CELTA VIGO over Málaga
The most impressive part of Celta's 0-1 win at Levante last week is that the Galicians started without their two best players this season, Hugo Mallo and Rafinha. Enrique's side were led by immense performances from Nolito, Fabián Orellana, and Augusto Fernández among others. The trio combined for 16 key passes, 11 successful dribbles, and 13 shots on goal. Augusto, in particular, did an excellent job at controlling Celta's midfield, and finished with 90% pass accuracy.
Most interesting to me, though, was Enrique's decision to play vertically, and with less possession. This drew los Granotes out into an uncomfortable position, allowing Celta to strike on counter-attacks, a tactic that largely took Caparrós by surprise. Against Málaga, with Rafinha's return, I like Os Célticos. How well Galatasaray loan-out Nordin Amrabat is contained could be key, however, as the Moroccan play-maker is proving to be one of the best January signings in La Liga.
Celta Vigo 2 Málaga 1
GRANADA over Elche
No player in La Liga has completed more dribbles than Yacine Brahimi this season. The Algerian international is averaging 5.1 successful dribbles per game (that's 132 dribbles overall). Lionel Messi and Neymar are the next highest with 4.4 and 3.1 averages, respectively. A large part of Granada's moderate success this season is Alcaraz' improved 4-3-3 system. Brahimi, generally deployed in a wide position, offers tremendous one-on-one abilities, and can single-handedly break down a defense like few can. To put this statistic into perspective, in all of Europe, only Raffael (Borussia M.Gladbach) and Frank Ribery (Bayern Munich) have a higher dribble percentage.
The former Rennes play-maker was suspended in El Graná's 3-3 draw with Getafe last week, in which Alcaraz' side came back three times, in what was the most exciting match of Jornada 28. Bryan Angulo, in particular, had a great match, putting in the cross for El-Arabi's first goal, but also immense in his associative play. The left-back was second on the team in touches and pass completion, and linked up very well with Fran Rico on Granada's left flank.
Sid Lowe tipped Elche to get relegated on his podcast earlier this week, which I don't necessarily agree with, but I like the home side here in what could be a decisive match for survival.
Granada 1 Elche 0
ESPANYOL over Levante
Espanyol are a tough team to figure out. Against La Liga's top four, the Catalan club are 3-0-3, but haven't lost any of those three matches by more than a goal. They seem to play well against top opposition, in large part due to Aguirre's defensive inclinations. But against teams 11-20 on the table, los Periquitos are 6-5-5. That's remarkably average. Back in Jornada 10, Levante got the best of Espanyol, thanks to a superb performance from Nabil El Zhar, who finished with two goals and an assist. However, Víctor Sánchez had an abysmal performance, of which I don't expect to see repeated at Cornellà-El Prat. The La Masia product is having a tremendous season, and has developed an excellent partnership with David López in pivot. If Sánchez' yellow card against Atlético is rescinded, Espanyol will fare better. If not, Levante will certainly take their chances.
Espanyol 2 Levante 0
VALLADOLID draw with Rayo Vallecano
How can I possibly put into words what Rayo has achieved these last couple of weeks? Most considered them dead in the water. But after months of dwelling in La Liga's bottom three, Jémez' side finally find themselves on the ascent, winning three consecutively, and four of their last six overall. The absurd part is that los Rayitos will have an opportunity to extend their excellent form against bottom-table sides Valladolid and Osasuna, meaning Rayo could enter Jornada 31 on 35 points. Kind of remarkable considering they could only muster 17 points through the first 22 match-rounds. I wrote previously on how Rayo's attack-first style could benefit a team desperate for results, and I think we're seeing that first-hand. I'm going for a draw again, as I'm still reluctant to place this much optimism in a team so inclined to "slit their wrists," as Jémez has said. But I'd be emphatic to see another win, here. Vamos, Rayitos.
Valladolid 1 Rayo Vallecano 1
ATHLETIC BILBAO over Getafe
I must admit I am impressed with Cosmin Contra's ability to excite what is seemingly a non-existent Getafe fan-base. I couldn't find the exact attendance numbers for the Getafe-Granada match last week, but it was certainly an increase from the Coliseum's average attendance of 7,000. Not to mention, Contra had los Azulones playing much more positive football, as the Madrid-based side were able to put three past that tough Granada defense -- a mark that they've failed to hit all season. Despite that, they conceded three equalizers, in what finished as a 3-3 draw, and now remain win-less in their last 12 matches. With matches against Athletic, Villarreal, and Valencia coming up, followed by Atlético, Barcelona, and Sevilla at the tail end, Contra could have used three points, there. Undoubtedly Getafe have the most difficult stretch of matches to close the season. If they're in the Primera next season, it will be 100% on Contra.
