Villarreal [7th] v Real Madrid [5th] – Saturday 3pm
Villarreal wins over Real Madrid come along about as often as a Scottish Independence referendum so it’s very tempting just to vote ‘No!’ here without listening to the debate.
The last time that fabled event took place Manchester City wasn’t even a gleam in Manuel Pellegrini’s eye and Real Madrid still heaped faith and optimism in Lassana Diarra and Royston Drenthe – whatever happened…… Never mind.
It was May 2009, just the second such triumph in their history and only three players from that night, Casillas, Bruno and Cani, can repeat this weekend. Each of them holds the potential to be a major participant.
Carlo Ancelotti (below), right now, is forcing all of us who pay attention to Spanish football to mimic him, in raising our left eyebrows like caterpillars ascending Alpe D’Huez for the Geometrid King of the Mountain’s title. Just over a week ago this most affable of Italian football godfathers began to snap and snarl at people who asked him about the goalkeeping situation. ‘No debate, I’m not getting into all that – Iker is the first team keeper and we won’t be rotating like last season’. Two games later he rotate the keepers.
Or… did he?
With Madrid’s home fans split down the middle over whether to chant in support of San Iker [Saint Iker] or whistle and jeer him, Casillas was left out against Elche. Rotated? Dropped? Keylor came in, did fine but basically had no work. Now Ancelotti says that he will not be playing one keeper in the Bernabeu and another in away matches but will not, either, confirm which of the two will be in the starting XI against Villarreal. [Iker I reckon]
So, what the hell is he up to?
As for Bruno he’s one of the most hard-working, agile and smart midfielders without a high profile in Spanish football. A local boy, he’s someone who could take advantage of the fact that while Toni Kroos is now the ‘organising midfielder’ he does have a tendency to go walkabout.
Then there’s Cani. Rested for Villarreal’s last game, 1-1 at Eibar, he has the aggression, height, know-how and ambition to produce something special on the big occasion, just as he did a year ago on Gareth Bale’s debut, here, in a 2-2 result which ultimately helped cost Madrid the title.
But, don’t ignore the obvious. Ronaldo (below) loves scoring at Villarreal – five in his last four visits – and he’s also hit seven in his last two Liga matches (4/9 to score anytime). The Submarine have three draws a defeat and a comeback win having trailed 0-2 at home to struggling Rayo to show for the weeks after shining in the Europa League qualifying. Imposing themselves and winning is costing them the world at the moment.
Gio Dos Santos is near to return, 20 year old ‘Lucky’ Luciano Vietto scored twice last week to open his account and Uche is working like a dog to supercede his injuries….. but it’ll take a strange twist of events if Madrid don’t add to their wee run of victories, even if at a reduced margin. Ronaldo (4/9 anytime) and Bale (10/11 anytime) to score and see them through.
Barcelona [1st] v Granada [8th] – Saturday 5pm
Football is rock n roll, football grabs the senses, puts them in a high rev spin and returns them to you at the end of 90 minutes – football is a Ryder Cup-high every weekend. Football is king of sports. So let me make your adrenalin soar and your pulse rate rip through the Stock Aitken and Waterman hi-energy beats per minute.
Barcelona and Granada had 67% and 59% of possession in their midweek games … and neither team even managed one paltry effort on target. ‘Football, bloody hell’ [© SAF] Barcelona regularly struggle to beat Granada by more than a single goal and they lost to them last season [1-0] in a match where they bombarded the penalty area but could have been there until August without scoring.
More, Barça’s Messi-dependency has grown over the last year and a bit.
If he’s on form, either as an assist-giver or scorer, Barcelona will beat most sides and become trophy contenders. If not, and he once again looked sluggish and tired in midweek even before Malága defender Weligton proved that not only can his parents not spell, he can’t read the rules of football [Clue: it’s NOT WWF] they huff and puff.
Does this paint as a possible banana-skin game for the home side?
