The end of the transfer window in Spain, mostly boring, had nevertheless an intriguing transfer that generated a remarkable domino effect. Pep Guardiola, obviously short for cash and with the firm intention of preventing market inflation at all costs — excuse the pun –, could only find a mere €65 million to buy a central defender.
Rather than going, let’s say, for the cheaper Samuel Umtiti — Pep’s brother Pere has been raiding Barcelona’s youth teams lately, so he probably did not want to make more noise around the Camp Nou –, Pep paid Aymeric Laporte’s full transfer fee, leaving Athletic de Bilbao with a huge gap in the centre of their defence. Laporte (23) started off as a prodigy in 2012, and although he has not progressed much in the last couple of seasons, he’s still class and was a rightful starter in Bilbao.
With that meagre cash, Athletic travelled less than an hour East to San Sebastian and convinced Real Sociedad’s skipper, Iñigo Martinez, who had been playing exactly half of his life for the club — he’s 26 and joined Phil’s team when he was 13 –, to leave for Bilbao. Athletic also paid Martinez’s transfer fee in full (€32 million), breaking their own record in the demanding challenge of throwing money at other club for a player.
In a quick move just hours before the end of the transfer deadline, Real Sociedad reacted and decided to rescue Mexican international Hector Moreno from Roma’s bench for €6 million. Moreno played well for Espanyol between 2011 and 2015, so it looks like a reasonable decision by the Realistas.
Is Moreno (30) worth a tenth of Laporte’s value? Or a fifth of Martinez’s? Youth is a huge factor in the centreback position, and if well directed, both Laporte and Martinez can have outstanding careers with their respective new clubs. But it’s a sign of the times we live in that almost €100 million were forked out for two central defenders, neither of which were doing particularly well in the last few months, in the space of one day. If the talent to sign and sell has always been extremely valuable, in this inflated market is simply priceless. All teams should be trying to sign Roma’s Monchi.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Real Sociedad (15th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (18th): X. (Fri, 21:00)
Four losses in a row, voices asking for the coach’s head, terrible atmosphere surrounding the team, and then your skipper, the one that promised that he’d never play for Athletic, leaves for Bilbao. To add insult to injury, in his first presser Martinez states that he’s happy to finally make it to a big club.
Even after all that, Real Sociedad are still six points clear of the relegation zone. That is to say, six points above visitors Depor, who have not won in their last six matches. This should be Eusebio’s chance to put the relegation noise to rest once and for all, but I do like Depor’s reinforcements in the window transfer. Boveda and Krohn-Dehli can play, and complement nicely what the visitors have at the moment. A draw will keep things equal between both teams.
- Eibar (8th) vs Sevilla (6th): X. (Sat, 13:00)
New coach Vincenzo Montella appears to have understood how to use Sevilla’s squad a lot better than his predecessor Eduardo Berizzo. The noises from starters and bench players are the right ones, and the new signings in the transfer window also make sense. Roque Mesa (former Las Palmas), Layun and Sandro reinforce each line and will help immensely in the second half of the season.
That said, Eibar is as tough as they get, especially at home. Another draw in the making, although a tactically very interesting one.
- Betis (13th) vs Villarreal (5th): 2. (Sat, 16:15)
Can Betis do something big this season? Of course, they won at the Santiago Bernabeu and scored five in Sevilla’s stadium; both qualify as memorable events. However, this is the moment to show that they can aspire to play in Europe next year. Not defeating Villarreal would leave them condemned to remember two fantastic matches, but not much more about this season.
The problem is, Villarreal look unassailable since mid-December. Three wins away (at Celta, Real Madrid and Valencia, not bad at all) show how well they play with space to counter. Betis’ stadium will give them plenty of that.
- Alaves (17th) vs Celta (7th): 1. (Sat- 18:30)
To state that Alaves are peaking is probably an exaggeration, but the fact is that Abelardo has them playing like they hadn’t at any point of the season, especially at home. Three wins and one draw took them out of the relegation zone, and they even gave themselves the chance to enjoy their visit to the Camp Nou, making Barcelona suffer like few thought they would to earn a win.
Visitors Celta have also found their stride. Four wins and a draw in the last five matches have them right behind Sevilla, close to the European football spots. Even though the Gallegos are more talented, I favour the hosts and their pragmatic coach.
- Levante (16th) vs Real Madrid (4th): 2. (Sat- 20:45)
“Real Madrid in a crisis?”, asked Levante’s coach López Muñiz almost not believing the question. “For them, losing one match already becomes a crisis. I’d love to have a crisis like that every month”. In fact, he’s close to have a weekly crisis himself, as Levante have not won since November. The Granotas have signed seven players to improve their chances of staying up, but the performance of most of these new arrivals is a question mark.
