Last Tuesday, the coolest wife on earth had her birthday. Her present, received with utter happiness, was a short trip to Barcelona and a couple of tickets to see Lionel Messi live at ‘his’ own stadium.
Initially disappointed because her idol was on the bench, she – plus the rest of the Camp Nou, and even the languid Sporting de Portugal – lit up when the diminutive playmaker joined the match in the second half. Despite the cold evening, the experience was well worth the trip. Watching Messi get the ball in a dangerous area and feel the whole stadium contain their breath simultaneously in anticipation is one of those precious little things that every football fan enjoys, no matter which team they support.
Allow me a quick tangent, though. For the third time in my life, a close friend with contacts got me tickets to the Champions League Partners’ zone, something called “The Champions Club”. It’s a special area with plenty of food and beer, music, games and pre- and post-match ‘entertaining’ – a bloke singing Sinatra songs every once in a while. Of course, all that comes in handy when the alternative is sitting in the stands in a cold December night, but the most important thing about the partners’ invitations is that, food & drinks aside, they come with some of the best seats in the stadium.
However, all in all the Club is not a positive football experience for the blue-collar football fan. If you’ve been raised to value the immense privilege of watching a live match, the Champions Club will make you want to vomit a healthy mixture of its food and beer. Very few of the invitees are there for the football. Most of them occupied their seats when the match had been already going for a while – that would earn you a good telling off in any other area of the stadium – and left well before the first and second halves had finished. There were people moving constantly. It may not be the opera, but for many of us, in our limited subjective perception, it bloody is.
I’ve seen this same behaviour at the Santiago Bernabeu, at the old Vicente Calderon and now at the Camp Nou. I work with Marketing, and know well how these things work and how valuable they become in certain contexts, but the kid in me remembers how tough it was to get the cheapest ticket for a match and how unreal it seemed to be able to, someday, sit at the Tribuna Baja – the most expensive area in the Bernabeu, where its Champions Club is located.
Perhaps the sponsors should invite 10 or 15 real fans to the Club, so that they herded the parvenus into their seats at the right time and kept them well-behaved for the duration of the match. It would be glorious.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Alavés (19th) vs UD Las Palmas (18th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
You have to love La Liga. Last weekend, 20th place Alaves trailed 2-0 well into the second half at Girona. New coach Abelardo hadn’t been able to change much in two days, and the visitors struggled to string two passes against the surprise side of the season so far. However, in just 20 minutes, Alaves’ Ibai Gomez – a midfielder – scored three times and won the match for his team, with the remarkable help of winger Pedraza. He also killed my Quiniela, but one can’t complain when a player does something that justifies the use of the word ‘heroics’.
Back to their stadium and not anymore at the bottom of the table, Alaves hosts Las Palmas, a fellow struggler who will miss the better half of their team. Aquilani, Tana, Momo and Vitolo won’t travel to Vitoria, so the home win seems likely.
2. Getafe (8th) vs Eibar (13th): X. (Sat, 13:00)
With Getafe in 8th position and Leganes in 7th, this is becoming the season of the more humble Madrid teams. Last weekend, the Getafenses became the first team to beat Valencia this term playing with one man less for 65 minutes, and now sit just two points behind Villarreal in the fight for a top-six finish.
That said, Eibar have won their last three, and look at their best shape of the season. Tactically, this will be a more interesting duel than what many could imagine judging by the name of the teams. Ah, and keep an eye on the grass. Getafe likes it long and dry, although it’s unlikely that the hard-working Eibar complains about it the way that Dani Parejo did last weekend.
3. Real Madrid (4th) vs Sevilla (5th): X. (Sat, 16:15)
I know, I know. “Reverse-jinx alert”, you are thinking as you see the ‘X’ for a Real Madrid match at the Bernabeu. Just let me tell you this: no Casemiro and a line of four with Achraf, Nacho, Vallejo and Marcelo. If Ever Banega does not find Ben Yedder at least four times in space during the match, I don’t know s*** about this sport.