Granada don’t concede much, they beat the Catalans last season, they’ve a healthy eight point total already and their coach, Joaquín Caparrós is one savvy dude with a wealth of La Liga know-how. Luis Enrique says: ‘I expect a complicated rival. ‘They are very strong defensively. ‘They work hard, they are smart at set pieces and they counter-attack well. ‘This’ll be the same as almost all our games this season’
Mebbe so. I’ve got a slightly different view. Granada not only were beaten at home in midweek [Levante] they were battered the previous game when winning in Bilbao on a day when they could and should have conceded about five. Barcelona were strangled all over the pitch by a super-industrious Malága midweek – it was one of those which looked like 14 men playing 11.
But the first thing which Caparrós targeted in criticising his team’s midweek slump was their intensity. Their work rate, their concentration but above all their intensity.
If they repeat that and fail to learn from Malága’s excellence – they’ll be beaten. In Jhon Córdoba (5/1 anytime) and El Arabi (9/2 anytime), Granada have two big, quick strikers capable of running beyond Barcelona’s extremely high defensive line – can Bravo keep his goal secure [none conceded in the league thus far] and head towards a record? He’s 8/13 to keep a clean sheet.
Andrés Iniesta (above) hasn’t shone yet and needs to – this is just the type of game in which he might open his account (2/1 anytime) but Ivan Rakitic, who’ll take some of the free kicks and who’s not scared of a shot from distance, might add to the one he scored last week at Levante (2/1 anytime).
Atlético [3rd] v Sevilla [1st] – Saturday 7pm
Recently this has been a game where the Spanish league has, politely, asked all participants and management to check their holsters, knuckle-dusters, coshes and tasers in with the security guards at a desk outside each dressing room. To merely brand it ill-tempered would be like saying that the Clanton and Earp brothers didn’t turn out to be socially compatible and that the Campbell’s weren’t great neighbours to Clan MacDonald.
The last six games between the sides have been Football at the OK Corral. They’ve produced 37 bookings, nine red cards [six of which have been straight reds] and five penalties. Very nearly a card of one colour or other every eleven minutes. All bar one of the games have been under the control of Diego Simeone (below) and Unai Emery.
But a couple of the game’s bad boys have moved on – Medel, Diego Costa, Filipe Luis for example. More, when this weekend’s ref, Snr Gonzalez Gonzalez was last in charge of the fixture it was like the Peace Games and white doves were released over the stadium at the end.Right in the middle of this run of undisguised ill-feeling he managed to see the 90 minutes through with only six bookings – ie no reds, no penalties. Can this ref keep things calm again?
Rumours that he put bromide in the players’ tea pre-match are quite unconfirmed.
So, this weekend. Sevilla are joint top, two points ahead of Los Colchoneros and Simeone’s side have looked irregular in draws with Celta and Rayo plus that Champions League defeat in Athens. But beware. Over these six back-alley skirmishes there have been 18 goals only five of which were scored by Sevilla who’ve managed no better than two draws and four defeats.
Carlos Bacca has been Sevilla’s touchstone for big goals this season [and last] but he didn’t score in either meeting with Atleti last term and was subbed off both times. Is he ready for this intensity this time? Is the slight slackness which Atletico are showing [they went behind against Celta at home last week and then gifted a really stupid penalty for the equalizer] the sniff of an opportunity which the Colombian requires? He’s 12/5 to score anytime if so.
Atletico are still scoring almost all their goals from set plays [six out of seven in the league], the majority headers, so it’s still worth thinking about Raul Garcia (above, 9/4 anytime), Miranda (9/1 anytime) and Diego Godín (8/1 anytime) while for Sevilla, Stephane Mbia (11/1 anytime) just loves a big goal when he arrives late in the box.
Two significant returns. Diego Simeone’s back on the touchline after his ban … will that quieten down the feud or ratchet it up? and Mario ‘Don’t call me the Phantom of the Opera’ Mandzukic is available again thanks to his 65 gram carbon fibre mask to protect his badly fractured nose.
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