Let’s start with a confession: as years add to my odometer, I’m becoming less and less disciplined in terms of watching football live at the stadium. A few years ago, I would not only watch my team’s matches at the Santiago Bernabeu, but would also make the most of every chance to see other teams at their own stadia, regardless of the country I’d be at. Hell, I even went to watch a West Ham vs Man City in a weekend in London – totally deserved the £458 tube trip from the west of London to the West of Ham, or a Aston Villa – Chelsea in which Tore Andre Flo starred — do not recommend Birmingham though. A Southampton vs Wimbledon in which LeTiss scored off a corner kick in a classic winter British afternoon also comes to mind.
In Madrid, plenty of times I’ve watched Real Madrid and Atleti, or Real Madrid and Rayo live in the same weekend, or Sao Paulo and Palmeiras on consecutive days when I lived in Brazil.
Now, it’s hard to deny that staying at home has become an extremely attractive option, as you can watch what took place in the remaining matches of the day without missing a beat, you see the replays of the most controversial moments and you don’t need to deal with the inconveniences of going to the stadium: traffic, logistics, food and, in the case of the Bernabeu, smoke. Yes, in 2018 you’re still allowed to smoke inside the stadium, and people won’t stop even if they see a pregnant woman next to you, as was my case.
However, there is no substitute for a live match at the stadium, and Wednesday was a great example. TV is fantastic, but you really have to see Lopetegui’s Real Madrid at the Bernabeu to be able to compare pretty much the same line-up to last season’s in the way they move, in their positioning, in the handful of the obviously-coached offensive moves. If you add that, after so many years as as socio, you run into friends and you may very well end up dining near the stadium with them, the experience is outstanding. You can even ask a friend to use his picture of the match for the featured image of the post — cheers, Alejandro.
All in all, it’s very, very rare that I regret having gone to a match, and writing these opening paragraphs is a great way to avoid forgetting about it in the future.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Huesca (16th) vs Real Sociedad (13th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
Asier Garitano left Leganes for Real Sociedad and I’m starting to believe that neither team benefited from that decision. After four matches, the team from the South of Madrid struggle in the bottom of the table, while Real Sociedad has made a way of living off the Champagne effect. They start off well every match, score first, look fine and in control, but then surrender unconditionally to all kind of opponents as the second half progresses. My theory is that the squad has not improved over the summer, and the poor shape of some players – Zurutuza is unrecognizable – and injuries to others – William José and Llorente are the most important, but the shocking trauma of seeing Martin Merquelanz break his ligament minutes into his LaLiga debut last weekend hasn’t helped either – will make it very tough for Garitano to steer the boat in the right direction. It’s probably time for Mikel Oyarzabal, who will play his 100th Primera Division match on Friday, to start playing like the star he should be.
Both teams have lost their last two, so this is a must-get-at-least-a-point if they want to avoid the crisis talk next week. I see Huesca more motivated and happy to be in the top flight, and would not be surprised if their small stadium becomes a problem for the talented, but distracted Real Sociedad.
- Rayo Vallecano (18th) vs Alavés (7th): X. (Sat, 13:00)
Of all the wrong results this column forecast last weekend – seven, no less—, Rayo’s away victory was the most surprising. They have had their moments so far, such as their more than decent performance against Atletico. However, if you take a look at the full squad they feel like a mid-table Segunda División outfit, and those teams rarely survive in LaLiga. Can they put together a few solid matches here and there, especially against less disciplined sides? Indeed. Can they remain a LaLiga team next season? I don’t think so.
Back in Vallecas after the controversy over the stadium’s refurbishment finished on Friday, its narrow pitch is great to watch football, but also a fantastic one to defend a 0-0 draw. Alaves know a bit about that, and I would not be surprised if this ends up in a stalemate.
- Celta (3rd) vs Valladolid (19th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
Were Celta this good last season, but former coach Unzue didn’t know how to make the squad work? It could well be the case, but in case you don’t remember we did see excellent performances back then as well. The thing is that they could not keep their best form up for more than a month, and that cost them a few spots in the ranking… and Unzue his job.
I believe they will falter sooner rather than later, but Valladolid, good defenders as they are, don’t look like the right opponents to defeat them, and even less away from home. Iago Aspas is out of reach for the castellanos.
- Eibar (15th) vs Leganés (20th): 1. (Sat- 16:15)
“We’re getting there”, said Eibar’s Paulo Oliveira after his team managed to get a draw at the Wanda. In fact, it was the other way around: Atletico managed to save a point when it looked as though the visitors would take all three to the Basque Country. Eibar looked really good, from their heterodox keeper Dimitrovic to the impressive performance of the Portuguese, and they feel they can turn around the mildly disappointing beginning of the season by defeating farolillo rojo (red lantern) Leganes.
- Getafe (5th) vs Atlético de Madrid (9th): 1. (Sat- 18:30)
This column has backed Atletico for the first four matches and here we are. Only one 1-0 win and three awful draws contemplate us. The buck stops here. Even though the team did look a bit better in their midweek excursion to Monaco, I’m not buying this approach by Simeone until he makes some tough personnel decisions. On Tuesday, he did leave out Lamar, who had plenty of pundits overexcited by his undoubted class, but who does not fit well yet with Atleti’s style: too many risks with the ball, too much dribbling around, a fish out of the water surrounded by Simeone’s diehards.
So let’s back Bordalás Getafe, who have started the season on the right foot. They will need more accuracy in front of goal, but this is a magnificent chance to upset Atleti.
- Real Madrid (2nd) vs Espanyol (4th): 1. (Sat – 20:45)
Wednesday’s convincing home win awakened the Madridistas who still harboured some doubts about Julen Lopetegui and the apparently shallow squad this season. Everyone agreed on something before the new term started: you won’t be able to compensate for Cristiano’s 50 goals, but if every forward chimes in and takes advantage of the void left by the Portuguese striker, the outcome may still be good enough.