Even if López Muñiz envies Real Madrid’s crisis, January was a month to forget for the Madridistas. A draw in Vigo and the home defeat to Villarreal left them definitely out of the title run, while the Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of Leganes brought back shades of Alcorcon and Manuel Pellegrini.
February needs to be different, and with PSG due to visit the Santiago Bernabeu in just ten days, Zidane’s team need to find their form. Given that the squad’s support to the coach seems evident, Levante should become an easy target.
- Getafe (9th) vs Leganés (11th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
This is probably the most fun derby in La Liga nowadays, at least judging by their supporters. If you are not familiar with Getafe and Leganes, they are neighbouring municipalities in the South of Madrid. Being from the capital myself, I wasn’t aware of the level of despise between them. Former player Caballero, a legend with Getafe, said to El Pais on Thursday that for many years, the derbies “they felt like those Real Madrid vs Barcelona with Mourinho and Guardiola”.
Exaggerations aside, the fact is that only six kilometres separate their respective stadia, so their evolution in the last decade has made them play against each other in pretty much every division in Spanish football, from the Fourth to La Liga this year. “Now we only need to face each other in a European competition”, joked former Leganes player Oscar Fernández on Thursday afternoon.
Some of the spark on the pitch has been lost, as in illo tempore both squads were packed with local players. Now, the foreign legion has taken over, but many members of both squads have already spent a few seasons in Getafe and Leganes and know well the meaning of this match.
In this case, even if the rivalry is huge and the atmosphere is tense, both teams have plenty to celebrate. They occupy positions well above what most of us expected at this point of the season, and only a huge debacle would see them anywhere close to relegation spots. In the transfer window, the hosts added the hot-tempered Loic Remy, who left Las Palmas enraged with coach Paco Jemez.
Despite the importance of this match for the region, Leganes will be thinking of their chance to make it to the Copa del Rey final if they get a result in Sevilla next Wednesday. Even though the visitors’ coach Asier Garitano seems unable to do no wrong lately, Getafe will win this one.
- Espanyol (14th) vs Barcelona (1st): X. (Sun – 16:15)
Similarly to Betis, Espanyol have a few moments to remember this season, such as the home win against Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, but the fact is that their campaign has lacked consistency so far. On Sunday they have the chance to add another memorable result to their season, as Barcelona, on two-day rest, are due to visit Cornella.
It’s hard to imagine that the hosts can repeat the feat of defeating Barcelona again in the same month, but coach Quique Sanchez is a decent strategist and will set up his team so that they bother Barcelona endlessly. Special attention to Gerard Pique, who called Espanyol “the team from Cornella” (a way of calling them a small team) and will have to hear the Periquitos boo him for the whole match. Nothing that he hasn’t dealt with before, obviously.
- Girona (10th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (12th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Both teams feel like they occupy the ranking they deserve, the hosts overachieving and the visitors below their potential and their budget. Coming off three consecutive draws, Athletic could do with some creativity in midfield, but Manchester City’s move forced them to spend some cash on a centreback. They desperately need someone who can feed Aduriz and Williams, dying for decent service.
While that does not happen, I can’t imagine coach Ziganda outsmarting his counterpart Pablo Machin, and that’s what would need to happen for this Athletic to get a result in Girona.
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Valencia (3rd): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
Match of the weekend in its own right, the two distant challengers for the title fight discuss who should finish the season in second position. If Atletico win, they would open a nine-point advantage that would seem almost fatal. A visitors’ victory would put them in striking range of Atletico. However, the hosts have a rested team, as opposed to Valencia, who played an intense and consistent 90 minutes on Thursday at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey semifinal.
It’s a rare instance in which Atletico, plagued by injuries and suspensions all season, might start a very close side to Simeone’s preferred line-up, with the only exception of Filipe Luis. In that case, a home win is the safest bet.
10. Las Palmas (19th) vs Malaga (20th): X. (Mon-21:00)
Monday’s match brings us the delight of watching La Liga’s worst two teams so far. Similarly to Levante, Las Palmas have revamped the team, in this case to fit Paco Jemez’s preferences. Malaga may have been more discreet, but they got Isaac Success from Watford, which sounds like a good luck charm. Success contributed to Granada’s last successful La Liga season, so at least he knows that the stakes are high.
Can’t see any of these two teams playing something remotely consistent with so many new faces, so a draw sounds like a reasonable bet to finish the weekend.
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 69/149 (46%)
- Real Sociedad (15th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (18th):
- Eibar (8th) vs Sevilla (5th):
- Betis (13th) vs Villarreal (6th):
- Alaves (17th) vs Celta (7th):
- Levante (16th) vs Real Madrid (4th):
- Getafe (9th) vs Leganés (11th):
- Espanyol (14th) vs Barcelona (1st):
- Girona (10th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (12th):
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Valencia (3rd):
- Las Palmas (19th) vs Malaga (20th):