VALLADOLID draw with Levante
I officially relinquish my insistence that Levante are a relegation team. All season I've waited for what I thought was an inevitable decline of form. But Caparrós has managed to get Levante within Europa League contention, as los Granotes sit in a four-way tie with Valencia, Sevilla, and Espanyol in 7th place on 32 points. They are now unbeaten in their last 6 matches, and owe it to some of that Caparrós' pragmatism, as well as David Barral, who now has 5 goals in his last 8 Liga matches. Not to mention the sensational performances of Keylor Navas, who's emerging as one of the best goal-keepers in the Primera División. The Costa Rican international ranks top-5 among goal-keepers in La Liga in saves, save success, and clean sheets, all the while dealing with Levante's league-worst 17.7 shots conceded per game -- meaning Navas' workload far outdoes that of Courtois, Valdes, or Roberto. With rumors linking Navas to Atlético Madrid pending Courtois' recall to Chelsea, the 27 year-old has taken advantage of the spotlight, and should be keen to continue this success for Costa Rica during this summer's World Cup. At the José Zorrilla, I'm going for a draw, though, with Valladolid's seemingly improved defense (3 clean sheets in 4 matches since Mitrovic's arrival).
Valladolid 1 Levante 1
REAL MADRID over Elche
If you recall, Real Madrid escaped the Martínez Valero with a 1-2 victory back in Jornada 6, thanks in large part to the inadequacy of Spanish officiating. After being awarded 8 minutes of extra-time, Pepe pulled Carlos Sánchez down in the penalty-area, but the foul was bizarrely attributed to Sanchez, of which resulted in a converted penalty-kick from Ronaldo, leaving Elche robbed of a very valuable draw, in what was unarguably the most contentious result of the La Liga season. After the match, the Spanish police received over 200 calls of robbery reports, from various areas around Spain (but mainly Valencia, of course). The Spanish referee in question, Muñiz Fernández, was eventually sanctioned with a 6-week suspension, of which he served, then returned, before being dropped from the Primera refereeing list entirely, due to, erm...regular incompetence. Franjiverde fans should be partial toward some revenge, but at the Bernabeau, such revenge seems rather improbable.
Real Madrid 3 Elche 0
CELTA VIGO over Getafe
A tale of two teams. Celta are unbeaten in 6 of their last 8 matches, while Getafe are win-less in their last 9, and have only won once in the last 13 match-rounds. If the Madrid-based side are unable to pick up a positive result at Los Balaídos, Luis García, La Liga's long-serving manager, is likely to get the axe here. AS has reported that Cosmin Contra, former Getafe player, and current manager of Petrolul Ploiești in Romania, has already been vetted for the position, and is likely to take over should García be relieved. Contra has strong ties to Ángel Torres, as he managed in Getafe's youth system following his retirement, before settling in various managerial roles in Romania. With Celta in such good form, I like the Galicians here, in what could be García's final match as Azulone manager.
Celta Vigo 2 Getafe 1
Barcelona over REAL SOCIEDAD
Historically, Euskal Herria is not kind to Barcelona. I always find it amusing, or actually somewhat offensive, the Catalans and Basques are linked into a solidified anti-Spanish identity-group. We are talking about two distinct cultural heritages. It is probably not without coincidence, then, that the Blaugrana struggle so much in Basque territory. Whether at San Mamés, Anoeta, or El Sadar (being located in Pamplona contains different complexities entirely, but I'll include it here for the sake of discussion), Barcelona have had to fight tooth-and-nail for positive results against Euskadi opposition. In fact, Barcelona are win-less in their last 4 matches at Anoeta, and have only won twice in their last 9 at la Real's ground going back to 2002. In this fixture last season, Aggiretxe scored an injury-time match-winner, capping off an enthralling two-goal remuntada. Coming off a 6-0 win over Rayo Vallecano, and an excellent 0-2 win at Etihad in Champion's League, I like the Catalans here, but by the narrowest of margins.
Real Sociedad 1 Barcelona 2
ALMERIA draw with Málaga
Pretty even contest here. Málaga played half-decent in their 0-1 loss to Real Sociedad last week, though perhaps over-relied on simple, cross-heavy tactics. Not that it's entirely the same, but la Real are the only team in La Liga that has not conceded a set-piece goal. Basically, Arrasate's side are well-disciplined at the back, especially against balls coming in from wide positions. But after going on a five-match unbeaten streak, los Boquerones have only managed to win once in their last seven. Against Almería, the Costa del Sol side are 4-3-5 all-time, but have never won at Mediterráneo. I'd be pleasantly surprised if this was anything other than a 0-0 stalemate. But that's how I see it, alas.
