With the obvious depressing state of Basque football, the fight over a top six finish in La Liga seems already settled for the rest of the season. Unless something shocking happens in the next couple of months, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Villarreal, Valencia and Atlético de Madrid will end the tournament in spots that give access to European football next season, while the rest of the clubs will have to fight to avoid relegation or die of boredom in mid table.
The closest followers to the top six right now are, surprisingly, Getafe, Leganés and Girona, teams that can’t really compete with the aforementioned sides in terms of resources and consistency for a full season. With Betis in free-fall, La Liga needs Athletic and Real Sociedad to step it up in the following weeks so that we enjoy a more interesting fight over European football spots in the second half of this term.
We need you, seriously. Otherwise, one of the main focuses of interest in the tournament will have been eliminated way too early in the season. The Basque derby on Saturday could well be the start of the comeback for one of these two classic sides.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Sevilla (5th) vs Levante (15th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
For some reason, I tend to believe that Levante are a lot better than they are. The mental image of a tough, hard-working side with a couple of talented forwards is still in my mind, but then a look at their results completely dismantles that concept. In fact they have won one of their last ten matches, and even though they still competed against Athletic last weekend, they can’t be a match for a Sevilla that should have a huge motive to erase their pathetic visit to the Santiago Bernabeu from their supporters’ minds.
The Sevillistas had a glimpse of hope going into Real Madrid’s home and they indeed put in a decent 10 minutes, but they completely self-combusted after the hosts scored their second. Not a performance to be proud of, indeed.
And while Steven N’Zonzi decides where he’ll be playing in January – very likely in England – Sevilla move their connections to get another defensive midfielder to help Guido Pizarro. Huge pressure on the technical staff to keep Monchi’s impressive track record.
2. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) vs Real Sociedad (10th): 2. (Sat, 16:15)
The policy of short-circuiting Athletic until coach Ziganda leaves isn’t quite working for this column. In their last four matches, the Bilbainos have tied three times and won one, so even though they look like a bad impression of themselves, they’re still good enough to earn a few points here and there.
Of course, a team with Aritz Aduriz, Markel Susaeta and Inaki Williams will always have their chances in any given match, but the fact that the trio rarely play at the same time hampers their ability to score and to entertain supporters and neutrals.
In the opposite corner, you could say a lot of things about Real Sociedad, but never accuse them of boredom. If you add up the goals they’ve scored to those they’ve conceded so far, you get 56, the highest number in La Liga (Betis are second with 52). Fun guaranteed if you watch the Donostiarras, although not quite so if you support them. They haven’t won in the last four, and added a traumatic home defeat to struggling Malaga last weekend.
Football tends to reward those who treat the ball well, and in this case Real Sociedad are vastly superior. One remembers a heartbreaking loss last season, as the visitors’ softness ended up presenting Athletic with three points on a silver tray, but hopefully Eusebio’s team will have learned the lesson. If they keep some consistency, the Basque derby should be theirs.
3. Eibar (13th) vs Valencia (2nd): X. (Sat, 18:30)
Many players of this Valencia have caught the eye of supporters and media alike. Guedes, Soler, Zaza (suspended against Eibar) or keeper Neto have starred so far and are the reason behind Valencia’s great run of results. However, when the going gets tough the man is Geoffrey Kondogbia. His second half against Celta made it clear why Marcelino demanded his signing as soon as he took over Valencia’s bench. The French midfielder overwhelmed Celta with such a physical and tactical display that one remembered the likes of Kante or Makelele in their best times. And of course, having a presence like Kondogbia’s helps Valencia to get the most of the talented, but less intense Parejo.
That said, the trip to Eibar is a tough one: narrow pitch, likely rain, tough opposition. I see Eibar riding the good form of Ivan Alejo to get a point.
4. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) vs Alavés (18th): X. (Sat- 20:45)
Six points behind Barcelona, the fact that Atletico are still unbeaten is often overlooked. Even if they look less intense, their defensive numbers are still outstanding – 7 goals conceded in 15 matches – and the comeback of the suspended Antoine Griezmann should be enough for them to defeat the improving, but still weak Alaves.
That said, two comments about Diego Simeone. First, true to form, he finished the match against mighty Betis – a 1-0 trademark win – with six defenders (Sime Vrsaljko, Stefan Savic, Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, Lucas Hernandez and José Gimenez) on the pitch. Second, his love-hate relationship with fullback Vrsaljko deserves a book. The player wants to leave for Napoli, which would usually be enough reason for Simeone to leave him in the stands until the transfer window opened. However, the coach is convinced that no reinforcements will come to cover for the Croatian, so he makes him play every time he has the chance.
5. Girona (9th) vs Getafe (7th): X. (Sun- 12:00)
Girona’s win over Espanyol at Cornella was the cherry on the cake of their fantastic first half of the season. Regardless of Manchester City’s support, it’s still impressive how quickly the small club has matured and faced much bigger rivals with great aplomb.
