Yes, I do feel a bit rusty, but when Phil texted me suggesting to return to our old one-two routine until the end of the season I thought: “Do I have anything else better to do?”
You’re reading these lines, so you can easily imagine the answer to that not-so-rhetorical question.
The post-Covid football is indeed an unprecedented situation and I’ve always felt I understood a lot better what was happening in La Liga when I wrote columns about it. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to be as close as possible to these last 11 matches to be played in just five weeks, so let’s preview as many of these matchdays as possible and see where that takes us in the new normal.
Well, let’s get down to business: Only two teams realistically think they can win La Liga, but no less than eight can compete for the remaining European football spots, and from the 11th position down, anyone could end up relegated. In summary, plenty of things to play for.
My first prediction: we’ll see way too many injuries during these five weeks. The squads have undergone something akin to a full summer break, and while some of the players are indeed professional machines – apparently Juventu’s Cristiano Ronaldo came back in better shape than he left –, those are usually the exception. Without the element of competition, many will have stayed home, drank a bit more alcohol than usual and won’t feel anywhere close their top form when the most important part of the season is about to start. Matches will be played with no public, but it’s impossible not to feel the pressure, and the combination of that stress with the questionable form will end up with queues at the physician’s offices. On top of that, many teams with short squads and no habit will have to play every three days. All this is an explosive cocktail that could make the difference between a successful season and a terrible one.
I’ve already mentioned the very important no-public factor. If we follow the German experience, home field advantage almost becomes away field advantage, so we should be generous with our Xs and 2s.
And finally, a quick disclaimer: because of CoVid’s “summer break”, I’m not going to use recent form numbers until the end of June. For instance, Sevilla had gone five weeks unbeaten, but that’s worth zilch after three months of fino Quinta or worse at home with friends (see opening pic for further reference).
Shall we? As usual, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
- Sevilla (3rd) – Betis (12th): 1. 11/06, 22:00
Tasty of Mr Tebas to offer us such an appealing comeback to the wonders of LaLiga. And just in case the match could look dull to the most demanding fans, Mateu Lahoz will ref this one, so fun is guaranteed.
Of course, Sevilla look a lot better than Betis, or at least they did before CoVid. A more complete 23-man squad, clearer gameplans and Lopetegui’s hand of steel have worked well for Sevilla, while promising coach Rubi has maintained what now seems like Betis’ identity: a handful of great performances, but consistently disappointing results.
That said, Lopetegui’s approach has worked a lot better away from home, while the Sevillistas aren’t still fully on board with his way of managing the team, slightly conservative for their taste. But they should be happy with the 3rd spot and the prospect of Champions League football next season if things continue to work according to plan.
My guess is that the guys who starred in the barbeque picture will want to clean their names, and they’re pretty much the backbone of Sevilla, although Ocampos, their top scorer, will be out injured. I also think that Lopetegui will have worked his brains off during this break to figure out how to dismantle Betis – he does that even more obsessively than Rubi – and that gives Sevilla the upper hand, always assuming his players have been able to assimilate the 200 video sessions coach must have prepared for them. Keep an eye on Suso.
Betis could drive any team nuts: a lineup with Fekir, Canales, Emerson, Loren means plenty of work for any defence, but also days of happiness or gloom with no particular rhyme or reason. Joaquín and William Carvalho won’t play, so home win.
- Granada (9th) – Getafe (5th): X. 12/06, 19:30
The visitors are just one point away from the third spot, and while coach Bordalás keeps letting everyone know that he’d love to coach a top-level club and finds time to write for the beeb, Getafe’s president looks the other way and treats his season tickets holders like a generous grandpa: they won’t pay a penny for their tickets next year.
The CoVid break was quite untimely for Granada. They were both playing great and getting results, not far away from the European football spots, and now it’s hard to know whether they can recover that form, especially starting over against such a tough opponent. They will depend on Darwin Machis’ shape, as the Venezuelan is the key to their offensive match. This column embraced Darwinism decades ago and mr Machis is another excellent reason to keep that flag alive.
I’ll go for an X because Bordalás won’t be able to start Arambarri nor Maksimovic, the core of his midfield, or Jaime Mata, their most inventive striker. Mind you, it won’t be a pretty match.
- Valencia (7th) – Levante (13th): X. 12/06, 22:00
Second derby of the long weekend and second derby to be played at 22:00, such is the taste of Mr Tebas. At least now the paying public doesn’t have to face the long way back home after the match is over, and can simply turn off the tv and go to their bedroom.
Despite the irregular performances and their embarrassing exit in the Champions League, Valencia were enjoying a fantastic season in terms of home attendances, and now that goes obviously down the drain in terms of both fan support and cash for the depleted finances of the club. Even with the support – or rather, the presence – of the public, coach Celades has not been able to keep the same consistency as his predecessor, Marcelino, and it seems ill-fated that Levante is the first rival they have to face after the three-month hiatus.
