Yes, we did attend the Libertadores final at the Santiago Bernabeu, and our team won. The match started off on the wrong foot, with plenty of mistakes as both teams felt the pressure of those weeks of anticipation, but ended up in dramatic fashion, as one would expect of such a convoluted final. After all the doubts about watching it at home or going to the stadium, the risk was well worth it. It was a memorable night.
But back to Spain. Phil said it best: Messi is determined to finish with the funny wave of democracy that had pushed a few unfamiliar faces to the leading positions in the LaLiga rankings. After a few surprising, thoroughly enjoyable weeks things progressively evolve towards what’s normal – perhaps we should use “ordinary”, like Pep Guardiola should have done in his presser – and ‘ordinary’ in LaLiga since Messi came of age usually means that Barcelona occupy the top spot.
In the recurring discussion about his position in the ranking of the best player ever, it’s hard to argue that in terms of club football played and titles won, no one has been more regular – and in this case, this is not normal at all. He obviously benefited from Pep Guardiola’s appearance in top level football, but has won with three other very different coaches and team configurations. In fact, you could argue that, as dominant as Barcelona have been in domestic competitions, they’ve wasted a decent part of Messi’s prime with questionable personnel decisions that prevented them from winning even more European titles. However, one can’t unsee the other Messi, the Argentinean national team one. Granted, he’s taken his team to two America Cup finals and one World Cup one, but in order to be considered the best-ever those results aren’t enough. Especially when, on top of the lack of titles, Messi’s demeanour in a white and celeste jersey has often been so distant from his club version, so understated, nervous, shy, so… unMessi. It’s obvious that the pressure he receives from his country is huge, almost unbearable, but so it was for Maradona or Pele, to name a couple, and they repeatedly stood up and grabbed qualifying matches, finals and hesitant teams by the neck to build their respective legends.
I know it sounds silly, but every week, when I watch Messi orchestrate the dismantling of another LaLiga team, I can’t help but go back mentally to his last two World Cups. It’s such a shame things did not work out for him. But that, again, shows how difficult it is to compete consistently in different environments, squads, clubs or national. And it makes us respect even more the performance of those who managed to do so in other, less documented eras.
Now let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Celta (11th) vs Leganés (16th): 1. (Fri, 21:00)
Half of Leganés’ starting line-up is either injured or suspended. Great chance for Celta to keep gaining ground, as the team reacts after the Mohamed fiasco. Easy home win, with plenty of goals.
- Getafe (8th) vs Real Sociedad (13th): 1. (Sab, 13:00)
The dirtiest team in LaLiga vs Real Softiedad? It can only be a home win. The tidbit of the week came through the great Angel Perez, Getafe’s president: “I have inside info: LaLiga wants two teams from Madrid to be relegated this season so that the tournament reaches more of the national territory”. As a conspiracy theory, it’s one of the worst I’ve heard, along the lines of “La Liga is dangerously set up for Real Madrid to win”, which Diego Simeone uttered a few years ago (of course, Real Madrid did not win).
Even if that conspiracy exists, Perez should not be concerned: Rayo and Leganés should occupy those two spots, while his Getafe stay up for another season.
- Valladolid (12th) vs Atlético de Madrid (3rd): X. (Sat, 16:15)
I was starting to think that my grandparents’ team, Valladolid, was bound for relegation after a fantastic beginning of the season, but last weekend they finished a sequence of poor results with a fantastic win in San Sebastian, one that left Phil mad at his own team, but impressed with the solid performance of the vallisoletanos.
Not that they can defeat Atletico, but indeed they can take advantage of the likely tired legs of the visitors. They couldn’t rest anybody before this match as they needed a win in their midweek trip to Brussels, and they failed to get their win, so we’ll go for the always tricky “X”.
Atleti have travelled poorly this season: their last win happened almost three months ago in Getafe, and their last four trips have ended up in a draw. On a separate note, the hosts have signed the promising Equadorian Stiven Plaza from Independiente del Valle. The kid looks like one of those tricky dribblers, and it’s very likely that he only made the decision to move to the cold Valladolid because Ronaldo Fenomeno himself asked him nicely. And by the way, the Brazilian star-come-president wants Vinicius on loan too. Let’s see what happens with that…
- Real Madrid (4th) vs Rayo Vallecano (19th): 1. (Sat, 18:30)
Santiago Solari may have brought a few decent results to the Santiago Bernabeu since he took over, but even this early into his tenure, it appears that most of the Madrid media expects him to fail. The Argentinean is not doing himself any favours by leaving Keylor Navas on the bench in the meaningless Champions League match against CSKA, or with his recent public statements in which he halfheartedly defends some of the more under- fire players.
He’s also suffered a couple of brutal defeats, and that hardly helps his case as a long-term option to occupy the Madridista bench. In fact, something in his tone tells me that he won’t last the season.
