Deportivo vs Sevilla, Saturday 3pm
Referee J.A. Teixeira Vitienes
Nutty Nigel Farage would like this one – if there was a Spanish UKIP they’d be riveted.
Domestic priorities or European involvement? That is the question.
To explain: Last season Sevilla drew Spanish opponents twice on the way to winning the Europa League.
Of all their ties these were the toughest. Now fate has handed them Villarreal in the Europa League this season.
Last year in that competition Sevilla lost at home [the horror] to hated city rivals Betis – but beat Los Verdiblancos in the second leg then went through on penalties.
They were getting pumped by Valencia in the second leg of the semi final, to the point that, 3-0 down, Los Che had one foot and six toes of the other boot in the Torino final. Until M’Bia popped up with a 94th minute away goal and put Unai Emery’s mob in the final. Which they won.
That was the last Europa League final without direct entry into the Champions League as a by-product prize for the winner.
Right now, Sevilla’s getting into next season’s Champions League via La Liga isn’t totally out of the question – but it’s heavy odds-against because the seven-point gap which Valencia has established on them in fourth to fifth place is augmented by Los Che holding the head-to-head advantage.
Spain works on the ‘how did you do against each other’ rule when it comes to separating teams who finish on equal points. A 1-1 draw at the Nervion on Matchday1 and then a 3-1 home win for Valencia means that the gap is, effectively, eight points with 13 games left.
Sale Mbia pic.twitter.com/a3iDPQ7aMF
— Aritztóteles (@Aritz_FCB) March 1, 2015
Thus, with the Europa League last 16 first leg away at Villarreal this Thursday you COULD argue that Emery should put ALL his emphasis on the European match and let a ‘skeleton’ side take care of the Depor test as best they can. Rest some stars for the European match because victory in that competition is the better route to the vast Champions League revenue But, sadly, it doesn’t work like that. Valencia could, quite feasibly, lose at Atlético this weekend – meaning that the gap COULD be down to four points by late Sunday night. Equally, Villarreal [against whom Sevilla play three times in 11 days between Europe and La Liga] are breathing down Sevilla’s neck in sixth.
“The League is our great priority” says Emery. “Depor play well, are FAR better than the first time we played them this season and this kind of match is where you gain your credibility and your form.”
So Emery needs to put out a side to win this match. In fact, this is a game which, against appearances, could drastically alter Sevilla’s season. His squad shows that everybody who’s fit travels: Sergio Rico, Barbosa, Diogo, Coke, Navarro, Arribas, Pareja, Kolo, Krychowiak, Mbia, Iborra, Banega, Vitolo, Reyes, Deulofeu, Denis, Aleix, Bacca, Gameiro, Iago Aspas. Aspas is just back from injury but as a diehard Celta man would love a goal here. Bacca and Gameiro always present as likely candidates but Iborra and Mbia do pop up in scoring positions. Sevilla have only lost once in eight visits to the Riazor and should be fit to draw or win again. Depor welcome back Cavaleiro wide left and should start with Oriol Riera up front. Despite three games without scoring the home side DO have the capacity for what would be a mini-shock. But Emery’s various teams have faced Depor ten times – eight wins and two draws for the Basque. That needs to continue. 1-2 (Paddy Power odds: 8/1)
Athletic-Real Madrid, Saturday 5pm
Referee Undiano Mallenco How much do you believe in the power of positive emotions? Historically this was a tough place for Madrid. Anti-Spanish sentiments, powerful, aggressive teams, a hostile stadium – Los Blancos have lost significantly more than they’ve won here. Even a decade ago there was a handful of Athletic wins in a row – but aside from last season’s 1-1 daw it then became like a point dispensary for Madrid. Turn up, take three. But Athletic have kept a clean sheet in five of their last six League and Cup games, including Wednesday’s thrilling win at Espanyol which put them in the Copa Del Rey final. Again! Athletic have a throaty, passionate, trophy-hungry support. IF you allowed them they could probably sell 60,000 tickets to the Final against Barcelona on May 30. The natural place to have the game, neutral venue huge capacity, is Madrid’s Bernabéu. But Florentino Pérez once again fears the prospect of Barça winning and the FC Barcelona anthem/flag soaring high in the air above Madrid’s spiritual home. In 2012 when this arose he posted a ‘Gone Fishing, back in 15 days’ sign on the stadium door, locked up and buggered off so that the Spanish Federation couldn’t host the identical final there. Thus it’ll be this time too. The stadium will be having it’s ‘once a millennium exorcism’ that day. Or some such. Athletic’s fans can bugger off as far as Florentino’s concerned. What that guarantees is that Madrid will get an especially hostile, particularly sustained toasting from the Basque crowd – something from which the home side can draw conviction and energy. Madrid aren’t hitting ramming speed right now – but the pieces are beginning to click again. Ronaldo’s just squeezing out the odd goal, Modric is fit to get some minutes again [although not till Schalke in midweek], Pepe’s return to central defence has liberated the two full backs to move into midfield much more often and Bale is starting to look more focussed, more consistent in his work ethic.
