La Liga Picks: Jornada 21

Denis Doyle

CELTA VIGO draw with Real Betis

With the appointment of Gabriel Calderón as the new Real Betis manager (their third in 48 days), the words sí se puede never rang more true. Calderón is a born-and-bred Bético. Seemingly adrift from Betis-land for over 25 years now (since his playing days in Seville from 83-87), Calderón has been managing in the Middle East for the last 10 years, but is an actual club shareholder, and even participated in a Betis Legends XI match back in November alongside Pepe Mel. Two of Calderón's reported assistants will be distinguished ex-Bético Eduardo Anzarda, and former 2005 Copa del Rey-winning capita, Juan José Cañas (also, incidentally, uncle to former Betis midfielder, and current Swansea man, Jose Cañas). Calderón's enthusiasm and passion for this club, however, is best represented in his own words.

"I've played in World Cups and finals and important matches, but in this ground is where I was happiest - thanks to the Betis fans. And that's why it's a dream come true to be here. When I remember that silence, I get goosebumps. You can't fake that, you know - you either feel it or you don't, and that's how I feel today...Why have I come? Because I'm convinced that I can take things forward. In any other club this situation would be almost impossible, but knowing the Betis fans, and the squad, in whom I have lots of confidence, [I'm convinced we can do it]...But we have to be united.

Listen to me: we have to be united! If Barcelona or Real Madrid are united, we have to be more united. No more talk about personal interests, about who's leaving or who's doing well - this is square one. I've come here to give my life [to the cause], and obviously I have full belief that we can save ourselves. Because I'm not a loser. In my career I might not have been Messi or Maradona, but I'm a winner. A worker and a winner."

Doesn't get much more Bético than that. Words are just words. Powerful as they may be. Whether Calderón can transcend all the behind-the-scenes chaos at Real Betis remains to be seen. But this is a good start. Obtaining a result in Vigo would be another.

Celta Vigo 1 Real Betis 1

REAL MADRID over Granada

Ancelotti's side barely escaped los Cármenes with a 1-0 win back in Jornada 2. Despite Granada's improved form (and my excessive praise) since Alcaraz' tactical changes, I like los Blancos here, and by a good margin. The last time Granada won at the Bernabeau was in 1974. Interestingly, el Grána finished 5th on the Liga table that season, compared to Real Madrid, who finished in 8th. Shame that kind of parity doesn't exist anymore. Anyway, though I don't think Real Madrid are playing spectacularly right now (5-0 over Betis doesn't count...everyone beats Betis 5-0), they are undefeated in 2014 and have yet to concede a goal. If Granada had a little more fire-power up front, I'd be keen on a closer contest here. El-Arabi's work-rate is immense, but lacks that lethal finishing ability. Recio, Rico, and Iturra's hard-work in midfield would be better served with an improved focal point, like say, Javi Guerra (hint, hint). Granada's possession-based style has suited them well, but without the front-line attackers to break down Real Madrid's defense, I like another clean sheet here.

Real Madrid 2 Granada 0

Villarreal over VALLADOLID

La Pucela nearly pulled off the impossible last week, when they went into half-time up 1-0 over Athletic at the new San Mamés. JIM's side were struck back down to Earth, however, after conceding 4 second-half goals en route to a pretty standard 4-2 loss. I don't think I've ever seen a JIM team this poor defensively. In his two seasons at Levante los Granotes conceded an average of 1.4 goals per game, compared to 1.9 this season at Valladolid. They were absolutely bombarded with crosses last week, as los Leones put in a league-high 55 into the box. To put that into the context, Athletic lead all teams in La Liga with an average of 29.95 crosses per game. That's a massive increase there. Poor Pucela.

Going up against an in-form Uche and an explosive Villarreal attack, it's going to be difficult for Valladolid. Marcelino's side are partial towards attacking down the flanks and creating chances using through-balls -- two areas of relative weakness for the Castilla y Leon side. Villarreal have only won once ever at the Jose Zorilla, so don't be surprised if this one stays tight, but I like los Submarinos.

By the way, what is the origin of pucela? I've heard everything relating from Joan of Arc, to the cement trade, to...lack of adequate sanitation in 16th Century Valladolid. If anyone has knowledge on this, feel free to share -- my Valladolid connections are thin.

