La Liga Picks: Jornada 23

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

ESPANYOL draw with Granada

After starting out excellently away from Los Cármenes (3-2-1 in their first 6 away matches), Granada have lost 3 of 4 away from home, albeit 2 of those losses to La Liga giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Overall, el Grána sit in 13th place on 24 points, a mere 4 points from the drop zone, but also only 7 points from a potential Europa League position. With the general inconsistencies of most mid-table La Liga teams, and the potential surge (due to certain winter transfer reinforcements) of relegation candidates, I'd wager the margin of error for teams 8-20 is remarkably slim, and will continue to be for the remainder of the season. Espanyol also falls into this category, and will be eager to regain their form after a disappointing 0-2 loss to Real Betis last week. But with Granada's reasonable away form, and of course the Fantastic Trivote (of which I am officially declaring a Superhero team), I like a draw here.

Espanyol 1 Granada 1

VALENCIA over Real Betis

What a bizarre series of events. Six players out. Five players in. Following what was an eventful, but curious transfer window, not many los Che fans expected to leave the Camp Nou as 2-3 victors, in what was Barcelona's first home defeat since April, 2012. Dani Parejo, in particular, was immense. After Banega's loan-out to Newell's Old Boys, and Sergio Canales' sale to Real Sociedad (for half of what Valencia paid for him, only one year ago, mind you), that left Parejo as the lone creative source in los Che's midfield. After a disastrous, unorganized first 30 minutes, Parejo, calm and intelligent, helped Valencia regain their composure, putting in a performance of the season. This is quite possibly the worst Valencia team to enter the Camp Nou in over 15 years. But somehow, someway, Pizzi got it done. Surreal, really.

The more I think about it, though, the more I like Valencia's transfer window. That is not to say I categorically agree with some of the decisions made. For one, the departures of Banega and Canales puts Valencia in a difficult Parejo-dependent position. Though Parejo has played at a tremendous level this season, if he is to get injured, for instance, Pizzi's only other option is Jonas, who's not even a midfielder, but can function as a "10" if needed. Furthermore, considering Valencia's vast amount defensive concerns, you'd think prioritizing Otamendi (over Senderos, at least), would be top of the list. I understand the complexities of a transfer-day loans, but failing to register a high-ceiling player like Otamendi is inexcusable. Though he'll be joining Valencia in the summer, the club would've done well to secure him sooner.

Now, despite all this, there is much I quite liked about Valencia's additions. Eduardo Vargas (who I watched extensively during the South American World Cup qualifiers) and Julio Araujo (long-time Valencia target) are very talented, pacey, high-upside players that should instantly improve Valencia's front-line. Additionally, Samuel Keita adds another dimension in central midfield, with his excellent work-rate and all-around box-to-box play. For as gifted as they were technically, Canales and Banega were quite slow in transition, and not direct enough to really execute Pizzi's system. Whatever you think of Valencia's strange January window, the fact is that this is a Pizzi-oriented team now. The pieces are in place. It's up to the Argentinian to get results.

Oh, and quick on Real Betis. Calderón's men won their first La Liga game in over 5 months last week! It took some superstition, though. I had to play the match on mute while I listened to my good-luck Miles Davis Round About Midnight record. Not coincidentally, I did the same for Athletic-Real Madrid. And we know how that turned out. Grande, Béticos!

Valencia 2 Real Betis 1

RAYO VALLECANO draw with Málaga

In what was a fire-and-brimstone Andaluz derby last week, Málaga escaped La Rosaleda with a much-needed 3-2 win over Sevilla, though not without consequence. Bernd Schuster, being his typical blood-and-thunder self, was yellow carded in the 46th minute after arguing with an opposing player, then yellow carded again in the 89th minute for the same reason. After his dismissal from the touch-line, Schuster continued to argue, and refused to leave the pitch, having to be restrained by a stadium delegate. All of this propelled Unai Emery, likely indignant toward the result, into his own squabble, calling the German manager a "clown," before being restrained by his coaching staff.

