For many of us, football takes up an inordinate amount of space and time in our lives. We devote hours and days to following news, watching matches and analysing results, no matter whether it is midweek or weekend, day or night, South American qualifiers for the World Cup or a Premier League match between two struggling sides on a rainy night, perhaps in Stoke.
However, sometimes real life yells out, shows you its uglier face, takes that mental space back and sends football back to what it should be: fantastic entertainment that deserves our attention only every once in a while.
This La Liga weekend will do exactly that. After almost two weeks immersed in one of the toughest political situations I can remember in Spain, a weekend break packed with football matches is exactly what the doctor ordered to relax and disconnect from the toughest side of reality. And, especially this weekend, there’s a handful of outstanding games that should give us plenty of reasons to talk about football and tactics, rather than about politics, secession and self-determination.
That said, there’s also an Atletico de Madrid – Barcelona that will have all of it, football and politics, encapsulated in ninety minutes. This much expected break will also bring its doses of reality, like it or not.
Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Espanyol (14th) vs Levante (10th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
The visitors started off the season remarkably well, unbeaten after five matches and looking slicker than ever, or at least than your average. However, two consecutive defeats (aggregate of 6-0) have shown that Levante suffer mightily when they trail. The team wants to break this running streak for fullback Ivan, who’s broken a ligament of his knee and faces a long and hard recovery.
It will be tough. Espanyol’s manager Quique Sanchez Flores believes that he knows how to punish squads under pressure – “I’d rather face hesitant teams, although we still have to finish them off”, he said on Thursday’s presser. Hernan Perez and Pablo Piatti will be back, and that’s all Espanyol need to defeat Levante and start climbing up the rankings. Having already played against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla, things can only get better for Quique’s squad.
2. Athletic de Bilbao (13th) vs Sevilla (2nd): 2. (Sat, 13:00)
Last season this could have been a fantastic match. This season, with Athletic lost in coach Ziganda’s unclear tactics, the visitors look like the safe bet. Sevilla know what they’re doing, their midfield is superior to Athletic’s and if they can finally get striker Muriel going, their fans should enjoy a fantastic season.
The hosts really need to recover last season’s determination and help some players, such as fullback Lekue or midfielder Iturraspe, to regain their form. Iker Muniain’s terrible injury won’t help either, but Athletic have to react sooner rather than later, or they will embarrass themselves this season.
3. Getafe (12th) vs Real Madrid (5th): 2. (Sat- 16:15)
Gareth Bale’s medical history is becoming one of the saddest stories of modern football. That may sound like an overstatement, but if you start looking back at how many times the Welshman has seen an extraordinary run of form broken because of his ailing body, it’s hard not to feel a bit of sorrow. On top of that, his more recent comebacks from injury have delivered a hesitant footballer, one that doesn’t quite trust himself in most physical efforts, a shadow of his old, overwhelming self. With each passing year, recoveries become harder and regaining full confidence takes more time. Hopefully he’ll come back stronger from this one, but the signs get worse and worse.
Getafe have done well so far: they gave Barcelona and Sevilla a run for their money, and picked Villarreal apart in a fantastic performance. However, Real Madrid are on a mission to cut back Barcelona’s lead, and playing four hours before Atleti vs Barça, they will jump on Getafe’s pitch ready to win and put pressure on the participants of the main contest in the evening. Can’t see anything but a ‘2’.
4. Alavés (19th) vs Real Sociedad (8th): X. (Sat- 18:30)
This Basque derby finds Alaves at the highest point of their season. Arguably, that’s not saying much, but they just won their first match in La Liga away at Levante, and can now breathe, although their situation is still dramatic. New coach Gianni di Biasi has shown that his motivation skills are outstanding, but he now needs to get the team to play consistently every week, and that is a much harder task. Munir el Haddadi, in his best shape since Vicente del Bosque went out of his way to have him play for Spain three years ago, should help.
In fact, Munir is probably happy that Real Sociedad is due to visit Vitoria, as any sensible forward would. In the last five matches, the visitors have conceded 15 goals, something that Mr Ball can hardly come to terms with. While the team’s offense works well and generates chances, their high pressure defence is far from perfect. Their centrebacks get exposed way too often, especially Diego Llorente, who is having a hard time fitting into coach Eusebio’s scheme. That’s what happens when you sign a delicate defender from Madrid to play in the cold, rainy north, I guess. A draw with a few goals sounds like a sensible bet.
5. Atlético de Madrid (4th) vs Barcelona (1st): 1. (Sat – 20:45)
I would give my left leg to watch this live. I’ve witnessed quite a few charged atmospheres before, but this Atleti – Barça has all the numbers to break every record known to man. The hosts’ supporter base is probably the most conservative, Spanish nationalist in La Liga – far more than Real Madrid’s, for example – so a Barcelona visit in the current political context can turn the new Wanda Metropolitano into a mid-size volcano. Looking on the bright side, matches like this are what the fans need to finally forget the Vicente Calderon and embrace the new stadium, but here’s hope that the whole thing does not go overboard.
Let’s stick to football. From a realistic point of view, this is Ernesto Valverde’s first serious test with Barcelona. It was too soon to judge him when Real Madrid defeated his squad in the Spanish Supercup. After that, Barcelona have delivered in every match against inferior opposition, and have also convincingly defeated a somewhat depleted Juventus side at the Camp Nou.
Now they visit a very competitive, but also quite predictable Atletico. The hosts look in shape, as determined as ever and with that bit of toughness that makes them so difficult to beat. However, they still miss a decent partner for Antoine Griezmann up front.