Valladolid 1 Villarreal 2

VALENCIA over Espanyol

These days I feel like Valencia's internal and administrative story-lines are more interesting than their actual football performances. Here's the latest on their potential investment situation: Bankia are currently ruminating multiple offers, of which will remain anonymous due to confidentiality agreements (excluding Peter Lim, of course). The speculation is that Peter Lim was actually out-bid by American investment firm, TPG Capital. Though unconfirmed, it is well-known that TPG has invested heavily into Spanish real estate, making the potential sale of the current Mestalla ground VERY appealing (assuming the market improves). For me, this is a classic "buy now, sell for a profit" situation. Valencia should be weary of this. The model of an investment firm is profit-based. What Valencia need, however, is long-term interest and an improved model of self-sustainability.

Whatever happens, this whole process is moving much slower than Valencia's famously impatient fan-base would have liked. The club, for instance, cannot buy players without Bankia's consent, of which they will not receive until the sale process has been completed. Rumor is that an agreement has been made with Napoli for Edu Vargas on a six-month loan contract. Vargas has been immense for the Chilean national team, and would provide an instant upgrade at the center-forward position. But the documentation has yet to be finalized due to Bankia's reluctance to get involved in player transfers at the moment. As always with Valencia, developments on-going...

Update: Vargas has been confirmed to Valencia. Excellent player. Don't be surprised to see another second-half ascension from Valencia this season.

Valencia 3 Espanyol 1

SEVILLA over Levante

Oh my, that Fazio-Costa choke-punch. What an image. The last 20 minutes of that Atletico-Sevilla tie were pretty intense, to say the least. Once Sevilla equalized on a sublimely-taken penalty-kick by Rakitic, all hell broke lose at the Calderón. Between the aforementioned choke-punch, Moreno's red card (and ensuing 10 minute walk off the pitch), and all the American football-style tackles, I was quite entertained. Sevilla leave the Calderón quite content, I would think, and now sit on 31 points just past the half-way mark on the Liga season. With 10 of their remaining 18 games at the Pizjuan, Emery's side should be keen to finish around the 60-point mark (a highly probable European position). Quite the improvement from last season's 50 point finish, especially considering Monchi's roster over-haul this summer.

Levante, similarly, are coming their own positive result, a 1-1 draw with Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia. A rather rewarding "trip to the dentist" for Joaquin Caparros, who did an excellent job of boxing out Messi into a deep interior position, effectively stagnating Barcelona's attack, with no other players seemingly interested in taking on any creative responsibilities. These aren't new tactics from Caparros, of course, but they were executed well. So credit where it's due here. Against Sevilla, I expect los Granotes to sit back again, which tends to cause trouble for Unai Emery at times. But coming off that emotional slug-fest in Madrid, I like Sevilla here.

Sevilla 3 Levante 0

Getafe over ALMERÍA

Going somewhat unnoticed this year (at least among English-speaking Spanish football people) is that Suso has not started a league game for Almería since Jornada 16 against Espanyol. In fact, prior to last week, Suso had only played a total of 32 minutes over three match-rounds. Apparently, the Liverpool-owned player has been having some off-the-pitch issues. This is not a new development, mind you. Like I said, Suso hasn't started a La Liga match in over a month now. But English-language coverage of Almería is limited (as is my Spanish), and so I was unaware of all this until recently. But a couple of weeks ago Almería's official Twitter account posted this:

This translates roughly as "Suso punished. I no longer want you, get out of Almeria, you're a drunk." Pretty strong words. Probably not by coincidence, Suso has also been dropped recently from the Spain U-21 squad. The rumor is that he's been caught several times out on the streets of Almería at 3 A.M. piss-drunk. Kind of a shame, really, the mind-sets of young players, with that larger-than-life attitude. Here's to hoping Francisco can sort this out. Suso's talents are too exceptional to be wasted by immaturity and belligerence.

Almería 1 Getafe 2

Athletic Bilbao over OSASUNA

After their emphatic remuntada against Valladolid last week, Valverde's side look to extend their good form against an improved Osasuna team who are unbeaten in their last 5 matches now. As mentioned above, Athletic's second-half attack was clicking on all cylinders, as los Leones rammed 4 into the back of the net in the last 45'. Despite trailing at the half, Athletic remained calm and adhered to their pre-game tactics, and flourished as a result. This is a testament to Ernesto Valverde who insists on that 90' Simeone-like intensity. With a La Liga season-high 55 attempted crosses (almost double Athletic's season average -- who are top of the league in this statistic), la Pucela were unable to cope with such immense pressure, something Valverde will be keen to replicate.

As for Osasuna, the Pamplona side enter in relative good form, with 2 wins and 3 draws in their last five. Gracia has his team playing supremely defensive football, only allowing 4 goals in this span, though at the cost of any semblance of an attack. Against Granada, los Rojillos did not attempt a single shot on target, and have only attempted 11 overall in their last four -- worst in La Liga during this period. Though Oriol Riera (the team's only center-forward prior to Acuña's arrival on loan) has played well, the service is quite dismal. Only Levante and Elche have created less chances than Osasuna this season. If the Pamplona side stand any chance against Athletic, it will have to come in the form of some of that El Sadar witchcraft.

