Three real derbies, a couple of teams in revival mode to avoid relegation, a legitimate competition between seven teams for the Europa League spots… This matchday brings a few interesting questions, even if what was left of the title fight finished last weekend with Atleti’s defeat at the Camp Nou. The effect of this for LaLiga may well be several rotations for Valverde’s side – yes, that Valverde – and some upsets in the shape of Barcelona not winning a few matches between now and the end of the season as they try to preserve their top talent for their Champions League title run.
Shall we? Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Espanyol (13th) vs Alavés (7th): 1. (Sat, 13:00)
Alaves’ European dreams, so within reach for most of the season, slowly slip away as their short bench starts to show and other teams wake up. I can see them finishing in the bottom half of the table, and even though they’re a decent travelling team, I really liked Espanyol last weekend, breaking their terrible streak away from home, and have become Wu Lei’s #1 fan, so the pick is obvious.
- Huesca (20th) vs Barcelona (1st): 1. (Sat, 16:15)
Call me crazy, but such an inconvenient trip at such a terrible kick-off time to play on such an uncomfortable pitch can only result in Valverde fielding Aleñá, KPB and nine kids from the youth teams so that they get a flavour of LaLiga. In fact, six starters won’t even travel on Saturday to Huesca. This match should have been an unforgettable event with Messi paying a visit to their house, but with the calendar not helping the focus should shift to “let’s defeat Barcelona even if that’s the main memory we will take away from this season”. I guess they can do it, and you will hear / read Barcelona fans criticising Valverde for having rotated. Yes, we fans are fickle.
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Celta (16th): 2. (Sat, 18:30)
Atleti’s only motivation for what remains of the season is to finish above Real Madrid. Granted, that is huge motivation – they’d be entitled to sing the famed “Somos el primer equipo de Madrid” chant (We’re Madrid’s top team), so one is pretty sure Diego Simeone will be talking a lot about the Merengues in his pre-match speeches. However, one feels some bitterness going around Atletico circles. Simeone’s bet on Costa backfired spectacularly – eight matches out means the rest of the season — while the rumours that Griezmann is already looking for solace elsewhere just months after signing a humongous contract extension can’t help to plan for next season. The summer should also be a traumatic one of transformation in the Wanda, as plenty of senior squad members look bound to leave and are currently looking for a team, so it’s hard to see this Atleti performing consistently in the last seven matches.
They host Iago Aspas, sorry, Celta, who look like a completely different side with their #10 back into the squad. Last weekend’s performance, under the kind of storm you only see in Galicia, added to the mental level of determination to get his club out of the relegation zone he’s displayed since he returned from injury. It’s hard to see him keeping up with that kind of form when he just got back from three months inaction, but let’s bet on his team’s positive recovery since he’s back: seven points and nine goals in three matches, and such courageous displays you wonder what could have happened with this team had they played like this from the beginning of the season.
- Sevilla (5th) vs Betis (9th): 2. (Sat, 20:45)
If Sevilla derbies are usually tense, this could break all the records. The hosts remember well their defeat back in November, as Joaquin scored a late winner that kept half the city in ecstasy, half in deep depression for weeks. If Sevilla defeat Betis now, not only will they surely finish above them – they already have six points of advantage –, which is a huge bragging rights event, but also they will make it difficult for Betis to play European football next season. Of course, they’d be delighted.
There is an extra emotional factor for the home side: interim coach Joaquin Caparros has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and even though the doctors have allowed him to keep coaching, that can never be good news. In fact, there’s so many emotional factors on Sevilla’s side that it may even be counterproductive for them, but I tend to believe they will prevail. With their own highs and lows, they’ve been more consistent than Betis this year, and even though they haven’t had many memorable matches – Betis have — they are far more reliable than their neighbours. Who knows, this may well be the match for them to remember this season.
