There are plenty of interesting story lines this week in La Liga: Clarence Seedorf makes his debut with Deportivo (on the bench, of course); Fernando Torres looks suddenly back in shape; Isco could be on his way out of Real Madrid; the local derby in Valencia should be an extremely intense match to watch; Villarreal could take Real Madrid’s fourth spot if Zidane’s team don’t get their act together.
However, the main story of the weekend is indeed Mr Ball & Señor Alvarez watching a match together at the Santiago Bernabeu. Nothing else can possibly top that.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Athletic de Bilbao (13th) vs Las Palmas (19th): 2. (Fri, 21:00)
“At some point I looked at the standings to see how close to relegation we were”, a close friend and Athletic supporter told me, describing how terrible it was to watch his team methodically dismantled by Girona last weekend. The truth is that, despite a 10-match undefeated streak before this loss, Athletic have rarely played well; their squad is fatally flawed in several positions — Iñigo Martinez’s signing should help in the centre of the defence –, the energy at their own stadium has not been positive and coach Ziganda can’t decide on a consistent formation or a starting eleven on a weekly basis.
The match in Girona was a great example. Martinez, just arrived from San Sebastian and having trained once with his new team mates, started in an unprecedented back-three formation. Yeray Alvarez, just back after defeating cancer for the second time, also started. The lack of coordination in the line of three was predictable, as were Athletic’s difficulties to play from the back.
Ziganda will go back to a more recognizable formation on Friday, resorting among others to keeper Kepa — sounds like a natural –, who’s back after his contract renovation finally resulted in an agreement with Athletic. But San Mames is not enjoying this season, and it’s the kind of pitch in which Paco Jemez usually enjoys taking some risks.
If the hosts score first, this could become a thrashing. However, and despite one’s reservations with the style of Las Palmas’ coach, I see the visitors upsetting Athletic. I would even put some money on that.
- Villarreal (5th) vs Alaves (16th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
Villarreal disappointed against Betis last weekend, while Alaves, well managed by Abelardo, have recovered their good spirits after a remarkable streak at home that suddenly sees them five points clear of relegation. Seem like opposing trends, but the visitors are still terrible away (six points of a possible 30) and Villarreal simply had an off-day.
The hosts will indeed miss suspended midfield Rodri, a favourite of this column, for the first time this season. The young, classy player ranks second in minutes played in La Liga this season, quite an achievement for a 21-year-old playing for a squad with one of the most talented midfields in the tournament. By the way, four squad members of the visiting team have played for Villarreal in previous tournaments: Hernán Pérez (five seasons), Tomás Pina (three), Wakaso Mubarak (two years) and Alfonso Pedraza (on loan, extremely entertaining).
That said, the hosts’ advantage in talent is huge, and Alaves will feel the missed training sessions due to the snow this week. Clear home win.
- Malaga (20th) vs Atletico de Madrid (2nd): 2. (Sat, 16:15)
Last Monday, Malaga proved that under their current configuration they simply can’t compete in La Liga. Even having signed two good omens – at least in the last names department – such as Success and Bueno in the winter transfer window, they have scored only once in their last seven matches, and that obviously spells relegation.
It’s taking Atletico longer than expected to get the most out of their winter signings. While that happens, they have resorted to the tried and tested Fernando Torres, a player whom, even after decades of watching him play, always makes me expect a lot less than what he actually delivers.
In any case, this should be an Atletico feast. They might be lacking creativity in midfield, but Malaga look so weak at this point that the visitors’ intensity should be more than enough.
- Leganes (12th) vs Eibar (7th): X. (Sat- 18:30)
In their own right, this duo are the feel-good stories of the season. Leganes made it to the semis of the Copa del Rey, and fought hard against the wealthier Sevilla after eliminating Real Madrid, while Eibar keep punching well above their weight.
Last week, the visitors destroyed Sevilla at home, which leaves them just one point behind the Sevillistas, who occupy the last European football spot. Eibar have a huge prize before their eyes, but even if Leganes may very well feel the effort and frustration of their Copa elimination, they know how to keep a clean sheet (10 so far this season). Feel-good stories aside, this could be a boring one to watch.
- Real Madrid (4th) vs Real Sociedad (14th): 1. (Sat- 20:45)
There shall be no boredom here. On the pitch, two underperformers who desperately need to put together a decent streak of results if they want to avoid a huge embarrassment – being left out of the Champions League for the hosts, potential relegation for the visitors. Off the pitch, Phil and Ed enjoying their first match together live at the South End of the Santiago Bernabeu.
Yes, I’ve invited Mr Ball to check how football feels from the couple of seats a close friend and I occupy since January 1995. The weather forecast says that it will be extremely cold, to the level that not even the usually potent Bernabeu’s heating will be able to make a difference. However, the footballing menu is great: we can argue about Illarramendi’s softness while the stadium shows him utter indifference, joke about Zinedine Zidane’s predictable substitutions – Lucas Vazquez on in the 70th minute, perhaps? –, or simply count how many people are chewing sunflower seeds at any given moment in the stadium.
I can now announce that we’ll both write our own account of the match, which should be fun. However, the preview is all mine, and I can’t see the mighty Real Sociedad getting a single point on Saturday.
Someone could be misled by their 5-0 win last weekend, leaving Deportivo in a terrible position both mentally and in the standings. But that was the perfect scenario for Real Sociedad: William Jose holding the ball comfortably, Juanmi making runs on both sides, Odriozola with nothing to worry about but going forward…
That won’t happen at the Bernabeu. Even though the hosts are far from in their best shape, a decent Marcelo and a reasonable Gareth Bale should do the trick against the entertaining, but infuriatingly feeble visitors. At least Phil will be able to drown his sorrows in top-level wine after the match.
