ELCHE draw with Osasuna
Consider this. If Elche and Almería are to win their Jornada 24 fixtures (conceivable, with matches against Osasuna and Levante, respectively), and Sevilla-Valencia finishes even, it would put the newly promoted sides on 28 points, a mere 4 points away from a Europa League position. Who would have thought that possible 3 months ago. Elche and Almería, surely destined for a relegation battle, merely 4 points from Europa League, 24 match-rounds into the Liga calendar. Now, of course, the inverse of that viewpoint is that because the league is so tight, two consecutive losses can conceivably descend these sides into the drop-zone. Just depends on how you look at it. But hey, this is Super Fran we're talking about it. European contenders? Why the hell not?
Coming off a 2-2 draw with la Pucela last week, in what were dreadful, yet comical pitch conditions, Elche should be keen to pick up a positive result heading back into the Martinez Valero. Osasuna, though, fresh off a 2-0 win over Getafe, likewise find themselves on 25 points with a mere 3 losses in their last 8 matches -- and those were to Athletic and Villarreal, respectively, Champion's League-contending teams. In fact, since Jose Gracia took over, only 2 of los Rojillos' 9 losses have come to teams outside the top 10 (Getafe, Almería). The Pamplona side got the better of Elche back in Jornada 5, a result of which I'm sure Escribá will be keen to reverse. But the experience and industriousness of Osasuna should be enough to keep any European aspirations among these teams at a distance, for now.
Elche 1 Osasuna 1
ATLÉTICO MADRID over Valladolid
Much has been made of Almería's colossal upset over Atlético Madrid last week, as the perception of Atlético's inevitable comedown from the Liga high-heavens increases week by week. After three consecutive defeats in all competitions, it's difficult to argue against this viewpoint. But there is context to consider. For one, these kinds of results are inevitable, just ask Real Madrid, who lost to Getafe and Granada last season. Furthermore, Atlético's defeat to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey was determined after the first-leg, effectively nullifying the second-leg result. It would hardly be beneficial for Simeone to risk key players, just for the sake of his partido a partido philosophy, and to appease us as Spanish football fans, who so desperately need Atlético to be successful.
Should rojiblanco fans be concerned? Somewhat. Fatigue is setting in, but we've been aware of that inevitability all season. But just one week ago, Atlético appeared infallible, as they ousted Real Sociedad 4-0, one day after the death of Luis Aragonés, going top of the league for the first time in 18 years. Seven days later, and that perception has altered to unseemly levels, as Simeone grapples with expectations that Atlético can compete for the Liga title, while simultaneously grappling with the expectation that they can't. Bottom line is this. Atlético's departure from the Copa del Rey should not be perceived with cynicism, but rather as a blessing, as the perpetual underdogs allow themselves to narrow their focus on a much, much bigger prize.
Atlético Madrid 2 Valladolid 0
LEVANTE draw with Almería
In what was a rewarding match-round for bottom-table Liga teams, Almería did the improbable, knocking off league leaders, Atlético Madrid, in a 2-0 bizarre-fest at the Mediterráneo. I say bizarre-fest, of course, because of Aranzubia's controversial send-off, and the general nature of such a massive upset. Atlético were, as mentioned, awfully substandard here, but credit where it's due to Almería, who have kept clean sheets in 4 consecutive home matches, equaling a club record. I suspect Fransico's side will be keen to ride that momentum into the Ciutat de Valencia, though Levante have only conceded 3 goals in their last 5 matches, and are unbeaten during this period. This is a toss-up, really. But with both teams playing well defensively (excluding Almería's 6-1 slaughter-job at San Mamés in Jornada 19), I like a draw here.
Levante 1 Almería 1
BARCELONA over Rayo Vallecano
Back in Jornada 5, Jémez' side successfully out-possessed the Catalans, en route to, alas, a 0-4 loss in Vallecas. It was the first time, however, Barcelona had lost possession advantage in over 5 years, leading to a flurry of anti-Martino sentiments, claiming the Argentinian manager was adverse to The Barça Way. Such criticism is remarkably short-sighted, as Martino's vertical-based tactics were a mere adjustment to Rayo's high-press, rather than some malicious sabotage of tiki-taka itself.