Of course, the hosts should win on Saturday. Rayo only look like a LaLiga team once every three matches, and that’s obviously not enough for them to stay up. The worst defence of the tournament should not be able to get a result at the Bernabeu, even if the attendance spends more time booing Isco and Marcelo than actually watching the match.
- Eibar (14th) vs Valencia (15th): 2. (Sat- 20:45)
I know many teams have been able to say that in the last few season, but Valencia defeated Manchester United! It was a nice end to their otherwise lacklustre Champions League cameo. If they want to play that tournament again, they need to put together a mind-boggling string of results, and they have to start in Eibar of all places. Not the best place to need a victory, and the absences of Kondogbia, Guedes – two months out after surgery – and Gameiro will be sorely felt, but Valencia can get this job done. If not, Marcelino could lose his job before Christmas.
I would not miss this one if I were you, not only because of the morbo of potentially seeing Marcelino’s last match with Valencia, but also because Eibar, always an interesting team because of coach Mendilibar, have found an unprecedented scoring touch, and with 10 goals in the last three matches, now look like a poor man’s Barcelona. If you missed their 3-0 victory over Real Madrid you’ll know you have to follow the hairy Marc Cucurella, on loan from precisely Barcelona.
- Sevilla (2nd) vs Girona (9th): 1. (Sun- 12:00)
Sevilla haven’t impressed anybody of late, but they’re still up there. Two consecutive 1-1 draws mean that Barcelona have opened a three-point cushion, but the team coached by Pablo Machin are still hard to defeat away, and extremely solid at home. In this case Machin will face his former team, Girona, a city in which he excelled and brought out the best possible version of a merely decent squad.
He’s done fine so far with Sevilla, although the team probably feels the extra effort of European competitions. To his credit, Machin has finally given forward Ben Yedder the confidence he deserved, and that means that Sevilla will score more often than not. This is a home win.
- Espanyol (10th) vs Betis (7th): 2. (Sun – 16:15)
Espanyol in freefall, while Betis go up paints a clear picture, right? And this column was supposed to ride Betis after their memorable win in Barcelona, right? Well, I claim independence from my self-imposed chains. Espanyol have won four of their last five against Betis at home, are bound to react at some point and catch Betis after their bizarre trip to Luxembourg, where they played on such terrible grass it looked even worse than Valladolid’s.
- Huesca (20th) vs Villarreal (17th): 2. (Sun – 18:30)
I really thought coach Calleja deserved more time to right the ship at Villarreal, but club management thought differently and fired him after the seventh defeat of their LaLiga season last weekend. New coach Luis García Plaza started off well, and qualified the team for the next stage of the of the Europa League, riding the impressive form of Samu Chukweze, who’s looked unstoppable more than a few times this season. The youngster should impress in Huesca as well, taking advantage of the committed, but naive hosts.
- Levante (6th) vs Barcelona (1st): 2. (Sun – 20:45)
Dembele, oh, Dembele. He had looked good at times before, but never THIS good. In the space of a week he’s starred in a few plays – and goals – that should make the season highlights in May whatever happens in the next six months. He’s finally show his talent while keeping to his habits of arriving late, sleeping a lot and playing a lot of videogames. Who knows, maybe that’s what keeps him going?
It’s hard to decide what to do if you were Valverde: another punishment? A bit of leniency? Now I want to see him play no matter how late he arrives, but it’s obvious that I don’t manage Barcelona and I don’t have to keep some rules to maintain a bunch of young kids under control.
On Sunday, the leaders visit the most surprising performers of the season, but Levante lack the spine to stop the Messi-led Barcelona.
- Alavés (5th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (18th): 2. (Mon – 21:00)
This is an outstanding chance for Alavés to put another nail in Athletic’s coffin, already full of them. Things could even be worse, but a last-second goal from the spot gave them three almost miraculous points last weekend. Looking at the stats, there is no way this is not a “1”. Alavés attack better, defend better and are undefeated at home. That said, the hosts aren’t what they were at the beginning of the season: four points from the last 15 and a Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of Girona point to a hesitant moment of the season, one of which Athletic can take advantage.
I know this is counter-intuitive, but I’m going for a “2”, even if just the mere rumour of Fernando Llorente’s comeback to Bilbao should send the club to Segunda. Athletic, if anything, are a proud club.
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 54/140 (37%)
- Celta (11th) vs Leganés (16th):
- Getafe (8th) vs Real Sociedad (13th):
- Valladolid (12th) vs Atlético de Madrid (3rd):
- Real Madrid (4th) vs Rayo Vallecano (19th):
- Eibar (14th) vs Valencia (15th):
- Sevilla (2nd) vs Girona (9th):
- Espanyol (10th) vs Betis (7th):
- Huesca (20th) vs Villarreal (17th):
- Levante (6th) vs Barcelona (1st):
- Alavés (5th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (18th):