A little bit off topic: the rumor now has it that Zidane is quite unhappy with Isco’s effort, and that he’s determined to let him go in the summer. This gossip has unleashed a wave against the diminutive midfielder, as though the awful performances this squad has starred in this season were only his responsibility. Never one to fall for Isco’s ball handling skills, this is simply outrageous. Several parties should bear the blame for this fiasco, and that is probably part of the problem.
- Sevilla (6th) vs Girona (9th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Sevilla, on a high after qualifying for their umpteenth final in the last decade, can very well build on what we’ve seen since Vincenzo Montella took over: a born-again Luis Muriel, a more incisive Franco Vazquez and the amazing work-rate and class of Ever Banega and Steve NZonzi. Pablo Sarabia never left, and those five players can manage matches and create chances against pretty much any defence.
Their opposition on Sunday isn’t easy, though. Girona are also on cloud nine, adding one famous win after another in what is indeed a dream debut season in La Liga. How far can they go is the question? At some point they’re bound to take a day off.
- Barcelona (1st) vs Getafe (11th): 1. (Sun – 16:15)
One of Lionel Messi’s preferred victims visits the Camp Nou, which usually means a few outstanding plays by the Argentinean master and at least one absolutely incredible goal. This should be an easy contest for Barcelona, despite their likely tiredness after a very intense Copa del Rey semi-final against Valencia, which finished late Thursday evening.
Barcelona are running away with this title because of their complete focus on the prize and their impressive second half record, similar to that of Real Madrid last season. Valverde’s team have also been outstanding in defence, able to lock down opponents when required, but the real test of focus is the way squads finish matches, and this one does that very well.
If you add that Luis Suarez has progressively increased his output and is now on record numbers, well, it will be a tough afternoon for Getafe.
- Celta (8th) vs Espanyol (15th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Ironically, the team from Cornella, formerly Sarriá – like Gerard Pique, by the way – and indeed Barcelona have had more success playing against giants Barcelona than facing the rest of La Liga teams this season. Given those struggles in the tournament, a visit to a more and more convincing Celta seems a tough trip for coach Quique Sanchez Flores. The Spanish Dr House would probably enjoy a lot mor ofe Unzue’s players than his own squad, despite their unquestionable fighting spirit, but that’s life.
The hosts have finally shown consistency together with the flair we all knew they had. This should be an easy and fun home win.
- Valencia (3rd) vs Levante (17th): X. (Sun – 20:45)
Valencia’s season had been so good until now, whereupon they’ve lost their last three La Liga matches – and their last three Copa del Rey ones, so it’s six defeats in a row – and they still keep the third spot. Luckily for them, Real Madrid and Villarreal haven’t been able to punish that awful streak, but the Valencianistas have burnt their advantage and now desperately need a win to recover their high spirits.
If you watched them against Barcelona on Thursday, you’d be right to wonder what is wrong with Valencia. Even after all those consecutive losses, they play with intensity, have added plenty of talent in the transfer window and have more than enough to get back into contention for the 2nd spot. However, goals have dried out. They could not score against Barcelona in both Copa del Rey matches, and have two goals in their last three La Liga games. Zaza can’t finish, Guedes has not played much and Rodrigo is quickly becoming one of those players that is always a whisker away from doing something memorable.
Of course, they should trounce Levante, but it won’t be easy. While having a very poor year by their own standards, the visitors come off a morale-inspiring draw against Real Madrid, and they tend to increase their already high physicality when they face their neighbours.
I can see this one becoming a very tough contest, with plenty of effort and not many scoring chances. If Valencia can’t find their touch, this could well be a 0-0.
- Deportivo de La Coruña (18th) vs Betis (10th): 2. (Mon-21:00)
The signing of Marc Bartra could finally give Betis something they’ve been lacking: a decent first pass. Every Guardiolista knows that it is a basic feature for a team that wants to play ball possession, and coach Quique Setien has suffered the limitations of his duo of centrebacks and Javi Garcia’s struggle to initiate plays in an accurate way.
Different from the last few weeks, this is an entertaining Monday night match. This column has been reluctant to back Betis for most of the season, but last weekend’s win over Villarreal could represent a new beginning for the White and Green from Sevilla. Next weekend it’s Real Madrid at the Benito Villamarin, so they do need to win at Riazor to get closer to neighbours Sevilla, just three points away, and recover the excitement of European football next season.
“We all look at Seedorf with admiration”, said Adrian about his new coach on Thursday. After his arrival, concepts are thrown around in mindboggling fashion. Apparently, the Dutch maestro is implementing Milanello’s routines (?), changing the formation to reflect Sacchi’s Milan and adding touches of Brazilian influence in the training sessions. The hype is gigantic, but sadly, Depor’s squad is not.
Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 73/159 (45%)
- Athletic de Bilbao (13th) vs Las Palmas (19th):
- Villarreal (5th) vs Alaves (16th):
- Malaga (20th) vs Atletico de Madrid (2nd):
- Leganes (12th) vs Eibar (7th):
- Real Madrid (4th) vs Real Sociedad (14th):
- Sevilla (6th) vs Girona (9th):
- Barcelona (1st) vs Getafe (11th):
- Celta (8th) vs Espanyol (15th):
- Valencia (3rd) vs Levante (17th):
- Deportivo de La Coruña (18th) vs Betis (10th):