Almería v Barcelona, Saturday 3pm
When Almería manager Fran Rico woke up on Thursday morning he got just about the best news possible.
No, not that Valencia and Sevilla were loaning them back Álvaro Negredo and Aleix Vidal so that the two ex-Almería strikers could get scoring practice against Barça but that the Catalan expedition had been stranded in Amsterdam over night thanks to a broken down plane.
Unlike the board, fans, journalists and players’ families, the team didn’t have to sleep in Schipol airport – being shipped off to a friendly hotel at about 2.20 am.
But given the well-known post-Champions League malaise [big team plays midweek, slumps the next weekend] old Frankie Rich [Señor Rico] would have been rubbing his hands in glee.
Iniesta out, two Liga defeats on the trot, Mathieu struggling for fitness, ditto Luis Suárez re match-sharpness – now a broken plane and broken night’s sleep.
But well might he pray.
Barcelona’s functional hotel in down-town Almería is a business and convention centre [the glamour!] and that’s just what they’ll want at the Estadio Juegos Mediterráneos – taking care of business and sticking to convention.
Almería have never beaten Barcelona home or away – that’s the convention.
Last season the Andaluz team produced shocks – defeating Atlético, Valencia and Real Sociedad. But here’s the rub. Verza scored four goals across those three big scalp removals but he’s got just one this season.
Of Almería’s three other leading scorers last season, Rodri, Vidal and Oscar Díaz they are now scattered across 1860 Munich, Sevilla and Valladolid.
Defender Oscar Trujillo [Born Madrid 1987] promised to make the game: “Ugly and long” for Barcelona and Almería have been heavily practising corners [from which two of their eight goals have come this season] and free kicks as their main weapons on Saturday afternoon.
An early game after a tiring European trip against a team scrapping for survival and promising to make the game a bit Quasimodo might give you a hunch for Almería upsetting the odds.
But Barcelona showed a new attitude in Amsterdam, worked brutally hard and looked like a side which knew precisely where they’d gone wrong in the previous two matches.
Particularly the moving of Suárez to centre-forward, from right wing, made Barça look potent again. Messi’s movement and form was, suddenly, joyous. I think Luis Enrique’s side might tuck this one away – back Messi [a double], Rakitic and Suárez even if he gets one coming off the bench.
Real Madrid v Rayo Vallecano, Saturday 7pm
This is where you have to feel a bit of sympathy for Paco Jémez. A year and a week ago these two clubs met, at the Vallecas, and it was a fabulous contest – 3-2 to Los Blancos. Carlo Ancelotti was so impressed with how Jemez’s team played – tactics, possession, attacking verve, pressing – that he got in touch with the former Spain centre-back and asked if he could come watch Rayo train one day. What an astonishing compliment. Spin it as you like but within a month Madrid were playing 4-3-3, thrilling with their intensity and en route to winning two trophies.
“We’ve got to applaud a team with such an enjoyable playing style” Ancelotti said Friday. “Rayo are a great example of what Spanish football stands for. “Despite fighting against relegation they play well and they play attackingly. “It’s a great thing, very, very positive”.
From that day to this Jemez has had to cope with losing 19 players, signing another 19 [they released or sold 13 in summer 2013 and signed 18 making it a gross turnaround of 71 players in two summers] yet still produce attractive, winning, tactically daring and technically admirable football. That he’ll one day be given charge of one of La Liga’s ‘grand’ clubs must now be a given.
For the moment, how does he cope with the world’s most in-form side?
Madrid-trained Alberto Bueno has a record of a goal every five games in La Primera and hasn’t scored for five so he might be worth a fiver anytime. Leo Baptistao is not only Rayo’s best player but suddenly in touch with the swagger and confidence he lost at parent club Atlético.
But when Los Blanco’s biggest test is how to re-incorporate the fit-again Gareth Bale then you can take it that a] this’ll be a cracker to watch and b] Madrid will hit three +
Rayo haven’t won at city neighbours Madrid since 1996 [their only away win in this fixture] and their scoring at the Bernabéu is a numerical palindrome – scored 15, conceded 51.
Bale will score, count on it, and backing Ronaldo may only be for dummies now given his mildly acceptable 17 goals in 9 league matches but, just for info, he’s got eight in six matches against Rayo.
Valencia v Athletic Bilbao, Sunday 6pm
You’d forgive the Athletic players if they take garlic, lucky white heather, silver bullets, wooden stakes, kryptonite, rabbits feet and a bundle of three-leaved clovers [clovii?] to Valencia with them. It’s not that their away record to Los Che is utterly atrocious – just that the Mestalla has been a killing field for their dreams. They’d not been to any cup final for quarter of a century before the Copa Del Rey pitted them with Guardiola’s Barcelona at the Mestalla in 2009. One nil up became 4-1 down – heartbreak for the heart-bustingly proud and noisy Basque support.
Aready massively disadvantaged by the loss of ex-Valencia star Aritz Aduriz, Athletic are in search of a lucky break. Aduriz has seven in all comps, without him Athletic have three goals in La Liga. Then when they were fighting for their Champions League lives in midweek a mole popped its head above ground just in time to nod the ball over keeper Gorka’s boot so that Yacine Brahimi could score into an open goal.
As for Valencia they’ve racked up the A-Z of wins. Total domination, wins from a 15 minute power play, wins when they are on the ropes… the sign of a happy, fit, well coached, well stocked team.
Their last three wins have all been by 3-1 [back that correct score again here at 12/1] with Pablo Piatti serving up six goals for team mates in those matches. Valencia have [including an Elche own goal] scored from six set plays in those three games. Shkodran Mustafi [a new German centre half] can’t stop scoring so if Mr Power is dozing this weekend, odds-wise, the stopper is worth a little tickle again at 25/1 as is Sofiane Feghouli who’s back in form. Time for a Paco Alcácer [in the Spain squad] goal too.
Real Sociedad v Atlético, Sunday 8pm
It’s not grim oop north as far as Atleti are concerned. They’ve scored eleven times while winning their last four visits to the Anoeta.
But, this time, it’s got to be an Antoine Griezmann story. Picked up as a hopeful French kid by Real Sociedad when he was nowt but a lad  he became far and away their most exciting, most prolific player of recent seasons bagging over a half century of goals … before Atleti came calling. It’s funny, he’d got goals against all La Real’s other major rivals – Athletic, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia. Just not Atlético. But they put a €24m bet on him and although Diego Simeone’s latest comment on him was that he needed to become a ‘more complete’ striker the kid is learning. Four goals in total, two last week in the win over Cordoba – he’d got to be a storybook banker to score on his return ‘home’. “I won’t celebrate if I do..”
Warning to the Spanish champions? La Real’s only home league win was against … the European champions and they gave them a two goal start.
As for the Basques, they’d like this to be the game before David Moyes takes over. They have a back up plan [Pepe Mel] but it’s the Scot they are determined to persuade. “That Jagoba Arrasate has been sacked is a disaster of our [the players’] making” commented captain Xabi Prieto. Presumably of the football director’s making too – selling Griezmann [sixteen goals last season] and buying Alfred Finnbogason [eight appearances and not a single goal yet]
Griezmann, Koke, Prieto and Raúl Garcia might feature on the ‘goal anytime’ menu for many this weekend.
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