Real Madrid v Espanyol – Saturday, 3pm
Madrid are a bit like those of us who say: ‘I’m not a morning person’. Bleary, sluggish – but capable of erupting into a blitzkrieg of action after a wee coffee. The Serena Williams of the football world. Yeah?
At the beginning of the season they were a bit Rip Van Winkle in defeats to Atlético and Real Sociedad, looking short on turbo-power. Lacking a cutting edge. Carlo Ancelotti warned then that these effects were temporary, that his fitness work would click and that the players would impose their class. So it proved. They won five straight in the league hitting 25 goals.
Right now they are suffering similar effects to the early season torpor. The physical and mental demands of setting a record of 22 straight wins, the post Christmas-break sluggishness – these factors affected the last two defeats, 2-1 to Valencia and 2-0 to Atlético in La Copa.
The question is: will that spark return this afternoon?
Twice since 2008 Espanyol have popped up with a 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu but generally they are punchbags in this fixture.
Their coach, Sergio González, was co-author of one of the biggest shocks at this stadium, when Deportivo La Coruña won the Copa Del Rey at the Bernabéu beating Real Madrid on the day of their 100th birthday back in 2002. In fact he scored. A repeat would be epic – but also an epic shock.
Sergio García is, by a distance, Espanyol’s best player – European Championship winner with Spain in 2008. Barça-trained as a kid and Catalan to the core he’d presumably fancy augmenting his record of only having scored twice against Los Blancos and not having won once in 15 attempts. Sergio Ramos is rested, Rafa Varane, an out-of-reach Manchester United target, will partner Pepe in defence while Álvaro Arbeloa will keep his place at right back as Carvajal is suspended.
Perhaps the most tempting factor is that Cristiano Ronaldo is going to collect another Ballon D’Or trophy on Monday night and, showman that he is, you’d expect him to take personal responsibility for a win with the flurry of goals his game has been lacking for the last month. Madrid to win by a two goal margin (at 10/3), Ronaldo (2/1 to score first) and Varane (15/2 anytime) on the scoresheet.
Malaga v Villarreal – Saturday, 5pm
Two happy stories bump heads. Málaga thought they had won the lottery but it all went a bit Viv Nicholson for them as the money which Al Thani promised started to run dry, salaries weren’t paid and a Uefa ban came thumping down on them. The crash and burn effect of such run-ins with sudden wealth can be horrific but, somehow, the seaside club has not only taken the body blow in its stride … Málaga are damn impressive.
Their youth academy has produced them a clutch of terrific young talents, players who not only wear the shirt with extra pride but who have clear, mercurial talent with which the local fans passionately identify – hence the terrific attendances at the Rosaleda. [La Rosaleda holds 30,000 and the average crowd this season is over 25,000]
— Álvaro Fdez Ortega (@ertottimlg) January 5, 2015
Samuel García, Samu Castilejo, Juanpi, Portillo Juanmi and Sergi Darder are all 24 or under and have all spent healthy amounts of time in Málaga’s own youth system. Roque Santa Cruz has moved on so now there’s an emphasis on Nordin Amrabat turning his marauding form into goals … and avoiding injury a bit more.
Villarreal’s verve has been such a refreshing presence in La Liga that their bouncebackability after one season demoted was mega-welcome. Last year was consolidation, this season Marcelino has them playing terrifically attractive football where Denis Cheryshev, Bruno and Luciano Vietto stand out.
- The Yellow Submarine have scored in every single one of the 19 games they’ve played since losing 0-2 to Madrid in late September. They have scored in all but one of their 14 away matches this season and Villarreal have fifteen different scorers in all competitions. Málaga have scored in each of their last 14 matches so you might like a ‘both teams to score’ flutter at 4/5
Villarreal’s cavalier attitude cost them a win at Elche last week when from 2-0 up they drew 2-2 so perhaps their heavy programme [eight Europa League matches plus league and cup] is taking a toll. But back them to do no worse than a point in a score draw at 10/3, possibly an away win at 6/4.
