La Liga Picks: Jornada 19

David Ramos

GRANADA over Valladolid

Granada are not the kind of team that can come back from goal deficits. When conceding first, el Grána are 0-1-10 compared to 6-1-0 when the Andalusian side score first. Part of this is because of Alcaraz' emphasis on midfield control. It's a very conservative style of football. And without proper game-changing forwards, remontadas become more difficult. This is not to say Alcaraz' possession-based style is ineffective, but because of certain limitations, the luxury to attack at all costs (like say Rayo for instance -- or what Rayo perceives to be such a luxury) just doesn't exist. Granada play intelligent football. Their attacking quality might not be immense, but they play within their abilities. By controlling the middle of the pitch, and remaining disciplined at the back, el Grána have ascended from a relegation candidate, to a proper mid-table team. Coming off a disappointing loss to Almería, they should be keen to get back on track here against a very below-average Guerra-dependent Valladolid side.

Granada 1 Valladolid 0

GETAFE over Rayo Vallecano

If Rayo concede a manita here, that will put Jémez' side on 50 goals against, with 19 matches left in the La Liga season. Basically that puts them on pace for a remarkable 100 goals conceded. Now, to be fair, the chances that Getafe can put 5 past any team, even as defensively feeble as Rayo, are pretty slim. Whatever the case, if Jémez continues to avoid adjustments, I fear the Canary Island manager may soon be without a job. The Rayo board members maintain trust in Jémez, and acknowledge their financial limitations as a main source of Rayo's struggles, rather than Jémez himself. But at some point enough is enough. Part of me thinks it would be best for all parties to terminate Jémez' contract, appoint a manager focused on results, rather than tactics, and allow Jémez to join another Spanish club next season -- albeit one with increased resources. Over the summer, Málaga offered to double Jémez ' wages, of which he declined. But with Málaga struggling under Schuster, I would not be surprised to see this offer revisited, should the German manager get sacked. Overall, Spanish football is better off with managers like Paco Jémez. But without the proper financial resources to support Jémez'  style, kamikaze-style football is just that -- kamikaze.

Getafe 3 Rayo Vallecano 1

ATHLETIC BILBAO over Almería

In what was a largely disappointing Euskal Derbia performance, los Leones left the Anoeta without a result, and now find themselves only one point up on an exceptionally in-form Real Sociedad team. Interestingly, Valverde opted for De Marcos at right-back, instead of Iraola, who doesn't offer as much pace in containment of Antoine Griezmann. In theory, this tactic would have seen De Marcos push Griezmann back into his own half, thus limiting his  involvement in the final third. To counter this, Arrasate switched Griezmann to right-wing, moving Vela left, but after around 20 minutes, reversed his tactics, moving Griezmann back into his natural position. Not long after, Griezmann scored the opener, albeit on some chaos in front of goal, putting pressure on Athletic to equalize, which they were unable to do. In acknowledgment of his mistake, Valverde inserted Iraola as right-back after the break, but at this point, it was too late. I mentioned last week Valverde's proclivity to attack down the flanks, but against la Real, Athletic's attack were almost exclusively focused through the center. But with Herrera unable to impose himself, los Leones were unable to create many chances. Part of me thinks Beñat would have been a more optimal solution here with his ability to distribute the ball into wide areas. But that's all hindsight, and I understand Valverde's logic, even if somewhat flawed. Whatever the case, I like the Basque side to recover their form against Almería. One encouraging observation from an Athletic point of view, by the way, is the form of Iker Muniain, who's playing some really good football. If he continues at this rate, Del Bosque would do well to consider him for a World Cup selection, as his ability to operate wide could be valuable on a midfield-centric Spanish team.

Athletic Bilbao 2 Almería 0

Valencia over CELTA VIGO

I'm actually very tempted to pick Celta here. Against Real Madrid, Enrique's side were largely the better team, but failed to finish their chances, allowing Benzema and Ronaldo to cap off late. This is not the first time Celta have produced a wonderful display of football, only to suffer from poor finishing, and precision in the final third. Just goes to show how a dependable striker could really enhance Celta's attack (ahem..Iago Aspas). But without a proper goal-scorer, I fear Celta will continue to wade around bottom-table. Valencia, meanwhile, largely impressed in Pizzi's debut, with goals from Piatti and Feghouli, en route to a 2-0 win over Levante. Some tactical observations on the Argentinian manager: back-line sat deep, but transitions were much faster, with more crosses into the box. Pizzi's emphasis on utilizing the flanks will really benefit players like Bernat, Piatti, Feghouli, etc. The latter two, by the way, had nearly fallen out of Djukic's rotations. This, to my view, was the most impressive part of Valencia's win. Two previously out-of-favor players placed in Pizzi's first XI, then having MOTM performances, is a testament to the kind of player management skills Djukic simply did not have. Above anything else, it is the psychology of the Valencia players that needs to be fixed. Pizzi did well to address this immediately, and took an excellent first step in what many hope is a long-term solution to Valencia's psychological issues.

