ALMERIA over Osasuna
Neither of these teams are in good form. Both sides have only won once in their last eight. With the Liga table remarkably tight 11-18, a win for either side would be tremendous. I like Francisco's side here purely for two reasons. The first of which being that Osasuna does not share my inclination for positive football. For several seasons now I've tipped los Rojillos to get relegated, but the Pamplona side are born-and-bred survivalists. I admire Osasuna' fan-base, and the history of the club, not to mention they are one of four clubs in Spain owned and operated by fans, rather than a sports corporation - Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Athletic Bilbao being the other three. But it's high-time bottom-table teams in Spain partial toward negative football make the drop. Sorry if that's harsh.
The second reason being that Suso has been immense in recent weeks. I've mentioned previously how important the Liverpool loan-out is to this Almería side. Seemingly back in good favor with Francisco (or at least forced into good favor, due to the team's position on the table), the Spaniard has been decisive in the final-third, creating chances and orchestrating Almería's attack. If he continues his good run of form, I like Almería here.
Almería 2 Osasuna 1
ATLÉTICO MADRID over Villarreal
If this wasn't at the Calderón, I'd be tempted to pick Villarreal here. Coming off a physically demanding 1-1 draw with Barcelona in Champion's League (not to mention the ensuing return leg), it's conceivable that Simeone's side could slip up here. They are likely to be without Diego Costa due to injury, and are without their capita, Gabi, who's on a card suspension. How much Simeone rotates beyond that remains to be seen. Despite the injury to Costa, if there's one thing to be encouraged about it's Diego Ribas. His thunderbolt-of-a-goal against Barcelona struck me as the kind of special moment that is required to win championships. Years from now, we may look at Diego's goal as a defining moment in Atlético's season. It's Aaron Boone's homerun against the Sox. It's Ben Roethisliberger's immaculate tackle. Sometimes it is in these moments that champions are crowned.
Atlético Madrid 1 Villarreal 0
BARCELONA over Real Betis
2013-2014 has been an enigmatic experience for Barcelona fans. By most team's standards, second-place in the league, in addition to a quarter-final appearance in Champion's League, and a final birth in the domestic cup would largely be a success. But it's a series of off-the-pitch developments that have defined Barcelona's season, as a dark cloud continues to hover above the Catalan capital. Most recently of which is a FIFA-issues transfer embargo due to the clubs failure to adhere to certain regulations regarding international transfers of players under the age of 18. I won't get into the logistics of these regulations, but I will share my opinion on how I think it's been handled.
Barcelona knowingly broke the rules. Almost as if the club dared FIFA to take action against them. In fact, I'm quite sure the administration was aware of an impending embargo, but failed to do anything about it in the last transfer window, which is baffling in itself. They will have to answer for that, in addition to a myriad of other misgivings, i.e., Negmar's transfer, the Qatar sponsorship deal, etc. But let me be clear, FIFA's regulations, which are supposed to prevent "child trafficking," are rather discriminatory in nature, not to mention arbitrary.
It well-known that Premier League clubs partake in similar youth transfers, but have seemingly found a loophole, by not registering them in official competitions until they are of age. Additionally, the Qatari federation are building their 2022 World Cup roster with African players, many of whom have already represented various clubs around Qatar in youth tournaments, even competing against an under-15 Barcelona squad, much to the astonishment of myself. So if FIFA wants to take action against clubs not adhering to their regulations, at least apply the same level of punishment to ALL clubs involved.
I won't drag this out too much, as I'm sure many of you are already aware of these things. But if I was Barcelona, I'd take FIFA to court on this. And if there is an impeccable example of how La Masia does not fall under "child trafficking" categories, look no further than Lionel Messi. If FIFA's regulations were in place prior to 2010, Messi would never had made it to European football, as his growth hormone deficiencies would likely go untreated, as no top European club would legally be able to provide such treatments, preventing the development of one of the best players the sport has ever produced.
Barcelona 3 Real Betis 0
Real Madrid over REAL SOCIEDAD
When los Blancos went into Anoeta last season, the game finished 3-3, featuring high-octane performances from both sides, and a last-touch equalizer from Xabi Prieto, in what was one of my favorites ties of the 2012-13 Liga campaign. Historically, the results are quite even at la Real's home stadium, though the Basque have only won once in the last 14 matches against Real Madrid. Ancelotti will be keen to maintain ground on Atlético and Barcelona for the league title, and should be encouraged by an excellent performance from Isco in their midweek Champion's League clash with Borussia Dortmund. The former Málaga/Valencia cantera showed great attitude and willingness to improve his work-rate as an interior in Ancelotti's 4-3-3. The transition to Real Madrid was always going to be difficult, as it is for virtually every youth player at the club. But I think under the right guidance, Isco can find his feet again, and show Europe why the La Lia giants wanted him in the first place.
