VILLAREAL over Granada
Look for Villarreal to show a little more tenacity than they did at the Benito Villamarin last week. With Gio and Perbet on the bench, Los Submarinos failed to create many chances. Even in transition, one of their biggest strengths, Marcelino's boys looked lethargic. Real Betis aren't exactly stellar defensively (though Amaya, Paulao, and Vilá were all fantastic). Betis play pretty high up the pitch, and tend to open up a lot of gaps at the back. Villarreal, despite all of their pace, were not able to take advantage. Zero shots on goal in counter situations. A lot of people on Twitter were saying Villarreal deserved better, but I disagree. With no Gio on breaks, or Perbet's finishing in front of goal, Villarreal don't look half as dangerous.
Expect them to bounce back at El Madrigal, though. Barring injuries, Gio and Perbet are almost certain to start, and will be looking to score goals. On the other side of things, I would love to see Granada continue scoring. Going into last week's contest against Athletic, El Grána had been the lowest scoring team in the league. Despite moves for double-digit strikers, Piti and Riki, Granada have pretty much picked up where they left off. The problem: not enough creativity, and poor link up between the midfield and forward line. Piti and Riki may have had career seasons, and are both on the wrong side of 30, but I believe they can still put the ball in the net. They just need better service. No team plays more long balls than Granada. And only Levante, with 38% possession, are worse at retaining the ball. Alcaraz prefers a direct style, with play down the flanks, but they need more depth centrally. Against Athletic, they looked much more comfortable in possession, and were attacking down the flanks, but also through the middle, with more runners and second ball winners. Many, including myself, were high on Granada coming into the season. If they can maintain some intensity, and find some central balance, they might just be all right.
Villarreal 2 Granada 1
MALAGA over Osasuna
Admittedly, Osasuna have looked slightly better since Mendilibar was sacked (though to reiterate, I don't blame him for that). They've scored four goals in the last four matches, and are playing with more intensity. But I don't want to get ahead of myself -- the Pamplona outfit is still largely weak in attack, and not very disciplined defensively either. They're still very poor defending counters, and are fouling a lot in dangerous areas. They're on pace to concede sixty-two goals, compared to fifty from last season. Very un-Mendilibar-like. Only Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico, and Real Sociedad conceded less goals than Los Rojillos last year. I have no doubt Osasuna will be in a relegation fight at the end of the season. And though they always find a way to survive, without that traditionally strong defense, Liga Adelante seems more and more likely.
Málaga, contrarily, look half-decent. Their only loss was 1-0 against Barcelona. They are +5 in goal differential, with nine of their eleven goals coming in open play. Portillo and Morales have been steady, as well as Eliseu, and more recently, Pawlowski. However their standout player so far has been ex-Mallorca midfielder Fernando Tissone. Among defensive midfielders in La Liga, only Gabi is averaging more tackles per game. He's also done an excellent job initiating attacks down the flanks to Málaga's abovementioned wingers. And defensively, Los Boquerones are as good as ever. With Wellington out injured, new signings Chen and Angeleri have stepped up and played well. Sergio Sanchez and Jesus Gamez are, as per usual, very sound at the back. And Antunes, I'd wager, is a top three left back in La Liga right now. Against such an effective defense, it's hard to imagine Osasuna getting points from this. At La Rosaleda, I'm going for a comfortable home win.
Málaga 2 Osasuna 0
Espanyol over ELCHE
I'd like to write about how well Espanyol are playing under Aguirre, and how impactful new signings Lanzaotte, Thievy, and David Lopez have been. But how can one focus on anything other than Elche's heartbreaking loss at the Bernabeu last week. In case you've been living under a rock, here's a clip of the incident that got Real Madrid the three points. Pretty bizarre. Real Madrid deserved absolutely nothing from that game. I've watched these plays over and over. No way should a free kick be given just outside the area like that. And that 96th minute penalty, I don't even want to go there. Interestingly, in the aftermath of all this, it was revealed the referee in question, Muñiz Fernandez, is something of a protege to the General Director of the Spanish Football Referreeing Committee. It is the same official who, depending on who you ask, wrongly disallowed Sevilla's equalizer against Barcelona in Jornada 4. The committee has gone out of their way to protect Fernandez, and have attempted to cover up his gaffes numerous times in the past. There is no doubt Ramos should have been sent off in the first half, and neither of Ronaldo's goals should have happened. The match was prolonged unnecessarily long, with the deciding penalty awarded one minute after injury time, in the 96th minute. Pepe dragged Elche's defender down to the ground in what was a shameful attempt to win a penalty. But it worked. Ronaldo scores the PK. Game over. Three points for Real Madrid.
