After a shambolic midweek performance by several sides, only 12 La Liga teams will be included in the pool for the last-16 round of the Copa del Rey. Athletic de Bilbao and Real Sociedad managed to lose at home to Third Division sides and crashed out of the tournament in embarrassing fashion. Betis lost 5-3 to Cadiz at their own stadium and were also eliminated. Days after a combative display at the Santiago Bernabeu, Malaga failed to score one more goal against Numancia and thus bid their goodbye to the Copa. Even Real Madrid drew at home to Fuenlabrada, who at one point led and had a few chances to draw on aggregate. All those La Liga teams used plenty of bench players and youngsters in these matches, but bearing in mind the differences in talent and budget between these sides and the lower league ones, the results of the round feel awkward.
Despite the favourable two-leg format, top-level clubs have increasingly under-performed in the tournament during the last few seasons. The incentive to win is low, the calendar is loaded and the format of the competition leads them to believe that things may be easier than they actually are when they face humble teams from the Second and Third tiers.
A new, more competitive format and better incentives could change this disappointing reality, but if that does not happen soon, the tournament will steadily lose the attraction it once had, which would be a shame. In the meantime, let’s see how those setbacks may impact the weekend’s matches.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Málaga (18th) vs Levante (14th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
Malaga’s great performance at the Santiago Bernabeu should have improved their morale, but then Michel decided to play a mixed side against Numancia in their midweek Copa del Rey duel and all that goodwill was lost. Even though their elimination from the Copa might be a blessing in disguise, as it allows the team to focus on their La Liga campaign, the disappointment and the negative impact on the dressing room cannot be understated.
Sounds early for this, but some are dubbing Friday’s match as a final. There are still plenty of points to be played, but Malaga currently sit five points below salvation, and anything other than a win could kill their already low confidence.
Levante, successful in the Copa against Girona, have run out of options in midfield. Four injuries mean that 19-year-old Hacen, Mauritanian, should have his first chance to start. If we see the Malaga of the Bernabeu, coach Michel may buy some time against the depleted and unpredictable Levante. Otherwise, it might be the end of his tenure.
2. Barcelona (1st) vs Celta (9th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
Some Barcelona fans wonder where the spectacular, high-scoring side of previous seasons has gone. That’s how you waste your time when you lead La Liga undefeated, having conceded five goals in 13 matches. Coach Valverde has brought plenty of common sense, consistency and competitiveness to a side that lost Neymar with almost no time to react, and hasn’t been able to integrate his replacement, Dembele, into the team yet.
That said, we shall see plenty of goals on Saturday afternoon. Celta only have one clean sheet to their name this season, and some of their players can indeed put Barcelona’s back four in a few tight spots – the Gallegos are the fifth best offense in La Liga. Easy home win, and at least six goals to be scored in total.
3. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) vs Real Sociedad (7th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
Even though Atleti aren’t the same defensively overwhelming team of previous seasons, they are still undefeated, have recovered Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro for the cause and have enough stamina to strangle Real Sociedad’s entertaining, but often soft approach to football.
The fact that Lleida won at Anoeta 2-3 in midweek, coming back from 2-0 down and eliminating the hosts in the process, shows how inconsistent the team still is, and that doesn’t tend to help when you play against the rugged Atletico.
4. Sevilla (5th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (17th): 1. (Sat– 18:30)
Sevilla have become experts at digging themselves into a hole and then producing an unexpected escape. After drawing level 3-3 with Liverpool coming back from 3-0 down, last weekend they defeated Villarreal away after trailing 2-0. In midweek, the Sevillistas won 4-0, eliminating Cartagena in the Copa del Rey and building on the paradoxically positive atmosphere that surrounds the team since Eduardo Berizzo announced his grave illness.
The coach has already started his treatment and received the visit of his players on Thursday.
With all that in mind, Sevilla look in a much better place than Deportivo right now, and should take advantage of the great shape Ben Yedder is in to get a bit closer to the top four.
5. Athletic de Bilbao (16th) vs Real Madrid (4th): 2. (Sat– 20:45)
Athletic tend to show their true character on great occasions such as a Real Madrid visit, but the mood in Bilbao feels so sombre right now that a comprehensive defeat is on the cards.
Coach Ziganda’s control over the team is fading. The Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of humble Formentera, better known because of their beautiful landscape and overpriced restaurants than for their Third Division football team, is not a blip, but another example of the team’s lack of competitiveness.