The visitors may have been under the radar so far, but the fact is that they haven’t occupied a relegation spot not even once so far this season, and that speaks of a deeper squad than usual, and of course a quite inspired forward in Roger.
I may be wrong, but I don’t like how the end of this season looks for Valencia. This screams ‘X’, but I would not be surprised if Levante upsets the empty Mestalla.
- Espanyol (20th) – Alavés (14th): 1. 13/06, 14:00
Coach Abelardo will face the club where he performed quite impressively job: he took Alavés from the relegation zone to the top six in the space of 19 outstanding months. Now he needs to pull off a similar escape, as the Periquitos currently sit at the bottom of the table and look as demoralised as my son when he realises that it’s me and not my wife the one who’s taking him for a walk in the park.
I really have confidence in Abelardo, and believe that in this case he knows his opponent so well that there must be a few tricks up his sleeve to face them on Sunday. But his job isn’t easy: Espanyol was hit the hardest by CoVid – eight players had it at some point – and how they fare in terms of fitness recovery remains to be seen. Abelardo will also have to take care of Alaves’ two solid forwards, Lucas Perez and Joselu, who have scored 20 goals in total and are the kind of strikers any midsize team would welcome.
Well, the hosts’ fate depends on how strong they start in this five-week speed, so this is a must win. In Raul de Tomás they trust.
- Celta (17th) – Villarreal (8th): 2. 13/06, 17:00
Can Iago Aspas save Celta from relegation one more time? The Galician club harboured plenty of hopes of a better season when they hired former Barcelona player Oscar García as their coach, but leaving aside the occasional great performance – they looked fantastic against Real Madrid – Celta have disappointed more often than not, and have spent most of the season below the 15th position.
They’re used to that type of tense environment, but I guess they’re testing their own luck a bit too much. Villarreal have so much offensive talent in Cazorla and Gerard Moreno that I’d be shocked if they don’t get all three points in Vigo. And, by the way, excellent piece of news for the visitors: Bruno Soriano is finally back in training after a terrible injury has kept him out for over a year.
- Leganés (19th) – Valladolid (15th): X. 13/06, 19:30
These two teams are bottom four in goals scored and surprisingly decent defensively for their position in the table, so this looks like a very boring stalemate. It’s probably the match in which both teams have more at stake, so we’ll see plenty of nerves in both squads, young as they are.
The best news on the hosts’ camp is that Oscar Rodriguez, the Real Madrid loanee, looks ready for bigger and better things, and these 11 matches could be key for his future, so his motivation is undoubtable. But the hosts have lost their top two strikers – En Nesyri and Braithwaite – to the inconvenient fickleness of the transfer market and its bizarre regulation in Spain, and even though they had reacted well right before the break. it’s hard to see them in the Primera next year.
Thanks to Ronaldo Nazario, Valladolid are strengthening the team for next season with very smart decisions, but first they need to confirm that they’ll play in La Liga for one more year. Not as easy as it sounds with the current squad and their blatant offensive limitations.
- Mallorca (18th) – Barcelona (1st): 2. 13/06, 22:00
The next five matches, four of them against top ten teams including Barcelona and Real Madrid, could send Mallorca to the Segunda División unless they show the tenacity and flair that we saw in precious little moments of their season. Pablo Lago (on the tenacity front) and Kubo (on the flair one) need to step up if the club wants to get to the final few matches with any hope of salvation.
On paper, a trip to the German-less Mallorca – only for a few more days only – looks like a great way to come back for Barcelona, and in fact it’s hard to think how this could become a bogey match for the Azulgrana. Messi picked up a small injury that interrupted his fitness work last week, but Setién looked bullish about his star’s form on Wednesday’s press conference. Luis Suarez will also play a few minutes, which is great news for Barcelona, who desperately missed the Uruguayan’s fangs after he got injured.
Let me indulge on a piece of non-pitch related news from Can Barça that shouldn’t go uncommented: the club have decided to fire their Compliance officer right before the audit report about the social networks scandal is published. This could be a huge no-no for any management team, but given the handful of mindboggling decisions Bartomeu & Co have made since they took over – the “Todos somos Leo Messi” campaign comes to mind – nothing could possibly surprise anyone, whether they’re friends or foes of the club.
- Athletic de Bilbao (10th) – Atlético de Madrid (6th): 1. 14/06, 14:00
When your best performer is your goalie, as is the case with Atletico and Jan Oblak, you can be sure that your season has not been too entertaining so far. The best moment of the whole year – and perhaps of the next few too – was Atletico’s memorable win at Liverpool, while their fans were irresponsibly carrying virus from Madrid to Merseyside.