Osasuna 0 Athletic Bilbao 2

Atlético Madrid over RAYO VALLECANO

Methinks Simeone had a go at Juanfran's cojones last week after that bone-headed shirt-tug on Bacca inside the box, largely resulting in Atlético's seemingly endless inability to usurp Barcelona for the top-spot in Spain. This isn't the first time Juanfran's stupidity has costed his team. Back in March of 2012, I remember quite clearly Juanfran's poor giveaway in injury-time to France in a World Cup qualifier, directly resulting in a last-second equalizer. If Del Bosque was the first to have a go at Juanfran's cojones, surely he doesn't have much left down there...

As for Rayo, after their 2-0 loss to Elche, Jémez stated, "Eleven against eleven, it could have been different." I am an enormous Jémez supporter, but, c'mon now. Los Rayitos have accumulated 7 expulsions this season, tied for most in La Liga with Osasuna. Surely that lack of discipline has to fall on Jémez somewhat. Whatever the case, to counter Baena's send-off, Jémez brought in Adrian for Nacho, effectively moving into a back three, despite being down a man, at the Martinez Valero no less. Suicide football at it's finest.

Side note: Roberto Trashorras is having an immense season. He's made the most key passes in La Liga this season, with 53, and has completed 644 passes in his own half, also a league-best. If Rayo are relegated, I'd love to see the former Celta maestro make a return to the Balaídos. He'd be an excellent orchestrating mid in Enrique's system. Coupled with the potential loan of Denis Suarez? I like.

Rayo Vallecano 0 Atlético Madrid 2

BARCELONA over Málaga

I'll keep this short. Because this is a match-round preview, not an assessment of the Rosell administration. But it's impossible for me NOT to address it. So here are my thoughts.

I do not in any way enjoy watching the club I support wither in political chaos. Perhaps "wither" is a strong word. But, in general, presidential resignations are not good. The after-effects are often an ugly site of which no fan-base should have to experience. But with so much internal and public conflict surrounding Rosell's administration, this HAD to happen.

My biggest question, though, is why? In his first press conference as nuevo presidente, Javier Bartomeu, divulged the entire cost of the Neymar transfer, which we now know is confirmed to be €57m (though the OPERATIONAL cost is around €86m -- which includes bonuses, friendlies, first-options on other Santos players, etc.). Additionally, Bartomeu's clarified his previous comments on Eric Abidal, stating the player's previous contract would re-activate once Abidal returned, rather than the guarantee of a renewal.

But why couldn't Rosell explain all of this himself? In fact, only days before, Rosell stated before a judge his intention to breakdown the Neymar costs, if requested by the high courts. Because this is all being divulged now, immediately after Rosell's resignation, I am convinced this was an internal coup. Rosell didn't resign upon his own volition (or because of death threats, etc.), but was rather forced out via conflict within his own administration.

Whatever the case, it is a new day, a new era. Though I initially objected to Bartomeu's appointment as President, I was quite impressed with his first presser. No time-limit on questions. Complete transparency. Of course, it will be his actions that define his presidency, rather than an impressive initial display of social skills. But one thing is for certain -- Sandro Rosell is no longer President of Barcelona. And that, my friends, is a good thing. Visca.

Barcelona 3 Málaga 1

REAL SOCIEDAD over Elche

After 5 consecutive wins Real Sociedad are now win-less in their last two, following a somewhat disappointing 2-2 draw with Getafe last week. La Real went up 2 within the first 15 minutes, and played a man-up following Borja's expulsion in 61st minute, but failed to capitalize, and remain in 6th, a mere 2 points up on Sevilla for the last Europa League position. There is speculation that Sergio Canales will find himself at the Anoeta by the end of January, a move that Arrasate's side will benefit from tremendously (though why Valencia would deal with a direct competitor is beyond me).

Elche, meanwhile, are coming off a nice 2-0 win over Rayo, moving Super Fran into 15th on 21 points. With la Real's exceptional home from, it's difficult to see Elche getting anything from this. Nice little bit of news, though: Cristian Herrera just recently signed an extension with a new €8m release clause, amidst interest from various La Liga clubs. The Elche cantera has 14 goals in 18 appearances for Elche and their reserve team combined. At only 22 years old, los Franjiverdes have an excellent up-and-coming striker on their hands, and I'll be glad to see him continue at the Martinez Valero.

Real Sociedad 3 Elche 0

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