Athletic Club over RAYO VALLECANO
After their defeat of Sevilla last week, Athletic find themselves six points clear of the Andaluz side, with three matches to play. If they win in Vallecas, Los Leones can finally confirm their first Champion's League birth since the 1998-1999 season. Though Emery was clearly more focused on Sevilla's impending Europa League game, a lot of credit to the Athletic players, who put in a spectacular performance. Ander Iturraspe, who I've raved about all season, was again sensational. His vision and ability to drop back into defense is crucial to Athletic's transition play. Valverde used his full-backs, Mikel Balenziaga and Andoni Iraola, as wing-backs to provide more width on counter-attacks. It was Iturraspe's job then to scan the pitch, and decide when and how to initiate attacks. Having developed into one of the feel good stories in Spain, I like Athletic again, to finally put that seal on Champion's League football.
Rayo Vallecano 0 Athletic Club 2
BARCELONA over Getafe
I think it was obvious that Martino's side were not in the appropriate mental state to play against Villarreal last week. Seeing the players shed tears during Tito's tribute was difficult to watch. As many Culés know, Vilanova has been around the club for a long time. He joined the Catalan club's youth ranks in 1982, at age 14, where he met Pep Guardiola. Though he departed the club in 1990 to play first-team football elsewhere, he rejoined Barcelona in 2002 to manage Cadete B, a team of 13 year-olds that featured Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fábregas and Lionel Messi. He was made assistant to Pep at Barcelona B in 2007, and the rest in history.
Point is, many of the Barça players have known Tito for over half their life. It is an understatement to say the players weren't psychologically prepared for that Villarreal game, but came out victorious anyway, thanks to two own goals and a Lionel Messi match-winner. As players and coaches around La Primera pointed to the sky, after every goal, after every game, I was reminded that Spain has truly lost not just a great football coach, but a great person. Per sempre, Tito.
Barcelona 3 Getafe 0
Elche over MALAGA
Escribá will be disappointed in his side's inability to pick up three points against Levante last week. Elche largely outplayed their Valencian rivals, but with only 3 of 22 shots on target, failed to convert their chances, and now sit on 36 points with three matches to play. After Málaga, Elche have Barcelona at home, and Sevilla away. It's not inconceivable to think three points can be mustered at the Pizjuán. Assuming Athletic secure their Champion's League birth by Jornada 38, Emery's side may have nothing to play for at that point. Nonetheless, that is a daunting two final matches for a relegation candidate, and so I like Elche here is a massive away victory to (hopefully) secure their permanence in La Primera.
Málaga 0 Elche 1
OSASUNA draw with Celta de Vigo
Celta enter El Sadar having already secured permanence, thus allowing Osasuna an excellent opportunity to manage three points here. What a job Luis Enrique has done, by the way, with this young Celta squad. Nolito, purchased for €2.6m from Granada last summer, now has 12 goals, equaling Iago Aspas' tally from last season. The former Barcelona cantera never managed more than 11 league goals in various spells with Barcelona, Benfica, and Granada. But back under the tutelage of Luis Enrique, the Celta winger has developed quite nicely into a more clinical finisher. With Jota returning from his loan-spell at Eibar, and a possible loan move for Denis Suarez in the works, I firmly believe Los Célticos will have the objective of Europe next season.
Osasuna 1 Celta de Vigo 1
VALLADOLID over Espanyol
I'm tempted to pick a draw here. But Martínez' side have 14 on the season -- most in La Liga. Valladolid should be keen to pick up more than a point at home against a seemingly uninspired Espanyol side, who having secured permanence, have only won twice in the last 11 matches. Averaging a league-worst 9.9 shots per game, La Pucela have to be able to put shots on goal, if they stand a chance to survive this season. After scoring 11 goals in the first 17 matches, leading-scorer Javi Guerra has only mustered two in the last 16. How much of that falls on Guerra I don't really know. Without the threat of Patrik Ebert out wide, defenses can focus entirely on Guerra, knowing Valladolid possess very little attacking quality outside of the former Valencia cantera. With a match against Real Madrid coming up, I like Valladolid here, who are in desperate need of a positive result.
