ATLETICO DE MADRID over Elche
I am mostly a superstitious person, so it took a lot of cojones for me to hype Atléti as much as I have this season. I've had countless pub debates with Premier League fans over the validity of Simeone's team. While not flashy, Atléti play a very intricate, sophisticated defensive system. It is dependent on high, intense horizontal pressing, as well as an acute understanding of coordination and defensive shape. Personally, I find it fascinating. If we can become captured by quality attacking systems, then why not defensive ones as well? With Atlético through to the Champion's League's semi-finals, and top of La Liga with five matches to go, I think it's safe to say this team has earned their stripes.
Quick on Elche. Escribá will be disappointed with Valencia's late match-winner at the Mestalla, denying Super Fran what would have been a very hard-earned point. With three of their last five matches against Atlético, Barcelona, and Sevilla, Elche's inability to pick up a point last week could prove fatal. A home match against Levante, and an away match against Málaga will be decisive in their pursuit of permanent status in La Liga. As the Valencia fans admirably chanted, "Elche es Primera." I am inclined to agree.
Atlético de Madrid 2 Elche 0
Valencia over OSASUNA
Valencia have only lost once in their last five matches at El Sadar. Coming off an excellent 2-1 win over their cross-town rivals, Elche, Pizzi should be keen to pick up another positive result here. Los Che were phenomenal in their remuntada against FC Basel in Europa League. Paco Alcácer scored another three goals, and now has the best goal-ratio (140 minutes) among under-23 players in Europe. This includes the likes of Mario Balotelli, Antoine Griezmann, Rodrigo, and Eden Hazard. Paco's performances have caught the attention of Vicente del Bosque, who paid a visit to Valencia's training ground earlier this week ahead of the Copa del Rey final at Mestalla. While I don't think Paco will make the Spain squad this summer, he is certainly giving del Bosque something to think about.
Osasuna 0 Valencia 1
LEVANTE draw with Getafe
After Levante, Los Azulones have remaining away fixtures against Barcelona and Rayo Vallecano, and home fixtures against Sevilla and Málaga. While it is conceivable Contra's side can climb out of relegation, that is not a favorable schedule by any means. If Getafe can manage a draw at Ciutat de València, there may be some reason for increased optimism, though along with Elche, Getafe have the most difficult road to permanence. With the expectation that Los Granotes will sit back and play ultra-defensive football, Contra will have to intensify his attack. Two match-rounds ago at Martinez Valero, Getafe reverted to their defensive proclivities, and left with a 0-1 loss. Here's to hoping (while secretly not hoping) Contra has learned his lesson.
Levante 1 Getafe 1
REAL SOCIEDAD over Espanyol
Despite being 7th and 9th on the Liga table, neither of these sides are in particularly good form. La Real will be without top-scorer Antoine Griezmann due to a suspension, but still have plenty of firepower in attack. Espanyol play very organized, defensive football, but have conceded six goals in their last two matches, and barely came away with a point against Rayo, if not for a 88th minute equalizer from Diego Colotto. Without Griezmann, Arrasate's side may struggle somewhat, but at Anoeta I like Real Sociedad.
Real Sociedad 2 Espanyol 1
ALMERIA draw with Celta de Vigo
Enrique's side showed great resilience last week after Aurtenxte's 48th minute expulsion, coming back from a one goal deficit against La Real at Balaídos to pick up a draw. On 37 points, if the Galicians can manage a win, it would almost guarantee permanency in the top-flight. Almería, however, are in desperate need for a win themselves, who remain in 19th place on 30 points. With only one win in their last 10 matches, and upcoming games against Espanyol, Real Betis, Granada, and Athletic Club, a loss to Celta would put the Andaluz side in quite the dire position. With Suso's return, Francisco will have a full and healthy squad, but it may not be enough against an equally bent upon Celta team.
Almería 1 Celta de Vigo 1
RAYO VALLECANO over Real Betis
Real Betis have been subject to more poor officiating than any team in the Primera. And I say this objectively as someone who watches 6-10 La Liga matches every weekend. However, as much as we'd like to invoke conspiracy theories, the officiating in La Liga is just outright atrocious in general. Remarkably, I think the officiating in Segunda is actually better, as this sort of "police mentality" doesn't exist with lower-division referees.
Unfortunately for Betis, another recurring theme this season has been a general lack of precision in the final-third. Calderón's side pretty much dominated Sevilla for the first 30 minutes in the derbi last week, before Juankar was unfairly sent off for a tackle in the box. But Betis' inability to convert chances has haunted them all season. With an injury list that grows by the week, I like Rayo here, who look more like a Europa League team than Villarreal these days...
Rayo Vallecano 2 Real Betis 1
SEVILLA over Granada
I said Barcelona's match at Cármenes was a "trap game" of sorts, but I didn't expect to be proven so thoroughly right. What a win for Alcaraz' side. It was El Graná's first win against the Catalans in 44 years. I tipped Brahimi vs. Montoya as a potential match-up concern for Tata. While the Algerian did the score the match-decider, he was not able to impose himself much in the final-third, as Alcaraz went total anti-football, completly conceding possession, and "parking the bus," a tactic Granada are generally not fond of. Credit to Alcaraz though for his pragmatism.
Sevilla, meanwhile, are fresh off a 0-2 win in the derbi, giving the Andaluz side their 11th win in 14 matches. While I expect Athletic to maintain that last Champion's League position, you have to admire Emery, who's potential departure from Sevilla was seen as virtually guaranteed earlier in the season. With a well-rested Rakitic, and the formidable Bacca-Gamiero partnership up front, I like Sevilla in a comfortable home win.
Sevilla 3 Granada 0
BARCELONA draw with Athletic Club
If this wasn't at the Camp Nou, I'd have a hard time predicting anything other than a loss for Barcelona here. Perpetual dark clouds continue to hover above Tata Martino's side, who's season is all but over, as far as I'm concerned. Sorry to be the cynical Culé but I don't think Tata's has the mental fortitude to persevere from this. Mostly, what I don't understand, if Tata truly feels pressured by the board to play certain players, but is keen to resign at the end of the season anyway, why does he succumb so easily? I can't imagine this four-midfield template is preferable to how he wants to play, especially considering the vertical evolution he started to implement earlier in the season.
Whatever the case, I think it's apparent Barcelona's decline is the result of a massive institutional failure, above anything else. You certainly have the right to disagree. And I will be the first to admit, I am not an expert on all of Barcelona's internal problems. For a long time I preferred to distance myself from that. I just like football. I don't want to have to be concerned about administrative failures at the club I support so dearly. But it gets to the point where you can't ignore it anymore. To watch what was one of the best teams of all-time regress into mediocrity is difficult to accept. Regardless of your allegiances, I think it's safe to say these players don't deserve this, they really don't.
Barcelona 1 Athletic Club 1
Villarreal over MALAGA
Gio dos Santos will be available for this one, and is expected to partner Jeremy Perbet in attack. That's a relief for Marcelino I'm sure, who has only been able to muster two wins in his last eight matches. If Los Submarinos can manager another win here, that would put the Valencian side on 55 points, meaning they'd need only four points in their remaining five matches to guarantee a Europe League spot. Considering Villarreal's form over the past two months, I suppose that is not a certainty by any means. But I like Gio and co. in a grind-it-out win at La Rosaleda.
Málaga 0 Villarreal 1