Real Sociedad 1 Real Madrid 2
RAYO VALLECANO draw with Celta Vigo
I've enjoyed Rayo's resurrection as much as the next, but it should be stated that despite their excellent form, los Rayitos remain only three points clear of relegation. Celta play very well away from Balaídos. In fact, the Galician club would be 8th on the Liga table just counting away matches. Against Sevilla last week, Enrique's side were rescued by a questionable Fazio penalty, of which Nolito converted, giving them a 1-0 win, moving up to 11th place on 36 points. Rafinha has a rather subdued performance, but is likely not in peak physical condition. Interestingly, the Barcelona loan-out may be forced into a another season at Celta due to FIFA's refusal to allow loan players to register in competitions for Barcelona next season. If that's the case, I hereby tip Enrique's side as Europa League contenders for the 2014-15 season. Ricardo probably thinks I'm insane.
Rayo Vallecano 1 Celta Vigo 1
MALAGA draw with Granada
Interesting stat. In 21 total matches between these clubs, the away team has only won once, and that was back in 1942 -- the very first encounter between the Andaluz sides. Coming off a dramatic 1-2 victory over the bottom-feeders of La Liga, Real Betis, Schuster should be keen to pick up another positive result here. The problem with Málaga, however, as it has been all season, is their inability to create chances. If it wasn't for their stellar January signing, Nourredine Amrabat, I'm not sure where los Boquerones would be exactly. Remarkably, Amrabat has the second most number of assists for Málaga, and has only featured in 10 of their 30 games. Every season a player is signed by a bottom-table team in January to be a difference-maker. Amrabat has been crucial to Málaga's moderate success in the last three months, and undoubtedly the impact player they so desperately needed.
Málaga 1 Granada 1
ELCHE over Getafe
I'm going to make a prediction. The winner of this tie will stay in the Primera next season, and the loser will drop down into the second division. With relatively similar schedules the rest of the way, this is the decisive match for both sides, who desperately need a good result to distance themselves from relegation. If this ends as a draw, my guess is as good as yours. But as you know, I maintain a certain partiality toward Elche, and would like them to remain in La Liga next season. The club's chairman, José Sepulcre, has indicated that increased funds will be made available, should Elche achieve permanency. As the second-lowest budget team in the Primera, that is a promise I'd like to see fulfilled.
Elche 1 Getafe 0
SEVILLA over Espanyol
Analyzing Unai Emery is like picking flowers, and playing a game of 'He loves me, he loves me not.' No one toes the line between brilliance and self-destruction better than the Sevilla manager. For that reason, it's difficult for me to buy in to the Andaluz' side recent form (game against Celta notwithstanding). We make a lot of Valencia's hot-and-cold tendencies, but if you look at Sevilla' season, the fluctuation of results is remarkable. After starting out the season winless through five matches, they then went on a five-match unbeaten streak. After two more losses, Emery's side won five of their next six matches, before going on another winless streak of six games. They followed that up with six straight victories, before losing to Celta last week.
I'm inclined to pick a draw here (especially after a dismal performance in Europa League), however, I'm going with a win at the Pizjuán. As much as I enjoy watching Athletic play, I'm more keen to see Sevilla in Champion's League next season to avoid further player departures. There is so much untapped potential with this team, the challenge is maintaining consistency.
Sevilla 2 Espanyol 1
VALLADOLID draw with Valencia
It's kind of comical that about a month ago, the majority of La Liga viewers tipped Valencia as shoe-ins for the last Europa League position. Shows how vulnerable we are, really. Nothing has changed with this team. If you look at Pizzi's record, it is not dissimilar to Djukic's. Pizzi has achieved 20 points in 14 games, compared to Djukic who achieved 20 points in 16 games. I'd like to think los Che are capable of picking up a win at Zorilla, but with 19 year-old Rúben Vezo as their only available center-back, and what I expect to be an ultra-motivated Valladolid team, I'm going with a draw. As it has been all season, the most interesting aspect of Valencia right now is their ownership situation. It was recently revealed that club has seven offers on the table, including Russian, Arab, and Chinese bids. The potential takeover is much more exciting than what the club is producing on the pitch. It's a sad reality right now.
Valladolid 2 Valencia 2
Athletic Bilbao over Levante
Valverde's will be missing both of his first-choice center-backs this week - Carles Gurpegi and Aymeric Laporte. Xabi Etxeita is expected to make his debut for Athletic, who I tipped as a difference-maker prior to the season, following his transfer from Elche. Etxeita was largely the best defender in Segunda last season, but with Laporte and Gurpegi's outstanding performances this season, the former Elche stand-out has had an impossible time finding minutes. At the Ciutat de Valencia, there is a chance Levante find a way to sneak one by Valverde's inexperienced central-defense, but the overall difference in quality is too overwhelming for me to predict anything other than an Athletic win here.
Levante 1 Athletic Bilbao 2