Atletico out of the Champions League, now playing the mighty Copenhagen in the Europa League. Real Sociedad out of the Europa League. Villarreal following suit. Athletic barely qualifying, and giving all the signals of not progressing any further than this. Sevilla impressing against Manchester United, but not getting the result they wanted.
Only Real Madrid and Barcelona seem bound to make a decent European campaign, and that assuming that the former can get a result in Paris without Luka Modric and Toni Kroos (a bit of a huge assumption).
Is the Spanish domination of Europe over? It might well be. The loads of cash thrown into the Premier League will have an impact soon in the shape of top talent on and off the pitch. Out of the big duo, the remaining teams will struggle to get the necessary resources to compete every year, leaving aside the odd squad that could impress every once in a while.
If La Liga does not boost its revenue and reviews its split, Europe will become again a dream for a very few privileged teams, just like it was decades ago. It was fun while it lasted.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Deportivo de La Coruña (19th) vs Espanyol (16th): 2. (Fri, 21:00)
A depressing match indeed. Neither team currently play decent football; one could even say they don’t play football at all. Indeed, this is the worst Depor side in ages, while Espanyol’s manager Quique Sanchez has recognised that his side has reached its lowest point of the season, just when he thought it should be playing its best football. In any case, the visitors have a much more consistent line-up, defend A LOT better (32 goals conceded versus 53 in Depor’s case) and have the kind of experienced side that can get a result now that they do need one. I’ll be shocked if Depor ends up avoiding relegation at the end of the season.
- Celta (11th) vs Eibar (7th): X. (Sat, 13:00)
Only three points separate these teams, but such a small quantitative difference makes the hosts’ campaign feel as a bit of a failure so far, whereas the visitors surely did not expect such a high ranking in week 25. The fact is that Eibar, who gave Barcelona a run for their money last weekend, are quite solid and at times even entertaining, while Celta tend to be very entertaining and only at times a bit solid. This column does prefer the former profile for the teams it roots for, but in this case we’ll go for a draw. Eibar play better football at their own turf, and Celta improve slightly when they’re supported by their own.
- Real Madrid (3rd) vs Alavés (15th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
Zinedine Zidane’s been out of character in the last week. First, he publicly criticised Gareth Bale after the victory against Betis. “He played his own match”, he said about the Welshman, in what’s probably his first direct attack to one of his players one can remember in two years. Not even Benzema’s most unimpressive matches have deserved Zidane’s public derision, so this is a remarkable development that, according to Marca, could very well end up with the Welshman away from Madrid in the summer.
In midweek at Leganes, he had Dani Ceballos warm up for 30 minutes in the second half only to get him in when there were 29 seconds left. Zidane apologised during the press conference – “No player likes to run around for 30 seconds, that was my mistake” – but such a careless management of the squad and its motivation probably marks the difference between last season’s Zidane – and the atmosphere within the squad – and this season.
That said, Real Madrid have recovered some of the swagger they had last year. At least, they have started to play decent football for more than half an hour, and they have progressively improved their performance in second halves. The loss of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will be sorely felt in Paris in a fortnight, but for the meantime this obvious renaissance of the team should be enough to defeat the inspired, but short in talent Alaves. If you haven’t followed the team from Vitoria this season and have nothing to do on Saturday, don’t miss this match. You’ll be surprised with the talent of Alfonso Pedraza or Tomas Pina (former Villarreal). Munir El Haddadi is out suspended, unfortunately.
Zidane will probably field a side to prepare for the PSG tie, so expect a 4-4-2 with Casemiro, Kovacic, Vazquez and Asensio for a good stretch of the match. With both sides free of pressure, this should be a fun, open contest.
- Leganes (13th) vs UD Las Palmas (18th): X. (Sat- 18:30)
Under coach Paco Jemez, Las Palmas have starred in a few terrible performances, but even this reluctant scribe, a fierce critic of the coach and his gung-ho approach to possession football, has to admit that they’ve improved. They were miserably robbed of a point last weekend against Sevilla, but have crawled to the 18th position, and now are only two points away from salvation.
Almost free from relegation concerns, Leganes have lost some of the spark they’d shown this season, something to be expected with such remarkable budget limitations. Having played in midweek against Real Madrid, it’s reasonable to expect that a highly stressed Las Palmas will get a result in the outskirts on Madrid. Some betting men would even favour a visitors’ win, but in our case a draw in the narrow Leganes pitch sounds like the safe option.
- Barcelona (1st) vs Girona (8th): X. (Sat- 20:45)
Last Tuesday in London, Barcelona presented us with another trademark performance of the Valverde era. Ball possession, control of the match, high press and a goal exactly when they needed one. The zealots of the Barcelona creed keep questioning the coach’s decisions, as he’s too conservative for them and not keen enough on the current youth teams’ production. But he’s taken a team that lost Neymar with no decent replacement – expensive as Dembele was – and has built a very solid machine that, even if they concede a few chances, never seem to lose control of any match. That competitiveness is currently second to none in Europe, and the reason behind the team’s success so far.
