This scribe knows well that the title of this column may mislead some readers given the current context in Spain. Many could think that I was going to write about Catalonia, but that’s not the case. What is currently happening there undeniably has a somewhat rebellious component, but has little to do with the humble: the region is one of the richest in the country and, according to surveys, its richer citizens demand full independence in greater proportion than its less wealthy ones, who wish to remain in Spain. Catalan secessionism, among other less pragmatic reasons, has a lot to do with stopping the region’s financial contributions to the rest of Spain.
Indeed, by Rebellion of the Humble this entry refers to the impressive performance of a handful of modest football teams such as Getafe, Betis, Leganés and Levante. They have started the season so well that all four appear in La Liga’s top ten after six matches, much higher than their usual bottom-half standings. Not only they’re getting results, but, more remarkably, they’re all playing a surprisingly pleasant brand of football, easy on the eye, treating the ball with care and moving in a coordinated way over the pitch.
How long can they keep this up for? With limited budgets and highly dependent on a few key players, they will need luck with injuries and excellent supporting performances by every member of the cast. But if they maintain the identity they’re developing, plenty of upsets are bound to happen during the rest of the season.
Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Celta (13th) vs Girona (17th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
Have Celta finally got their act together? The squad began the season as though they hadn’t come to terms with the exit of former manager Eduardo Berizzo, who left for Sevilla. Juan Carlos Unzue looked like a sensible replacement, but it took players a while to resemble their old selves. Finally, last weekend a 4-0 win at Eibar confirmed that the hosts haven’t forgotten how to play football.
They have a chance to confirm that on Friday, as they face a Girona that keeps playing a lot better than their results show. However, if owners Manchester City want them to stay in the Spanish top-flight next season, they must strengthen the team in every single line during the January transfer window. Otherwise Girona will become the best playing relegated side since Juanma Lillo’s Salamanca finished bottom of the table in 1996.
2. Deportivo de La Coruña (18th) vs Getafe (10th): 2. (Sat, 13:00)
There have been a number of great Getafe sides since the club first joined the Primera Division in 2004. The 2007 one, coached by Michael Laudrup, had players such as Dani Güiza, Esteban Granero and Alexis Ruano and came really close to eliminating Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the UEFA cup. The 2009 squad, with Manu del Moral, Javier Casquero and (yes!) Roberto Soldado also played very good stuff. However, the early signs of this term’s squad look so promising that this could be Getafe’s best side ever, even though they currently sit in the middle of the table. Despite the demanding calendar, the Pepineros have conquered remarkable results, while the way they play is as effective and exciting as it’s ever been. Having said this, they signed 21 new players in the offseason, so a bit more time is needed before we can jump to conclusions.
The same can’t be said of Depor. Things haven’t really worked out for coach Pepe Mel so far, and they desperately need a win to avoid further pressure from the stands. The visitors have both the talent and the experience to speculate with this and get another positive result on Saturday.
3. Sevilla (3rd) vs Málaga (19th): X. (Sat- 16:15)
Last Sunday, Malaga recovered some of their self-belief after coming back from 1-3 down with ten men against Athletic. Their draw felt like a victory and brought some relief on both coach Michel and the squad. Sevilla keep getting results in every competition, as youngster Ben Yedder demands more playing time up front with goals, movement and energy.
Sevilla are the safe bet: deeper squad at home with the boost of a set of positive results. However, we saw enough from Malaga against Athletic to believe that they can take advantage of Sevilla’s likely tiredness on two-day rest, and get at least a point at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
4. Levante (7th) vs Alavés (20th): X. (Sat- 18:30)
Having fired the first coach of the season, Alavés has signed Italian manager Gianni de Biasi. Having coached Albania for the last six years – he managed to qualify the team for the last Euro – it’s unclear how quickly he’ll get used to coaching a club again. Funnily enough, de Biasi coached Levante back in 2007, leaving a fine impression despite the fact that the team ended up relegated. His challenges are clear: his new team has scored once in six matches and the defence looks hesitant at best, mixing good spells with atrocious errors.
It won’t be easy for de Biasi to play against his former team. Back from a 4-0 beating at the hands of Betis, Levante will want to exact revenge over the 20th team of La Liga. The hosts have better players, but let’s give the Italian coach the benefit of the doubt for this first match, as he’s famous for his motivational skills.
5. Leganés (6th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd): X. (Sat – 20:45)
The Madrid derby of the week finds Atletico where their most optimistic fans thought they’d be this season, and Leganés a good 10 spots above what any level-headed pundit would have guessed. The hosts have been impeccable in defence – four clean sheets in six matches –, while Atletico, less creative than in previous seasons, keep grinding out wins in more and more convincing fashion.