Celta Vigo 2 Valencia 3

Barcelona over ATLÉTICO MADRID

This is bigger than any Clásico match in the last 3 or 4 years. For the first time in over a decade, there exists outside the "Big Two" a challenger for the Spanish league title. In the two previous Super Copa matches, neither Barcelona or Atletico were able to come out victors, though the Catalans will claim superiority on away goals. Both arrive in excellent form, with 49 points in 18 matches -- that's 16 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss apiece. For me, this comes down to two battles: Atlético's back-line vs. NEMESIS (Neymar, Messi, and Alexis). And Atlético's counter-attack vs. Barcelona's high-line defense. Despite having the luxury of improved creative players like Koke and Arda Turan, I think los Rojiblancos will remain most dangerous in transition. One key difference from last year's Atlético is the work-rate of Diego Costa. He is much more efficient outside the box than Falcão, and can contribute in a variety of ways the Columbian could not. Piqué, Bartra, and company should be hyper-aware of his presence at all times. The soon-to-be Spanish international has contributed 40% of Atletico's goals this season -- that's 19 of their 47 in La Liga. There are some concerns that Diego Godin and Filipe Luis may not be available due to injury, but barring a leg amputation or something, I find it hard to envisage them on the bench. Whatever happens, it is important to understand the significance of a match like this, of which nothing I could write would do it any semblance of justice. This is the game of the year. This is Blackwater Bay. Atlético-Barcelona. Who would have thought three seasons ago such a game would produce Clásico-level intensity.

Atlético Madrid 1 Barcelona 2

Sevilla over ELCHE

If Sevilla win this, it will mark their 4th consecutive away win, meaning I fully expect the Earth's axis to tilt the wrong way, causing a massive ice storm to hit Spain's southeastern coast, or something. There is no way a team that went over 400 days without an away win can possibly win four consecutively away from the Pizjuan. But Emery's side enter as one of the most in-form teams in the league, amassing 19 points in their last 7 matches. Part of this success is the result of Rakitic's deployment in a more optimal advanced "10" role. I've inundated criticism on Emery in relation to Rakitic's positioning, of which regular readers of this column can surely attest to, and so it is with relief that I've noticed the Croatian's repositioning into a more natural "10" role. By deploying him as such it allows Rakitic more creative freedom, as he is the most optimal player to link attacks, rather than target passes from deep. It is probably not without coincidence that Sevilla's defense has improved as well. With Rakitic moved up the pitch, Emery has used Iborra and M'Bia in a more natural defensive pivot, helping to anchor a previously frail defense. Sevilla have conceded a mere 5 goals in their last 6 matches, compared to 24 in the previous 11. To put a number on that, that's a 63% decrease in goals conceded. Quite impressive indeed. As for Elche, Super Fran have struggled to score in recent weeks, only managing 1 in their last 4 La Liga matches. If they can find a way to neutralize Rakitic, and stagnate Sevilla's attack, they may be able to produce some danger in transition. At the Martinez Valero, I wouldn't be surprised to see a draw here, but with Sevilla in such immense form, I'm putting money on that ice storm.

Elche 1 Sevilla 2

REAL BETIS over Osasuna

As we witness a rejuvenated Valencia team under Juan Antonio Pizzi, I can't help but wonder why Garrido can't inspire that same kind of uplift. Not that he's not trying, of course (see my post two weeks ago regarding this). But some managers just don't possess that kind of psychological ability, regardless of their tactical aptitude. Garrido just doesn't strike me as the kind of leader with such qualities, meaning the January transfer window will be vital to Real Betis' survival this season. The Andalusian side have been linked to a host of players including Isaac Cuenca, Dorlan Pabón, and Leo Baptistão, to name a few. Let me just say if even two of these three players arrive at the Benito Villamarín, what a travesty Pepe Mel's sacking would be, in hindsight. Imagine what Mel could do with a front-line consisting of Rubén Castro, Dorlan Pabón, and Leo Baptistão. Interestingly, though, Real Betis have offered to pay €2.3m for six months of Baptistão's service, not to mention an additional 750K for Pabón. Quite puzzling, really, when you consider that Real Betis are in financial administration. Whatever the case, los Béticos haven't won a La Liga match since September 29th against Villarreal. Following their 0-0 draw to Valladolid last week, Garrido said in his press conference he was "encouraged" by Betis' performance, and that a draw at the Jose Zorilla was a good result. I hope he doesn't actually believe that. A 0-0 stink-fest against a relegation-dwelling Valladolid team is not a good result at all. If that's how Garrido is attempting to inspire confidence, he may want to re-think his approach. Following a win in Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao, I'm going out on a limb here, but I think some of that confidence may carry over, moderate as it may be.

