Edit: Barcelona-Athletic now included.
GETAFE draw with Levante
Interesting statistic on Getafe. In matches against clubs positioned in European places (Real Madrid, Atlético Madid, Villarreal, Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao) Getafe is 1-4 with a -11 goal differential. In matches against clubs outside the European positions (Valencia, Valladolid, Almería, Osasuna, Real Betis, Espanyol, Elche, Granada, Celta Vigo) Getafe is 5-2-2 with a +7 goal differential. Mind you, this is skewed somewhat by a 7-0 loss to Atlético, but also equally skewed by a 1-0 loss to Valencia, who aren't in a European position, but are rather expected to be. What does this information tell us? Getafe are what we thought they were, to paraphrase Dennis Green. To their credit, los Azulones beat the teams they're supposed to beat, and are excellent at protecting leads. Luis Garcia's men are 5-1-0 when scoring first, and excluding Atlético, have only conceded 1 goal after the 70th minute, and that was to Cristiano Ronaldo. With both teams struggling for form, however, I like a draw. Los Granotes are winless in their last four (albeit with some bad luck), but tend to play well when you least expect it.
Getafe 1 Levante 1
VILLARREAL over Málaga
"Schuster vete ya" chanted fans at La Rosaleda Monday night, as Málaga lost 2-1 to Athletic Bilbao, dropping them into 15th position, with an overall record of 3-4-7. This translates literally as "Schuster out with you." Los Boquerones have only won once in their last 8 matches, getting outscored 17-7 in that span, and now find themselves only 1 point clear of relegation. Understandably, fans are frustrated. Of the Primera Divisíon managers whose jobs are in question, I would argue Schuster's is the most unstable. Though the German boasts an impressive pedigree, it is the manner in which Málaga loses, that is troublesome. There doesn't seem to be any kind of system in place (and if there is it's clearly not working), not to mention misguided team selections and substitutions. For instance, against Athletic, with the game level, Schuster subs out his only striker, Juanmi (who had scored earlier), for Pawlowski, a winger, morphing Schuster's side into a 4-6, essentially. If you look at the positional report at Who Scored, Málaga's entire midfield is condensed into a 10 yard area. Barça fans can relate to this when Iniesta is deployed wide, and drops into the center against low-block defenses. It just clogs up the middle of the pitch. Málaga's issues were further exasperated when Camacho, a defensive midfielder, was subbed in for Samuel, a winger. Down a goal, with 5 minutes to play, in your stadium, I can't make sense of why Schuster would want to further concede in attack. In short, with so many tactical issues, if Schuster can't get a win in his next 3 matches (Villarreal, Elche, Getafe), he'll be out by the holiday break.
Málaga 1 Villarreal 3
Atlético Madrid over ELCHE
When I said last week that I expected a "warlike performance" from Atlético Madrid, what I did not expect was a complete and utter 7-0 slaughter job, including a golazo de chilena from Diego Costa. Interestingly, Atlético have now won 5-0 and 7-0 in the two matches ensueing from dropped La Liga points. This is a bloody revenge team. And who better to be the faces of avengment than Cholo and Costa. What is striking to me, though, is Atlético's current level of depth. With Costa and Godin on the bench, in comes Alderweireld and Raúl Garcia, but the pace, form, and attitude remains unchanged. Both were immense, and had MOTM-type performances. Raùl, with his brace, now has 8 goals in 11 matches, and is developing into one of the best off-the-bench players in Spain. Alderweireld, though playing behind the rock-solid partnership of Godin and Miranda, is starting to make a case for regular inclusion. Toby, as the Spaniards are calling him, was 100% on tackles, aerial duels, and clearances, and completed 34/35 passes. Breaking into, what I perceive to be, the best defensive back four in Europe, will be challenging. But undoubtedly the young Belgian is making quite the case for himself.
A quick note on Elche, though. Through 14 rounds of football, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better 'manager of the year' candidate than Super Fran Escribá. Well, excluding Martino and Cholo, maybe. So let's make this an otra Liga award. After a dramatic win in the Valencia derby, Los Franjiverdes find themselves in 10th place, and three points off a European position. Talk about exceeding expectations. It was Elche's first win against Los Che since 1975. With most of their creative players unavailable, and grappling with obvious limitations, Escribá showed tremendous confidence in his insertion of the young Cristian Herrera, who went on to score a match-winner. Freshly promoted from Elche Ilicitano in Segunda B, where he had scored 12 in 13 matches, his inclusion came as a surprise, albeit a testament to Escribá's coaching style. There is a self-belief instilled in this team that is not dissimilar to a certain Atlético Madrid. Even at the Martínez Valero, I like Atléti. But a huge shout out to Super Fran, and the fightin' Franjis. A very enjoyable team to watch.