Typical Andaluz derby. Twenty-six fouls, 9 yellow cards, 1 red card, and 5 goals. All that was missing was one of Pepe Mel's infamous one-finger salutes (which I'm sure could be observed elsewhere around La Rosaleda). With Schuster suspended against Rayo, perhaps Jémez' men stand a slight chance here. Los Rayitos did an excellent job to keep a clean sheet against Levante, though for Jémez , I'm sure that comes with a grain of salt, as they were unable to score, and were not quite clinical in possession, with a mere 58% against a counter-based Levante team. Whatever. This is one of those screw it-type predictions.

Rayo Vallecano 1 Málaga 1

REAL MADRID over Villarreal

Just because Cristiano Ronaldo is unavailable, and that Villarreal drew with los Blancos 2-2 back in September, don't be fooled into thinking this is Villarreal's game to lose. Real Madrid are coming off one of their most convincing performances of the season, a 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in the Copa del Rey. Most striking to me is the emergence of Jesé, who, to my view, has put the €100m Welsh Wonder-Boy in the shade this season. His link-up with Ronaldo, and ability to interchange flanks so fluidly, has proved dividends, especially in relation to Ángel di María and Luka Modrić, who are benefiting from his intelligent movements, as well as Ronaldo's free-roam role. Back in September, Ancelotti was forced to play Nacho at left-back, resulting in Javier Aquino's best match of the season, something I don't anticipate happening again. With Cani still unavailable (which is increasingly worrying), in addition to top goal-scorer, Uche, I like Real Madrid here.

Real Madrid 3 Villarreal 1

Atlético Madrid over ALMERIA

No words can do justice the surrealism of Atlético's 4-0 win over Real Sociedad last week. In what was a deeply emotional weekend following the death of Luis Aragonés, Simeone's side wore their hearts on their sleeves, in what was a consummate Atlético performance. In the pre-game tribute to Aragonés, David Villa could hardly hold back his emotions (nor Xavi the day before, who was seen teary-eyed during a moment of silence at the Camp Nou). There was 8 minutes of silence to start the match. At the 8 minute mark, all 54,000 people in attendance at the Vicente Calderon erupted in chants of "Luis Aragonés." Fittingly, Villa struck first in the 38th minute, pointing his fingers to the sky, as 54,000 people yet again erupted in chants - "Luis Aragonés , Luis Aragonés." Then it was Diego Costa in 72nd minute. Again. "Luis Aragonés." Two minutes later it was Miranda. Again. "Luis Aragonés." Finally, in the 87th minute, Diego Ribas, back with Atlético after a two-year spell with Wolfsburg, and long-time Rojiblanco-favorite, scored the fourth. He pointed to the sky, as did Diego Simeone, who stood on the touch-line shouting at the top of his lungs, almost maniacally. Again. "Luis Aragonés."

It is difficult for me not to get choked up over this, to be quite honest. Aragonés is almost single-handedly responsible for the affection I feel towards Spanish football. So when his death was announced, it hit me on a very personal level. There are a number of accolades written on Aragonés, in particular Sid Lowe, who who wrote a lovely piece for the Guardian on Monday, of which I highly recommend, detailing Aragonés' relationship with Fernando Torres among others. But fittingly, one day after his death, Atlético go top of La Liga for the first time in 18 years. Their all-time leading goal-scorer. 372 player appearances. Four-time national champion. Gone. But never forgotten. Hasta siempre, Luis.

Almería 0  Atlético Madrid 2

OSASUNA over Getafe

After winning 5 of 6 back in September/October, Getafe have only won once in their last 10 matches, getting outscored 22-6 during this span. As I've mentioned previously, Getafe are who we thought they were. Prior to the season, I thought the Madrid-based team were destined for a relegation battle. After a half-decent start, I doubted that inclination somewhat, though was hardly convinced Getafe were some kind of European contender. I still think this is a mid-table side, and should cement themselves in that 10-15 range. But, as mentioned, with the league so compact this year, any string of bad results could lead to a position in the drop-zone. It's been 7 match-rounds since los Azulones last won in La Liga. I fear a undesirable result against Osasuna could lead to further uncertainty for Luis Garcia, who, remarkably, is the longest-serving manager in the league, at a whopping 2.5 years.