Is it boring? I don’t think Valverde cares that much. That said, they host a dangerous Girona on Saturday, and off the hangover of such a demanding match, Valverde may rest some starters (he didn’t last weekend) and the visitors may pick up a point.
- Villarreal (6th) vs Getafe (9th): 2. (Sun – 12:00)
What the hell happened to Villarreal? Well, they won at the Bernabeu in mid January, which got them in such a positive mood that they easily disposed of Levante and Real Sociedad afterwards. At that point, they were fighting Real Madrid over the fourth spot – mind you, Champions League football next season. But then they suddenly felt Carlos Bacca’s obvious physical decline and Cedric Bakambu’s departure to China, and haven’t won a single match since. This not only meant to definitely lose the fourth spot battle, but also to crash out of the Europa League, which indeed was a huge disappointment.
Getafe can make the most of that frustrating feeling, climb a couple of spots in the standings and get just two points behind the tired hosts.
- Athletic de Bilbao (14th) vs Málaga (20th): X. (Sun – 16:15)
The unfortunate news of the week was the invasion of Bilbao by Spartak Moscow fans, plus the horrible sequence of street fights between them and Athletic’s section of radical fans. We saw such deplorable scenes that the match almost lost its meaning. Trouble aside, if we judge by current shape, it was almost a miracle that Athletic made the next round, because they’ve been quite disappointing this season. Funnily enough, they face bottom-of-the-table Málaga, so this could be a new beginning for Athletic… or the nail in the coffin of their La Liga season. Hard to predict which of the two will play worse, so we’ll assume they both will be terrible and will end up drawing.
- Valencia (4th) vs Real Sociedad (12th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Hadn’t really thought of this until I saw this fixture, but Real Sociedad are a poor, slower, less physical version of Valencia. Of course, the hosts play more direct football, but they’re built similarly with more talent in each position. Real Sociedad won’t reach certain balance until coach Eusebio realizes that their midfield demands a ball winner, even if the player in question has no idea of what to do with the ball. Valencia do have a fantastic ball winner in Geoffrey Kondogbia, and he does know what to do with the ball. Valencia’s wingers are faster, their forwards more clinical, their bench deeper… Only a remarkable performance by the visitors could see them win, and just a couple of days after their elimination from the Europa League, that just does not seem very likely.
- Sevilla (5th) vs Atletico de Madrid (2nd): X. (Sun – 20:45)
Still taken by the hype of their great performance against Manchester United, but a bit frustrated by David de Gea’s outstanding evening, Sevilla host Atleti, one of the biggest, but lesser known rivalries in La Liga. A recent survey among Atletico de Madrid fans asked them which team they wanted the least to win the Copa del Rey final at their own Wanda stadium. The options, obviously, were Barcelona and Sevilla, and Atleti supporters overwhelmingly chose Sevilla.
There’s bad blood between both teams, so it’s safe to bet on a high intensity match, plenty of flying tackles and bookings galore. I’ll go for a draw, simply because neither team have been inspired in front of goal, and also because that intensity is usually not good for high scoring matches.
The controversy of the week for Atletico has to do with a previously unthinkable war between Fernando Torres and Diego Simeone. Some have compared their disagreements with the Casillas – Mourinho war in Real Madrid’s dressing room, a sequence of episodes that hurt them both beyond what’s reparable to the eyes of most club supporters. Apparently, Simeone got tired of listening to Torres’ agent and friends complain about his lack of playing time and wants the forward out in June. Can this end well? I’ll vouch for Torres to make a sensible move sooner rather than later.
- Levante (17th) vs Betis (10th): 2. (Mon-21:00)
Still not consistent defensively, at least now Betis can play from the back with some accuracy, which has improved their game quite noticeably. Levante are walking briskly towards the relegation zone to the tune of one win in their last nineteen matches, and there are no signs of a reaction from the team or its coach, who amazingly enough is still in a job. This could well be his last match with Levante.
Last week: 7/11 (63%). (Includes the Leganés – Real Madrid correct result from matchday #16)
Season: 83/180 (46%)
- Deportivo de La Coruña (19th) vs Espanyol (16th):
- Celta (11th) vs Eibar (7th):
- Real Madrid (3rd) vs Alaves (15th):
- Leganes (13th) vs UD Las Palmas (18th):
- Barcelona (1st) vs Girona (8th):
- Villarreal (6th) vs Getafe (9th):
- Athletic de Bilbao (14th) vs Malaga (20th):
- Valencia (4th) vs Real Sociedad (12th):
- Sevilla (5th) vs Atletico de Madrid (2nd):
- Levante (17th) vs Betis (10th):