If you follow La Liga, during the week you’ve probably read a few comments about the death of Enrique Castro, ‘Quini’, a Spanish football legend who played for Sporting de Gijón and Barcelona in the 70s and 80s. He’s one of the first Barcelona players I can remember as a kid, a fast and skilled striker who always looked a bit too old to perform as well as he did on the pitch.
One of the most striking things about Quini’s death is that it’s impossible to hear anybody speak negatively about him. Don’t think that this happens because he belongs to a more polite era in which twitter hadn’t been invented. Back then, the vitriol already existed, but manifested itself in different ways. The fact is that Quini left this world like a true gentleman. The story of his kidnapping told by Sid Lowe shows how easy-going he was, and the fact that he forgave his captors AND rejected the cash compensation he was entitled to receive from them speaks volumes about his character. One thing Sid forgets to mention is that, kidnapped for a month and all, he won the top scorer title that season in both La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
Two more things about Quini and we’ll start. One, a quick summary of Diego Armando Maradona’s description of him as a player: “When he hit the ball left footed, did it like the best leftie. When he hit it right-footed, like the best right-footed player. And was always in the best position to head home”.
And the second, a story told by Francesc Serra: already 20 years into retirement, working as Sporting’s match representative, he was watching the starting striker practise his (poor) finishing. At some point, Quini got tired, jumped on the pitch (suit, tie and leather shoes), got the striker out of the way and started finishing the crosses himself. Every strike, the ball went in. “This is the way you do it, man”, he uttered almost out of breath, the point blatantly obvious without the comment.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Villarreal (6th) vs Girona (8th): X. (Fri, 21:00)
On just ONE day rest – they played and lost at Eibar on Wednesday – Villarreal must host the biggest surprise of the tournament, Girona. The locals have lost steam and seem to be dying for the season to finish exactly as things are right now, while Girona, free from relegation and playing on house (or City’s) money, can dream of Europe. It’s a great opportunity for the visitors to get closer to the top six, and if you want to take a risky bet, a “2” is not unthinkable here. I’ll vouch for Villarreal to at least find some energy and get a point on Friday.
- Sevilla (5th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (12th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
At different levels, both teams are having similar seasons. Inconsistent, alternating shocking defeats with a few decent results in a row and hanging onto their European competition with better results than their domestic ones. Can’t see Athletic getting a point in Sevilla, especially with Nolito and Joaquin Correa improving in shape recently.
- Leganes (16th) vs Málaga (20th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
What a terrible month of February for Leganés! Two points out of five matches send them down to the bottom half of the table, as the team looks tired beyond belief. With such a short squad, it was to be expected at some point, but coach Garitano must be frustrated with the recent performances of Lega. Their last defeat at the Wanda showed how their defence had lost its brutal intensity of the end of last year, although they faced probably the sharpest team in La Liga right now.
That said, all you need to put a smile on your face is for the kind Malaga to pay you a visit. They haven’t won since the 10th of December, which means that after defeating Real Sociedad in San Sebastian they have lost eight times, drawing twice. A disheartening season for the Malacitanos who, as is usually the case in these runs of form, don’t even get a minimal break of luck when they play better than their usual.
In Malaga’s last defeat, at home to Sevilla in midweek, we also witnessed the unusual decision of their coach to replace a player after 34 minutes of the first half. Recent signing Isaac Success (great name), hardly looking in match shape, left the pitch in slow motion, which only increased the boos from Malaga’s supporters. With 16 goals scored in 26 matches, the Sheik should have invested more cash in strengthening the forward line, but as tough as this sounds with 12 matches left, they look done.
- Deportivo de La Coruña (19th) vs Eibar (7th): 2. (Sat- 18:30)
And speaking of looking done, here’s Deportivo. They last won the same weekend that Malaga got their last victory, and they’ve followed a similar path since then: seven defeats, three draws. However, despite their five-point advantage over the Andalusians, they look even less convincing on the pitch, especially because their defensive line is by far the worst in La Liga with 56 goals conceded. Anyone can score against Deportivo (four clean sheets in 26 matches).
In normal circumstances this would be a match to go for a home win, but this is the worst Depor one can remember facing, and one of the best Eibars ever. And now with Pedro Leon back, they look a lot more menacing in attack. Easy ‘2’.
- Real Madrid (3rd) vs Getafe (10th): 1. (Sat- 20:45)
Real Madrid’s last warmup match before the huge trip to Paris will allow Zinedine Zidane to keep testing options for his line-up next Tuesday. He’s been doing so in the last few matches, with uneven results and the complete ignorance of the Madrid media, who still believed that the Frenchman was trying to win La Liga, when he was just weighing his alternatives to cover for the recent series of injuries.
It’s quite evident that Zidane will start with a four-man midfield, using Mateo Kovacic and Casemiro as defensive midfielders. On the wings, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio should start, with Gareth Bale and Cristiano upfront.
For this Saturday’s match, and having rested a few players in the defeat in Cornella, I would not be surprised if Zidane starts exactly that team from midfield up, and then makes adjustments (Isco, Benzema) as the match progresses. Even though the news about Marcelo and Modric is promising, I don’t think Zidane will use them on Saturday, and if they play in Paris they will do so coming off the bench.