And that’s what we’ve seen so far. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema participate much more often than they did last season, Isco and Asensio have performed well, and even Mariano surprised everybody with a cracker against Roma.
But there is something qualitatively different from last season’s team: the side does not disconnect for long spells of the match the way they did in plenty of LaLiga matches. Perhaps a bit earlier than they should, pundits are going on and on about the higher pressure line or the obviously well coached offensive moves, but in my humble opinion the most positive change in this new, but recognizable Real Madrid is their intensity – one of Zidane’s favourite terms –, which makes the opposition’s life a lot more difficult. Ask Roma.
Can they keep this up? I may be exaggerating a bit here, but I believe that it all comes down to Bale. Wednesday’s match was a perfect example of how well a team with Modric, Kroos and Isco can play, and how wasteful they can be without a pure striker like Ronaldo. The Welshman is the piece that can cover for Cristiano’s scoring more often, but he needs to be fit, and every time he stops to fix his boots half of the stadium looks for the closest defibrillator available.
The visitors have shown cohesion, motivation and a decent defensive structure so far, but they should lose big at the Santiago Bernabeu, assuming that we see a similar version to that of Wednesday. And pay attention: Vinicius may have a few minutes.
- Levante (11th) vs Sevilla (12th): 1. (Sun – 12:00)
Smells like a trademark letdown match to me. Sevilla were undergoing a rough spell, which made many of coach Machin’s supporters doubt him. On Thursday, the 5-1 win over Standard Liege alleviated some of that tension, but facing the tricky, artful, rough Levante in Valencia on early Sunday afternoon seems like a tall order for a squad that has not found their right approach yet. I can picture Jose Luis Morales driving the Lenglet-less Sevilla defence a few times…
- Villarreal (14th) vs Valencia (17th): 1. (Sun – 16:15)
A regional derby between two teams that have disappointed many of us so far. They both have a lot more talent and tactical nous than what they’ve displayed in the first four matches of the season. The hosts have struggled at home so far, and their drawn against Glasgow Rangers on Thursday only continued a sequence of poor results at the Ceramica stadium. Both Real Sociedad and Girona have already won there this season.
Valencia aren’t doing much better. The signs are particularly concerning, as not even against a 10-man Juventus for almost an hour did they manage to score. Valencia’s attacking issues – three goals in five matches this season – can hardly be explained by Goncalo Guedes’ late arrival in the team. There’s something else that’s not working the way it did last season. The problem lies in midfield, where Dani Parejo does not look like the influential player of previous years and Kondogbia’s injury is being sorely felt by the team. Coach Marcelino ponders using Carlos Soler as a central midfielder, and the kid did well against Juve, but it does not look like the type of patch that would work at the Ceramica stadium.
Let’s take the home team, hoping that Carlos Bacca misfires a bit less than his current version.
- Betis (10th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (8th): X. (Sun – 20:00)
One goal in five matches so far has fired all the alarms in the hipsters’ team. Ok, that goal was Joaquin’s header vs Sevilla, so it could probably count as two or three, but the fact is that for a squad supposed to be full of offensive flair and addicted to risks, it feels like precious little production. Loren and Sergio León, hard-working and reasonably talented, do not sound like a sufficient threat for a long season full with tactically-savvy teams that simply don’t let the ball get to them.
Athletic, fresh from a very solid performance vs Real Madrid, can make this match a very tough one for Betis. That said, I can’t see them scoring, as both Iker Muniain and Aritz Aduriz are out injured and Iñaki Williams struggles when neither of those two help him out on the pitch. 0-0 would be a decent for the Sunday Night partidazo.
- Barcelona (1st) vs Girona (6th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
The Argentinean star is back in business. Thousands of lines have been written about the differences between Barcelona’s Messi and Argentina’s but having watched him play this summer live in Russia and comparing that timid player with the badass who runs things at the Camp Nou makes me feel that they both belong in different dimensions. Just a couple of months after Argentina were sent back home by France, Messi again looks like the bully of the class, the owner of the ball, and entitled to make the other team look like amateurs. His match against PSV was another gem; when he plays as fresh and focused as he does right now, it’s just a question of enjoying his class and not thinking much more about his struggle with Argentina.
Get ready for the upcoming soap opera in Barcelona: Valverde’s contract expires at the end of this season, and neither party have made any moves to start talks about it. The aftermath of the Champions League elimination in Rome last season left some scars on Valverde, who saw president Bartomeu openly questioning his decision-making in the media. This season, Valverde has stuck to the same approach of scarce rotations which some players, such as Luis Suarez, blame as a guilty element in their terrible performance in Rome. On top of that, the club has not paid any attention to the coach’s priorities in the offseason, and the man who brought him to Barcelona, Robert Fernandez, has left the club.
Assuming that no other coach than Pep Guardiola will ever be good enough for the die-hard Barcelona fans, I am not sure there is an alternative better than Valverde on the market right now, someone who commands the respect of the dressing room and deals as subtly as he does with the never-ending amount of complex situations that coaching Barcelona entails. Time will tell.
Last week: 3/10 (30%)
Season: 15/39 (38%)
- Huesca (16th) vs Real Sociedad (13th):
- Rayo Vallecano (18th) vs Alavés (7th):
- Celta (3rd) vs Valladolid (19th):
- Eibar (15th) vs Leganés (20th):
- Getafe (5th) vs Atlético de Madrid (9th):
- Real Madrid (2nd) vs Espanyol (4th):
- Levante (11th) vs Sevilla (12th):
- Villarreal (14th) vs Valencia (17th):
- Betis (10th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (8th):
- Barcelona (1st) vs Girona (6th):