Valencia over MÁLAGA
In hindsight, all the excessive praise given to Pizzi's Valencia after a derby win against Levante, and draw to Atletico in Copa del Rey, was probably a bit premature. Can't say I'm without blame here. Up until Charles' goal in the 50th minute last week, los Che looked to be an improved, invigorated side. Then got hit with a pretty harsh reality check. Valencia's back-line were eaten alive by Celta's front three -- Rafinha, Charles, and Orellana. The trio combined for 10 successful take-ons, compared to 6 from Jonas, Feghouli, Canales, and Piatti.
Málaga doesn't have the same individual quality in attack, so I expect Valencia's defense to recover here, even at La Rosaleda, where los Che haven't won since 2010. Málaga are coming off their own disappointing result, a 1-0 loss to Levante. I thought Schuster's side were largely superior in terms of possession and chances created, but failed to put the ball in the back of the net. With Valencia seemingly back down to Earth, I think a draw is more than a possibility, but Pizzi should be keen to have his side refocused here, with Lim's potential investment still looming (and the 50m worth of players that will reportedly come with it).
Málaga 1 Valencia 2
Real Madrid over REAL BETIS
I've out-used my optimism with this Real Betis team. If you can't beat Osasuna at the Benito Villamarín (where, by the way, the Pamplona side have only won 4 times in 28 matches), you perhaps don't deserve to be in the Primera Divisíon. That's not a shot at Osasuna (well, a slight one -- sorry Rojillos), but against a fellow bottom-table club, where every point counts, you HAVE to be able to get a result. Obviously this is a perspective shared by Osasuna, but consider the level of self-destruction exhibited by Betis here. Garrido's side managed to have a player sent off (via two atrocious, bone-headed yellows from Nono), missed a penalty-kick, and scored an own goal -- that's only the 3rd time in the history of La Liga that that's happened. How can one be sympathetic towards that?
Part of me thinks Betis will benefit from relegation. These players need to learn how to respond to adversity. If there was one encouraging sign, it was the performance of Leo Baptistão, who adapted well, was very fluid in his movement, and by far Betis' most dangerous, creative player. Garrido can build on that. If his combination-play with Castro and Molina develops the same way Pabón's did last season, there may be shred of hope left in Bético-land. Here's to hoping Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh of an emotional Ballon d'Or victory (yeah, victory, I know..), doesn't crush these hopes entirely.
Real Betis 1 Real Madrid 3
ELCHE draw with Rayo Vallecano
Prior to this season, these two sides had only met twice ever in the Primera Divisíon, and that was in the 1977-1978 season. Elche beat Rayo both times that season, 1-0 and 3-1 respectively, though it was not enough to save the Valencian side, as they sunk into the second division, only making the ascension back up twice over the next 35 years. Prior to this, los Franjiverdes had been a mainstay of Liga Española, spending 18 of 19 seasons in the Spanish top-flight.
Where am I going with this? Well, with Super Fran on the brink of relegation again, they'd be keen to ensure their status there, to avoid embarking on another long, arduous journey around the lower divisions. If Real Betis is a team that needs relegation (for psychological purposes), Elche is a team that needs survival. And if for nothing else, the Martinez Valero is a fine stadium. Super Fran vs. Paco Kamikaze. Sounds like a UFC fight. Uff.
Elche 1 Rayo Vallecano 1
GRANADA over Osasuna
With my preseason prediction that Real Betis would finish 8th in La Liga, coupled with last season's comments regarding Villarreal lack of overall squad talent (in which the Submarinos responded with a 5-1 beat-down over la Real), I'm clinging to my inclination that Granada would be a top-10 side this year. After last week's immense 4-0 win over Valladolid, I'm feeling pretty good about that, though Alcaraz' side have a long way to go.
La Liga is remarkably tight this season, as a mere 7 points separates Valencia (8th) and Valladolid (18th). That's 7 friggin' points from (what could be) Europa League to relegation. At los Cármenes, I like Granada's form to carry over. Against Valladolid, Recio and Fran Rico combined for 206 touches, maintaining a 92% pass accuracy. Rico, in particular, was tremendous, as the former Real Madrid Castilla man was targeting crosses and linking attacks at a very efficient level, not to mention his work-rate defensively, leading el Grána with 6 successful tackles. Considering Osasuna's proclivity to sit deep, Granada should be keen to replicate that aggression. Oh, by the way, Jeison Murrilo scored an absolutely stunning overhead goal. Potential goal of the season, this. Intriguing player, too.
Granada 2 Osasuna 0
ESPANYOL draw with Celta Vigo
The most difficult part of these write-ups is distancing yourself from any level of personal attachment to a club. For instance, Celta Vigo play an attractive, possession-based style of football, and boast some of the more high-ceiling youth players in Spain. Espanyol, by comparison, play conservative, defense-based football, of which I'm not particularly attracted to. Javier Aguirre prioritizes results. For Luis Enrique, football is a romance, an art -- it's about style, technique, and tactics, but also with a certain level of Aguirre-like prioritization.
I'm not saying one approach is more effective than the other. But every week I want to overlook the limitations of teams like Celta Vigo, Rayo Vallecano, etc. But it's becoming increasingly difficult. Though the point margin between Espanyol and Celta remains moderate, I'm inclined to pick a draw here. If for nothing else, Espanyol's valient performances against the Spanish "Big Three" deserves some recognition. For me, that comes in the form of a 1-1 draw, because I still can't distance myself from the wonderful football the Galicians are capable of playing.
Espanyol 1 Celta Vigo 1
Real Sociedad over GETAFE
Coming off what was probably the low-point of the Arrasate era (unless you count la Real's Champion's League performances), a 5-1 smack down at the hands of an absurdly aggressive and dynamic Villarreal team, the Basque side have a nice opportunity to recover their form against Getafe, who've dropped 4 consecutively in La Liga.