On Saturday, they face another pleasant surprise of the season, the serious and tactically impeccable Getafe. Coach Bordalas, in his first La Liga season after 20 years coaching small teams, knows well how hard it is to play in the top flight. The only problem is that, for the next two months, he’ll need to find a replacement for the outstanding Markel Bergara, who just broke his meniscus.
Girona are a lot better when they travel, so this could very well end in a friendly draw between two teams that, despite their current rank in the standings, need every point they can get.
6. Celta (11th) vs Villarreal (6th): 1. (Sun – 16:15)
Uneven results aside, we’re finally seeing the Celta many of us expected when the season started. Their draw at the Camp Nou and the unfair defeat at Valencia showed a team that finally knows what they want to accomplish on the pitch. However, this Sunday they will have to play without two of their pillars, Iago Aspas and Hugo Mallo, both suspended. Celta have struggled to defeat Villarreal in Vigo – three draws and two defeats in their last five visits – but the visitors also have their issues. Cedric Bakambu is suspended, Carlos Bacca might not recover in time and another four players won’t make the list.
In summary, two exciting teams depleted by injuries and suspensions, so this one is anyone’s guess. I tend to favour Celta, even if it’s just because when you factor all the absentees, they still have the best scorer, Maxi Gomez.
7. UD Las Palmas (20th) vs Espanyol (16th): X. (Sun – 18:30)
It’s hard to see two teams with such glaring weaknesses face each other in one given match. The hosts have the worst defence in La Liga, while the visitors are the worst attackers. If Espanyol had a decent striker, they would contend for a top half finish. However, Las Palmas’ issues are much deeper, and even though they can entertain their supporters every once in a while, the squad and the bench show so many holes that it’s safe to bet that they’ll be relegated well before the end of the season.
Hard to see any of the two scoring. Stalemate.
8. Barcelona (1st) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (17th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
The visitors have not won at the Camp Nou in the last 14 years. That should not change on Sunday, as the visitors have not been able to win twice in a row so far. Their inconsistency keeps them flirting with the relegation zone, although their offense is a lot more skilled than those of their competitors in the bottom half of the table.
Even though they obviously miss Umtiti, and will miss even more when Javier Mascherano leaves in January, Barcelona seem determined to make Vermaelen work. The key to the team’s positive beginning of the season is how solid their defensive discipline has been, and the Belgian centreback now becomes a key piece to maintain things under control at the back.
This could be yet another unspectacular Barcelona win, getting ready for the Clasico at the Bernabeu in just one week.
9. Málaga (19th) vs Betis (12th): 1. (Mon- 21:00)
In case you have forgotten, this same Betis side won at the Santiago Bernabeu in mid September. Feels like ten years ago when you look at the current side, who still like to keep possession and entertain their supporters, but have forgotten how to score and concede in the most bizarre situations.
The fact is that coach Quique Setien has had terrible luck with injuries. Rather than naming every player suffering physical issues, let’s just say that only 16 players of the squad were available for training on Thursday. That obviously limits his ability to play his offensive brand of football, but he should also prepare his team for a more conservative approach that proves helpful in this type of situation.
Led by Chory Castro, Malaga have revived without having fired coach Michel. Even if the standings do not show their progression yet, the Malacitanos have won three of their last six, and the two defeats came understandably at the Bernabeu – and they scared the hell out of the fickle Real Madrid supporters – and at Villarreal. I like the streak of the home team in this one.
10. Leganés (8th) vs Real Madrid (4th): 2. (TBD)
Hard to write about this when there’s no date for it. Will update when it’s decided.
In the meantime, Real Madrid play for the Club World Cup on Saturday. Zinedine Zidane’s team face the Libertadores champion Gremio, a very solid squad with the kind of dynamic midfield that usually gives Real Madrid a lot of trouble. With the team more used to the environment in Abu Dhabi and a similar focus to that they’ve shown in previous finals, Real Madrid should win this one, especially because Gremio’s most promising player, Arthur, is out injured. But you never know in these tournaments, and if Zidane’s forwards keep squandering chances like they did vs Al Jazira, anything is possible.
Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 52/110 (47%)
Note: Copy this easy summary to write your own quiniela and share it with us in the “Comments’ section.
1. Sevilla (5th) vs Levante (15th):
2. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) vs Real Sociedad (10th):
3. Eibar (13th) vs Valencia (2nd):
4. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) vs Alavés (18th):
5. Girona (9th) vs Getafe (7th):
6. Celta (11th) vs Villarreal (6th):
7. UD Las Palmas (20th) vs Espanyol (16th):
8. Barcelona (1st) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (17th):
9. Málaga (19th) vs Betis (12th):
10. Leganés (8th) vs Real Madrid (4th):
(All kick-off times are CET)