Getafe are terrible travellers, but given their consistent season they can go to the Santiago Bernabeu and enjoy a fun night and even bother Real Madrid a bit. However, it’s hard to see them getting a result on Saturday.
- Levante (17th) vs Espanyol (13th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
This season, Espanyol have defeated Barcelona (Copa del Rey), Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid (in La Liga). Very impressive credentials, with one caveat: all of those victories happened at home. In fact, the reason why Espanyol’s season has not been more successful in La Liga is that they have won only one away match, a terrible record that only relegation teams and Getafe can match. If we add the traditional simmer-down effect after their win vs Real Madrid, it’s almost a given that they won’t win on Sunday.
Not that Levante are threatening hosts, with two wins at home so far. However, they’ve been fooling around for too long and they now play for their lives. Las Palmas just caught them in the standings and anything other than a win against Espanyol could come back to haunt them at the end of the season.
- Barcelona (1st) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd): X. (Sun – 16:15)
The best Atletico de Madrid of the season is the only hope for us “neutrals” – allow me the travesty – to watch an entertaining last third of the tournament. If the in-shape Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann take the Camp Nou by storm, only two points will separate both teams, something unthinkable only a month ago. Even though Atletico have sold most of their bench – Nicolás Gaitán and Yannick Carrasco left for China this week –, their starters look as solid as ever. The most telling evidence is Koke, who seems revived now that he’s got Costa up front, but the rest of the team also looks invigorated and back to their old aggressive, ambitious ways.
The problem is that they face a Barcelona side that has become a master in the art of cooking matches. Especially against top-level opposition, they move the ball around, never get stressed, wait for their chance and usually punish any mistakes as their rivals lose concentration in the second half. The addition of Paulinho gives them muscle and stamina to use in midfield, while the silky touches appear whenever Iniesta gets involved. On top of that, it’s highly unlikely that Lucas Digne starts on Saturday, so that’s always a plus for Barcelona.
The match will be decided in midfield: Atletico’s hard-working line of four with Saul, Koke, Thomas and whoever Simeone adds there (perhaps Gabi, maybe Correa) versus the similar line of four that Valverde will indeed use, and that has made this team so reliable even if the formation does not respect the ideas of some rigid Barcelonistas.
Tactically, it will be a fascinating duel. First vs second, two great tacticians on the bench, both teams’ forwards looking as threatening as ever… Don’t miss it. And yes, it will be a draw.
- Real Sociedad (15th) vs Alavés (14th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
In one of the most statistically unexpected results I can remember, Real Sociedad and Betis starred in a stalemate last Thursday. This was almost impossible to imagine: in 25 matches, Real Sociedad had scored or suffered a total of 94 goals, almost four per match! In Betis case, just one less, 93. And then they play against each other and end up 0-0. That’s why we love football, or at least we do when we don’t lose money because of these aberrations.
The good news for Real Sociedad is that they’ve kept two clean sheets in the last three matches, something that had not happened before this season. The signing of Atletico’s sub keeper Moya is a huge addition, as it’s probably much better than the starter and now injured Rulli. Even if they’re far away from European football spots, this end of the season should see a more solid Real Sociedad.
Alavés, now free of trouble, can enjoy this short trip to San Sebastian, where they arrive one point above Real Sociedad. Should be a fun one to watch, weather permitting.
- Valencia (4th) vs Betis (9th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
When these two teams played back in October, the final result was 6-3 to Valencia. Since then, a few things have changed: Betis can now defend at an acceptable level, especially because they lose the ball a lot less often in their own half, while Valencia’s offensive routines are better known in La Liga and they are struggling to score as much. The Valencianistas have only scored three times or more once in their last thirteen matches. Therefore, one does not expect goals galore, but a rather interesting tactical battle between two styles that are usually entertaining. Valencia’s forwards will prevail, but won’t be easy.
- Celta (11th) vs UD Las Palmas (18th): 1. (Mon-21:00)
Paco Jemez’s Las Palmas hit rock bottom in mid-January, when they lost 6-0 to Girona. After that, their results have been decent: a couple of home wins, a few draws here and there… and then they tied against Barcelona. For the first time since one can remember, a Jemez team did not throw the match against the Azulgrana by committing suicide with their back four in midfield. Las Palmas played intense football, and obviously had the lucky breaks every small teams need when facing Messi & co.
Celta await in Vigo to kill their excitement with a dull, 1-0 win on Monday.
Last week: 5/10 (50%).
Season: 88/190 (46%)
- Villarreal (6th) vs Girona (8th):
- Sevilla (5th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (12th):
- Leganes (16th) vs Málaga (20th):
- Deportivo de La Coruña (19th) vs Eibar (7th):
- Real Madrid (3rd) vs Getafe (10th):
- Levante (17th) vs Espanyol (13th):
- Barcelona (1st) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
- Real Sociedad (15th) vs Alavés (14th):
- Valencia (4th) vs Betis (9th):
- Celta (11th)vs UD Las Palmas (18th):