Well, that midweek jornada was a shocker. Barcelona and Real Madrid lost, which got Atletico, Alaves, Sevilla and Espanyol within striking range of the leading duo. Not only did they lose, but they did it in convincing fashion, looking like the worse side in their respective matches. In the case of Barcelona, the start of the second half sealed their fate. In Real Madrid’s, their first 45 minutes were simply appalling. Fans of LaLiga keep defending their competitiveness, but they do it by using biased data. The fact is that nights like Wednesday’s should happen way more often if the tournament were to be as even as it was 30 years ago.
But the fact is that these nights happen less and less often, and it’s almost become a rule that the winning side easily surpasses 90 points, which would be a mindboggling achievement if budgets and opportunities were similar, but that’s now become something common.
Here’s a toast to more upsets, for more shocking performances by top teams and for LaLiga seasons with three or more contenders for the title. Now that Javier Tebas and his team have managed to improve the financial management of most teams, that should be their objective.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Rayo Vallecano (19th) vs Espanyol (6th): X. (Fri, 21:00)
Rayo have garnered all their four points away from home so far. They’re back in Vallecas, but the comeback wasn’t very successful – 5-1 loss to Alaves after they lost 4-1 in their opening match vs Sevilla. That does not guarantee that Espanyol will get all three points, but a draw is on the cards. It will be Rayo’s third match in six days.
- Real Sociedad (10th) vs Valencia (16th): 2. (Sat, 13:00)
All would seem to point at a home win, as Real Sociedad have played decent football at the new Anoeta and only the bizarre performances of their goalie have prevented them from getting better results. With Rulli very likely on the bench, and Valencia undergoing the worst stretch since Marcelino took over, a “1” would be the sensible choice, but my bet is that this is the match in which the visitors finally wake up.
They should have defeated Celta two days ago and their tough line-up fits well with a classy, but too soft squad like Real Sociedad. Even with four major absentees – Gaya, Garay, Mina and Piccini – Valencia should win this one.
- Barcelona (1st) vs Athletic de Bilbao (15th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
For someone who earned a somewhat negative reputation for not rotating his starters enough last season, coach Ernesto Valverde has become obsessive with line-up modifications since the tournament kicked off. He’s probably exaggerating the dose, and perhaps this early into the season it should be more a question of getting the starters into their own rhythm and leaving the rotations for later on.
That said, the shocking loss of the leaders against bottom-of-the-table Leganes can’t be explained by rotations. The humble hosts had started to look stronger before halftime, but Barcelona’s start to the second half was simply unacceptable in terms of focus and energy, and extremely uncharacteristic of a squad that has performed admirably in LaLiga during the last decade, taking days off quite seldom. Remember, Barcelona only lost one LaLiga match last season, and when that happened they had already won the title.
“My players’ concentration is extraordinary”, said Valverde during Friday’s presser, obviously trying to get some players off the focus of the media. Against his former team, Valverde will have to recover much of that concentration. Umtiti’s injury eases the coach into recovering a more traditional line of four.
Not that Athletic did much better in their midweek match. Their 3-0 home defeat vs Villarreal was almost cruel: Athletic competed during more than an hour, to then succumb brutally to Fornals’ class and look like their pre-season must have not been as intense as required. This looks like a decent chance for Barcelona to get back to the winning track after two winless matches.
- Eibar (13th) vs Sevilla (5th): 1. (Sat- 18:30)
14 goals in three matches should mean an automatic “2”, right? Well, this has to be a trademark letdown match. From the high stamina of facing and beating Real Madrid at home to the low motivation of travelling to Eibar’s unwelcoming pitch, this will become an ugly torture for the visitors, who will give in.
- Real Madrid (2nd) vs Atlético de Madrid (3rd): X. (Sat- 20:45)
If Barcelona fans can point at Valverde’s change of tactics and rotations, there is no excuse for Real Madrid’s abysmal performance last Wednesday in Seville. Granted, the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium has always been a very tough outing for Real Madrid, but precisely for that reason it’s impossible to explain how the starters played in such a lethargic, almost uninterested manner during the first half.
So far, Lopetegui’s Real Madrid has worked wonders against minor opposition – sorry, Roma fans, but your team looked like that at the Bernabeu — but has struggled against the top half of the table, including that European Supercup final against precisely Atletico.
