Just over a month ago, I thought this season was pretty much over, at least in terms of title race and Champions League spots. But a few things have changed: Real Madrid have regrouped, Atletico are still consistent and Valencia finally look like they did last season, while Barcelona and Sevilla somehow play less convincingly and could drop points when least expected. Does that mean that we have a title race? No, not yet. But if, like many of us, you thought this season would end with Barcelona, Atletico, Real and Sevilla in that order, it’s now becoming quite possible that it won’t.
The CL ties and the Copa del Rey semis will also add an element of surprise, but we needn’t go that far: This LaLiga weekend features a huge Madrid derby and a few tough matches for the teams in the upper half of the table. Let’s go through them one at a time.
Shall we? Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Valladolid (19th) vs Villarreal (19th): 2. (Fri, 21:00)
Perhaps I should have given up on Villarreal three weeks ago, two weeks ago… But indeed I should have sent this bunch of useless jerks to hell last weekend, when they wasted a 2-0 lead in the last 15 minutes against Espanyol. Yes, Espanyol, with nine losses in ten matches and 2-0 down, somehow found the will to come back in the last quarter of an hour, simply because Villarreal, with plenty of players who can pass the ball, forgot how to manage a two-goal advantage.
One week later I feel like John Benjamin Toshack in a particularly tough season with Real Madrid in the early nineties: “On Monday I’m so pissed off with the team that played at the weekend that I would send the full youth team to start in the next match. On Wednesday, there’s three or four starters that I would save from the axe. On Friday, it’s six or seven. And on Sunday it’s the same eleven bastards (cabrones, he said) on the pitch again”. Well, I’m right there with Villarreal. They’re just too good to be in that position, although they were too good to be relegated last time they got relegated…
- Getafe (5th) vs Celta (16th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
I started typing that Getafe was becoming a fashionable team, but I immediately regretted it. Getafe, Atleti and most teams with that tough, physical style of play are hardly fashionable, but the fact is that the hosts are putting together such an impressive season that people have started to root for them, even though they may not enjoy their high rate of fouls and their cynical management of some matches.
They’re bound to trounce Celta, though. The visitors look as weak as ever, and weak is what you don’t want to be when having to face Getafe.
The case for Celta is that they won last weekend against a dismal Sevilla and that Iago Aspas is finally back after six matches out, but that may not be enough: in his career, Aspas has played nine times against Getafe, and never scored.
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Real Madrid (3rd): 2. (Sat, 16:15)
Well, no hyperbole or metaphor can quite do justice to this one. Life or death match, do or die contest, mega-derby, clash of titans, etc. The rejuvenated Real Madrid of Santiago Solari pay a visit to the Wanda, where Atletico have not lost this season in La Liga (nine wins, two draws). The visitors feel strengthened after a solid visit to the Camp Nou, but they do need a win on Saturday if they want to stay in the title challenge, as they would overtake Atletico. Simeone’s side can’t afford a defeat, but despite their impressive home record, they have never looked the squad they can be so far this season.
Thibaut Cortuois will face his former team, as will Alvaro Morata, two high profile signings that should start. But probably the biggest story in changing one shirt for the other is Solari’s: Real Madrid signed him after Atletico got relegated, and Rojiblanco fans despise him as the rumour has it that he was seen in a Madrid club the night the team lost its place in LaLiga. Expect a huge level of vitriol against the Argentinean, that level that only the true Atleticos can reach.
Both teams will miss their most inventive midfielders, Koke and Isco, although neither has been consistent this season. Isco’s situation worsened this week with another ill-advised social-network post on which Solari refused to comment. They probably agreed to let this simmer: Isco says he’s got some back pain – no medical opinion on it – and Solari left him out of the match. It won’t end well.
I’m going for recent form and in that regard Real Madrid look slightly better, led by an re-charged Benzema who now looks like the Benzemistas always described him, and by the tireless Vinicius, who participates so much as a forward that not even his iffy decision-making can prevent him from completing a couple of excellent plays per game. If you throw in the fact that Modric has just played his best four matches in a row, my cash is on the visitors.
In Atletico’s end, the key will be for Morata and Griezmann to get in synch as soon as possible. Good players tend to understand each other quickly, but this is perhaps too soon to trust them to win this one for Atleti.
