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Graham Hunter: Why Real Madrid have a little in common with Chicken Licken this season

Our man in the sun picks three of the top games in the Spanish top flight to whet your weekend whistle with some value tips...

by Graham Hunter | September 20, 2014

Deportivo la Coruña v Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s opponents this weekend, Deportivo La Coruña, once represented perhaps the healthiest years in La Liga history.

They’d scout brilliantly, play superb football, regularly meet and beat teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Milan. They were a force.

One of their most emblematic traits was that, at the Riazor in La Coruña (3pm, Saturday), Madrid just couldn’t beat them. For 18 long years there was the odd draw but also a regular flow of three, four and five-goal wins for Depo – often coached by an Atlético legend in Jabo Irureta, just to rub salt in the wound.

To put that kind of hex in context this was across a spell when Madrid reached and won three Champions League finals.

Biggest club competition? No problem.

Three points up in Galicia? Forget it.

Zidane v Keane

Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Figo, Zidane (above), Ronaldo never won at the Riazor while they were Galacticos.

The run from 1991/2 to 2009/2010 finally ended thanks to a 3-1 win inspired by two Karim Benzema goals, one of which is now infamous for a sublime Guti backheel into the Frenchman’s path when Guti seemed free to score himself.

Now Depo represent just about all that ails Spanish league football. Held together by player loans and bank debt there have been times in recent months while the team yo-yoed back and forward from the Second Division, when the club was a candidate to go out of business.

The last formal statement was last year when the total was €153m and they recently admitted owing €63m to the Spanish Revenue as part of that.

What has not changed since that January 2010 win for Manuel Pellegrini’s Madrid broke the jinx, however, is that the Riazor remains a place where Los Blancos need to sweat.

Since then there’ve been two whoppings at the Bernabéu, 11-2 aggregate, but a 0-0 draw and 1-2 away win courtesy of an 88th minute second goal for Jose Mourinho’s Madrid.

A cautionary tale about Real’s weaknesses

This weekend attention turns to Albert Lopo (above) if he starts. The big central defender has played all three league fixtures for Victor Fernandez, but the coach, who often put out winning Celta Vigo and Real Zaragoza teams against Madrid in his day, has been rotating the team significantly.

Why Lopo? He’s scored for both Espanyol and Depo against Los Blancos, the last a headed winner against a back five which sported Casillas, Ramos, Pepe and Marcelo.

Madrid fear the ball in the air more than Chicken Licken feared the sky falling on his head. More? Booked in all three of this season’s matches, Lopo hates a card. Just hates one.

Sent off 13 times in his career and booked 136 times he’s not the quickest and referee Pedro Pérez Montero sports a record of 18 reds in 55 Liga matches. One every three games.

Madrid to win, however. In both of their horror defeats, away to La Real and home to Atlético, they made oodles and oodles of good scoring chances but only put three of them away.

The way in which they hammered Basel in midweek and the relief, for Benzema, James and Bale to get on the scoresheet should de-stress their finishing. Worth noting, however, that their second half performance, just as against La Real and Atlético declined.

Ronaldo will be extra motivated to score at one of only two La Liga grounds this season where he’s not celebrated with a goal. Pepe is injured and Rafa Verane will start in his place.

IF Madrid were to lose then a sniff in the direction of next Liga coach to lose his job might be a forward investment.

Lionel Messi stat La Liga

Levante v Barcelona

Munir made his Spain debut here a couple of weeks ago, Busquets and Pedro scored then too, against Macedonia, and the great majority of this squad has twice celebrated clinching the title on this ground in Valencia.

Happy hunting ground? Not necessarily so. Of Barcelona’s last seven Liga visits to the Ciutat De Valencia (8pm, Sunday) there have been four 1-1 draws. What I think makes that all the more significant is that the results have come under four different managers using significantly different XIs.

There’s something about this fierce, proud little community and the tight pitch, which was muddy and sluggish down the middle when Spain beat Macedonia back at the beginning of September, which forces Barcelona to be at their sharpest and most aggressive if they want three points.

Something which hasn’t, yet, been the case under the Luis Enrique revolution. Thus far Leo Messi has contributed four assists and scored two goals. Take them away [for the sake of argument] and Barcelona would have registered just one win, scored just one goal and would be under extreme pressure.

Levante don’t like scoring

No question, under ‘Lucho’ Barcelona are working harder, beginning to look more fluent and neither keeper, Claudio Bravo nor Marc-Andre ter Stegen, has had to make more than one significant save.

The pressing all over the pitch has helped see to that. But backstage after the 1-0 win over APOEL numerous players and staff used the word ‘espeso’ to describe their performance.

It’s the word you’d use if the sink pipe was blocked – i.e. not particularly fluid. Luis Enrique has used 22 of his 26 man squad, too many changes in too short a time, frankly.

Neymar hobbled out of the stadium on Wednesday and it’d be a surprise if he started. Time for Munir and Pedro again? NB it’s now 369 minutes since Levante scored a league goal… on that form you’d kinda fancy Barcelona to see out a good win, if they got the first goal.

diego simeone, atletico madrid manager

Atlético v Celta Vigo

Cholo v Toto. No, it’s not code. It’s how this battle will be seen by many. Diego Simeone v Eduardo Berizzo. Two aggressive Argentinian street-fighters, with half a lifetime in common, doing battle for the first time as opposing coaches.

They played each other as kids for Newells Old Boys and Velez, they took lumps out of each other for Celta and Atlético as players, shared the national shirt of Argentina to good effect and both, in their fledgling years, coached at Estudiantes.

And perhaps, just perhaps, Toto has picked a good time to head back to Kansas.

Atlético lost only one game and conceded just five goals en route to last season’s Champions League final yet in Athens in midweek they lost to Olympiakos, conceded three times and looked as stretched as they’ve done in Europe for several years.

Mario Mandzukic is out for at least a fortnight after a reparative nose operation and you’d bet that Miguel Ángel Moyà will replace Jan Oblak in goal.

Tiredness was a word which Simeone didn’t allow to feature in Atlético’s dictionary last season… but might there be a trace of it this weekend at Vicente Calderon (7pm, Saturday).

Long journey to Athens, beaten in a sweaty, aggressive cauldron, long journey home – still no Simeone on the bench this weekend.

Heads you win

Celta like to play 4-3-3 in possession, 4-1-4-1 without the ball and, like Atleti are taught to press the opposition high up the pitch and to work like hungry dogs.

Atleti, without Mandzukic, will probably use Raul Jiménez and Antoine Griezmann up front leading to more breakaway counter attacks and a return to the ball played quickly over the top or into channel-runs as last season for Diego Costa.

Celta’s best player, Nolito, is fit again but might not start given that Celta host the Galician derby [v Depo] this week… but with Toto you never know.

Between them, the two sides have scored five headed goals already this season so a look at that for first goal, with perhaps Joaquín Larrivey [two goals already this season and a headed goal for Rayo against Atlético last season] or Diego Godín in mind might reward.

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