Valencia (2nd) v Atlético Madrid (3rd) – Saturday 3pm
Win this and Atlético’s last few days will have been like the climactic end-game in the Godfather when Michael Corleone hacks down every single one of his would be rivals.
Both Valencia and Sevilla legitimately have their eye on clawing points from the big three and, who knows, possibly testing Atlético’s chin with a few hooks and jabs across the season. Probe for weaknesses.
But Diego ‘El Cholo’ Simeone was back from his ban last weekend. The man in black walked the line again. Or prowled. Result? Sevilla were ripped to shreds – 4-0.
Midweek Atlético went toe-to-toe with the runaway Italian champions in the Champions League and cut Juve down to size too.
The Tattaglias and Barzinis down. Just Moe Greene left.
Valencia. They shouldn’t be credible for third place but if Peter Lim’s takeover is confirmed and if Jorge Mendes keeps putting his formidable transfer market power at Valencia’s disposal then you never know.
Paco Alcácer has four goals and a goal assist in his last five games while Rodrigo, a Real Madrid youth product, would love to send one into Atlético’s ribs.
They’ll face Miguel Ángel Moyà who’s time as Valencia’s keeper was plagued by both injuries and doubts about his top level mentality – will he fluff his return lines or steal the show?
Atlético continue to produce set-play gems and, importantly, to win the second ball around the box. Both centre backs, Mandzukic, Raúl García and the wonderful Arda all look like scoring value in, potentially, a 2-2 draw.
Rayo Vallecano (11th) v Barcelona (1st) – Saturday 5pm
A match between two clubs in a race to see which one can be first to resemble Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The Catalans spent well over €100m in the summer.
Paco Jémez has had to cope with incorporating 17 new players, swapped, borrowed or found down the back of the sofa. You’d think that the visitors might get there first.
But it’s Rayo’s desire to reproduce the best of the Guardiola ideal at Vallecas which tells you this should be a corker of a game.
So successful is Jémez that in 2013 Rayo ended Barcelona’s 317 game run since 2008 when they had always dominated possession. But despite owning the ball for 54% of the time they still lost 4-0.
Rayo don’t have a Petrodollar billionaire owner like PSG but their scouts will have seen the Parisians showing, in winning 3-2 on Tuesday, that if you run at the Blaugrana full backs, if you get quality crosses into the box – fun things can result.
Leo Baptistão has not only scored four times [two off his right foot, one off his left and one header] in two consecutive wins over Athletic and Levante, but he’s precisely the quick footed, hard running striker who might cause danger.
Worth a look for a goal as is Alberto Bueno [Bertie Good] who has four in six and who won the 2006 European U19 Championship with Juan Mata and Gerard Piqué for Spain against Scotland.
Jordi Alba, Andrés Iniesta and Pedro are all notably lacking form for Barcelona who are neither invulnerable nor as intimidating now as they once were.
But Rayo’s attacking, front foot, ‘un-park the bus and drive it through the opposition defence’ will also allow space for Leo Messi, Neymar, Munir and possibly even Xavi who looks fresh and with a free kick goal in him pretty soon.
There should be goals, entertainment and three points for the league leaders despite the whiff of a shock.
Real Madrid (5th) v Athletic Bilbao (16th) – Sunday 8pm
Okay – quick quiz question. What links multimillionaire Thomas Gravesen, celebrity PSG fan David Beckham and racehorse owner Michael ‘Go on my son’ Owen?
Answer – they all started for Real Madrid the last time Athletic Bilbao won at the Bernabéu.
Nearly a decade ago.
Not a good for anyone who’s tempted to oppose Madrid based on the fact that this is last season’s fourth-placed club meeting the side which finished just a place above them.
And, just like in real life, the news gets worse and worse.
During that decade Madrid [home and away] have scored three or more goals against Athletic on 13 occasions. Defences on top… etc.
Right now the Basque club: sit a point off the bottom three, have only beaten Levante in La Liga, who ARE in the bottom three, this season; was beaten on its last trip to Madrid, ten days ago against Rayo, and its chief goal threat, Aritz Aduriz, has only ever scored once against Los Blancos – four and a half years ago for Mallorca.
After Athletic lost 2-1 to BATE on Tuesday their coach, Ernesto ‘The Ant’ Valverde savaged them: “We were super-weak, lacking in intensity and virtually unrecognisable”
Madrid, after 15 goals in three league games, centre their concerns around the rampant Cristiano Ronaldo.
He left the Ludogorets midweek win with a sore Achilles, victim of a studding, and thus whether or how he plays is of extreme interest. Last time he was absent for Madrid… they lost.
There is one interesting glimmer for the Basques – that 0-2 win back in February 2005 was coached by Valverde during his first spell in charge.
What’s that? You want another straw to cling to?
Fine. Madrid conceded YET another set piece goal to a header against Ludogorets in midweek, Aduriz’s only goal against Madrid was a header and he’s one of Europe’s finest exponents of the nod to the net.
More? Referee Alex Hernández Hernández in his two seasons in Spain’s elite has been in charge of Madrid three times – and they’ve lost twice.
To Malága and Celta.
And he sent two of Athletic’s opponents off in his first term in the big time.
That aside it looks like Madrid should score three, that Karim Benzema’s on bouncy form and is worth an ‘anytime’ punt [as is Ibai Gomez for the visitors] and that one of Spain’s champions league representatives might even be in a relegation position come late Sunday night.