Valladolid 1 Espanyol 0
Almería over REAL BETIS
Having been mathematically relegated, Betis haven't much to play for other than pride. Almería enter the Villamarín in 18th place on 33 points. If you recall, Almería were leading after the 83rd minute in their first three matches of the season, but could only manage two draws, instead of three wins. The Andaluz side played some very entertaining football, but without the ability the close matches, I feared for their safety long-term. Now, in serious contention to be relegated, those first three matches could be decisive. Just think. Nine points instead of two through three match-rounds. Almería would be on 40 points, and virtually guaranteed top-flight football next season. Every game counts.
Almería 2 Real Betis 1
Atlético de Madrid over LEVANTE
With the fifth best defense in the league, I don't suspect Diego Simeone will take Levante lightly. Especially knowing that if Atléti win their next two, they're La Liga champions, making that last match at Camp Nou more of a fiesta than anything else. The Champion's League finalists will be without right-back Juanfran, who was instrumental in the win at Stamford, assisting Adrián on that first-half equalizer. Diego Costa is also likely to miss out due to a minor knock. With some key absences, and inevitable fatigue, this is definitely a game to watch. But if Cholo's side pull through, they have Málaga at home next week, where I expect proper celebrations to commence, in what could be their first La Liga title in 18 years.
Levante 0 Atlético de Madrid 2
SEVILLA draw with Villarreal
In what I thought was the best European match-up since Borussia Dortmund-Málaga last year, Sevilla advanced past Valencia on away goals on Thursday, thanks to a 94th minute match-winner from Stephane M'Bia. Quite the unfair result for Che fans, who cheered in euphoria for 94 minutes, before being confronted yet again with familiar feelings of devastation. But that's football, I suppose. With Athletic on the verge of confirming the last Champion's League position, Emery may want to reevaluate his rotations going into the Europa League final against Benfica. Villarreal will be dismayed at their inability to pick up three points against Barcelona last week, but with only two wins in their last 10 matches, I expect Los Submarinos to come out strong, if they want to secure a European position themselves.
Sevilla 1 Villarreal 1
REAL MADRID over Valencia
If this was at the Mestalla, I'd consider an upset here. Following what was a heartbreaking defeat to Sevilla in Europa League, Pizzi's side could arrive at the Bernabeau full of vengeance. Or, knowing Valencia, could just as well come out sullen and lethargic. Regardless of this outcome, Che fans may be pleased to know that Rodrigo de Paul's transfer to Valencia has been confirmed through Argentina media. Of course, there is no official or written statement, but according to Racing's president, Vicente Blanco, the deal is as good as done.
De Paul features mainly as a left winger, and will face stiff competition from Fede, Piatti, Viera, etc. Not to mention the impending return of Carles Gil and José Gayá's possible position change. Pizzi likes his wingers, and is likely to have a plethora of them next season, provided the board doesn't do something bizarre like terminate his contract. With the club's rumored interest in Ayoze Pérez (Tenerife) and Marcos Rojo (Sporting Lisbon) among others, I'd imagine success is not too far into the horizon. But you never know these days....
Real Madrid 2 Valencia 1
REAL SOCIEDAD over Granada
El Graná enter the Anoeta having lost four of their past five, and though I don't expect Alcaraz' side to win here, their remaining two matches are against Valladolid (19th) and Almería (18th). I like Granada to survive this season, but their inability to secure permanence sooner is disappointing. Granada's board did very well to strengthen the squad going into this campaign, adding proven goal-scorers like Piti and Riki, as well as Manuel Iturra, an important member of Málaga's Champion's League team. Though the team's form improved once Alcaraz deviated from his counter-based tactics, moving into a 4-3-3 midfield "trivote," I question Alcaraz' ability to motivate. With the aforementioned signings, coupled with promising young players like Yacine Brahimi, Jeison Murillo, and Bryan Angulo, Granada should be a much better team. While I don't anticipate a descent into Segunda, the club would do well to consider a managerial change, should long-term objectives be raised.
Real Sociedad 2 Granada 0