In this fixture, I expect similar vertical play, though in moderate amounts, as Rayo's possession-style will be more difficult to execute in the Camp Nou. Perhaps an advantage for los Rayitos, however, is Barcelona's colossal Champion's League match-up with Manchester City a mere 3 days later. I suspect some key Blaugrana players will be rested, though the impending return of Neymar surely incites some apprehension, from Jémez' point-of-view. Depending on Martino's rotations, I would not be surprised to see a result similar to the Camp Nou manita of last season, though perhaps most conspicuous for some Culés will be the Barça-esque nature, or lack thereof, of such a potential result.
Barcelona 3 Rayo Vallecano 0
VILLARREAL over Celta Vigo
Luis Enrique doesn't often receive praise for his defensive acumen, but in Celta's enthralling 0-0 draw with Athletic earlier this week, Enrique did an excellent job to neutralize Athletic's proclivity to play wide, as the Basque side was unable to impose it's style at Los Balaídos. Rafinha, as always, was immense, and controlled Celta's midfield from a deeper position, due to the absence of Borja Oubiña. Another player, in particular, who stood out to me, was Fabián Orellana. The 28 year-old Chilean's work-rate and movement off the ball was excellent, as well as his associative play in the final-third. It was a very intelligent, positive performance from Celta, overall, of which the Galicians will be keen to replicate against Villarreal, though not without difficulty.
Los Subamarinos were out-gunned 4-2 at the Bernabeau last week, and have now dropped points in 4 of their last 5 matches. The injuries to Cani and Uche, of course, were impactful, though the inconsistencies of Villarreal's wide players, Moi Gomez and Javier Aquino, is worrisome. Marcelino's 4-4-2 counter-based system is weakened by ineffective wide play. If Celta can neutralize Villarreal's flanks, and still congest the central zones, they might come out with a result. But I like Villarreal, in a bounce-back performance at El Madrigal.
Villarreal 2 Celta Vigo 1
GRANADA over Real Betis
Short-lived relief. After Betis' defeat of Espanyol two match-rounds ago -- their first win in La Liga in over 5 months -- Béticos around Spain were launched back down to Earth by way of a 5-0 bloodbath to Valencia at the Mestalla. This was, by the way, Betis' 4th conceded manita this season, putting them level with the defensive-juggernots themselves, Rayo Vallecano, with 52 goals against in 23 matches. With both Rayo and Betis seemingly dead-in-the-water this year, the most interesting development going forward will be that race to 100 goals conceded.
I'll give Rayo a slight edge due to Garrido's willingness to play a 5-man back-line, as evidenced against Espanyol, and of which he's reportedly reverted back to in training. Now if only he can get Joan Verdú to play half-decent football. Or has that ship sailed? Probably. The regular verdiblanco Twitter contingents have declared the recent rain-falls in Seville evidence of the sorrows of the Betis Football Gods. Hard to argue with that.
Granada 1 Real Betis 0
Real Madrid over GETAFE
Much is made of Atlético Madrid's inability to rotate, resulting in inevitable periods of fatigue. But if I were a Madridista, I'd be slightly concerned with the amount of minutes Luka Modrić, Xabi Alonso, and Ángel di María play. Alonso has featured in all 13 La Liga matches since his return in October, with Modrić and di María making 11 and 12 appearances, respectively. Compared to Barcelona's top-4 midfielders (Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Cesc), only Cesc has featured in at least 11 La Liga matches during this period.
I understand (somewhat) Ancelotti's unwillingness to play Isco due to a perceived poor work-rate (I say perceived because I can't recall Isco ever being that poor defensively, either for Málaga or the Spanish U-21 team), but with Khedira's long-term injury, and what is seemingly a season-long adaption for Asier Illarramendi, los Blancos generally play the same XI as much as Atlético Madrid do. Real Madrid are playing some impeccable football of late, of which I am interested to see sustained (as a neutral, of course), but with Ancelotti's lack of faith in certain squad players, whether increasing fatigue becomes a factor remains to be seen.