Osasuna 2 Getafe 1

Elche over VALLADOLID

Unflattering statistic via Who Scored: Elche have had the fewest attempts (3) from counter-attacks in La Liga this season. For a low-block, transition-based team (who only average about 48%), that is quite astounding. Despite that, I like Super Fran here. Another one of my screw it-type predictions. The Valencian side have only lost once in their last 4 matches, including a much-needed 1-0 win over Almeria last week, with Cristian Herrera scoring a match-winner in the 58th minute. Herrera (who, like many other Spaniards this past weekend, dedicated his goal to Luis Aragones) has scored 3 goals directly resulting in 5 points for Elche this year. In baseball, there is a saber-metric statistic called WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which is basically a representation of a player's value in terms of expected team wins. Without getting into the complexities of statistical saber-metrics (just go watch Moneyball), I would wager Cristian Herrera's WAR is among the league-best. That new contract extension looking like a proper investment, I'd say.

Valladolid 0 Elche 1

REAL SOCIEDAD over Levante

Well, that was comical. I'm pretty sure Arrasate half-conceded the first leg of la Real's Copa semi-final tie with Barcelona. The Basque side came out in a 5-3-2 with a midfield "trivote" of Zurutuza, Elustondo, and Gaztañaga -- the latter two of which are primarily base-midfielders. Of their entire starting XI, only 4 (Griezmann, Vela, Iñigo, González) feature regularly among la Real's first-choice. Essentially, Real Sociedad went into the Camp Nou with a 2nd-team low-block defense, and escaped with a mere 0-2 loss, thanks to a largely ineffective, and fatigued Barcelona team. Not bad, really. Especially considering Arrasate's side managed to score one of the most comical own-goals in the history of own-goals, not to mention the bizarre, rugby-style tackle on Lionel Messi. The whole match was a joke, if you ask me. But with a mere 38,000 in attendance, perhaps that is appropriate enough.

Real Sociedad 3 Levante 1

Barcelona over SEVILLA

I am mightily tempted to pick a draw here. But I won't, for two reasons. The first of which is because Unai Emery frustrates me to remarkable levels. What possible reason could you have to play a 5-4-1 against Málaga, with Rakitic and Iborra in a double-pivot? It's childish, really. Emery's insistence on deploying Rakitic deep limits his creative freedom, thus limiting the entirety of Sevilla's attack. Málaga has nowhere near the level of attacking quality to justify such a defensive formation. To be fair, Rakitic often moved into advanced positions, morphing Sevilla into a 5-1-3-1 of sorts. But there were imbalances everywhere. It's frustrating because I feel the potential of this team is immensely under-utilized. But that's Unai Emery for you. Genius, and foolish at the same time.

As for Barcelona, with the agony of Hlebuary upon culés everywhere, it's not difficult to foresee an unfavorable result. And yet, if the Catalans were to drop points here, that would mark 4 in 5 La Liga matches Martino's side were unable to obtain a win -- something I don't envision quite possible. Most alarming for Barcelona remains their inability to field an effective starting XI without Xavi. Even with Xavi, Barcelona struggle in defensive transition (as we observed against Real Sociedad), as the 34 year-old is not prime to cover the necessary zones. Some speculate a potential overhaul thus summer (something I may elaborate on in the future), but with Xavi's physical abilities and positional play declining, finding a suitable replacement remains crucial to the future of Blaugrana football.

Side-note: Sevilla have got the most assists (12) from set pieces in La Liga this season. Somewhat of a concern, I would think, for the Catalan tiny-mites. Rakitic vs. Barcelona's set-piece defense might be key, here.

Sevilla 1 Barcelona 2

Athletic Bilbao over CELTA VIGO

With Rafinha and Oubiña doubtful, it's difficult to foresee a positive result for the Galicians, here. Even if they play, it won't be at peak physical level, hardly optimal going up against one of the best defensive-pivots in La Liga, in Mikel Rico and Iturraspe. If Ernesto Valverde can successfully box that Celta midfield in, it will put enormous strain on Celta's wide players, namely, full-backs Jonny and Hugo Mallo, to provide offense from the flanks. Further enhancing this strain will be Athletic's proclivity to play wide themselves, which should lessen Mallo and Jonny's contribution in the final-third, potentially stagnating any kind of attack. With only 1 loss in their last 10 La Liga matches, not to mention a tremendous 1-1 draw with Real Madrid last week, I like Athletic here. This is a Champion's League team, folks. No two ways about it.

Celta Vigo 0 Athletic Bilbao 2

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