There’s a new powerhouse in La Liga, probably at the level of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Yes, their budget is considerably smaller, but when you look at Atletico’s squad now, and what it will become in January, there’s very little argument: they can compete with the best in Europe.
They already have the tactical nous, the determination and the depth. They lacked some bite up front, but the upcoming additions of Vitolo and Diego Costa more than solve that problem. They can take advantage of Real Madrid’s slow start of the season and know well how to play against Barcelona. It’s early to say, but Diego Simeone probably has the best 23-man group he’s managed since he took over Atletico. Let’s see what he can do with it.
Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) vs Sevilla (2nd): X. (Sat, 13:00)
Not the best kickoff time to embark on the longish trip to the brand-new Wanda Metropolitano, but in these exciting times of rediscovery most Colchoneros would do anything to spit at Kun Aguero’s plaque or throw hot dogs at Hugo Sanchez’s. That fun will lost its appeal fast, but it’s just the second match at the Wanda, and lunch at 4pm seems a cheap price to pay, especially when Sevilla are the visiting side.
Simeone must be a happy chap now. Diego Costa’s comeback on January gives him that offensive edge the team had been lacking, and frees Antoine Griezmann to do his all-around stuff without having to obsess with scoring. The Brazilian should be at the Wanda on Saturday watching his past-future teammates, another reason to make the trip to the Rosas neighbourhood.
It won’t be an easy match for the hosts. Sevilla have played solid football so far, although far from thrilling. Their defence is the best in La Liga – one goal conceded after five matches – so Atletico, without Fernando Torres, will need to get the best out of Saul Ñiguez and Yannick Carrasco to break the deadlock. Sevilla do struggle in offense: they needed a goal by no other than Jesus Navas himself to defeat Las Palmas in midweek. Despite the level of talent in both sides, their current lack of punch makes this column believe that this smells like a stalemate.
2. Alavés (19th) vs Real Madrid (8th): 2. (Sat, 16:15)
Two running streaks – plus a gigantic difference in budgets – point at a ‘2’: The visitors have won their last 11 away matches, while the home side have played and lost all their five matches this season, with no goals to their name.
A lot has been written about the causes of Real Madrid’s defeat to the hands of Betis and, as Phil points out, very few time was devoted to understand what Betis did right, which was plenty. But in any case, Zinedine Zidane should not forget that midfield has brought him here and that midfield should take him even further. Replacing Isco and Modric in the last part of that match broke the side in two, and his team lost control of the flow. On the opposite end, Betis’ replacements Guardado and Joaquin gave a lecture of playing keep ball during the last ten minutes, during which the visitors dominated proceedings and played their best stuff of the evening.
What would have to happen so that Real Madrid do not win in Vitoria? Well, the pressure on the squad’s shoulder is huge very early into the season, as they just can’t afford to slip once more, but too many datapoints recommend to bet on an away win.
3. Málaga (20th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (10th): 1. (Sat- 18:30)
With a hesitant beginning of the season and two consecutive defeats, Athletic’s coach Ziganda hasn’t been able to convince the Bilbaino faithful that he has a plan for the team. At times they play long ball, others they try – and fail – to keep possession. Not that Malaga has done better; in fact, they’re the worst team in La Liga so far, but even though this squad have less talent than last year’s, at some point the meagre reinforcements should start to work out.
By the way, the Dumb Social Media Move Award of the week goes to the tricky winger Javi Ontiveros, one of Michel’s personal bets in the side, who decided to like an instagram picture by Valencia’s Lato, in which the player commemorated his team’s 5-0 win over Malaga. He’s been suspended, of course.
4. Girona (15th) vs Barcelona (1st): X. (Sat- 20:45)
Football sometimes look scripted. What the country needed this weekend was a fixture between two Catalan teams, so here it is. The hard-working, well organised Girona hosts giants Barcelona, who are riding the most intimidating Messi of the last few years in their impeccable beginning of the season.
Is Messi happier without Neymar around? I’m not sure, but the fact is that he sees more of the ball and in more threatening positions. One of the most accurate descriptions of Messi’s tactical ability was given by Jose Luis Mendilibar, Eibar’s coach, last Tuesday after Barcelona and Messi routed his team: “He chooses well where to park his body”. Sometimes the diminutive Argentinean will decide not to track back when the opposition attacks, but rather stay “parked” in one of the wings, precisely the one in which the fullback has progressed. His parking skills have been key in several of his best plays this season, as he makes the most out of the freedom of movement he now enjoys in Neymar’s absence.
That said, if I were a Barcelona fan, I’d rather have kept the Brazilian, but you never know.