Getafe 0 Real Madrid 4
ATHLETIC BILBAO over Espanyol
Los Pericos got the better of Valverde's side back in Jornada 5, thanks to an immense performance from Víctor Sánchez, who finished with a game-high 8 tackles and 5 interceptions, not to mention two absolutely stunning golazos. Sergio García, likewise, had himself a match, scoring a goal, and providing excellent movement and link-up inside the box for Espanyol's midfield runners. Back then, however, Valverde was still experimenting with midfield combinations, fielding a central "trivote" of Ander Iturraspe, Mikel Rico, and Beñat, all of whom had dismal performances, excluding Rico perhaps, who assisted de Marcos' goal -- who, by the way, was playing right-wing, rather than Susaeta. So obviously without an inclination to their strongest XI, Athletic looked quite out-matched, a rare occurrence this season, and of which I don't anticipate happening again, here.
However, against Celta last week, Enrique did an excellent job to neutralize Athletic's flanks, making los Leones appear rather pedestrian at times, as the Galician underdogs managed to steal a point at Los Balaídos, putting Athletic on 44 points, 4 clear of Villarreal in 5th place. To his credit, Valverde made his own adjustments, sensing Celta's first-half domination, as he deployed Herrera in a deeper position in the second-half for increased match-control, a move that may have salvaged Athletic a point, rather than nothing at all. If Aguirre can manage similar tactics to that of Enrique, Espanyol may have slight reason to be optimistic, though I like Athletic in a comfortable bounce-back victory, here.
Athletic Bilbao 2 Espanyol 0
SEVILLA draw with Valencia
In what was unarguably a top-notch performance, Valencia annihilated Real Betis 5-0 at the Mestalla last week, with immense contributions from a variety of players. Paco Alcácer, in particular, was tremendous, as the 20 year-old los Che cantera racked in 2 goals and an assist, in what was probably his best performance of the season. Most impressive to me, though, was Eduardo Vargas in his debut La Liga start. The Chilean international was deployed just behind Alcácer, and provided excellent pace centrally, while also distributing wide to Piatti and Feghouli, who continue to flourish in Pizzi's run-and-gun, counter-based system. Moving forward, Valencia will have to remain consistent to appease that fan-base. But a 2-3 win at the Camp Nou, and a 5-0 manita over Betis is damn good way to get the fans and media on your side.
As for Sevilla, Emery utilized mid/high-block tactics against Barcelona, and were largely successful in the first-half, but were unable to finish their chances, and fell 1-4 at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. With 15 total shots, but only 4 on target, compared to Barça's 9, with 5 on target, Sevillstas will be disappointed with the continual lack of finishing. Aside from some deficiencies in transition, Emery's only other complaint, I would think, was the atrocious officiating. Alexis' offside equalizer was the standout, but there were a number of decisions that favored the Catalans, adding fuel to the fire of certain RFEF conspiracies. Whatever the case, this is a massive test of Emery's side, if they wish to capitalize on their European aspirations. Valencia soared into Europa League from mid-table in the second-half of last season, and are showing signs of similar late ascension. Match of the week, this.
Sevilla 2 Valencia 2
Real Sociedad over MÁLAGA
Even as a Culé, there was something immensely dissatisfying about the semi-final round of the Copa del Rey. Same old, same old. Right? Barcelona and Real Madrid progress to the Copa final (for only the 3rd time in 23 years, mind you), superseding Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad with relative ease, setting the stage for yet another blood-and-thunder Clásico final at the Mestalla. But with the increasing disparity of wealth in Spanish football (yes, I am aware of the LFP's proposal to cut €60m each from Madrid and Barça's television revenue. I'll believe it when I see it.), the Copa's two-legged format couldn't make for a more uninteresting competition. When the Copa fixtures were announced back in November, 95% of Liga fans would have betted on a Madrid-Barça final, despite Atlético's ascension into what is being perceived now as a Spanish "Big Three."
We all knew Atlético didn't have the depth to compete in three competitions, and with the Copa likely lesser in value than Champion's League and La Liga (not just on a principle level, but economically, as well), the semi-final results were awfully predictable and drab, if you ask me. The fans know it too. The attendance of Recreativo-Levante's round-of-16 tie in Huelva was a mere 700. Even the media seemingly doesn't care that much, with Copa results buried deep into the black-and-white thick of every national and local newspaper. A Madrid-Barça Copa del Rey Final, though? You better bet your horses there will be proper, in-depth coverage of that.
Málaga 1 Real Sociedad 2