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Graham Hunter’s La Liga Preview: The first El Clasico of the season heralds the return of Suarez and the best of the rest

La Liga aficionado Graham Hunter runs the rule over the first El Clasico of the season. Suarez returns, Bale misses out and Claudio Bravo shocking record against Real. Plus a rundown of the best of the rest from Spain.

by Graham Hunter | October 25, 2014

Real Madrid v Barcelona Saturday 5pm

Given that Barcelona won only 12 times in 74 years away to Real Madrid until 2003 it will come as a shock to the unwary, and the stuff of nightmares to Florentino Pérez, that Madrid have won only five of the last 17 Clásicos at the Bernabéu.

Without wishing to ignore Ronaldinho or Etoo, this is testimony to what the era of Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Victor Valdés Messi and Piqué has been like. Strong, talented, unquenchably hungry. But also, centrally, an era where Barcelona have largely dominated possession and Madrid, if their opponents are on form, become positionally ragged.

It’s not the end, yet, but it’s the beginning of the end. Valdés and Puyol are gone. A few weeks ago Xavi would have been an outsider to start based on Luis Enrique’s extremely sparing use of the midfielder. Piqué admitted to me this week that he’s facing the biggest challenge of his career right now. The challenge to keep his place.

Real Madrid lose at home to Barcelona - 2005

These last ten years have seen 33 Clasicos – in La Liga, La Copa, the Supercopa and the Chamipons League. At the Santiago Bernabeu, at the Camp Nou, at La Mestalla.

These behemoth matches have gifted us 112 goals – almost three and a half per game.

At which point I think it’s fair to look at the credentials of the two sides as they approach this particular Clásico. In theory it’s irresistable force v immoveable object.

Madrid [for which read Cristiano Ronaldo] are scoring at an unparalleled rate. Forty three times this season they’ve hit the net [all comps] while ‘immoveable’ Barça [for which read Claudio Bravo] have yet to concede a goal in La Liga.

Put it all together and the ten year, 112 goal stat tells you that more often it’s the force which is irresistible and the object which is moveable. There have only been ten clean sheets in the last 33 meetings between the sides [in fact only 7 scoreless draws since 1928, and there will NOT be one on Saturday]

Which somewhat puts the focus on one of the battles featuring a Clasico debutant this weekend. Claudio Bravo. Excellent so far this season he’s been only partly responsible for the zero goals conceded given that Barcelona have been pressing like Italian farmers during the olive harvest. But he’s produced several key saves.
Something which has been in short supply in his previous meetings with either Real Madrid or Ronaldo.

A Bravo Decision

Claudio Bravo's record versus Real Madrid

Since his debut in 2006 Bravo has:
Played Madrid ten times.
LOST nine
CONCEDED TO CR7 ten goals in six meetings
WON never.

Doesn’t mean that the horrific run can’t end now that he’s with Barcelona .. but it’s a nasty, nagging thought to carry with you into enemy territory.
His tormentor, Ronaldo took eleven games to score two goals v Barça … and has eleven in thirteen thereafter.

Does Suárez start. Instinct says yes. Football’s conservatism tells you no. The Barcelona players all say he’s ripping it up in training. Luis Enrique seems enchanted with him. He scored two against England in his penultimate competitive match not long after having a surgeon hack about in his knee. He’s remarkable.

But for how long would he last, stamina-wise? Did Pedro do enough against Ajax to correct the impression that he’s been out of form this season.

For Madrid how much does Bale’s absence matter? It’s remarkable that the only Clásico they won last season, the Cup final, was without Ronaldo. That Bale gallop and goal will live long in the memory but won’t be repeated this weekend.

Lionel Messi beats Xabo Alonso

Messi ripped Madrid up again last season – scoring two penalties. An art at which he’s looked increasingly jittery since. Iniesta got the other goal in that stunning 3-4 Barcelona win – he, too, has had an underwhelming season until playing blisteringly well against Ajax.

Worth backing ‘anytime’ are Isco, in his best form at Madrid and very capable of scoring, Benzema who had two in this fixture last season, laid on the opening goal in the Cup final and rocketed a shot off the bar in the Camp Nou Clásico, and Neymar.