But Athletic have that massive emotional buzz from having reached the final, have suddenly become harder to beat and Aduriz, what an utter gem, is in the middle of a 17 goal season despite having turned 34.
More and more Etxeita is looking like a very, very promising centre half and, generally, there’s a sense of order, stability and purpose.
Do you figure that their form, the fact that their centre forward is scoring [seven in his last eight League and Cup matches] and they are keeping clean sheets narrows the gap in class sufficiently?
NB Athletic have lost eight games at home this season.
A draw wouldn’t shock me but Madrid must still start as narrow favourites.
Ronaldo was sent off here last year, just after making the first goal for Jesé, and once more the spotlight will be on him: goals to save his team or temper to indicate that he’s still frustrated by his form? [He has 14 in 11 league matches against them]
2-2 or 2-3. Should be a cracker. (Paddy Power odds on 2-2: 13/1)
FC Barcelona-Rayo, Sunday 11am
Referee Gil Manzano
Rayo Vallecano don’t do draws. Sadly they don’t really do defending either.
Twenty three games since they last played in a stalemate – but only two La Liga sides, both of whom are in the bottom four, have conceded more goals.
Thus, if you are going to pick a result here it must be a Barça win – irrespective of that home defeat to Celta a couple weeks ago.
Barça’s Cup semi final in midweek was a net gain – they won to qualify for the May 30 final and Neymar, out of form for several matches, scored twice.
The setback, however, is that Busquets’ ankle damage may keep him out for a month.
Luis Enrique has altered the playing style at Barcelona, such that the team can play more directly, with less filigree in midfield.
But Busquets has remained a key organiser and midfield gatekeeper. His loss is not unimportant.
Either Mascherano or Rakitic can comfortably play in central midfield – how the coach chooses will be interesting.
— Lionel Messi #10 (@WeAreMessi) March 4, 2015
Rayo have won more on the road than at home, scored almost as many on the road as at home and they have a fluent, quick counter-attacking style which can certainly bother Barcelona in the same manner as Celta [0-1] and Málaga [0-1]. But can they defend, press and harass like those sides? I don’t think so. Barça have a rare clear week and Luis Enrique can afford to put out something close to his first choice XI because the Man City game [10 days] and Clásico [14 days] are in the distance. Even though you never know who this unpredictable coach will ‘rotate’ it’d be foolish to ignore that Leo Messi loves the kind of space Rayo will give him or that Luis Suárez has seven goals in his last eight. ‘Outside’ bets would be that occasional scorers Rakitic, Xavi and Rafinha will get game time. Rayo’s principal threats, Bueno [four last week], Manucho, Baptistão, Trashorras and Kakuta have 22 games against Barcelona between them. All without a goal. Barça to win by three or more. (Paddy Power odds on Barca to win by three goals: 7/2)
Atlético-Valencia, Sunday 8pm
Referee Jaime Latre Both these sides can play – superbly when things click for them. But there’s another side to this match. Particularly given the fact that Valencia have added to the tension by sneaking up to within a point of the champions in third place. Between them these sides have seen 14 red cards this season [seven each] – suspensions have come thick and fast and this time it’s advantage Valencia. Miranda and Antoine Griezmann are both out because of bookings last week, something which Cholo Simeone could certainly have done without. The Argentinian is in the midst of a major campaign from his club to extend his contract and their Managing Director called him: ‘our most important player’ last week. They want to make him the highest paid man at the club, they want a deal which stretches beyond his current limit of 2017. Simeone’s central objective is to stay … IF Atleti convince him of their ambition, their budget and the level of competitiveness. For all of that it’s imperative that Los Colchoneros continue to play Champions League football next season – something upon which this match can have a major impact. In the meantime El Cholo and Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic are doing a gentle recreation of how Pep Guardiola fell out with the same Croat last season. Intense, disciplined, ‘my way or the highway’ coach – haughty, sulky, ‘I know better’ striker. Without Griezmann that may well throw the pressure on Fernando Torres. Enzo Pérez was Los Che’s big new winter signing – he has six yellows in eight league games. Here’s his view on intensity v dirty. “Dirty is when you leave the boot into a challenge when you know you’re not going to get to the ball, there’s no place for that. “Playing intensely has nothing to do with damaging your opponents. We won’t go out to put the boot in, nor will Atleti. I get booked because I’m in the engine room, cutting out passes, tackling and I do it with fervor. I’m a hot-head, I get after referees – I know it costs me but I’m not going to change.”
Valencia’s strikers lack goals [none of them have more than three] but Parejo is in record scoring form as is Piatti.
For the Champs, Arda, Raúl Garcia, Torres and Mandzukic [if forgiven] need to come to the party.
Atleti have only won 5 of the last 12 home meetings with Valencia in the league and this one paints like a draw … but will no Miranda, no Griezmann possibly tilt it the visitors way?
It’s your call. But expect fireworks. Particularly for Referee Santi Jaime Latre in only his 15th La Liga match during which time he’s averaging over seven bookings per game.
(Paddy Power odds on a draw: 29/10)
A £1 bet on these four selections pays out about £2210