ATHLETIC BILBAO over Granada
Lee Roden wrote an excellent piece for Talk Sport earlier this week on the ascendancy of Basque football, of which I highly recommend. If you're unaware, Basque clubs dominated La Liga back in the early 1980's, with Real Sociedad winning consecutive titles in 80-81 and 81-82, only for Athletic to match that accomplishment, taking La Liga titles in 82-83 and 83-84. Since then, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won 25 of 29 titles, as the Spanish league regressed into a duopoly of wealth disparity and noncompetitiveness. Other clubs have had their moments, but it's been difficult for the Basque sides, as both Athletic and la Real have flirted with relegation on a number of occasions, now. This season, however, we are experiencing an ascendancy of Euskadi football not unlike that of the early 1980's. Because of La Liga's financial problems, it has forced clubs to prioritize youth development. Nowhere is this more evident than in San Sebastián and Bilbao, where high-prospect canteras are being produced at a remarkable rate.
We often talk about what the Basque, Catalan, and Spanish national teams would look like, should there be regional secession in Spain. The Catalans may have the Barcelona mega-stars like Xavi, Cesc, Valdés, and Busquets. And the Spaniards may have a star-driven forward-line (Negredo, Costa, Villa, Pedro, etc). But consider the depth of Basque players, just in midfield alone: Xabi Alonso, Asier Illarramendi, Javi Martinez, Beñat, Rubén Pardo, Ander Ilturraspe, Mikel Rico, Xabi Prieto, Andrer Herrera, Oscar de Marcos, Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniaian, etc. Mía Madre. That's insanity. And this doesn't even include players like Fernando Llorente, Raúl Garcia, Aymeric Laporte, Iñigo Martinez, Cesar Azpilicueta, Andoni Iraola, etc. Basque football is in a very good place right now, and if it wasn't for the restrictive nature of competitiveness in La Liga, we'd be talking title-contending teams, here.
Athletic Bilbao 2 Granada 0
MALAGA over Valladolid
Málaga are becoming one of the more unwatchable teams in the Primera. Schuster's side have failed to score in 4 of their last 6 matches. Regardless of the German's tactics, los Boquerones desperately need some attacking quality. I maintain that that back-line of Gámez, Sánchez, Wellington, and Antunes is actually quite good. In pivot, Tissone, Darder, and Camacho are all more than reliable. But in attack? Uff. Málaga are not dissimilar to Granada, with that superb defensive-midfield trio, in fact maybe even better. But el Graná boast some half-decent forward-line players like Piti, El-Arabi, and Brahimi -- hardly top-class, but definitively mid-table quality. If the Costa del Sol side continue to struggle as such, a relegation battle is inevitable. I want Málaga to stay up, but it will be a dog-fight. With la Pucela lingering a mere 3 points away, at La Rosaleda, this is a must-win.
Málaga 1 Valladolid 0
Osasuna over LEVANTE
Levante are unbeaten in their last seven. Let that sink in for a second. In what was an impossibly monotonous game of "You defend, I'll defend" against Valladolid last week, los Granotes left the Martinez Valero in a 1-1 stalemate. Prior to the season, Caparrós commented that it would be difficult to match the success of his predecessor, Juan Ignacio Martinez (who now manages Valladolid, of course). But the Sevilla-born manager has done an excellent job with Levante's defense, even if at the expense of our entertainment. Against a Goliath-slaying Osasuna team fresh off a 3-0 upset over Atlético Madrid (now the only team in the Primera to successfully take points from La Liga's "Big Three"), this fixture might be more difficult than Caparrós' would have otherwise anticipated. Osasuna were utterly dominant against Simeone's side, as los Rojillos boast an impressive 4-4-2 record in their last 10 matches. Call me crazy, but if Emiliano Armeterros and Roberto Torres can replicate their performances, I think the Pamplona side might be able to do what Barcelona, Real Sociedad, and Sevilla among others, could not. Like I said, Goliath-slayers.
Levante 0 Osasuna 1
GETAFE draw with Espanyol
Well, Luis García got his "positive result" at Los Balaídos last week. But Getafe remain win-less in their last 10, as dark clouds continue to hover above the Madrid-based side. This got me thinking, though. Every La Liga fan should want Getafe to get relegated. Not just because of their lack of a fan-base or meager attendance, but because some half-decent players like Pedro León and Pablo Sarabia will become instantly available. There would be a host of mid-table teams seeking the service of such creative players. Part of why I'm drawn to relegation battles is because I like to speculate on potential destinations among players not willing to drop into the second division. It's probably somewhat morbid of me, but whatever. I like another draw for los Azulones de Burger King.
Getafe 1 Espanyol 1
Celta Vigo over ELCHE
For me, this comes down to the individual performances of Rafinha and Carles Gil. If Gil is able to impose himself, and take advantage of that Celta high-line, Elche stand a chance here. However, Celta are one of the most in-form teams in the Primera, and are unbeaten in their last five, including two positive results against European-challenging teams like Athletic and Villarreal. It's becoming routine, but Rafinha had a man-of-the-match performance against Getafe last week, leading Celta from the right-wing in goals, key passes, and accurate crosses, not to mention was fouled six times (twice his season average), as Getafe defenders were unable to contain the young Brazilian's fluid movement and aggression. I've said it before, but Rafinha is not only the best player on this Celta team, he's one of the best players in all of La Liga. We've all talked about Modric, Rakitic, and Koke -- but the Barcelona loan-out is having an incredible season, and at a mere 21 years-of-age. This kid is a superstar.
