This weekly column is, by design, LaLiga centric. The Copa del Rey features only occasionally, en passant, whenever one of its midweek matches may have an impact on the upcoming weekend. However, the results of Friday’s draw have taken that potential impact to unprecedented heights, at least in recent memory: Barcelona and Real Madrid will play for a spot in the final, the two legs of their semifinal round happening at extremely inconvenient moments of the season.
Granted, an earlier elimination would have been even more inconvenient, but just check Real Madrid’s schedule:
3 feb: Real Madrid – Alavés
6 feb: Barcelona – Real Madrid
9 feb: Atlético de Madrid- Real Madrid
13 feb: Ajax- Real Madrid
27 feb: Real Madrid- Barcelona
2 mar: Real Madrid- Barcelona (again!)
5 mar: Real Madrid-Ajax
Barcelona’s calendar is similarly demanding, with Olympique Lyon waiting on the CL quarterfinals and Valencia, Athletic and Sevilla among their next rivals in La Liga.
If you were in Valverde’s shoes, you would be dying to avoid Real Madrid in the semis so that you could at least rest a few of your players against Betis or Valencia, and thus avoid the evident exhaustion the team displayed in Roma last season. Now that’s impossible: Valverde will have to go for the jugular in every single match, and now without Denis Suarez in his rotation. That was a joke, by the way.
For Solari, and given Real Madrid’s position in LaLiga, rotating in the Copa del Rey was never an option, but now he gets the additional pressure of his first three clásicos in four weeks. No matter who ends up making the final, it’s very likely that the stress of these two extra clásicos will be sorely felt during the rest of the season. “This calendar is extremely tough, and even if we make it to the next rounds, the burnout will be huge”, said a concerned-looking Valverde on Friday.
But it will be fun!
Shall we? Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Huesca (20th) vs Valladolid (13th): X. (Sab, 13:00)
Huesca have made five changes to their squad during the transfer window, but none looks like a saviour. Eleven points below safety, things look quite bleak, and they face a well-rounded, decent travelling Valladolid. Boring draw.
- Levante (12th) vs Getafe (6th): 1. (Sab, 16:15)
On the receiving end of a 5-0 thrashing last weekend, Levante will want to erase that terrible performance with a win at home, but they host Getafe, also hurt after a frustrating and controversial Copa del Rey exit in Valencia. This is a close one, but let’s back Levante, more rested.
- Real Sociedad (9th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (11th): 1. (Sat, 18:30)
The weekend starts to pick up in intensity after Saturday’s lunch. Phil will report from Anoeta, but it’s hard to put our money on his team after they couldn’t score against bloody Huesca last weekend.
Since Garitano took over Athletic, the visitors have recovered their swagger, their physicality and the intense way of playing football that is their trademark. Intrigued to see how Phil takes Athletic’s signing of Kenan Kodro, son of Real Sociedad’s Meho and born in San Sebastian.
- Barcelona (1st) vs Valencia (7th): X. (Sat, 20:45)
Another blockbuster on Saturday: just two weeks ago, this was a “1” without a shadow of a doubt. Now, after the speedy Rodrigo scored three against Getafe in midweek, with Valencia having won their last three matches and bearing in mind the visitors’ delight every time they upset Barcelona, this looks a lot less predictable. A lot.
If you ask me, this is the match in which Valverde can rest players for their clásico on Wed. They have five points over Atleti, who host Real Madrid next weekend, so why not rest Messi or use him in the second half? I know Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Sevilla is hard to overlook, but that’s yet another reason: a textbook letdown match. Draw, methinks. Do watch this one, though: there’s bonus points if Kevin Prince gets his highly expected debut.
- Celta (18th) vs Sevilla (4th): 2. (Sun- 12:00)
Five consecutive losses, no significant signings in the transfer window and a bitter Sevilla knocking on Celta’s door. With Aspas out, the hosts are still far from the bottom, amazingly enough.