Injuries and suspensions keep decimating Real Madrid’s squad, a 23-man list that is indeed weaker than it was last season. Rapahel Varane and Gareth Bale, two players that needed to become pillars of the side this year, can’t stay healthy for more than a couple of weeks, and it’s hard to believe that their cases will be solved by the same doctors that have been treating them for years.
Now running out of alternatives, Zidane will have to give the driving seat to some of the bench players. Marco Asensio, Daniel Ceballos and Nacho look ready, but that can’t be said of the rest, and the season is dark and full of terrors in the shape of tricky Sevillas.
The visitors, qualified for the last-16 round of the Champions League, might feel the long trip to Slovenia and the lack of rest, but have a deep enough squad to get Zidane’s team into trouble.
4. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) vs Leganés (7th): X. (Sat- 18:30)
Despite their low ranking, Depor felt comfortably distant from the relegation zone until last weekend. Then both Las Palmas and Alaves won their respective matches, and they can now catch the Deportivistas if they win again this weekend.
Depor’s problem goes by the name of Leganés and its defence. The visitors have conceded 13 goals so far, and eight of them happened when facing Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia. The point is that Leganes’ back four can’t be easily beaten by the not so talented teams, and Depor indeed belongs in that category. If things keep going like this, this season should bring Leganes’ coach, Asier Garitano, the chance to coach a bigger, more talented team. A goalless draw is in the cards.
5. Valencia (2nd) vs Celta (10th): 2. (Sat- 20:45)
Two weeks ago, this would be a clear ‘1’. Since then, Valencia have shown that they’re mortal and Celta have finally put together a decent string of results led by Iago Aspas, with eight goals in seven matches.
Of course Valencia are still clear favourites, but something tells me that coach Unzue has a few tricks up his sleeve to surprise Marcelino at the Mestalla. This is the daring bet of the weekend, and a very interesting match to watch on Saturday evening.
6. Real Sociedad (9th) vs Málaga (20th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Two soft teams, one much more talented than the other, meet at Anoeta on Sunday afternoon. We’ll have a detailed match report from Phil, of course, but my crystal ball foresees plenty of defensive mistakes, at least five goals and a narrower home win than the standings would predict.
7. Betis (11th) vs Atlético de Madrid (3rd): 2. (Sun – 16:15)
I am well aware that this sounds like a trademark famous’ last words, but there’s no way that the current Betis beat Atletico, even if Antoine Griezmann is out injured. Betis’ defence is the second worse in La Liga and their midfield has no bite: a combination that Atletico know well how to punish. By the way, despite their elimination of the Champions League, Jan Oblak deserves a plaque at the Wanda Metropolitano after his sensational performance at Stamford Bridge. Let’s just hope he does not join Real Madrid in the next few seasons and thus can keep his plaque intact.
8. Levante (14th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (16th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
This column is riding whatever team plays against Athletic de Bilbao until the season ends, and that is that.
9. Villarreal (6th) vs Barcelona (1st): 2. (Sun – 20:45)
Tough one for Villarreal. Barcelona will have rested two more days than the Submarino for Sunday’s Partidazo, after an easy win vs Sporting de Portugal that did not demand much effort from the Azulgranas.
Messi’s second half cameo and the lack of heating system at the Camp Nou were the most remarkable things in Barcelona’s 2-0 win, so it appears as though the visitors are ready to forget their surprising draw at home last weekend.
Villarreal, with an ailing Carlos Bacca and a returning, but still not fully fit Samuel Castillejo, will indeed put up a fight against Barcelona, but will fall short.
10. Espanyol (15th) vs Girona (12th): X. (Mon– 21:00)
The final match of the weekend is a Catalan derby between two teams that play the way their coaches want them to play. If you’re shocked by the statement, there’s plenty of teams which play in styles – or lack of thereof – that have nothing to do with what their coaches intended.
Both Espanyol and Girona apply their coaches’ cookbook in a disciplined manner, but eventually it’s the talent that makes the difference, and the duo have very limited resources. Espanyol may have the edge looking at the squads as a whole, but the lack of a reliable striker hampers their ability to challenge for a spot in the top half of the table.
This match will look like the proverbial chess match, but won’t do for a pretty sight. 0-0 to close a weekend that otherwise should be extremely entertaining.