Let's be honest. Do I think there's match-fixing in La Liga that involves Barcelona and Real Madrid, No, I don't. But do I think a certain bias exists that benefits the bigger clubs? Absolutely. Barcelona and Real Madrid are always going to get close calls. The same way Manchester United and Chelsea will get close calls in the Premier League. And Bayern and Dortmund in Bundesliga. And so forth and so forth. But the officiating in Spain is just downright atrocious at times. What Pepe did should be condemned. And Fernandez should be punished harshly. But with the LFP, its hard to imagine anything will be done. Real Madrid won. And that's all Tebas probably cares about.
As for Espanyol, they had been playing well until two consecutive losses against Villarrreal and Getafe. I'd like to give this one to Elche, you know, just for their troubles. But the Franjiverdes came up huge with a big three-pointer against Celta Vigo at the Balaídos. Their first win of the season. At the Martinez Valero, I think this one might actually be good. But Aguirre's squad need to bounce back. Going with an away win.
Side note: One last interesting bit about the Elche-Real Mardrid incident. After the game, the Spanish police received 120 notifications of robbery claims. And they say only UK fans have a sense of humor. Also, nothing goes unnoticed in Balotelli-land.
Espanyol 2 Elche 1
Real Sociedad over RAYO VALLECANO
Possibly the most interesting fixture of Jornada 8. Both teams need wins badly. For La Real, they need to regain their confidence, that Erreala swagger. We fell head over heels for this team because of the exciting, attractive football that they play. After a heartbreaking loss to Bayern Leverkusen in Champion's League they find themselves bottom of the group, with zero points in two matches. Not exactly ideal. With a trip to Old Trafford coming up, things are not looking up for La Real. They are hard-done, though, not to come away with anything. They are playing well, but clearly not without issues. For one, Illarramendi's absence is hurting. I didn't think his departure would be so impactful, but I was wrong. As dynamic as Griezmann and Vela can be, there is something not quite as fluid about their attack. The link between central midfield and the forward line is a problem. Illarramendi, though a deep lying midfielder, offered creativity from deep, central positions, and was very effective transitioning La Real's attacks. He played a very similar role to Xabi Alonso. And La Real play a very similar style to Real Madrid. If you cut off the source, the entire attack stagnates. Pardo, good as he is, is a different player. He does not get forward as well as his predecessor, though distributes the ball excellently. In defense, he has to improve on his tackling, and needs to get stronger in the air. Overall I think this season will be an uphill battle. Battling European matches with domestic play is difficult for a young, inexperienced club. I foolishly hyped them rarher heavily in my La Liga preview, which was probably premature. The talent is there. But there are a lot of things going against them right now. Not sure they are quite equipped for the challenge.
Rayo, of course, are experiencing their own problems. With twenty-one goals conceded, only NEC Nijmegen of Eredivisie, have conceded more in all of Europe. We all marvel at Paco Jémez's fearlessness, but there has to be some fault in not adjusting to your limitations. Rayo were the first team since Real Madrid in 2008 to have a higher possession percentage than Barcelona. And yet they lost 4-0. They rank in the top five in numerous offensive categories including possession and pass completion percentage, but they lack scoring options. I still think Viera can make an impact, but with no Piti or Baptistäo, there is no one to finish those chances. For as much as we admire Jémez's undying loyalty to high-tempo, attacking football, if adjustments are not made I fear for Rayo's survival. And with Real Sociedad desperate for a good performance, this week might be a lot of the same.
Real Sociedad 3 Rayo Vallecano 1
Real Madrid over LEVANTE
For a much better, in-depth look into this fixture, read Richard Martin's excellent piece on the Bleacher Report. As Richard notes, Real Madrid-Levante ties tend to get ugly. Last year's rainy slugfest ended with a Ronaldo black eye, and Pepe getting punched in the face. If you go back to when Levante returned to the first division in 2010, there has been a number of altercations, including a confrontation between Ballesteros and Mourihno. Several of the players involved in these incidents are still around, and available to play including Ramos, Pepe, Navarro, and Juanfran. If you think Clasicos are bad, you haven't seen anything yet. I would expect nothing short of an HBO special for this one.
In terms of actual football, Levante don't look half-bad. Since their opening fixture against Barcelona, the Granotes have only conceded four goals in six matches. Caparros' side are doing an excellent job in defense, and are aided by some excellent performances from defensive midfielder Pape Diop. In attack, Levante's main focus is to transition down the flanks via wingers Pedro Rios and Xumetra. Rubén Garcia, they're best player this season, might be the one to watch. Rubén can play centrally, or in a wide left attacking role. He leads Levante in key passes per game, successful dribbles, and chances created. If Levante are going to score, it will come through him.
Despite Real Madrid's 4-0 and 6-1 Champion's League victories, they have yet to play a complete game in La Liga. After a crushing defeat in the Madrid derby, Ancelotti's side finds themselves in an awkward place. One gets the feeling Los Blancos are stuck between Mourihno's old tactics, and Ancelotti's new ones. I expect them to sort it out, but a trip to the Ciutat de Valencia is the last place they want to go. If history is to go by, this has the look of an absolute bruiser.
Real Madrid 2 Levante 0