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La Liga Picks: Jornada 9

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Math-round previews for Jornada 9 in Spain.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

CELTA DE VIGO over Levante

Levante's decision to hire Lucas Alcaraz was a practical one. There have been rumblings that the club was eager to move in a more progressive direction, but due to their position on the table, and horrid defensive performances, Alcaraz was seen as a logical choice. Club chairman, Quico Catalán, has made some excellent administrative decisions since his arrival in 2010, in which he's helped Levante become one of the most solvent clubs in Spain following their filing of bankruptcy in 2008.

While I don't doubt that Catalán is keen to evolve long-term from an austere, veteran policy to a more progressive one, the cons of hiring a high-risk manager like Pepe Mel amidst a relegation battle simply outweighed the pros. At least if your Catalán or Manolo Salvador (Levante's sporting director). Personally I would have pulled the trigger on Mel. Whatever the case, Alcaraz' first game in charge will be at Balaídos where he's only ever recorded two wins in 10 matches, both of which having occurred in Liga Adelante. While Celta will be without key players Andreu Fontàs and Fabian Orellana, I'm not sure Levante's defense (who've conceded a league-worst 20 goals) can contain Nolito who now has five goals and four assist on the season. Only Messi (14) has combined for more among players with at least two assists.

Celta de Vigo 2 Levante 0

Athletic Club over ALMERIA

One can see there have been gradual improvements with Athletic, but Valverde's side remain in 16th place with one win in eight matches. Every week I pick Athletic thinking that will be the turnaround game. But I did the same thing with Real Betis last season and now they're in the Segunda División. Athletic are one of only three teams in Spain to have never been relegated (Barcelona and Real Madrid being the other two), and while I don't anticipate a plight that severe, they'd do well to pick up a win at Mediterráneo where they've only lost once in their last 13 matches.

Almería 1 Athletic Club 2

REAL MADRID draw with Barcelona

I generally keep my previews of Clásico matches short, as there are plenty of excellent write-ups elsewhere (including here on BB). In may come as a surprise, however, to know that Real Madrid have only won three times against Barcelona in the last 13 matches at the Bernabéu. But with this being a "Year 0" of sorts for Barcelona, one would do well to be careful on you choose to interpret that (not that anything is powerful enough to eclipse the pessimism of a culer).

But the tactical uncertainties in this are fascinating.Without dwelling too much on potential XIs, I'll simply say I think defensive solidity can be achieved by using Jeremey Mathieu at left-back (making Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano the center-backs). There is certainly the case to play Xavi for his control, but Ivan Rakitić offers better work-rate which helps to offset Dani Alves' proclivities to get forward, and Barcelona's general vulnerability to transition attacks. Then there is the matter of Luis Suárez. But is a half-fit Suárez better than Pedro or Munir? You could certainly say so, though the latter's movements would arguably cause Real Madrid's defense more fits. Suffice to say, Clásicosrarely disappoint, and so there will plenty to talk about Saturday night. I hope Enrique is ready.

Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 2

VALENCIA over Elche

Valencia's loss to Depor last week marked their first of the season, as well as their first loss at Riazor since 2003. Perhaps not coincidentally, Nuno' side were without André Gomes, who in the early-going, has established himself as one of the best midfielders in La Liga. While Gomes won't invoke a double take on the stat sheet, he's impressive in a more fundamental way; that is, his overall contribution and aptitude at pretty much every aspect of play. Tackling, tracking back, runs into the box, one-on-one ability, etc -- the young Grijó-born midfielder is the complete package, and Valencia can't progress where they want to go without him. Their match against Depor was the first time all season (barring a 40 minute period in Jornada 1) where Valencia have trailed, but Nuno was not able to invoke a response. Having suffered their first defeat, Nuno now faces the task of responding in a positive way. The last time Elche won at Valencia's ground was in 1969, in which the Mestalla was the for first time known as Estadio Luís Casanova (which lasted until 1994 when Casanova himself requested that the stadium's name be changed back to Mestalla). If Escribá's side can provoke some of those classic derby symptoms, perhaps los franjiverdes can nick a point, but that may be a tall task.

Valencia 3 Elche 0

Real Sociedad over CORDOBA

Following their loss to Getafe, which was likely the worst match they've played all season, Arrasate remarked that he "knows the law of football." In other words, if things don't improve on this trip to Andalucia, Arrasate will likely be out of a job by Sunday morning.  While it's been an erratic season, part of me feels sympathetic for Arrasate. He was born in Berriatua (just west of San Sebastián) and is a born-and-bred Erreala supporter. Prior to this Arrasate had never managed a team above the Juvenile level, though he was Phillipe Montanier's assistant in 2012-2013, and and assistant as Sanse (Real Sociedad's reserve team) before that. So it goes without saying that the 39 year-old is just out of his depth. If he can somehow can a positive result at Arcángel, against a Córdoba side in it's first match under new manager Miroslav Djukic, Arrasate has an opportunity to prolong his post with a home match against Málaga next week. If not, however, we could see the beginning of a Pepe Mel era in San Sebastián.