Real Betis 1 Osasuna 0

Real Madrid over ESPANYOL

On Wednesday it was announced Xabi Alonso signed a contract extension with Real Madrid until 2016, earning 6m per year, with an option to renew. There was a lot of speculation the Spanish international would leave due to a variety of reasons -- not feeling 100% physically, more money (PSG and Juventus reportedly offered almost double in wages), change of scenery, etc. -- but turns out Alonso is a Madridista after all. I myself would have fancied a return to San Sebastian as a mentor to Rubén Pardo. But I don't fault him for his decision. He is a true legend of Spanish football, and deserves everything given to him. Hala Alonso.

As for the actual match-up, Aguirre's side will find any kind of result difficult, even at Cornella-El Prat. Espanyol are coming off a 1-0 loss to Alcorcon in Copa del Rey, though to be fair, the Madrid-based side are somewhat of a legendary King's Cup participant. Los Periquitos sit in a seemingly respectable 10th place, but because the Liga table is so cluttered from 9-20, they remain a mere 6 points from the drop zone. I think one could look at La Liga as a three-level league. High above anyone else is Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid, as genuine title contenders. The second level contains European-caliber clubs like Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Villarreal, and Valencia. The third level, however, is very clustered, and contains the remaining 12 clubs all of whom, to my view, are not without relegation concerns. Unfortunately for Espanyol, they fall into this category. And with immense financial concerns going into the January transfer window, I hope Aguirre's motivational talents are enough, because it is highly unlikely further quality will be acquired.

Espanyol 0 Real Madrid 3

LEVANTE draw with Málaga

Capparos' side have only won once in their last 8 La Liga matches. getting outscored 13-5 in that span. There is not much analysis to be given here. Levante just lack adequate talent. 33 year-old defender "Nagore" has rescinded his contract with Alcorcon to join the Valencian side, which will be his debut Primera club. How much of an impact this has remains to be seen. He fits the Levante profile, i.e., hard-working, well-traveled Segunda veteran. But this will mark the former Atletico Madrid cantera's 12th Spanish club in 14 years. That kind of experience could prove useful on a team keen to avoid a relegation encounter, even if the vast majority of that was spent in the lower divisions. But los Granotes have a way of transforming lower-division experience into a proper sense of Primera know-how. As for Málaga, the Costa del Sol outfit have been linked to a variety of players including Thievy Bifouma and John Guideti, and have already signed Newell's Old Boys legend, and Philadelphia Union target, Pablo Perez. Schuster should be hopeful the Argentinian can solve Málaga ineffectiveness in the final third, namely in linking attacks, and picking out forward runs. At the Ciutat de Valencia, I like a proper mid-table draw here.

Levante 1 Málaga 1

Real Sociedad over VILLARREAL

Round two of what is three consecutive matches between the two Primera sides. Thursday saw a moderately entertaining 0-0 draw in Copa del Rey, meaning both should be keen to refocus, and get back on the score sheet. I'm going with la Real here, even at El Madrigal, as I perceive the Basque side to be better equipped for a European run, as I have some concerns of the overall squad talent of this newly promoted Villarreal team. What they've achieved to this point is remarkable, considering they spent the first half of last season hovering mid-table in Segunda. Cani, Gio, and Bruno have been immense, as has Musacchio and Asenjo; but beyond this I am doubtful Marcelino's side can maintain their form without faltering somewhat. Above anything else this team needs a reliable goal-scorer. Perbet and Uche can be good squad players on a Europa League team, but not the focal point of every attack. I suspect Villarreal's board will address this over the summer, but for now, I'm betting on a slight decline of form. The emergence of Rubén Pardo, and his ability to orchestrate in the final third (thanks in large part to Bergara's work-rate as Pardo's pivot partner), and the constant threat of Griezmann and Vela out wide, is enough for me in what I expect to be more high-scoring than their midweek affair.

Villarreal 1 Real Sociedad 3

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