Celta v Valencia – Saturday, 7pm
‘Celta plays good football even though it hasn’t been going well for them over recent matches. ‘They are dynamic, they keep the ball well, they make chances – current results don’t reflect Celta’s real personality’.
Never truer words from Valencia coach Nuno Espirito Santo.
— AS (@diarioas) January 9, 2015
Celta were good enough to beat Real Madrid at the dog-end of last season, draw at Atlético in September then record their first away win against Barcelona as ‘recently’ as November. After which, you’d guess, their coach Eduardo ‘Toto’ Berizzo must have dropped a consignment of mirrors.
Injuries, errors, bad luck and total confusion amongst his players about what those posts and nets are actually for – that’s been Celta since the win at the Camp Nou.
- They are 665 minutes without a league goal. Sixty seconds more and there might be a numerical clue about what’s going on.
Just to torture Toto a bit more Celta remembered how to score in the Copa del Rey, seven in the last thee matches, but completely forgot how to defend in the midweek Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao which they lost 4-2 at home.
Joaquin Larrivey, leading scorer, is still banned as a result of mistaken identity [ref hears insult, ref waves red card, striker suspended for four games despite being innocent party] but at least Nolito is back in the squad after injury.
— ComunioES Noticias (@EScomunio) December 29, 2014
Two defenders, Cabral and Planas are absent so, as such, Valencia have a chance of maintaining their push for glory with an away win.
But their personality is as changeable as Scottish weather. They thumped champions Atlético in October, then went and waved the white flag at struggling Deportivo in the next game, losing 3-0. They gave Barcelona a chasing one week then barely scrambled a draw at Granada next time out. And Los Che dismantled Rayo in the league on December 13, 3-0, but three days later only drew 4-4 at home against the same side.
Valencia lost in Vigo last season, Charles scoring twice and he is worth a look again having hit the net against Athletic in midweek (15/8 anytime). Álvaro Negredo (23/10 anytime) doesn’t mind a goal against Celta, three in two, and his two goals in twelves matches since signing for Valencia don’t fully reflect his effort, chances or form . Score draw at 16/5 anyone?
Barcelona v Atletico – Sunday, 8pm
The key is Messi. No change there I hear you say. Fine, but consider this.
- Leo Messi’s goal record against Atlético is 17 in 20 matches – not too shabby.
Now factor in the extra data.
- It’s seven games since Messi scored against Los Rojiblancos, across two long years.
Do the arithmetic. He treated Atleti like rag-dolls before – scoring 17 times in 13 matches. Since Diego Simeone really got hold of his squad there’s been a total Messi drought.
Correspondingly, Barcelona are now six games without a win against the current Spanish champions – one defeat and five draws. Atleti have got their number and that number is 10. The one on Messi’s back.
Barcelona are still, theoretically, competitive in this league because of their home form. Away from home they have become limper than a wet dish-rag. In the league at the Camp Nou they are averaging nearly four goals per game but here’s the key – Messi has scored 13 of his 15 Liga goals at the Camp Nou. If Atleti manage to clamp him with their defensive congestion charge then they’ve a chance of a draw or better.
If Messi, as electric and ‘involved’ as at any time this season when orchestrating the 5-0 Copa win over Elche on Thursday, wriggles free then Barça should win and strike a huge blow against the tidal wave of ‘crisis’ headlines which have engulfed them.
Little vignettes proliferate across this game. Luis Suárez against his international team-mate Diego Godín should be herculean. Mario Mandzukic’s last visit to the Camp Nou didn’t yield a goal but did give a 3-0 win for his Bayern side – the Croat versus Gerard Piqué will be worth admission money. Ivan Rakitic has three goals in ten matches against Atleti which doesn’t make him prolific but it’s as many as he’s scored against any opposition in his career and it was against Simeone’s team he incurred one of only two red cards in his career. Xavi’s absence may mean the Croat playmaker joins Busquets and Iniesta in the midfield three. Finally, Antoine Griezmann. Again. Opened his account against Levante last week, netting twice having never scored against them previously. He has two goals in his last two meetings with Barça but hasn’t ever scored at the Camp Nou. Take your pick. But the win/lose equation centres on Messi.
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