For this column, the deciding factor is the international break. Lionel Messi will come back exhausted from a successful, but extremely demanding and stressful week in South America, and right now he’s the difference between a dominating, scoring Barcelona and a toothless one (no pun intended, Mr Suarez). If Atletico use Griezmann and Correa well, they should prevail in front of an emotionally invested Wanda.
6. Eibar (18th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (15th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Things look bleak in Eibar. Three consecutive defeats for an aggregate result of 13-1 tell a story of lousy defending, very limited attacking flow and, in general and to be frank, terrible football. Coach Mendilibar is having a hard time, as new hires haven’t performed anywhere near expectations – Paulo Oliveira or Joan Jordan come to mind – and injuries such as the one suffered by the talented Pedro Leon have impacted his offensive options. However, in previous seasons Eibar have defended their status in the Primera Division based on their strength at home – they won 10 times at Ipurua last season –, and they should make that count again on Sunday.
Deportivo look like the perfect guest, having won only one point after three away matches. Florin Andone & co look shockingly underwhelming away from Riazor, so my money goes to the home side.
7. Girona (16th) vs Villarreal (9th): 2. (Sun – 16:15)
The hosts have becoming quite skilled at the art of “Playing as well as we ever did, and losing as we always do”. “Jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre” is an old fooball saying that describes well Girona’s struggles during their first season in the top flight. One sees a well-coached team that for the most part exploits its strengths and hides its limitations, but which seems fatally destined to make one terrible mistake per match, a mistake that costs them valuable points every weekend. So far, the players look as devoted and focused as they did when the season started, but as matches and losses mount, it’s likely that they’ll begin to lose their concentration.
Can they beat Villarreal? On a perfect day they could, but the visitors have such a wealth of options up front that the safe bet is a ‘2’. Villarreal’s BBC (Bacca, Bakambu and Castillejo) appears determined to get back to the top six spots as soon as possible.
8. Málaga (20th) vs Leganés (7th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Rather than firing coach Michel, struggling Malaga have surprised fans and media alike by getting rid of troubled sports director Francesc Arnau (former goalie with Barcelona) to then re-sign a familiar face in that position. The Argentinean Mario Husillos joins Malaga for the seventh time in his career (you’ve read that correctly), and given that he knows the club quite well, he should be able to help Michel to strengthen the side in the winter transfer window with the profile of players the squad need.
That said, there’s still two long months before that and the hosts need to react. With only one point after nine matches, they need a win on Sunday. Leganes have never defeated Malaga in La Liga, although one draw and three defeats in four matches isn’t a large enough series from which to draw conclusions. This Leganes squad looks much harder to defeat than last season’s, and finally has an in-form Nordin Amrabat ready to make his debut against his former team.
This one will depend on the supporters. If the stadium stands by Michel and the team, things should go smooth for the home side. But if the team falters at some point, the fans will turn their backs and this would spell the end for Michel. I’ll go for the former option, although I’m far from convinced by what I’ve seen so far from Malaga.
9. Betis (6th) vs Valencia (3rd): 2. (Sun- 20:45)
During this bizarre October of matches played before empty stadia and suspended declarations of independence, Betis fans have fondly reminded us that last time Catalonia seceded from the rest of Spain, their club won La Liga. Of course, that was back in 1934, but to them — always in good spirits — one dot is more than enough to draw a very long line. Another national title awaits Betis this season, they say, and if you watch them play a few games you may end up buying that crazy idea yourself.
Leaving aside Atleti vs Barça, this is the match of the weekend. Valencia will fight Betis’ possession with steel in midfield and speed all over the pitch. One of the most striking characteristics of Marcelino’s squad is how fast they are – with the obvious exception of the parsimonious Parejo. It’s impossible to know for how long the team will be able to maintain such a high tempo in every match, but given that the starting line-up’s average age is 24, it’s fair to assume that they still have a few exuberant months ahead.
When a possession approach faces an energetic one, the former needs to possess much superior skill to avoid being defeated by the latter. In this case, Betis are still one level below what they’d need to contain Valencia’s hunger. In any case, don’t miss this one, it’s a must watch. La Liga provides us with a great way to finish our Sunday before a tough week starts.
10. UD Las Palmas (17th) vs Celta (11th): 1. (Mon – 21:00)
This scribe looks at Celta’s 23-man squad and can’t believe they’re mid table. The team from Vigo, stacked with talent, has only made the most of their players once so far, in an impeccable performance away at Eibar. But it’s hard to understand how a team with Pione Sisto, Iago Aspas, Emre Mor and Maxi Gomez can’t defeat less apt sides such as Girona or Getafe.
Gomez, suspended, won’t be able to play on Sunday, together with the injured Hugo Mallo and Roncaglia. Can the rest defeat UD Las Palmas? They could, although the Estadio Insular has been tough for Celta so far. Three draws and six defeats in nine matches prove that the extremely long trip from Vigo to the Canary Islands takes its toll. Even though the match will be played on Monday, Celta have plenty of internationals coming back from the break, so things look perfect for the hosts to get three much- needed points and buy new coach Pako Ayestaran some time to work.
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 20/40 (50%)
Note: Copy this easy summary to write your own quiniela and share it with us in the “Comments’ section.
1. Espanyol (14th) vs Levante (10th):
2. Athletic de Bilbao (13th) vs Sevilla (2nd):
3. Getafe (12th) vs Real Madrid (5th):
4. Alavés (19th) vs Real Sociedad (8th):
5. Atlético de Madrid (4th) vs Barcelona (1st):
6. Eibar (18th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (15th):
7. Girona (16th) vs Villarreal (9th):
8. Málaga (20th) vs Leganés (7th):
9. Betis (6th) vs Valencia (3rd):
10. UD Las Palmas (17th) vs Celta (11th):
All kick-off times are CET.
(All kickoff times are CET)