanted to continue the run,” defender Diego Godin told Spanish TV.
“Our opponents respect us and they know we are a difficult team to play here at home,” added the Uruguayinternational, who said the troublemakers outside the ground “do not represent football or any team”.
“This curse must be eradicated from football,” he said. “The Atletico and Depor fans do not deserve to have their image damaged by a few.”