Getafe aren't a poor team, despite how much certain people want them to be, but in all competitions against top-8 La Liga opposition, Getafe is 1-8 and have been outscored in these matches 27-5. This includes a 2-0 loss to Real Sociedad in Jornada 1 at the Anoeta, of which Arrasate will be keen to replicate. Who knows? Maybe Real Sociedad's dismal performance against Villarreal will translate into an improbable Getafe victory. I don't really see it. But Luis García's side is difficult to gauge sometimes. If the stats against top Liga sides are anything to go by, la Real should escape the Alfonso Perez with relative ease.
Getafe 0 Real Sociedad 3
VILLARREAL over Almeria
Villarreal didn't just make me eat my words last week, they personally shoved them down my throat with a fu*king submarine anchor. Marcelino's side didn't have enough "overall squad talent," I said, to compete for a Champion's League position. Erm...5 goals later, I think it's safe to say I set myself up there. The Valencian side's 5-1 win over Real Sociedad was nothing short of incredible, with braces from Gio and Uche, and one more from Moi Gomez. Cani, still unfit, was absent once again, making such a display of dominance all the more impressive.
Trigueros, in particular, had a fantastic match, and is really improving his passing abilities, an important development with Cani's ongoing fitness concerns. Prior to the season, I doubted Uche's ability to perform as a top-flight striker. The Nigerian international has never scored more than 7 goals in a Primera season, and that was with Getafe in 2008-2009. At the half-way mark, Uche boats an impressive 11 league goals, putting him on pace for 22 on the season. Whether that kind of productivity can be maintained remains to be seen, but as a center-forward in an attack as dynamic as Villarreal's, it's not unlikely at all.
Side-note: Interesting tidbit on Villarreal: at 34 points los Submarinos have recorded the best first-half tally of any newly promoted Spanish club since the 1995-1996 season (when 3 points for a win was introduced). Perhaps coincidentally, this was the last time Atlético Madrid won the La Liga title. Hmm...
Villarreal 3 Almeria 1
Barcelona over LEVANTE
With Barcelona advancing into the quarter-finals of Copa del Rey, Levante will be pitted against the Catalan side for three consecutive matches. Caparrós joked, "It will be like going to the dentist three times, but hopefully not as bad as that." Unfortunately for los Granotes, it might be much worse that. Playing Barcelona three times in one week (if your Levante) is like getting your wisdom teeth yanked over and over again.
To be fair, Levante aren't bad defensively (their 7-0 thrashing at the Camp Nou withstanding). But if you exclude that Blaugrana hammer-fest in Jornada 1, Levante have only allowed 20 goals all season. That's a top-5 defense right there. The Valencian does tend to concede most against quality opposition, though. Of their 27 total goals allowed, 18 have been conceded against La Liga's top-6. With all of Barcelona's front-line players in-form, and Messi eager to get back on track in the league, I anticipate goals here.
Levante 0 Barcelona 3
ATLÉTICO MADRID over Sevilla
In what will cap off a grueling week for Simeone's side, Sevilla enter Jornada 20 as one of the more in-form teams in La Liga (though it took a 92nd minute equalizer from Carriço last week to pick up a point in Elche). I don't expect this to be much of a handsome victory, but if Atlético win this, I think it's safe to say los Rojiblancos will have passed their first pressure test; that is, their ability to maintain intensity and competitiveness in multiple games over a short amount of time.
In one week Atlético were faced with league games against Barcelona and Sevilla, as well as a two-legged tie with Valencia in the Copa del Rey -- all of whom are European-challenging teams. My one concern going forward is the amount of minutes played by Atlético's starting XI. Only Mario and Arda (both due to injuries) have played less than 17 of Atléti's 19 league games. By comparison, only Cesc and Iniesta have featured +17 times in La Liga for Barcelona. That trademark intensity is likely to wane if Simeone is not able to rotate properly.
It will be interesting to see what kind of tactics Atletico face against an experiment-inclined Unai Emery. Against Elche last week, Sevilla mostly sat back in defense, preferring to attack in transition. But Elche did an excellent job of controlling midfield space and cutting off Sevilla's counter angles. Because they refused to play vertically (despite having guys like Vitolo and Reyes on the pitch), their attack completely stagnated.
Emery seems somewhat over-primed to play cautious, defensive football lately. Because of such immense issues conceding goals in the beginning of the season, I understand his inclination to play as such. But Emery is yet to achieve that balance between defense and attack. In what has the potential to be a scintillating match, I hope Sevilla come out with a more take-charge attitude. The attacking talent on this team is tremendous. Emery simply has to figure out how to balance that with more defensive stability. If he achieves that, only good things are to come.
Atlético Madrid 2 Sevilla 1
ATHLETIC BILBAO over Valladolid
The only way la Pucela get anything from this is if Guerra scores multiple goals, and Athletic come out lackluster and unmotivated. But considering Valverde's side demolished Almería 6-1 last week, and are 11-0-2 are the new San Mamés, I find it hard to imagine Valladolid escape with anything other than more self-doubt. Relegation seems to be a distinct possibility now, if not a foregone conclusion. I don't think I've ever seen a Juan Ignacio Martinez side this poor defensively, but consider these stats: JIM (Juan Ignacio Martinez, if you don't know) has only 5 wins in his last 36 matches (17 with Levante and 19 with Valladolid). Not the most flattering statistic. At this point, I'd be shocked if Valladolid are playing football in the Primera Divisíon next season. I'll miss those purple kits, though...
Athletic Bilbao 3 Valladolid 0