Elche 1 Celta Vigo 2
VILLARREAL over Real Betis
It was lovely to watch that Nahuel-to-Moisés connection in the 36th minute of Villarreal 1-2 over Espanyol last week. It was the youngest (Nahuel at 17 years-old, and Moisés at 19 years-old) goal-scoring connection to occur in La Liga this season. Villarreal's board are building an excellent youth set-up with players like Moi, Nahuel, Íñiguez, Óliver (loan), Joan Roman (loan), Trigueros, etc. Because of the club's relative financial stability, coupled with a new-found prioritization of youth, I like los Subamarinos to be a force in the Primera for several years to come.
Real Betis beat Villarreal 1-0 back in Jornada 7, thanks to a 36th minute goal from Nosa, in what was los verdiblancos' 2nd win of the season, before spiraling into a win-less streak of 15 matches, and inevitable descent into Liga Adelante. Following their 0-2 loss to Athletic last week, in which los Béticos were hard-done by the officials on three separate occasions, Calderón exclaimed that "...this league is already unequal in money. It's time they showed us some respect. If we're going to go down to the second division at least let it be down to us." As Sid Lowe acutely pointed out, while if these incidents were to occur in Madrid or Barcelona, there would be an outrage in the media, referee sanctions, demotions, etc. -- but if Real Betis go down this season, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Villarreal 2 Real Betis 1
Real Madrid over ATLETICO MADRID
In the build-up to the first El Derbi madrileño back in Jornada 7, it took me until early Friday morning (as I publish these prior to the Friday fixture kick-offs) to complete a write-up, as I was torn on which direction to go. Going into Sunday's showdown, however, I can't help but feel this is Real Madrid's game to lose, even at the Vicente Calderón. Simeone's side were lambasted by los Blancos in the Copa del Rey semis, and were equally beat-down in Pamplona by a David-sized Osasuna team last week. Somewhat ironically, Atléti are 0-0-4 in matches that Diego Ribas starts, despite about a year-and-a-half of clamoring from fans for the return of the Brazilian play-maker. Sid Lowe made a point on the Spanish Football Podcast in regard to Atléti's defeat, that Simeone undertook a more possession-based, creative approach to their match against Osasuna, a tactic that failed spectacularly. I'm wondering then, is Diego's slow adjustment merely part of the process, or does a change of style take place when Diego is on the pitch, of which does not suit the team? Don't worry, I intend to ask him.
Atlético Madrid 1 Real Madrid 2
SEVILLA over Real Sociedad
I have absolutely nothing to base this on, other than Sevilla's general erraticism. Because Emery's side went six matches without a win, surely they are due for consecutive three-pointers, here. The Andaluz side weren't particularly impressive in Vallecas last week, finishing the match with a season-low 29% possession, but managed to escape as 0-1 victors, thanks to a 57th minute header from Coke. It was the Sevillistas first away win against a Madrid-based team in 6 years. I was struck, however, by Emery's melancholic expressions on the touch-line, almost like he is...depressed. Speculation is spreading rapidly that the former Valencia manager will be ousted at the end of the season, and I'm wondering if this has taken it's toll on Emery, psychologically. It would explain the general lethargy and inconsistency of his team. But it's also alarming, as though I criticize Emery often, I will never be unconvinced that the Basque possesses a brilliant football mind. Perhaps he just struggles to deal with increased expectations. Whatever the case, coming off a Europa win (to set up an enticing El Derbi sevillano in the round of 16), I like the home side in one of those inexplicable kind of results.
Sevilla 3 Real Sociedad 2
Valencia over RAYO VALLECANO
Remember when I said following Valencia's transfer window that I expected rapid ascension into a Europa League position? Yeah. Juan Antonio Pizzi was named Liga BBVA manager of the month, following an excellent run of matches that has seen los Che go 3-1-0 in the month of February, outscoring opponents 10-3 during this period. Valencia fans lamented the losses of creative players like Banega and Canales, but the truth was, they did not contain the physical skills necessary to execute Pizzi's run-and-gun system. Interestingly, despite his attack-oriented approach, Valencia have improved tremendously in defense, playing as a unit, rather than a group of individuals unsure where to be, or what to do when they get there. Point is, Pizzi, like Valverde last season, has gotten a reaction from these players. That, above anything else, is most important.
Rayo Vallecano 0 Valencia 3
BARCELONA over Almería
In La Liga's last 7 match-rounds, Real Madrid have obtained 19 out of a possible 21 points, compared to Barcelona and Atlético, who've obtained a mere eleven. Furthermore, if you look at point totals since el Clásico, Real Madrid would lead with 41, followed by Atlético with 33, and Barcelona with 32. Point is, for the second consecutive season, the Blaugrana are showing signs of a slight second-half decline. The difference, however, is because of Real and Atléti's consistency, the margin of error is remarkably smaller. You can chalk it up to Hlebuary superstitions, or whatever you want, but it is clear to me that the depth of this squad needs to be improved significantly.
Sure, Tata over-rotated in Anoeta, where the Catalans haven't won in 7 years. But it's problematic when a third of your team aren't reliable in big matches.Don't succumb to the crap that Guillem Balague feeds you on Tata's radical style change. Any potential Barcelona failure this season comes down to the incompetency of the Rosell/Bartomeu administration. With speculation spreading rapidly over potential summer targets, including Ilkay Gündogan, Mats Hummels, Thomas Müller, Arturo Vidal, and Sergio Agüero among others, it's evident this board needs to make moves, if even only to boost public opinion. For me, screw the board. They should resign, be trialed for criminal activity, then sued by the club for damages. The culé identity has been ruffled. Winning trophies is a step in the right direction. But there is an overarching sense of superiority, greed, and self-righteousness that will be difficult to shed.
Barcelona 4 Almería 0