It’s been a tough few weeks for Barcelona, and all the noise outside of the pitch has to make itself felt at some point. Girona will get a point on Saturday, out of sheer confusion.
5. Espanyol (16th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (18th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Even though Espanyol’s beginning of the season leaves plenty of room for improvement, the feeling one gets from watching them play is that they should do well if they keep their focus. They have already faced Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal, and with the exception of the customary ass-whip at the Camp Nou, the Periquitos have always been consistent and have shown enough creativity up front to leave the bottom half of the table soon enough.
In a similar situation, Depor’s results have been below their game, although their back four looks too shaky to be trusted in Cornella. Easy home win.
6. Getafe (14th) vs Villarreal (9th): 2. (Sun – 16:15)
Getafe have been able to stay in the Primera División for 14 out of the last 15 seasons despite having a home-field disadvantage. It’s well known that the team lacks a proper fan base, and struggles to get its 17,000-seat stadium half full. This season they have played and lost twice at home, and the trend is set to continue on Sunday, as Villarreal try to forget their frustrating home draw against Espanyol with a more determined display in the outskirts of Madrid. Random prediction of the week: Denis Cheryshev will score.
7. Las Palmas (12th) vs Leganés (11th): 2. (Sun – 18:30)
This match could well become the upset of the weekend. Las Palmas have suffered such an injury nightmare that six of their starters (Samper, Remy Loic, Dani Castellano, Halilovic, Bigas and Vitolo) won’t be able to play on Sunday. The case of Vitolo, signed temporarily by the club so that he plays for Atletico from January onwards, must almost feel like poetic justice to Sevilla fans.
Leganes, relentless fighters, have the chance to get three points to make their lives easier in their upcoming, extremely challenging sequence of matches (Atletico de Madrid, Malaga, Athletic de Bilbao, Sevilla, Valencia and Barcelona!)
8. Eibar (13th) vs Celta (17th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
One expects Celta’s line-up to click at some point, as the squad have enough talent to defeat any club in the top flight. They proved that much last season, but new coach Juan Carlos Unzue has not found the right touch with the players yet.
However Eibar, with its narrow pitch and its hard-working group of players, does not seem like the most adequate place to start. The Armeros, fresh from a brutal defeat at the Camp Nou, will want to get back to the right track sooner rather than later.
9. Real Sociedad (6th) vs Valencia (4th): X. (Sun – 20:45)
Things looked perfect for Real Sociedad two matches ago, but then a home defeat to Real Madrid and a 3-0 thumping against Levante – including this cracker from Chema – have dragged them back to reality in a quite painful way. Their approach deserves huge compliments, as it’s hard to implement and extremely risky, but they will win more often than not if coach Eusebio manages to keep their intensity.
And that is they key to it, intensity, a word that Real Madrid coach Zidane used in every press conference last season. Real Sociedad play in a way that they can’t take a single minute off, and that is a huge challenge in such a long season.
On the opposite end, Marcelino has brought the organisation that Valencia needed much earlier than anticipated. This is great, because the Valencianista supporters are not known to be a patient bunch, so the manager has earned a few weeks of noise-free work.
The demolition of Malaga last Wednesday was eloquent enough, but Valencia’s solidness comes from the back. It will be tough for the hosts to score, and I don’t think the visitors will try too hard either. The prime-time match of the weekend will bring plenty of tactical insight, but very few goals.
10. Betis (7th) vs Levante (5th): 1. (Mon- 21:00)
After defeating the current champions at the Santiago Bernabeu, Betis’ coach Quique Setien gave the soundbite of the week: “In these days when people say you have to run, work, fight, compete, I ask my players to think”. We saw his team play a great tactical battle against Real Madrid, as their performance mimicked what Setien himself had described a couple of weeks ago after a training session:_“They’re Champions League material”.
The coach believes his team can play in European competitions next season, but it’s way too early for that. For starters, they host the other nice surprise of the season so far. Levante, still undefeated, have added a few weapons to their repertoire this new term. The Macedonian free-kick taker Enis Bardhi, who has a cannon on his leg, is one of them. But Eibar have played four of five matches as a host, and despite their draw at the Bernabeu, they still need to show they can be consistent in their travels.
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 11/20 (55%)
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1. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) vs Sevilla (2nd):
2. Alavés (19th) vs Real Madrid (8th):
3. Málaga (20th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (10th):
4. Girona (15th) vs Barcelona (1st):
5. Espanyol (16th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (18th):
6. Getafe (14th) vs Villarreal (9th):
7. Las Palmas (12th) vs Leganés (11th):
8. Eibar (13th) vs Celta (17th):
9. Real Sociedad (6th) vs Valencia (4th):
10. Betis (7th) vs Levante (5th):
(All kickoff times are CET)