It may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not: the future of this La Liga season depends on a single match to be played on Sunday evening. Barcelona visit Valencia with a four-point advantage over the Ches and a 10-point lead over both Real Madrid and Atletico. If Barcelona win, it’s hard to imagine the chain of negative results that would see them lose the title. That sounds even more difficult when, with the exception of the somewhat inexperienced Valencia, the remaining candidates look far from their best shape, and therefore unlikely to start a running streak of wins that would put pressure on the Azulgranas.
The match, the atmosphere at the Mestalla, the huge rivalry between both teams, the different, but enjoyable brands of football they play… Sunday’s match is a showcase of La Liga’s best characteristics: 90 minutes of attacking teams that won’t settle for a draw. Do yourself a favour and do not miss it.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win. And if you don’t know what a Quiniela is, click here.
1. Celta (13th) vs Leganés (8th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
With a third of the season almost gone, one starts to suspect that Celta as a team are nowhere as good as the names in the squad. That’s obviously coach Unzué’s responsibility; even though he’s new to the job, many of us expected more than the few glimpses of a great team that Celta have offered so far.
Last weekend’s match against Sevilla was Celta’s season in a nutshell: they worked well for long spells of the match, but did not take their chances when they appeared and made gross mistakes at the back. Unless they improve in both boxes, they will end up struggling, something unthinkable at the beginning of the season. Maxi Gomez, a striker able to score a header almost from outside of the box and then miss three glorious chances a few yards away from goal, epitomises what is right and wrong with this Celta.
Leganes, a much less talented squad, deserve the top half of the table spot they occupy right now. They’re still well ranked even though they’ve lost their last three, but they just faced Sevilla, Valencia and Barcelona in a row, so there should be no reason for concern.
A draw seems like a sensible choice, but this also sounds like the right time for Celta to get their act together and for Leganes’ short squad to start showing some signs of tiredness.
2. Alavés (19th) vs Eibar (17th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
“I’m ashamed. We need to reflect on what happened today”. The words of coach Gianni de Biasi after Alaves lost to Getafe 4-1 last weekend need no explanation. After a sensible improvement in their performances and a solid win over Espanyol at home two weeks ago, the team from Vitoria showed their worst face in Getafe.
Fortunately, they host Eibar on Saturday. Terrible travellers, the visitors have scored three times and conceded 18 goals in six away matches. Not even the morale boost after their memorable 5-0 win over Betis last weekend will change that.
3. Real Madrid (3rd) vs Málaga (18th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
The predictable — so much that this column got it right — draw at the Wanda left Real Madrid ten points behind Barcelona. The balsamic 6-0 win over Apoel in midweek can’t hide the evidence: the title challenge is almost over, especially if Barcelona win in Valencia on Sunday evening.
On Saturday, Keylor Navas and Mateo Kovacic will be available again, although Gareth Bale will have to wait for at least another week. Less daring in his rotations than he was last season, Zidane can take advantage of the relatively weak visitor to give some bench players the chance to enjoy a winter afternoon at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ceballos, Llorente and Mayoral need some airtime if Zidane wants to have his second unit ready. The real tests will arrive in December.
4. Betis (9th) vs Girona (11th): 2. (Sat- 18:30)
Not much is left of the Betis that looked so entertaining in the final weeks of September. Since then, only one win, two draws and three defeats, but especially the damning feeling that the team has completely lost the plot. Most opponents already know well how to play against the Beticos: high pressure, locking down Betis’ fullbacks and their offensive moves, plus plenty of high crosses and well-rehearsed set pieces on offence, as Betis are terrible in aerial duels.
Unluckily for the hosts, Girona coach Pablo Machin is a remarkable tactician. His talent pool, more limited than Quique Setien’s, looks however better coached to keep rivals at bay and exploit their weaknesses. A draw might well be the reasonable option, but Betis have given too many signals of being on the edge of a nervous breakdown. If Girona reach halftime with a positive result, Betis’ own fans might turn on the team, and then the visitors will have a great chance of reaching the top half of the table with a famous win in Sevilla.
5. Levante (12th) vs Atlético de Madrid (4th): X. (Sat- 20:45)
Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Roma brought some realisations for the Rojiblanco faithful: Griezmann needs a striker in front of him to shine, Gameiro can play that role similarly to how he did last season, and Atleti aren’t what they used to be defensively. This last point was already made by Qarabag’s Spanish midfielder Michel right before his team earned a famous 1-1 draw at the Wanda. “They used to suffocate opposing teams, and now you don’t feel that same level of pressure anymore”. Roma also made that clear, and the question now is how Diego Simeone can possibly recover that same level of stamina and defensive focus from his players.
This trip is a tough one for Atleti. A two-day rest after a challenging, do-or-die Champions League match, the short high-speed train trip to Valencia, and then the expert host Levante waiting for them with a sizeable dose of time-wasting techniques, plenty of physicality in defence and no rush to win the match or take any risk whatsoever.