Unless it’s a final, Real Madrid don’t really enjoy facing Atletico, and even less without Isco to find gaps in Simeone’s formation. When they face each other in the Champions League, it’s Atletico who look bothered to play against their neighbours, but since this is just the 7th match of this domestic season I can’t imagine an overwhelming home side performance.
The home side will suffer with Atletico’s pressing, no matter whether they set the line higher or lower. The visitors still haven’t figured out how to deal with their almost overwhelming options after a couple of seasons in which the bench was almost useless. That is why I’ll go for the conservative “X”, which would not satisfy either team. I can’t see Real Madrid imposing their game, nor Atletico dominating proceedings. It’ll be a tough, gruelling match, and it’s likely that both will settle for a draw.
- Huesca (20th) vs Girona (12th): X. (Sun – 12:00)
Girona are able to frustrate Barcelona at the Camp Nou and frustrate their own followers at their own stadium just a couple of days later. Huesca started off well, but four consecutive defeats and three matches without scoring have taken them to the bottom of the table. They are fighters, but lack some talent and if they don’t attract a few players in the winter transfer window, they’ll end up back in Segunda. They can still manage to draw this Sunday.
- Villarreal (9th) vs Valladolid (14th): 1. (Sun – 16:15)
In January, Villarreal visited the Santiago Bernabeu. They left with three points and the impression that they were loaded with young talent. Two players caught my eye, although in neither case I’ll pretend to have discover any new talent. Rodri, who now plays central midfield for Atletico, looked composed and showed amazing passing range and accuracy. Pablo Fornals, who scored the winner, was the most inventive midfielder, and starred in a couple of pieces of skill that made the guy next to me say that he was better than Dani Ceballos, whatever that means.
Well, two nights ago Fornals did this and this in Bilbao to break Athletic in half. Shame he can’t play three good matches in a row. Like Fornals, Villarreal have been maddeningly inconsistent so far, especially at home, where they have not won yet after three games. This should be the one to break that running streak, despite Valladolid’s growth in the last two weeks, coincidentally just as Ronaldo Nazario bought the club.
- Levante (17th) vs Alavés (4th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Three losses in a row for Levante, five matches undefeated for Alaves, who have climbed to the fourth position and not only surpass all Basque teams, but also everyone except Madrid, Barcelona and Atleti. Levante’s coach Paco Lopez said that their defeat in Valladolid “was our worst match” since he arrived last season to save the team from relegation.
I can’t see Alaves keeping up that amazing sequence of performances, and I’m confident that Lopez knows what buttons to push in order to revive this side. And if you doubt, just imagine the Alaves players playing under the merciless sun of Valencia this Sunday afternoon.
- Betis (8th) vs Leganés (18th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
Yes, Lega did look very good for large spells of their memorable win against Barcelona, but that has been the exception rather than the rule so far. Betis are getting better with each passing match, and five matches without a defeat tell the story of a more consistent back four, but less offensive talent than one thought before the season started. Leganes could get a point, but for that they need another monster performance by their tired starters, and that seems unlikely.
- Celta (7th) vs Getafe (11th): 1. (Mon – 21:00)
Iago Aspas keeps leading Celta to higher positions than they should be. I can’t think of a more influential player for his team in La Liga. Celta would be 5-7 positions lower without him. Five goals in the last four matches, and such an array of moves that his team ends up benefitting from exhausted defenders more often than any other.
There’s no player in Getafe who can compete with Aspas. This pick is purely based on that.
Last week: 2/10 (20%)
Season: 20/59 (33%): Getting ugly…
- Rayo Vallecano (19th) vs Espanyol (6th):
- Real Sociedad (10th) vs Valencia (16th):
- Barcelona (1st) vs Athletic de Bilbao (15th):
- Eibar (13th) vs Sevilla (5th):
- Real Madrid (2nd) vs Atlético de Madrid (3rd):
- Huesca (20th) vs Girona (12th):
- Villarreal (9th) vs Valladolid (14th):
- Levante (17th) vs Alavés (4th):
- Betis (8th) vs Leganés (18th):
- Celta (7th) vs Getafe (11th):