Athletic Bilbao 3 Getafe 1
OSASUNA over Sevilla
Emery's side have won four in a row, meaning my season-long inclination to predict the opposite of what Sevilla's form might reflect, is in full-effect. As we know, El Sadar is a tricky place to play. In fact, Sevilla have only won once in Pamplona going back to 1993. Osasuna really need a result to avoid descending into the relegation zone, and so I fully expect Gracia's side to come out strong here. They should be aided, of course, by the general mysticism that seems to emanate from El Sadar, along with what I'm fully convinced is a pardon from the football gods from the Segunda División. Every year los Rojillos escape what appears to be an inevitability. It's what Osasuna do. They survive.
Side-note: Because I never miss an opportunity to take a shot at Emery, let's talk about Sebastián Cristóforo's unfortunate season-ending injury for a second. Up 4-1 in the 77th minute, Emery decides to take off Vicente Iborra (who couldn't participate in Thursday's Europe League fixture due to a suspension), in lieu of Cristóforo, who would have featured in the midweek classic. Then, the young Uruguayan, despite finishing the game, is informed after tests that he's suffered a torn cruciate ligament, and will be out 6-8 months. That could have been avoided had Emery made the more logical substitution. Why leave Cristóforo on when he's required in a midweek game, instead of Iborra, who can't play. Uff. Emery, why, why, why??
Osasuna 2 Sevilla 1
Atlético Madrid over REAL BETIS
As some of you know, I support Real Betis as much as I do Barcelona. I am half-Culé half-Bético. So when Betis lost in penalties to Sevilla on Thursday, denying the club an opportunity to advance into the Europa League quarter-finals, despite being bottom in La Liga, I was quite heartbroken. This meant everything to the Betis fan-base. Most, including Gaby Calderón I would surmise, were willing to sacrifice La Liga if it meant taking home some Europa League hardware. Not to mention the satisfaction of ousting their Seville rivals, equally fixated on that trophy, I'm sure. I could get into criticisms of Calderón's substitutions, of which I place a good portion of blame, but I won't, because I'm still in an emotional black-out over this. I thought Betis had it. I really did.
VALENCIA over Villarreal
Last week I went with a slight upset by picking Villarreal at home over Athletic, just to keep things interesting. This week, I'm doing the same. Pizzi's side desperately need a win if they want to remain in contention for a European place. Should Valencia win, and Sevilla lose, that puts los Che within five points of the Andaluz side for the last Europa League position. Since things rarely work out the way we expect them to, I'm going with Valencia at the Meatalla. Paco Alcácer will be back, and should be keen to continue his excellent form. The young Spaniard is spearheading an improved Valencia attack, and now has six goals in his last seven matches. Only Messi (10) has more during this period.
Valencia 2 Villarreal 1
Real Sociedad over ALMERIA
I'm very much fearing for Almería right now. Back in January, I thought the Andaluz side were safe, after going on a six match unbeaten streak in all competitions. But Francisco's side have only won twice in 11 matches since then, and now find themselves in the relegation zone, level with Valladolid on 26 points. I've written previously on how Almería were having issues with Suso's attitude, as the Liverpool loan-out fell out of Francisco's rotations, not to mention was dropped from Spain's under-21 squad. As their most talented creative player, I fear Suso's continual off-the-pitch and psychological problems will ultimately end in Almería's relegation. I'd like to see the young Spaniard continue in La Liga next season, as opportunities with continue to be scarce, I just don't think it will be at Almería.
Almería 0 Real Sociedad 2
REAL MADRID draw with Barcelona
Another year, another Clásico. I often complain about these fixtures, because La Liga is set up so that they occur more than what is necessary. It also overshadows everything else happening in Spain. Part of the reason casual fans perceive the Spanish league as a "two team league," or rather a league that might as well not exist, outside of the "Big Two," is because of the importance placed in this fixture. There are a lot of interesting stories in La Liga that don't get marketed well enough. But as long as everyone gets their annual dose of El Clásico, right? Ah, well. The LFP has no one to blame but themselves, in regard to that.
Barcelona's 7-0 thumping of Osasuna serves as a nice warm-up here, but Real Madrid enter in superior form overall. For me, a lot depends on how well Luka Modrić and Andrés Iniesta are contained. I have a difficult time seeing either team prevail with poor performances from their most important play-makers. Iniesta has been in complete "ghost-mode" since his recent personal tragedy. It's kind of chilling, really. If the Castilla La Manchan man maintains that level of play, Real Madrid may have a hard time coping.
Tactically, I have no idea what to expect from Barcelona. I wouldn't be surprised to see the 4-4-2 control-heavy template that has worked for Martino in Champion's League. Away from Camp Nou, that might be a good idea, but it's a less dynamic set-up, and so it runs the risk of conservatism. Furthermore, there is a lot of debate as to which forwards will start. Personally, I think Neymar's inclusion in a must. Though the Brazilian is in inferior form, he possesses a very important trait -- that is, the ability to create space for Messi. I love Pedro as much as the next Barcelona fan, but he can't break-down a defense and open up space for attackers the way Neymar, and even Alexis can.
I'm going for a draw here. If Atlético beat Betis, and this ends in a draw, that puts Real Madrid on 71, Atlético on 70, and Barcelona on 67. For the first time in a long time, we have a "three-team Clásico." Soak it up.
Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 2