Atlético Madrid 3 Elche 0
CELTA VIGO over Almeria
Away from the Balaídos, Celta is 3-4 with an even goal differential. At home, Lucho's side is 0-3-4 with a -7 goal differential. They are the only team in the Primera Divisíon that haven't won at home. But 12 points in 14 rounds, without a single home win, is not bad really. Assuming Luis Enrique can amend that home form, Celta might indeed be a mid table team. Coming off a somewhat dejecting loss at the Anoeta, where the Galician side conceded a 2 goal lead, and 4 goals to Carlos Vela, I actually fancy their chances here. One of Almería's weaknesses is defending against attacks in wide positions. Against la Real, prior to Fontas' dismissal, Celta came out in a 4-3-3 with Rafhina and Nolito flanked. By utilizing Rafinha wide, Lucho was able to balance his attack, albeit sacrificing some possession. It's not an optimal approach, but with so many limitations in the final third, experimentation is inevitable. In 13 matches, Rafinha has been deployed in 5 different positions, depending on the formation. This was undoubtedly his best performance of the season. Whether that has any correlation to his deployment on the wing, I don't know. But it's an additional tactical option for Lucho to consider going forward.
Celta Vigo 2 Almería 1
REAL MADRID over Valladolid
Somehow overlooked, Juan Ignacio Martinez has only won 4 of his last 31 Liga matches -- 2 of 17 with Levante, and 2 of 14 with Valladolid. That's a winning percentage of .129%. Just astounding, really. Affectionately known as JIM, he was appointed manager of Levante in June of 2011, and led the Granotes to a 6th place finish, and into Europa League, for the first time in the club's 102-year existence. Last season, after starting out well, Levante free-fell into 11th place, achieving only 2 wins in their final 17 matches. Now head of la Pucela, not much has changed. The Valencian manager is struggling to cope without his high-production midfielder, Oscar, who's been out since Jornada 4 with persisting knee injuries. Against Real Madrid, I fully expect Martinez' win percentage to decline further.
Side note: With Javi Guerra reportedly uninterested in a contract extension, the Valladolid board face an interesting dilemma: sell Guerra now for a profit, and risk relegation, or keep Guerra for the remainder of the season, out of circumspection. For me, it's a no-brainer. Keep Guerra. If he leaves on a Bosman, at least you're still in the Primera (hopefully). Worst case scenario: Guerra finishes out the season, but Ebert is sold to Atlético, and Valladolid drop down. Which, actually, seems pretty realistic. Yikes.
Real Madrid 3 Valladolid 0
Real Sociedad draw with ESPANYOL
With la Real out of all European competitions (final Champion's League match withstanding), I expect the season to get easier from hereon. At least in terms of less physical demand. But something struck me regarding Arrasate's presser following their loss to Shakhtar Donetsk. There was something melancholic about it. I suppose that's normal. A dead-bottom group finish is not what everyone had in my mind, I'm sure. But Arrasate said that he was "sad" that Real Sociedad couldn't continue. And that "it will be tough" to finish 4th in the league, and re-claim their European place. Maybe I'm using these quotes out of context. But there is something awry about Arrasate's general temperament. What made la Real so entertaining last season was not just their high-tempo style or creative abilities, but a general sense of confidence that doesn't seem to exist right now -- at least not entirely. Tactical errors can be accredited to Arrasate's inexperience, but all the pre-existing intangible stuff, that made Real Sociedad what they were, but is seemingly missing, is another problem for Arrasate entirely. And not one that can be addressed on a chalk board or in a film room.
Real Sociedad 2 Espanyol 2
REAL BETIS over Rayo Vallecano
Viva er Betis, manqué pierda. That is what Béticos -- including myself, as a secondary fan -- continue to tell themselves. We call them the best fans in the Primera Divisíon. And for good reason. But I don't think I've ever been so disillusioned as I was following that 4-0 loss in El Derbi Sevillano. Arguably the worst Betis performance I've ever seen. And it's becoming increasingly difficult to defend Pepe Mel. From poor team selections, over-rotations, to lack of a coherent system -- nothing is working. There's been ample speculation over Mel's job security, and the general consensus seems to be that he is safe, for now, due to two primary factors. The first being Mel's social eminence within the Betis fan base. Firing Mel would put the club in a dissonant position with it's fans, and risks mass alienation with Ultras, who maintain large external influence over the club. The second reason is that Mel is one of the lowest-paid managers in La Liga. His termination would thus not be cost-effective. For a club in administration, this is an important factor. Whatever the case, Pepe Mel is many things, but he is not an idiot. If results don't improve by the Christmas break, he's a goner, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. God Save Pepe Mel.