It took a one-in-a-lifetime performance from Morata and especially Llorente for Atletico to earn that famous win, but the issue with that is that those heroic displays hardly look repeatable every week. No one is leading this Atletico on the pitch, and unless Diego Costa comes back firing all cylinders, the most likely outcome is that the Rojiblancos will languish until the season is over and they decide who their next millionaire signing is.
Athletic will be ready for their chance to challenge for a top-seven finish. They agreed with Real Sociedad to wait until their respective fans can watch their Copa del Rey final in loco, and thus they lost a great chance of playing European football next season. Now they need to put together a string of positive results, and a start against Atleti should give them the energy they need.
- Real Madrid (2nd) – Eibar (16th): 1. 14/06, 19:30
Real Madrid have decided to play their remaining home matches at the Alfredo di Stéfano stadium instead of the Bernabeu. Given that there’ll be no public, it does make sense to accelerate the refurbishment works on their usual home so that it’s ready and looking slick as soon as possible.
Will the team feel the difference? I’d think so. The Di Stefano is only two metres narrower, but even if “Hoosiers” taught us that what matters is the size of the pitch and not the atmosphere, it’s never the exactly the same. Players get used to the light, the shadow, the grass, the goals, the smell… I’ll be surprised if players don’t start complaining after the first couple of matches, although if you look at the way the stadium looks right now, it does not seem like it’s a decision that could be reversed. The alternative, assuming that at some point a fraction of the public could be allowed into the stadium? Asking neighbours Atleti for the Wanda. Sounds fine to me, ladies and gents, and apparently Atletico’s president Cerezo agrees.
Last week, Eibar’s manager Jose Luis Mendilibar complained bitterly about how the whole comeback has been designed. He does not like the five subs and questions the fact that people can go to bars but can’t go to the stadium, even if it is in fractions of the total capacity… Well, there’s been so many questionable decisions made by governments all over the world during this pandemic that those choices that could be justified by risk aversion seem the least questionable. However, I do believe that there’s a humongous problem of wrong / poor incentives to get to politics, and until we don’t fix that as a society, we’ll be led by the bunch of incompetent morons that have taken over our institutions in almost every country.
Back to football: funnily enough and despite Mendilibar’s complaints, Eibar could be one of the most favoured teams regarding the no-fans matches. They play exactly the same way at home and away, and their high line will unsettle more than one team. Can’t see that happening at the Di Stefano on Saturday, but keep this tip for the upcoming matches.
And my two hunches for the rest of the season: 1. Even though Gareth Bale keeps practising his swing during Real Madrid training sessions, he’ll have a more than decent end of the season. 2. Asensio has looked great after his terrible injury. Zidane will give him plenty of chances, as the Mallorquin is one of the few players that he respects in terms of talent.
- Real Sociedad (4th) – Osasuna (11th): 1. 14/06, 22:00
A great way to finish the weekend! The most entertaining side in LaLiga – Martin Odegaard’s Real Sociedad – faces one of the toughest, most resilient ones – Osasuna, who are probably tied with Getafe leading the tournament in those dimensions.
The hosts’ privileged midfield is already worth a watch: Merino, Zubeldia and Odegaard are as entertaining as it gets, not only in terms of passing ability, but especially in movement, work rate and ability to cover huge sections of the pitch. If you enjoy midfield teams, you shouldn’t miss a single match of this lot. If the forwards had been slightly more inspired and the back four was a bit tougher, this team could compete for the title. As they are now, they can beat anyone on a given day.
It won’t be easy against Osasuna, and this is one of the matches in which the public would have made a difference, bearing in mind the traditional, good-hearted rivalry between both teams.
The huge problem for the visitors is Chimy Avila’s horrific injury, which has left them without a reliable scorer and of course without one of the most effective strikers in terms of driving defenders to making bizarre mistakes. That could cost them dear at the end of the season. I’m well aware of the fact that Real Sociedad suffer against tough squads, but I can’t see Osasuna scoring, so 1 it is.
And, by the way, Nacho Vidal will start for Osasuna as their right back. The footballer, that is, not the porn star.
As usual, if you want to share your picks with us, be our guest.
- Sevilla (3rd) – Betis (12th):
- Granada (9th) – Getafe (5th):
- Valencia (7th) – Levante (13th):
- Espanyol (20th) – Alavés (14th):
- Celta (17th) – Villarreal (8th):
- Leganés (19th) – Valladolid (15th):
- Mallorca (18th) – Barcelona (1st):
- Athletic de Bilbao (10th) – Atlético de Madrid (6th):
- Real Madrid (2nd) – Eibar (16th):
- Real Sociedad (4th) – Osasuna (11th):