Almería 0 Málaga 0
Sevilla over RAYO VALLECANO
Sevilla have two problems. The first is that they are unable to impose their style. The second is that they often have no idea what their style is. Both of these problems appertain to the inadequacy of Unai Emery's managerial style, that is, his relentless experimentation, coupled with the general inability to motivate. After a rather pathetic 0-0 draw with Valencia at the Pizjuan (jn which Sevilla played a man-up for the last 40 minutes), I'm convinced Emery will be on a different touch-line next season, or no touch-line at all, perhaps. There are rumors suggesting Joaquín Caparrós, in what would be his second spell at the club, is the front-runner should Emery be relieved at the end of the season. Personally, though, I'D LOVE to see Monchi entertain the possibility of Paco Jémez here. If ever there was an opportunity for Jémez in La Liga, this has to be it. We've all pondered what Jémez could do with increased resources, as Rayo's €15m annual budget (not to mention corrupt board members), have in large part prevented Jémez from executing the style of football he desires. But imagine kamikaze-style football with Ivan Rakitic, Carlos Bacca, Jairo, etc. High risk, high reward. But if I were Monchi, I'd roll the dice. Sevilla are win-less in their last six (a far cry from their nine-match unbeaten streak in November/December). If they can't squeeze out a three-pointer in Vallecas, Emery might not even last as long as I expected.
Rayo Vallecano 0 Sevilla 2
Athletic Bilbao over REAL BETIS
British bookmakers have given Real Betis an approximate 2% chance of avoiding relegation. Despite that percentage appearing rather likely, that is not to say Bético-land is without compelling story-lines. Betis supporters initiated a campaign to boycott Thursday's Europa League fixture, due to the club's insistence that season-ticket holders pay between a €15 and €30 entrance fee. With estimated attendance at under 5,000 (stadium capacity is 56,000), Betis yielded to pressure from the campaign, declaring socios can attend the match free-of-cost. Furthermore, during their match with Granada last week, Betis supporters chanted the Segunda favorite, "Volveremos a Primera..." (We'll return to Primera...), which illustrates quite accurately the lack of optimism among Béticos, a fan-base known for their undying loyalty. In terms of tactics against Athletic, I don't have much to offer. Calderón reverted back to a five-man defense against Granada, but had to sacrifice in attack, of course, as el Grána left Cármenes as 1-0 victors. Just seems like a lose-lose. Calderón can try whatever tactics he wishes. At this point, the most interesting aspect of Real Betis are potential Ultra Sur conflicts, and other various internal and public confrontations.
Real Betis 0 Athletic Bilbao 2
VALENCIA over Granada
In 27 total matches, el Graná have never won at the Mestalla. Interestingly, though, in the last 7 matches between the clubs (whether at the Mestalla or Cármenes), the winning side has never won by more than a one goal margin. Back in Jornada 6, it took an injury-time match-winner from Jonas, in what was los Che's first away win of the season. Much has happened between now and then. Valencia, now helming their second manger of the season, have been La Liga's most hot-and-cold team, and are experiencing a very drawn-out sale process, involving some big-name investment players like Peter Lim and TPG Capital. Under Pizzi, Valencia fans welcome what appears to be a moderate rejuvenation, as the former San Lorenzo manager has only lost once in his first 7 league matches. Against a midfield-focused Granada side, Dani Parejo will be key, as he attempts to target attacks through that middle-third zone. How successful Pizzi's side is at moving the ball, both centrally, and into wide areas, will determine this one.
Valencia 3 Granada 1
Atlético Madrid over OSASUNA
Giant killers. Can los Rojillos achieve the improbable, by being the only team in the Primera to successfully take points from all three of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético? At El Sadar, as Blaugrana fans know, anything is possible. Jose Gracia's side played half-decent against Atlético back in Jornada 6, losing 2-1 at the Calderón. Overall, the Pamplona outfit are in 13th place on 26 points, and have only lost 3 of their last 11 matches. Alejando Arribas is quietly having an excellent season, as the former Rayo central-defender leads Osasuna in tackles, clearances, and blocked shots. I expect Simeone to rotate somewhat, coming off a tremendous 0-1 win at San Siro in Champion's League. So who leads that Atléti front-line remains to be seen. But with Osasuna's experience in defense, coupled with some of that El Sadar voodoo, I don't anticipate a walk-over.
Osasuna 0 Atlético Madrid 2
Villarreal over ESPANYOL
For more detailed explanations on the tear-gas incident at El Madrigal last week, I recommend Sid Lowe's piece in the Guardian, or one of the more recent blog entries at Villarreal USA. In short, around the 88th minute, a smoke bomb was launched onto the pitch, though it quickly became clear this wasn't your typical smoke bomb. It was, in fact, a military-issued tear gas canister. Players were ushered off the pitch, as fans scattered to exits around El Madrigal. Eventually, the smoke subsided, the sprinklers went on, and the players returned to finish the last few minutes, in which time Nolito scored to cap off a 0-2 away win for Celta. As of the time of this write-up, the RFEF's investigation into the matter is on-going, as Villarreal face a possible €4000 fine and stadium closure. The LFP, however, have shuffled around match-times, provoking the ire of several clubs including Real Betis and Valencia, who's kick-off times have been moved up several hours in response to the incident in Vila-real. Whatever happens, Marcelino's side would do well to pick up a result at Cornellà-El Prat, as they have lost 4 of their 6 matches, and should be keen not to drop out of European contention.
Espanyol 0 Villarreal 1