I’m sure we all agree: one of the most frustrating aspects of modern football is the development of a generation of players and coaches trained to say absolutely nothing during an interview. Able to speak like politicians, they avoid anything remotely similar to uttering a real opinion about other teams, teammates, coaches and anything that could somehow get them into trouble.
In many cases, that trend has fred us from listening to plenty of nonsense, granted. But it obviously makes debates about the game more and more rare. It’s infrequent to hear a footballer speak about the way he understands football like Xavi Hernandez usually does, or especially in the depth he did in one recent interview for El Pais. Of course, he’s Xavi, and he could not help himself when discussing Diego Simeone or Real Madrid: some of his takes are as biased as expected (incidentally, I’ve never seen the Bernabeu support a centre-back who got rid of the ball under pressure, like he states).
The most interesting bits of the interview, though, have to do with the skills that Xavi believes good players should have, or the kind of focused training that top-level coaches use now for the different positions on the pitch. His football talk is indeed engaging, even if you disagree with bits of it; he speaks with the conviction of the believer, and argues some of his points in a way that if you enjoy football and can see beyond partisan positions, you should feel happy of having read the interview.
However, we’ve immediately seen why most players avoid this type of exchanges. The emphasis of most media on the controversial parts of Xavi’s speech and the almost complete absence of pieces discussing the really interesting stuff makes it difficult to imagine Xavi ever going that deep again on a similar public expression of his football convictions, and prevents other players from doing likewise.
Another instance that take us again to that place I personally fear: do we have the media we deserve? If that’s the type of stuff we pay attention, I fear that the answer is yes.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Getafe (11th) vs Málaga (19th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
Michel’s latest signing tell a story of desperation: Alberto Bueno has reinforced Malaga after two seasons in which he’s played a total of 16 matches, scoring just once. Loved the kid when he starred for Rayo Vallecano, where he had two outstanding seasons, but the signing feels a bit short for the worst scoring team of La Liga.
With 11 points out of the last 54, Malaga’s management seem keener on changing all 23 players than on firing the coach. Can’t see a single reason why the visitors would get a result versus the disciplined Getafe.
2. Girona (13th) vs UD Las Palmas (20th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
One of the most awaited comebacks of La Liga: Paco Jemez is among us again, to coach probably the team that best fits his profile. The combination of Jemez and this version of Las Palmas could generate the first team to concede more than 110 goals in a season.
That said, Jemez is well aware of his team’s issues. He does not follow Zidane’s rule of always defending his players in public, so he gave a quite direct presser after Las Palmas 4-0 defeat in Valencia for the Copa del Rey: “Our defence is not a La Liga defence. If we don’t fix this, we’ll end up relegated. We lack resources and talent to face teams like Valencia”.
Girona may not be Valencia, but they know how to punish bad teams.
3. Real Madrid (4th) vs Villarreal (6th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
I can’t remember a single domestic season in which every Real Madrid match at home felt like a huge challenge for the hosts. Well, this half-season has generated exactly that feeling: Real Madrid’s record at home in La Liga is 5W / 2D (Valencia and Levante) / 2L (Betis and Barcelona), while in the Copa del Rey they have drawn twice to the mighty duo of Fuenlabrada and Numancia.
A lot of analysis has been done regarding the hosts, and it all can be summarised in two words: nothing works. Do you need more detail? The centre-backs can’t defend, the fullbacks look like amateurs, the midfield does not contend or build, the strikers can’t score and nothing valuable comes off the bench. On the sidelines, the coach looks helpless while the team collectively performs a slow hara-kiri, one match at a time.
Team and coach had a long chat on Tuesday to fix what was wrong. The subsequent Copa match against Numancia showed no evolution, but the problem may need more time: this Marca piece shows how the team goes south after the break, a feeling that many of us had based on some specific performances (Barcelona or Celta, for instance), but that now seems more serious than a simple hunch.
Two explanations for this: poor fitness – Zidane himself recognised on Tuesday that he does not simply bench someone who’s not in top shape, another instance in which he still behaves more like a player than like a coach – and motivation / focus. Both things are hard to solve with quick measures, but the fastest is obviously to start those in best shape. Will Zidane do that on Saturday? Coaches tend to resort to the tried and tested under fire, and Zidane’s preferences are quite clear right now, but I expect him to try something new against Villarreal.
This match will also test the visitors’ ambition. A win in Madrid would see them one point behind Real Madrid, really challenging for the fourth spot. Of course, they come off a hectic Copa del Rey match in Leganes, and will sorely miss the intimidating, China-bound Cedric Bakambu, but given how Real Madrid look right now, they have a unique chance of making a statement.