Córdoba 1 Real Sociedad 2

EIBAR draw with Granada

After going unbeaten through their first four, Caparrós have now lost four straight, and have a difficult match at Ipurua here. This will be the first-ever meeting between these sides, and as many Primera clubs are realizing, Ipurua is not an easy ground. Excluding that bizarre 3-3 match against Levante, Eibar have only conceded two goals in three matches at home. This doesn't bode well for Granada who continue to perpetuate these "good defense, can't score" type of sentiments around Spain. Part of the problem, as I see it, is over-rotation. Against Rayo last week, Caparrós started Ortuño and Piti up front, which was the sixth different forward-line combination he's used this season. For as superb as they are defensively, Granada's final-third play won't improve until Caparrós can determine a first XI.

Eibar 1 Granada 1

MALAGA over Rayo Vallecano

There were many things for malaguistas to be encouraged about following the club's 2-1 win over Córdoba. Most notable, however, was the performance of Nordin Amrabat. The Moroccan was back to his best in the "false 9" role, a position of Gracia has only deployed him in once all season, and that was against Barcelona. In both of these instances Málaga have achieved good results, and so this may become a recurring template going forward.  Though Amrabat is not a traditional striker, he possess tremendous work-rate and excellent one-on-one ability, and was simply a nuisance for Córdoba's back-line who weren't prepared for Gracia's tactic. Overall, the Andaluz side have only lost once in their last six, and now sit in 8th place, two points off a Europa League position. Rayo, likewise, arrive at Costa del Sol in excellent form having won two of their last three. These two sides have combined for 10 goals in their last two meetings, so we could see a rather high-scoring affair at La Rosaleda. But with the fifth best defense in La Liga, and having only conceded one goal at home all season, Jémez' side may find difficulties scoring against Málaga's stalwart defense.

Málaga 2 Rayo Vallecano 0

ESPANYOL draw with Deportivo de la Coruña

Of all the teams to put the streaking Valencia on their ass, of course it would be bottom-table Depor, who've lost every match at Riazor against Valencia since 2003. It was quite the dominating performance from the Galicians, who desperately needed a win after four consecutive losses. Credit where it's due to Víctor Fernández who was tactically superior (though also caught Valencia fatigued and distracted following the international break). All three of his changes (Fabricio, Wilk, and Lucas Pérez) made a positive impact, and should go on to feature more regularly. Lucas Pérez, by the way, made his long-awaited debut following his loan from PAOK, and scored a cracking goal, in which he proceeded to kiss Depor's badge. Pérez, of course, grew up on the streets of A Coruña, and so this couldn't have been a better way to debut for the club he loves so much. A meeting against Espanyol may prove difficult, however, as Depor have only won eight times in 48 matches at the Catalan's home ground. Neither of these sides are particularly potent in attack, and so I like a 0-0 draw unless Fernández can inspire further following their dream result last week.

Espanyol 0 Deportivo de la Coruña 0

SEVILLA over Villarreal

With all the hype Valencia have been getting, Unai Emery's side have quietly ascended to 2nd on the La Liga table with an overall record of 6-1-1. What has been most impressive are Sevilla's defensive displays. This is not a team that is generally associated with defensive solidity, and so this newfound rigidness has come as a pleasant surprise to Sevillstas. With only eight goals conceded on the year, only Villarreal, Atlético, Valencia, and Barcelona have allowed less. This can mainly be credited to Krychowiak's quick adaptation as M'Bia pivot partner, but Pareja and Carriço have been very strong following the departure of team captain, Federico Fazio.

Villarreal have discovered their own defensive identity as Mateo Musacchio and Gabriel Paulista continue to develop into one of the most under-appreciated center-back pairings in La Liga. While most of the attention has been on El Clásico this week, this fixture has the potential to be just as gripping. Both of these sides have their fair share of former La Masia products, of which has largely facilitated their success in terms of having the required depth to compete in European competitions. I like Sevilla here, but Villarreal have obtained positive results in each of their last two visits to Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. Should be a cracker.

Sevilla 2 Villarreal 1

Atlético de Madrid over GETAFE

While Atlético did beat Getafe 7-0 at the Calderón last season, this fixture hasn't been as cut-and-dry as one would imagine. Atlético have only won twice at the Coliseum in their last 11 matches. But Simeone's side are coming off an immense 5-0 win over Malmo in Champion's League, in which both Antoine Griezmann and Mario Mandžukić scored. The former of which has yet to register a goal in La Liga this season, but seems to be gradually adapting. For Atlético to replicate what they achieved last season, it's imperative that the Frenchman find consistent form, as he is a game-changer for Atlético on so many levels. Getafe have held their own against their Madrid rivals in recent years, but with Atlético seemingly coming together as a team, I don't much like Cosmin Contra's chances here.

Getafe 0 Atlético de Madrid 3