Side note:I can't believe this shit still exists, by the way. Betis ultras making monkey chants at Paulão, their own player, after being sent off. With actual footage of the abuse, the "pressure" now mounts on the LFP to take action. Up to this point, they haven't, though the club itself came out publicly condemning such behavior.
Real Betis 2 Rayo Vallecano 1
Sevilla over GRANADA
Part of why Betis lost was their own lack of energy, focus, and discipline. The other part of it was because Sevilla were clicking on all cylinders. Jose Reyes' inclusion in Emery's XI came as somewhat of a surprise, considering it was his first Liga start of the season. But Reyes has a proclivity toward derby performances. The former Spanish international now has 3 goals and 5 assists against Real Betis, with Sevilla scoring 14 goals against their cross-town rivals when Reyes plays. What stood out to me, though, was Emery's intelligent team selection and tactics. Anticipating a physical style from Betis, Emery countered by using M'Bia and Iborra in a double pivot, rather than Rakitic, who played more advanced. It was quite the effective tactic as the defensive duo imposed themselves impressively, combining for 30 interceptions, compared to Betis' 12, and were very organized, won majority of 50/50's, and looked to hit directly in attack. I've criticized Emery for his deployment of Rakitic in deep positions, and though he remains inclined to use him as such, this was a great example of Emery's ability to adapt.
Sevilla 3 Granada 1
VALENCIA over Osasuna
After an imposing first half against Elche, Djukic's side were hard-done not to come away with a result. Not that we should be sympathetic. Valencia are who they are. And right now, Los Che just aren't that good. Despite an up-and-down season, there are several players who have really asserted themselves under Djukic. The first of which is Dani Parejo, who really came into his own under Valverde last season, and has continued his good form into this year. The former Real Madrid canterano leads Los Che in key passes per game, attempted passes, and successful crosses, and ranks top three in assists, successfull dribbles, lobs, and through balls. His involvement in Djukic's attack has, arguably, put him above Banega on the team sheet -- who is still too erratic and aggressive at times. The other standout is Victor Ruíz, who's been a subject of my acclaim previously. Once known as an underachiever, Ruíz has cemented himself in Djukic's rotations, and looks to be the most consistent defender available now. The level of quality between Valenica and Osasuna is not even a question. But like every Valenica match, it's almost impossible to predict.
Valencia 2 Osasuna 0
ATHLETIC BILBAO draw with Barcelona
I feel like I'm tempting fate here. Anyone who knows anything about Spanish football knows this is the fixture of the week. With Barcelona's lengthy injury concerns, and Athletic's good form, many anticipate an even-fought contest. Athletic aren't without their own injury/suspension concerns, though. Kike Sola and Aduriz, Valverde's preferred strikers, both remain unavailable, which means we could either see the young, but highly regarded Guillermo, or De Marcos, potentially, as a false nine. Whatever Valverde's decision, I doubt he will be keen to replicate his positioning of Ander Herrera on the right wing, as seen against Málaga. As it stands, Athletic's central midfield zone, without Ander, is better. Iturraspe has, arguably, been los Leones' best player this season. And with the addition of Beñat (Who, I think, Valverde prefers not to partner with Ander), not to mention the highly productive Mikel Rico, there simply is no place for an out-of-form Herrera. Using Herrera wide (Which reaks of desperation from Valverde) restricts Iraola on the overlap, who is vital to Athletic's attack. Not to mention this comes at the expense of Susaeta, who's very reliable, and links up extraordinarily well with Iraola. However Valverde chooses his XI, I think that right flank, if at full strength (Susaeta, Iraola), will be key, as Adriano will be returning for the first time in several weeks. If there is a team that is equipped to find gaps in the Barça defense, it is Athletic, will a plethora of clever, intelligent midfielders. Busquets' return is also crucial, in terms of controlling pace. Quick thought: if Alex Song (Who has been half-decent, admittedly), were forced to play this match, I'd go with an Athletic win, hands-down. What does that say about our level of trust in Song/importance of Busquets to the Barça system? Our criticisms of Song are trite, at times, but arguably justified, as Cameroonian midfielder, in my view, is in no way equipped to play as a lone pivot against a high-press, midfield-heavy team like Athletic.
Athletic Bilbao 2 Barcelona 2