Since Neymar left Barcelona, Ernesto Valverde has progressively evolved towards a 4-4-2 formation that now seems untouchable, with Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in the centre of midfield. Azulgrana purists complain around the world, shaking their heads in disbelief, but the team defends better than many of its previous versions, and its results are impeccable so far.
In previous seasons an outspoken fan of the BBC, Zinedine Zidane has forgotten the 4-3-3 formation the trio demanded; in several key matches this and last season, including the recent trip to Paris, he’s used a very classic 4-4-2 that took care of matters easily versus PSG’s 4-3-3.
And we don’t need to speak of Diego Simeone, addicted to the 4-4-2 as a matter of principle.
Is the 4-4-2 coming back? One would think so, but let’s watch another week of Champions League to analyse the final eight teams and see if this Spanish throwback trend makes it to Europe.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Girona (7th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (19th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
Girona are quite close to finishing the season as the best debutant ever in La Liga. They’re unbeaten at home since the beginning of December, riding the impressive form of both journeyman Cristhian Stuani and Cristian Portugués, “Portu”, plus making the most of a compact unit who work very well together. Since January they’ve added Honduras’ forward Choco Lozano, who also looks quite good at football. Indeed, there is more than Manchester City’s cash when it comes to Girona, although it obviously helps.
At the end of Friday, they should be one step closer to achieving that record, as the 2nd worst visitor in La Liga – and the second worst team in the standings – will pay a visit to the now intimidating Montilivi stadium. Depor have only one point to their name in their last eight trips, with a depressing four goals scored versus 27 conceded. The arrival of Clarence Seedorf has not changed the terrible performance of the team, and even though this column usually enjoys his blunt press conferences, the Dutch coach has started to sound slightly delusional: “We’re on the right track”, he said after they tied their home match against Eibar last weekend. One wonders where that track will lead.
- Eibar (8th) vs Real Madrid (3rd): X. (Sat, 13:00)
The visitors come off a huge Champions League win in Paris. For a change, last week this column got Zinedine Zidane’s intentions right for that match, as the French manager applied the results of his tests in the previous weeks to the line-up at the Parc des Princes. It worked very well, and it’s fair to recognise his merit – and of course, that of his players.
Back to La Liga, it’s easy to imagine that Zidane will rotate, and that the team will take things easy on an inhospitable pitch against a hungry Eibar, who are quite close to reaching a Europa League spot next season. The hosts had a very rough beginning of the season, but their last three months have been impeccable. Hats off for club management, who could have easily fired coach Mendilibar but decided against it in October and November. Now they’re getting their faith repaid. This Eibar and its high pressing, offside traps, and the excellent use of free agents and loanees, has a lot to do with its manager. Rumour has it that a couple of bigger clubs are already considering Mendilibar as their coach next season. Let’s see if Eibar can retain him.
- Sevilla (5th) vs Valencia (4th): 2. (Sat, 16:15)
The visitors had a slight slump in form a month ago, but now they’re back in the groove. Four wins and a draw in their last five, with Zaza back in the scoresheet, looks like the kind of form that you want for the last quarter of the season. They also have an advantage over hosts Sevilla: no midweek distractions in the shape of Manchester United for them, but an absolute focus on La Liga.
This will also be the comeback of Geoffrey Kondogbia to the Sanchez Pizjuán stadium, where he played for Sevilla in 2012-13. It was yet another master move by Sevilla’s former football director, the great Monchi, who bought the Frenchman for 3Mn to sell him for 20Mn just 13 months later. Kondogbia now looks in optimal shape, so one of the most attractive aspects of this must-see match will be the midfield struggle between himself and Daniel Parejo versus Steve N’Zonzi and Ever Banega. It doesn’t get much better than that if you enjoy top-level midfield play.
I tend to favour the visitors because they can give their all without thinking of United on Tuesday, but the Sevilla stadium won’t make things easy for Valencia. By the way, visitors’ coach Marcelino has never won at the Sanchez Pizjuán…
- Getafe (11th) vs Levante (17th): 2. (Sat- 18:30)
At this stage of the season, weird results start to happen, and this may well be one of them. Getafe have done their homework and can easily let themselves go for the rest of the season, while Levante, with a new coach who is also a club member, must die in every tackle if they want to avoid relegation.
I know this is especially counter-intuitive, as Getafe have not lost at home since mid-October (vs Real Madrid), but believe me, this is a “2”. You’ll thank me later.
- Málaga (20th) vs Barcelona (1st): X. (Sat- 20:45)
Ernesto Valverde has not rotated much so far this season, but this match seems like the wet dream of a rotation-intensive manager:
b) They face bottom-of-the-table Malaga;
c) They need to save as much energy as possible to host Chelsea on Wednesday.
All this leads me to believe that Lucas Digne will start on Saturday evening, and when that happens Barcelona tends to draw winnable matches. All the rest is contingent.
(Ok, one more thing that should not go unmentioned: last Sunday, Marca published a piece titled “No one believes in Jose Gonzalez”, referring to Malaga’s troubled coach. Could also be the title of a Vargas Llosa novel, located in a tropical country ready to depose its dictator, but the fact is that I can’t remember a more brutal Marca piece about a coach who is still in his job).