- Espanyol (15th) vs Rayo Vallecano (18th): X. (Sat, 18:30)
Things are evening out for this duo. Neither Espanyol were as good as they looked in the first 15 matches of the season, nor Rayo were as terrible. They now look in correct positions, only two points apart and fighting to reach a calmer zone in the standings. Both teams will start a few of their winter signings, although the most exotic one, Espanyol’s Chinese winger Wu Lei, strongly recommended by Jordi Cruyff, will probably wait until the second half to join the action.
Can see these two happy with a draw.
- Girona (17th) vs Huesca (20th): X. (Sat, 20:45)
Girona’s coach Eusebio looks bound to lose his job, as his side has not won since the end of November and keeps looking worse and worse in terms of spirit and motivation. Injuries are not helping, but the team is starting to look like the Real Sociedad of Eusebio at the end of his tenure, with such a soft defence that rivals rejoice in thinking how they will catch them off guard, especially at the break. I say this is a tie and the end of the Valladolid-born manager’s era in Girona.
- Leganés (13th) vs Betis (6th): 1. (Sun- 12:00)
You know what I’m going to say, right? A loss in Leganes is so typical Betis that I’m not going to mention how they defeated Atleti at their own counter attacking game last weekend or how they wasted a 2-0 lead over Valencia in the Copa del Rey semifinal. Well, I already did, but you get the point: you can’t trust Betis as long as Setien does not fix the team’s mental breakdowns and tactical mistakes.
- Valencia (8th) vs Real Sociedad (9th): 1. (Sun- 16:15)
“Our scoring problems earlier this season have made us stronger”, said an ecstatic Marcelino after his team came back from 2-0 down in Sevilla to draw level with Betis. The important thing is that they are scoring again, as Rodrigo starts to look like his usual self and Kevin Gameiro gives them a lift coming off the bench. Their consecutive draws in Barcelona and Sevilla feel like wins, and they should capitalize on that lift to mount their challenge for a Champions League spot. Seeing how Sevilla are doing, it’s not out of the question.
- Sevilla (4th) vs Eibar (10th): X. (Sun – 18:30)
So yes, Sevilla are not doing well at the moment. They keep looking more and more tired, while no winter signings have generated any positive impression as yet. Eibar, coming off a brutal 3-0 win over Girona, will easily get a point at the Sanchez Pizjuan. This is sure money.
- Athletic de Bilbao (12th) vs Barcelona (1st): X. (Sun – 20:45)
Don’t let Athletic’s position in the wrong half of the table fool you. This is a fantastic tie, especially because the hosts take every Barcelona visit as something extremely serious. It looks like San Mamés will break its attendance record, and knowledgeable sources say that the hosts will try to exploit Jordi Alba’s absence in the left fullback position, a spot for which Ernesto Valverde lacks a real alternative. Don’t be surprised if Iñaki Williams starts on the right with Ander Capa behind him.
Of course, the real question has to do with Barcelona’s rotations. With the Tourmalet they’re facing in terms of matches this month, Valverde has to pick a couple of matches in which Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and Busquets should find some rest, although it’s true that the second unit headed by Coutinho looks weaker with each passing week.
Arthur’s injury – four key weeks out – and Messi’s injury scare last weekend speak volumes: Valverde can’t afford to reach the Champions League knock-out stages with a tired starting line-up again, so he needs to gamble and despite the fact that they won’t play midweek next week, this is very likely to be one of those matches in which he sits top talent. As we – successfully – did last weekend, let’s go for a draw.
- Alavés (7th) vs Levante (11th): 1. (Mon – 21:00)
Alaves are starting to look tired, but they play at their fortress against the worst defence in La Liga. How the mighty have fallen, by the way. Levante used to be such a tough, dirty team that it now seems bizarre to see them concede so often. That said, they’re a lot more fun to watch.
And speaking of fun, the Mendizorroza stadium will look like a funeral. Both fan bases have agreed to stage a protest against LaLiga because of the terrible kick-off dates and times they suffer, so they will celebrate the death of football, wearing black clothes and carrying farewell messages as the sport dies killed by LaLiga and its president, Javier Tebas. Should do for great Monday night TV.
Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 79/190 (40%)
- Valladolid (19th) vs Villarreal (19th):
- Getafe (5th) vs Celta (16th):
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Real Madrid (3rd):
- Espanyol (15th) vs Rayo Vallecano (18th):
- Girona (17th) vs Huesca (20th):
- Leganés (13th) vs Betis (6th):
- Valencia (8th) vs Real Sociedad (9th):
- Sevilla (4th) vs Eibar (10th):
- Athletic de Bilbao (12th) vs Barcelona (1st):
- Alavés (7th) vs Levante (11th):