- Valladolid (17th) vs Getafe (4th): 1. (Sun- 12:00)
My bet against Getafe last weekend did not work out, as in most of my bets… Anyway, I’ll insist: this is not sustainable. Even if they play at Valladolid, one of the flattest teams in LaLiga, and one that could end up relegated if Villarreal and Rayo decide to wake up. Striker Jaime Mata, one of the nice surprises of the season, comes back to Valladolid, where he made his name as a forward, and has already announced that he won’t celebrate if he scores. I hate that. Another reason to support Valladolid.
- Athletic de Bilbao (8th) vs Rayo Vallecano (19th): 2. (Sun- 14:00)
Call me crazy, but after Rayo defeated Valencia last weekend, I’ve jumped onto their bandwagon. Jemez saves. A mile away live the rich folk… Rayo win in Bilbao and Raul de Tomás scores again. That must pay handsomely well.
- Real Sociedad (10th) vs Eibar (12th): 1. (Sun- 16:15)
Basque derby, yes, although it is a soft one. They both dislike Athletic a lot more than each other, so this will be civil, as most Basque derbies are, in fact. Coach Imanol hasn’t been able to replicate his impressive impact on the team last time he took over in that interim position, but at least they look close to the sixth spot. Granted, with seven players injured or suspended life is tough for Imanol. The side seems at a crossroads, as youngsters haven’t quite taken over yet, but they keep getting their reps. If the club keeps trusting this generation, good things could happen, but it’s hard to demand more of this group at this point.
That said, they should defeat Eibar fair and square. The visitors keep travelling quite poorly, as their high line works better at home than in other stadia. One pending topic for the great Mendilibar to solve, but it’ll have to wait until next season.
- Girona (14th) vs Villarreal (18th): 1. (Sun – 18:30)
Girona are totalyl and completely s*ck at Montilivi, to the extent that they managed to lose against the worst travellers of La Liga, Espanyol. That said, Villarreal can’t buy a break, and they come off a brutal defeat against Valencia in midweek. The Valencianistas scored twice in the last five minutes and finished the tie for all intents and purposes. Hard to see how Villarreal recover physically and mentally from that, with just two days rest.
It’s shocking how poor their offense has been: a team with Bacca, Moreno, Ekambi and Samuel should score left, right and centre, and the fact is that they keep missing chance after chance. Looking at the squads, the visitors should get this one, but they have disappointed way too often this season.
- Valencia (6th) vs Levante (15th): 1. (Sun – 20:45)
Valencia derby, and while this is not as heated as Sevilla’s, they do enjoy a bit of controversy and bitterness in Valencia. The hosts will only lose on Sunday if they feel the weight of their midweek match in Villarreal, but it looks as though they’ve recovered Guedes and that by itself can win them this match.
- Leganés (11th) vs Real Madrid (3rd): 1. (Mon – 21:00)
If the motivation will be scarce this weekend among the ranks of Barcelona and Atleti, what can we say about the Real of Madrid, playing on a Monday night in the scarcely appealing Leganes… Zidane’s approach to this end of the season is obvious: a constant casting in which players have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, although in some cases the decision seems to have been made already.
To the average Madridista, this end of the season is simply excruciating. The endless rumours with no base and the lack of interest in the season are a painful combination. Nothing will happen for sure until June, and even if it does, the names on the table, great players for sure, don’t make our hearts beat faster. Pogba, Hazard, the romantique Rabiot… all great players, but nothing that will make us recover the faith in the squad. Perhaps we should stop expecting the mega-signing and demand a decently built, deep squad, able to contend for LaLiga. Yes, we’re sad people. And we’ll be even sadder after Leganes’ upset on Monday.
Last week: 2/10 (20%)
Season: 110/260 (42%)
- Espanyol (13th) vs Alavés (7th):
- Huesca (20th) vs Barcelona (1st):
- Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Celta (16th):
- Sevilla (5th) vs Betis (9th):
- Valladolid (17th) vs Getafe (4th):
- Athletic de Bilbao (8th) vs Rayo Vallecano (19th):
- Real Sociedad (10th) vs Eibar (12th):
- Girona (14th) vs Villarreal (18th):
- Valencia (6th) vs Levante (15th):
- Leganés (11th) vs Real Madrid (3rd):