In the league last season, only he had as much influence as Messi in Clásicos scoring one, making two and winning a penalty. This season he’s been muscular, quick and much more focussed.

For the ‘over three goals’ mob, I agree. Final score 2-2, Neymar and Benzema, Messi and Isco to feature on the scoresheet.

  • Real Madrid 7/5, Barcelona 15/8, Draw 5/2: Bet Now

Valencia v Elche, Saturday 7pm

Right, quiz question. You are betting in play, Elche get a penalty against Valencia – what’s gonna happen?

First of all, so long as he’s not been injured or red carded Edu Albacar will take it. His career stat is thirteen out of thirteen converted. “I know there’s likely to be a day when I miss but I want to be able to retire with the boast that I scored every penalty I took”.

In this instance there’s a little bit more of the old ‘irresistable force, immoveable object’.

Diego Alves, recalled to the Brazil squad this week, is back for Valencia having missed the defeat in la Coruña with gastroenteritis. Alves has saved 16 of the 35 penalties he’s faced in Spanish football. Taking into account the couple which have also gone wide or hit the woodwork the stats say that if you face Alves it’s about 50/50 whether you score or not.

Alvaro Negredo is fit again but only makes the bench. Valencia missed their young Portuguese midfielder André Gomes dramatically in that loss to Depo and his return should be influential. Each team won the home version of this match last season – Valencia will do so again this.

  • Valencia 4/11, Elche 17/2, Draw 7/2: Bet Now

Sevilla v Villarreal, Sunday 6pm

Last time these two teams met here there was a bit of the ‘after you Claude’ feel to the match. Sevilla had the Europa League final in view and Villarreal just needed one point to clinch a return to Uefa competition in their first season after promotion back to La Liga. There was pretty football but few chances, almost no tackles and not a single booking – after the previous two encounters had yielded fifteen yellows and two reds.

Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan
Europe was on the agenda this week and it might give the narrowest edge to a strong Villarreal away performance. They were at home while thrashing Zurich 4-1 while Sevilla had to fight out a draining 0-0 draw at Standard Liege. The Yellow Submarine more rested as a result – it’s a narrow call. Both Mbia, who should start, and Kevin Gameiro, who’s still finding match tempo after five months out but who should come on in the second half [he has a goal and a shot off the post in his two comeback matches] look nice for a ‘goal anytime’. For Villarreal Gio Dos Santos is the obvious candidate for a goal against the club who helped him kickstart his career after his nightmare at Spurs. Bruno Soriano too, ‘who should definitely be playing for Spain’ according to his manager, Marcelino, is in fine form and might be worth a punt.

  • Sevilla 21/20, Villareal 5/2, Draw 5/2: Bet Now

Getafe v Atlético Madrid, Sunday 8pm

In theory this should be meat and drink to the Spanish champions. Off the back of potentially their best performance of the season, even including two wins over Madrid, and a short trundle across the Spanish capital to face a team which is neither their footballing nor their physical equal. But Geta’s aggressive Romanian coach Cosmin ‘Don’t You Dare Take A Bad Performance Back Into MY Dressing Rom’ Contra doesn’t agree with me.

“They are under the pressure of having to win all the time to fight to retain their title. “We just want to make it tough for the champions. “See if they have a bad day and we have a good one. “They played differently last season, they’ve brought in 12 new guys and they are still adapting. “They aren’t the same as they were last year”.

Which is just as well given that Getafe lost 9-0 on aggregate to Atleti last year.

For los Rojiblancos the fact that Griezmann finally got a goal having hit the bar, the post, defenders and some invisible forcefield for weeks when shooting at goal might release some of his anxiety and you’d not bet against him adding another. If after his two cracking goals in a minute for Geta to win at the Anoeta on Monday you fancy Abdoul Yoda to repeat the feat just remember that two is the magic number. The most he’s ever scored in a season for Servette Sion or Astra Giurgiu before moving to Madrid. In fact he has ten in all matches since July 2008. So good luck with that.

  • Getafe 6/1, Atletico Madrid 8/15, Draw 11/4: Bet Now

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