Still, I feel the hosts will react. Time will tell if it’s just a death rattle or a real recovery.
4. Eibar (7th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd): X. (Sat- 18:30)
Phil made a point of it in his latest piece and I wholeheartedly agree with him: The current Atletico looks as intimidating as ever. Not only Diego Costa is back where he left it, but also his comeback has resuscitated the best and the worst of the feared squad that won la Liga at the Camp Nou in 2014. The best bit is their ‘no surrender’ attitude for the full 90 minutes, with such a level of self-confidence and physicality that they make great teams look small. The worst is the whole small-time thug circus surrounding them, as evidenced by Diego Godin asking the Wanda to bully the ref after he had sent off Diego last Saturday.
Their problem is that, like Phil also pointed out, on Saturday they face the most in-shape team in Europe at their own stadium, without the suspended Costa. Since they thrashed Betis 5-0 in mid-November, the hosts have won another five matches and drawn one, and look especially powerful at the Ipurua stadium, where they have scored 14 times in four matches. At different instances of his career, coach Mendilibar has presented us with this type of spells: for a while his teams tend to play very solid, entertaining football, but then they falter, probably because their bench is usually shallow and their resources scarce.
In a very interesting weekend, this is probably the most exciting tactical battle. Do not miss it.
5. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) vs Valencia (3rd): 2. (Sat- 20:45)
After their slump at the end of the year, Valencia have recovered their stamina. No contest here. Depor look terrible.
6. Levante (16th) vs Celta (15th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Neither had a good Copa del Rey last-sixteen round, but Celta’s 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou felt especially bad, one of those losses that could have an impact on the team after their impressive 2-2 draw with Real Madrid last weekend. In Barcelona, Celta looked soft, aloof, slow, something that even this hesitant Levante should take advantage of.
7. Alavés (18th) vs Sevilla (5th): X. (Sun – 16:15)
Both teams undergo such poor runs of shape that I’m sure both coaches would settle for a draw. The beginning of Vincenzo Montella’s tenure with Sevilla has been quite eventful, even including a cameo by Diego Maradona himself.
8. Espanyol (14th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (8th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Both sides have started to show what they can do after quite hesitant spells this season. Espanyol made it to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey on Thursday, while Athletic have gone undefeated for seven matches almost under the radar. Quique Sanchez’s team is solid at home
9. Real Sociedad (12th) vs Barcelona (1st): X. (Sun – 20:45)
Barcelona have not won a La Liga match in San Sebastian since 2007. That is why this game was chosen for the prime time spot, and it’s still a promising encounter even if the hosts have only earned three victories in their last 15 matches.
Coach Eusebio, teammate of Valverde in the Barcelona of the late eighties, knows well how to play against the Azulgrana, and Real Sociedad is one of the very few teams with enough talent and stamina in midfield to make Barcelona’s life difficult.
That said, the hosts’ defence must perform well above what they’ve done so far. If they can disconnect Messi from Alba, they will have accomplished half of their job.
10. Betis (10th) vs Leganés (9th): 1. (Mon-21:00)
Determined to become the Quiniela-Breaker team of the season, Betis keep shocking La Liga as they alternate brutal defeats with memorable wins. Had someone told them that in the first half of the season they’d win at the Bernabeu and would score five at the Sanchez Pizjuan, they’d be ecstatic. But the fact is that they have also conceded five at Eibar or six at home to Valencia, so one never knows what to expect.
The only sure thing is that you will watch plenty of goals, even if they play against the solid and conservative Leganes. The visitors just made the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey for the first time in their history, so Betis can probably take advantage of Leganes’ tiredness after an exhausting match at Villarreal to put their name up for a more stable second half of the season.
Last week: 6/10 (60%)
Season: 60/129 (46%)
Note: Copy this easy summary to write your own quiniela and share it with us in the “Comments’ section.
1. Getafe (11th) vs Málaga (19th):
2. Girona (13th) vs UD Las Palmas (20th):
3. Real Madrid (4th) vs Villarreal (6th):
4. Eibar (7th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
5. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) vs Valencia (3rd):
6. Levante (16th) vs Celta (15th):
7. Alavés (18th) vs Sevilla (5th):
8. Espanyol (14th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (8th):
9. Real Sociedad (12th) vs Barcelona (1st):
10. Betis (10th) vs Leganés (9th):
(All kick-off times are CET)