- Espanyol (15th) vs Real Sociedad (12th): 2. (Sun – 12:00)
The hosts have drawn five of their last six, and in the three-point era – note for the youngsters: at some point a victory would only give the winning team two points – draws are almost useless. The visitors, close to a serious crisis at a couple of instances in the season, have saved face with a few wins. Now, both teams have almost nothing to play for, a context in which the visitors should be the better team. Real Sociedad play better when they are free of pressure, can take offensive risks and trust their goalie, and all those three factors will happen on Sunday.
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Celta (9th): 1. (Sun – 16:15)
On the 17th of May 2014, Atleti won La Liga with a draw at the Camp Nou. They started trailing, scored off a corner kick through Diego Godin right after halftime, and from that point they carefully managed the result with no major concerns as Barcelona failed to find the opening they needed, leaving aside Messi’s goal ruled out for offside. A draw was enough for Atleti, and that’s what they got.
That seems to have been Simeone’s playbook for any major match or tournament final after that. Lisbon, Milan, or the Camp Nou last weekend show his belief that when keeping things tight at the back, they will get the goal they need sooner or later. Rather than going for the jugular, he speculates with conservative line-ups or even more conservative substitutions, conveying to his team a questionable message: that winning depends more on a powerful defence and a single, well-executed set-piece than on their own attitude to win the match outright from the initial whistle.
That was obvious last weekend in Barcelona. Atleti arrived in their best shape of the season in offensive terms, hungry and fit. The Azulgranas hadn’t played their best football in recent matches, but know too well how to keep things calm until Messi or Suarez punish the opposition. Unless you take things to their own half, you’re dead meat sooner or later.
Yet again, Simeone chose to leave things to fate and speculate with the most defensive four-man midfield imaginable to start the match. Once again, it did not work. Atleti effectively gave away the first half, and had a mountain to climb after halftime, facing a team that now manages results as well as Atleti themselves. Regardless of the result, it was the wrong game-plan.
The Rojiblancos will show up on Sunday, of course. Simeone’s Atleti always do after a defeat. But it’s a shame that the great Argentinean manager did not dare to dream that his best chance at the Camp Nou was to beat Barcelona at their own game.
- UD Las Palmas (18th) vs Villarreal (6th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
The visitors have been defeated in four of their last six, losing steam when they looked bound to mount a challenge for the fourth spot. Now I’d be surprised if they keep that sixth spot, as their short bench and diminishing morale start taking their toll. Even this column’s favourite, Rodrigo, gave away a goal last weekend, with a botched pass so uncharacteristic of him that one wonders if he already imagines himself moving from Villarreal, aka midfielders’ paradise, to Atleti, where he’ll run and run and run and, at some point, will see some form of the ball. The Madrid media think he will end up at the Wanda. We shall see.
Las Palmas keep improving, even if their results at times disappoint. They lack a high-quality player, so they can’t mimic the fantastic moves of Iago Aspas that led to their defeat last weekend in Vigo. However, they are a much better team than they were before Paco Jemez. They must take advantage of the ailing Villarreal to make a real statement in their fight to avoid relegation.
- Athletic de Bilbao (14th) vs Leganes (13th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
I’ve spent the season speaking terribly of Athletic and their coach Ziganda, and even though they play awful football, they’ve won much more often than I expected them to. Therefore, I’ll keep on writing about their lack of a plan, the bizarre line-ups and the even more bizarre substitutions, but I’ll tip them to win.
That said, if they can score against Leganés, even if the visitors look a bit off lately, I’ll be shocked.
I know, I make no sense, but Athletic don’t either.
- Alavés (16th) vs Betis (10th): 1. (Mon-21:00)
Last seven matches of Alavés at home: six wins, one draw. They sit in 16th position, but they’re 10 points clear of the 17th spot. In short, that home streak has saved their season. Now they can celebrate with another victory against Betis, who at this point sound more focused on signing players for the next season that on trying to climb to a Europa League spot. Among the supposed targets of Betis are the talented Inui (Eibar) and Pau Lopez, Espanyol’s solid reserve keeper. At some point last week, some Portuguese media sparked the rumour that Iker Casillas himself could end up playing for Betis next to Antonio Adan. Would have been a nice reunion, only lacking Jose Mourinho on the bench to form the perfect trio.
Last week: 6/10 (60%).
Season: 94/200 (47%)
- Girona (7th) vs Deportivo de La Coruña (19th):
- Eibar (8th) vs Real Madrid (3rd):
- Sevilla (5th) vs Valencia (4th):
- Getafe (11th) vs Levante (17th):
- Málaga (20th) vs Barcelona (1st):
- Espanyol (15th) vs Real Sociedad (12th):
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Celta (9th):
- UD Las Palmas (18th) vs Villarreal (6th):
- Athletic de Bilbao (14th) vs Leganes (13th):
- Alavés (16th) vs Betis (10th):