This won’t be pretty. Smells like stalemate at the Ciudad de Valencia.
6. Deportivo de La Coruña (16th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (15th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Some may think that what Athletic needed to turn around their season was a memorable comeback victory such as the one they achieved on Thursday against Hertha Berlin. However, a worrying stat comes out of the analysis of Athletic’s Europa League season: their goalie, Herrerín, is the one with most saves in the group stage of the competition, which speaks volume of his quality… as well as of Athletic’s porous defence.
The probably tired Bilbainos will travel west to meet the hungry Depor. After Cristobal took over the reins of the team, the hosts have played a lot better, although their mental lapses still cost them dear. Time for Florin Andone and Adrian to enjoy a fun pre-lunch match by driving Athletic’s defence crazy.
7. Real Sociedad (7th) vs UD Las Palmas (20th): 1. (Sun – 16:15)
Last week, this column stated that something radical would have to happen for Las Palmas to win again this season. Even if Real Sociedad made a huge effort to win in Norway on Thursday, they have enough off the bench to rotate a few positions and still pick Las Palmas apart with their ball movement.
And regarding the visitors, coach Paco Jemez, who won’t renew his contract with Cruz Azul in Mexico, sounds like their next coach. Something radical indeed. With the current squad configuration and Jemez at the helm, we could see Las Palmas play some entertaining stuff and break the record of goals conceded in La Liga.
8. Villarreal (6th) vs Sevilla (5th): X. (Sun – 18:30)
Both teams would love to rotate after exhausting midweek matches, but can’t afford a single sub as they need the points to contend for a top four finish against a direct rival. Of course, the terrible news of Eduardo Berizzo having to undergo treatment for prostate cancer has had an impact on La Liga in general and especially on his team, who came back to draw against Liverpool after being 3-0 down at halftime. Emotional days for the Sevillistas, who will indeed want to add a win for their coach. Villarreal look in form, with a remarkable Bakambu scoring non-stop, but the trip back from Kazakhstan and Sevilla’s predictable extra motivation make a draw a reasonable bet.
9. Valencia (2nd) vs Barcelona (1st): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
Valencia and Barcelona have a history of extremely enjoyable matches, since the great Valencia of Fernando Gomez and Alvaro Cervera went head to head with Cruyff’s Dream Team – and ended up mostly losing –, or when Gaizka Mendieta and Claudio Lopez drove Barcelona’s Louis van Gaal nuts.
This match has all the makings required to initiate a new era in the rivalry between Valencianistas and Azulgranas. Valencia have won their last eight, look in terrific shape and have a young side very well coached by Marcelino. Barcelona, far from spectacular, have proven a very competitive team under Ernesto Valverde, and won’t be willing to give Atletico and Real Madrid any new life with a loss at the Mestalla.
This one comes down to energy and current shape. Even though Valverde rested Messi for 55 minutes in Turin, Barcelona’s bench is still short and its midfield has played way too much this early on the season. Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic will find a hungry, very fast set of midfielders managed by the calmer, slower Parejo, a combination that will indeed be hard to digest.
Valencia have been preparing this match all week, while Barcelona, without the suspended Pique, will have to resort to Vermaelen to deal with the imposing Simone Zaza. It’s very hard to bet against Lionel Messi, but if Barcelona can lose a match before their visit to the Santiago Bernabeu on the 23rd of December, this is the one.
10. Espanyol (14th) vs Getafe (10th): X. (Mon- 21:00)
Espanyol’s ranking is a lot worse than their game, but the fact is that with nine goals scored in 15 matches it’s hard to expect a better position in the table. Getafe have run into a treasure in Angel, a diminutive journeyman who plays up front and who, at age 30, seems to have found the right place to bloom. His six goals have taken Getafe to the 10th position and, for all of Espanyol’s talent up front, they do miss someone able to put the ball in the net every once in a while. Leo Baptistao’s injury won’t help.
Can’t see Espanyol winning this one. A draw will do.
Last week: 8/10 (80%)
Season: 43/80 (54%)
Note: Copy this easy summary to write your own quiniela and share it with us in the “Comments’ section.
1. Celta (13th) vs Leganés (9th):
2. Alavés (19th) vs Eibar (17th):
3. Real Madrid (3rd) vs Málaga (18th):
4. Betis (9th) vs Girona (11th):
5. Levante (12th) vs Atlético de Madrid (4th):
6. Deportivo de La Coruña (16th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (15th):
7. Real Sociedad (7th) vs UD Las Palmas (20th):
8. Villarreal (6th) vs Sevilla (5th):
9. Valencia (2nd) vs Barcelona (1st):
10. Espanyol (14th) vs Getafe (10th):
(All kick-off times are CET)