On Saturday, the atmosphere at San Mames will be charged, as Real Madrid seem bound to sign Athletic’s goalie Kepa and the Athletic faithful won’t take that easily. The young keeper has rejected all club offers to extend his contract, and would be a great signing for the visitors. Keylor Navas’ recurring injuries and dips in form, and Casilla’s poor performances in recent matches have made a new, solid goalie a priority for Real Madrid.
Even if the visitors have not looked consistent for a full 90 minutes in more than two months, a half-inspired Real Madrid can demolish this current version of Athletic, without the suspended Laporte for this match. Coach Ziganda and president Josu Urrutia will hear quite a few boos and whistles when this one is over.
6. Leganés (11th) vs Villarreal (6th): 2. (Sun – 12:00)
Leganes did so well at the beginning of the season, but they’ve lost their last four in a row and they’re still in mid-table, only four points away from Villarreal. But the hosts’ issues – short squad, no reliable scorer – have become painfully apparent very quickly. A plague of injuries has depleted their defence, exactly what the doctor ordered for Villarreal and their in-shape striker duo, now baptised as the Baccambu. Carlos Bacca and Cedric Bakambu have developed such an understanding that the duo is worth the price of admission for any match.
If Leganes find their inner self, they could draw, but that’s an unlikely scenario.
7. Getafe (12th) vs Valencia (2nd): 2. (Sun – 16:15)
Valencia did not defeat Barcelona, but over the whole match showed that they can compete with the best. The Ches, overwhelmed by the dominating first half of the Azulgrana, reacted in the second and proved that they’re hard to contain in terms of pace and intensity.
For how long can they keep it up? Getafe is a tough outing, but this does not seem the pitch – wide, long and with just not enough supporters – that will stop Marcelino’s team.
8. Eibar (15th) vs Espanyol (13th): X. (Sun – 18:30)
After ten matches without a victory, Eibar has won two in a row, so coach Jose Luis Mendilibar gets some extra time to recover the swagger of previous seasons. The problem is that those two victories happened against arguably two of the teams in the worst shape in La Liga, Betis and Alaves. Great for morale, but not very conclusive regarding the state of the Armeros.
Espanyol should be a more demanding test. If they travelled better, they could be contending for a top-six spot, but having won no matches away from Cornella, it’s tough to progress in the standings. Their dependence on the gifted Gerard Moreno for any offensive move is excessive and makes them easier to stop.
Smells like a draw.
9. UD Las Palmas (19th) vs Betis (8th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
Plenty of morbo here. Coach Quique Setien comes back to the team with which he excelled for a decent part of last season, to then lead them to a spectacular collapse as his disagreements with the club’s management reached the dressing room and the pitch.
Setien started the season with Betis in a promising manner – remember their win at the Bernabeu? – but their collapse is happening a lot earlier than it did with Las Palmas. The Beticos have won one match in their last seven La Liga encounters, and were eliminated from the Copa del Rey after losing at home to Cadiz by the emphatic result of 5-3.
At some point, Setien looked like the new Luis Aragones: enamoured of his job, with a sense of flair and powerful speeches that motivated his players. Now it seems like he’s becoming a more polite version of Paco Jemez, arrogantly careless in defence and almost oblivious to the effect of negative results on the squad. Home win and a serious crisis in Sevilla.
10. Girona (10th) vs Alavés (20th): 1. (Mon– 21:00)
After only 13 matches, Alaves have just chosen their third coach of the season. The likeable Gianni De Biasi only boasted six points in seven matches to his name, and although that was a vast improvement over his predecessor – zero points in six matches – the club’s management decided to pull the plug and hire Abelardo. Besides his experience with Sporting de Gijon and Barcelona as a player, Abelardo’s most relevant experience are his two and a half seasons as a head coach of Sporting, during which he promoted the club to the Primera División and gave plenty of chances to quite a few players from the youth teams.
Does he have what it takes to lead Alaves out of the hole they’re in? He does, but he’ll need more than a few days to get his ideas going, and Girona are now working well as a unit. Easy home win.
Last week: 2/10 (20%)
Season: 45/90 (50%)
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1. Málaga (18th) vs Levante (14th):
2. Barcelona (1st) vs Celta (9th):
3. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) vs Real Sociedad (7th):
4. Sevilla (5th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (17th):
5. Athletic de Bilbao (16th) vs Real Madrid (4th):
6. Leganés (11th) vs Villarreal (6th):
7. Getafe (12th) vs Valencia (2nd):
8. Eibar (15th) vs Espanyol (13th):
9. UD Las Palmas (19th) vs Betis (8th):
10. Girona (10th) vs Alavés (20th):
(All kick-off times are CET)