And a quick comment on this Sevilla: for the promise the squad has shown this season, especially at home, there have been a few occasions in which their determination hasn’t looked enough to make the leap they need. Coach? Players? Choose your culprits. In any case, there’s still plenty of season for them to step up, but that has probably cost them the Copa del Rey.
- Villarreal (19th) vs Espanyol (15th): 1. (Sun- 16:15)
When do I give up on Villarreal? Well, they made the most shocking signing of the transfer window: manager Calleja, who they’d fired 50 days ago. The experiment with his successor, Luis García Plaza, did not work out, so they went back to the tried and tested, even if that test did not end up very well.
Espanyol, also a member of the club of teams that started off well and are disintegrating match after match, do not look like a threat, especially away from home. Villarreal start climbing on Sunday.
- Betis (8th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd): 2. (Sun – 18:30)
Amazingly enough, two of the most promising players of the Real Madrid cantera five years ago, Jese and Morata, will face each other on Sunday afternoon in Sevilla, neither of them playing for the Madridistas. Jese, broken by injuries, dangerous liaisons and unhealthy habits, tries his fourth attempt at redemption under Quique Setien. Morata, having spent a week swearing his Rojiblanco beliefs – a bit embarrassing, considering the media archives – should try to take advantage of Diego Costa’s injury to convince Simeone he can make the difference for the still unreliable Atletico offence.
In these cases in which a classy but soft team plays a very physical one, you may have noticed that I favour the latter. It won’t be different this time. After the Copa del Rey draw, Atletico need to put together a winning sequence and increase the pressure on Barcelona. They will be determined to win in Sevilla.
- Eibar (10th) vs Girona (14th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
With no wins in their last seven, Girona are starting to think that the Eusebio effect may be similar to that of champagne. Not that Eibar are doing much better, with one win in their last eight. Both have been living off their good starts to the season, but their credit is running out and they need to react. Similarly to the Betis – Atleti match, this is another case of steel vs soft talent, so Eibar gets the 1.
- Real Madrid (3rd) vs Alavés (5th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
Well, we need to speak about Benzema, don’t we. Many said he looked at his best shape ever at the beginning of the season, and if you can recall, he indeed performed well and scored in the first few matches. After the Roma win, he – and the rest of the team – disappeared, and his recent resurgence looks even more puzzling now.
The most surprising element of his revival is his intensity: Benz usually does Benz things four or five times per match: a diagonal move playing quick one twos, a couple of nifty dribbles here and there, a surprising pass that catches defenders, team mates and fans offguard… In the last three matches, he’s done those things so often that the whole match seems to be centred on him. Relentless, on Thursday he destroyed Girona with such a consistent performance that I started to think he is running a chemical lab with profe Ortega.
The fact is that the toughest stretch of the season paradoxically finds the best Real Madrid. If Solari can involve the recovered Asensio and Bale in the right doses, this team looks fine. Not intimidating, but solid enough to give their fans something to believe in, which is the least one can ask for.
Granted, if they keep playing like this, they will tear Alaves apart, but we already know that trusting Benz & Bale for the medium term is a highly risky proposition.
- Rayo Vallecano (17th) vs Leganés (16th): X. (Mon – 21:00)
Rayo are finally out of the relegation spots thanks to the determination of their manager and the impressive stubbornness of their players. They will face a similarly focused and talent-short Leganes. No reasons to favour one or the other, so X it is.
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 75/180 (41%)
- Huesca (20th) vs Valladolid (13th):
- Levante (12th) vs Getafe (6th):
- Real Sociedad (9th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (11th):
- Barcelona (1st) vs Valencia (7th):
- Celta (18th) vs Sevilla (4th):)
- Villarreal (19th) vs Espanyol (15th):
- Betis (8th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
- Eibar (10th) vs Girona (14th):
- Real Madrid (3rd) vs Alavés (5th):
- Rayo Vallecano (17th) vs Leganés (16th):