Leganes’ star should start to fade at some point, but Atletico’s visit sounds like a good reason to keep the momentum for another week. This looks like a stalemate.
6. Real Sociedad (8th) vs Betis (9th): 2. (Sun – 12:00)
Phil’s team have managed to even things out: they started in brilliant fashion with three consecutive wins, but have now lost their last three, conceding nine goals in the process. As Eusebio progressively implements his approach, the team looks more attractive in offense, but there are still defensive issues, both in terms of tactical discipline and personnel. Their Europa League loss to Zenit on Thursday only confirmed these impressions.
Just like Phil texted me after the loss to Valencia, playing four inexperienced defenders against Zaza, Rodrigo & co was a huge risk. Their next home match vs Betis is a good test of how far this squad can go, as well as a respectable challenge for the visitors.
Whatever the result, this is a must-watch. Both coaches like their teams to have the ball and attack constantly, so Anoeta should enjoy the early kickoff before the pintxos. In this case, Betis seems to have the upper-hand: better form of late, no midweek matches, and a certain feeling of euphoria after winning at the Santiago Bernabeu that hasn’t faded yet. Let’s ride their winning streak.
7. Barcelona (1st) vs UD Las Palmas (15th): 1. (Sun – 16:30)
The weekend’s menu includes a very spicy dish: on the day in which the referendum for Catalonia’s independence is supposed to take place, the arguably most representative team of the region host the most traditional team of the Canary Islands, one of the Autonomous Communities most favoured by the allocation of resources of which Catalan secessionists bitterly complain. This would only be more ironic if it were Betis or Sevilla visiting the Camp Nou instead of UD Las Palmas, as Andalusia has become the preferred target of the aforementioned secessionists.
Ironies aside, it’s hard to imagine something other than a home side win. Barcelona’s perfect record, Lionel Messi’s obvious hunger to keep scoring and winning, and the surprising decision of UD Las Palmas’ management to fire their coach Manolo Márquez — after six matches and no major disasters — make this column think that Barcelona will finish the weekend with 21 points after seven matches.
8. Villarreal (14th) vs Eibar (16th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
On Monday, Villarreal fired their coach, Fran Escriba. The man that took the squad to a fifth-place finish last season lost his job after only six matches, having won two of them and sitting in a misleading 14th position in the standings, as Villarreal are only three points below Europa League spots.
Indeed, they’d taken a pounding in Getafe (4-0) last week, and the noise from the dressing-room was not positive. Players seem to long for the previous regime, led by a certain Marcelino García Toral, and didn’t quite enjoy working for Escriba.
After the longish trip to Israel, where they drew with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the need to get all three points against the low-key Eibar. Their offensive arsenal, quiet in the last two matches, needs to step up at some point.
9. Valencia (4th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (11th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Marcelino’s Valencia are on a roll. Not only do they play with a determination unseen in years, but luck also goes their way. Portuguese midfielder Gonçalo Guedes looks as good as Andre Gomes did before he signed for Barcelona, while forward Rodrigo is finally delivering on the promise many saw when he starred in Spain’s youth teams. The new Valencia are indeed a fun team to watch, and they should keep their unbeaten streak alive for one more match. They host a depressed Athletic, who managed to lose a 3-1 lead against 10-man Malaga last Sunday and then lost at home to Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League. Add to that Iker Muniain’s injury, and unless coach Ziganda steers the ship with a more sensible line-up than the ones we’ve seen recently, Athletic will struggle in Valencia.
10. Real Madrid (5th) vs Espanyol (12th): 1. (Sun- 20:45)
Fresh from another convincing win in Europe – their first victory ever in Dortmund – Real Madrid play in Sunday’s prime-time spot against that other team from Barcelona. Espanyol’s record against Real Madrid – and, let it be noted, against Barcelona as well – is awfully poor, and there’s no reason why it should be any different on Sunday. Coach Quique Sanchez Flores know how to manage his team’s energy, and usually prefers to rest some players against superior opposition. Easy home win to finish a jornada in which football may not be the country’s top priority, for a change.
Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 15/20 (50%)
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1. Celta (13th) vs Girona (17th):
2. Deportivo de La Coruña (18th) vs Getafe (10th):
3. Sevilla (3rd) vs Málaga (19th):
4. Levante (7th) vs Alavés (20th):
5. Leganés (6th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
6. Real Sociedad (8th) vs Betis (9th):
7. Barcelona (1st) vs UD Las Palmas (15th):
8. Villarreal (14th) vs Eibar (16th):
9. Valencia (4th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (11th):
10. Real Madrid (5th) vs Espanyol (12th):
(All kickoff times are CET)