Madrid – Eibar Saturday, 3pm
“This is a banana-skin game,” Carlo Ancelotti said on Friday morning. With a straight face.
Well, frankly, you’re as likely to hear the Banana-splits theme played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mr and Mrs Harmonic’s son Phil before you are likely to see Eibar winning at the Bernabéu.
Yes, yes. It’s not hard to understand Carlito’s intention. The European champions were duffed-up in the first half at Rayo Vallecano in midweek, they have no margin of error here and they’ll be without the excellence of James Rodríguez, the order of Toni Kroos and the returning goal-power of Gareth Bale.
So, fine, avoiding complacency by warning about the threat Eibar carry, that’s okay.
But even though Eibar’s coach Gaizka Garitano was singing from the same song-sheet [‘One banana, two banana, three banana four…tra la la, tra la, la, la…] when he said this week: “People think we are dead and buried but there’s a lot of life left in us”, this isn’t the weekend they can be permitted to show that’s true.
Prior to beating Málaga on Tuesday the Basques had not won since January 10, at home to Getafe, and failed to scored in seven of 10 games. That tells a story. It may not be the greatest story ever told, but Easter’s past now.
What’s true, and has been for a couple of weeks, is that Garitano’s team is playing better. Making chances, making it worth watching them because they are pleasing to the eye.
- If you fancy a walk on the wild side then Mikel Arruabarrena is, by far, their best prospect of an historic goal in their first Liga game at the Bernabéu. He has two in their last two games and was denied a third, unjustly, by the ref against Málaga.
Next best? Saúl Berjon – nice wee player.
Los Blancos aren’t yet on full ramming speed, will miss James in particular because he’s added cutting edge and verticality in their play since returning.
Also, they have the Madrid derby in the Champions League on Tuesday. However what showed in midweek is that if their silk glove is a bit tatty, their iron fist is in punching mode.
Watching them react, so powerfully, to the nonsense of Ronaldo being denied the most blatant of penalties at Rayo indicated that there is ferocity of spirit and an intent to win this title.
They should have a far harder afternoon than a week ago when hitting nine against Granada but they can be backed.
“We don’t care if Ronaldo’s had his yellow card rescinded and is free to play,” said the Eibar President Friday afternoon. Wrong!
Back CR7 to score, again, back Benzema, back Isco and, have a flutter on Ramos.
Málaga – Atlético, Saturday, 5pm
It’s just not practical to take a disparaging tone of voice when speaking about a match at La Rosaleda – even after Javi Gracia’s team lost a bit of steam in recent weeks.
Málaga can play, have individuals who’ll produce clever moments, the crowd is usually numerous and boisterous. [This match is sold-out]. So it’s a trap for the unwary.
However, the instinct to back an upset here, which would have been tempting during the earlier part of Atleti’s bumpy 2015, has diminished a bit.
Diego Simeone’s team went through a spell where they looked leg-weary, psychologically bruised and just a tad vulnerable to energy, organisation and ambition. All of which Málaga have been capable of providing this term.
But Los Rojiblancos can evidently see the finishing tape now, clearly.
It’s like the combined effect of knowing that their guru, their Pied Piper [What do you mean ‘who’? Simeone, of course!] has renewed his contract and will stay next season plus the knowledge that they are edging towards guaranteeing Champions League football while playing the quarter final of that competition against a team they’ve beaten four times since August has injected pure adrenaline in their veins.
- Since coming within 12 minutes of a 1-0 home win over Valencia on March 8, but then conceding, Atleti have played five times without conceding; beating Getafe [2-0], Córdoba [2-0] Bayer Leverkusen [1-0] and Real Sociedad [2-0] plus drawing with Espanyol [0-0].
Keeper Miguel Ángel Moyá is back from injury, so is Diego Godín, while Juanfran has served his suspension. Mandzukic and Raúl García are both still injured.
The negative about the home side is that their three recent defeats, and a draw in the last five games, have been against sides lower than them in the table – Granada, Rayo, Eibar and Real Sociedad.
On the positive side, Gracia was without two significant players when losing at Eibar in midweek – Samu Castilejo and Sergio Sánchez. They return while Sergi Darder, a doubt, makes the squad. Gracia will choose from: Kameni, Amrabat, Weligton, Samuel, Javi Guerra, Ricardo Horta, Juanmi, Tissone, Ochoa, Recio, Angeleri, Duda, Rosales, Boka, Sergio Sánchez, Miguel Torres, Samu Castillejo, Sergi Darder.
Back to bananas, there’s a slip-up threat here but back Atleti, just.
NB: Fernando Torres has five in eight against Málaga; Griezmann has three in eight.
NB1: Don’t look for a goal feast. In only FOUR of the last 11 meetings between these two clubs have both teams scored. Prior to this season the last three games produced only three goals
NB2: have a think about Godín anytime. Each of Málaga’s last two defeats have been 0-1 to back-post headers.
Sevilla – Barcelona, Saturday 7pm
In life, which do you believe in more? The immovable object or the irresistible force?
Sevilla haven’t lost at home for over a year – since their city neighbours Betis won at the Nervión.
Thirty-one matches in League, Europe and Cup. Immovable.
Barça, in contrast, have won 10 straight away matches, no mean feat, since losing at the Anoeta in their first match of 2015. Irresistible?
The league-leaders carry some baggage to Andalusia – and not just the shadow of Wednesday’s Champions League quarter final in Paris.
Good though he was against Almería during the week, Messi still appears to be protecting his right outstep where he’s felt pain since the Manchester City game at the Camp Nou.
Neymar, dropped in midweek, is out of form and has been for weeks.
Contract talks with Dani Alves have broken down and his agent [also his ex-wife] stated that some of his defensive lapses recently owe to his mental state caused by uncertainty over his playing future. [He’s out of contract in June]. Way to impress the coach Mrs A.
But we have to take into account the fact that not since Alves scored the winner for Sevilla in this fixture back in 2007 have Barça lost here.
Seven wins and two draws in their last nine visits.
Unai Emery just doesn’t have a happy record against them either – wherever he’s been he’s found it super-hard, either in adversity or when on top in a game, to emerge with a win.
- Eighteen matches, four different clubs, no victories, five draws, 13 defeats. What a chance he has here.
Bacca, having been rested at Levante, will start and is the best bet. Sevilla are pretty interesting aerially and while Barcelona have improved, radically, when defending set-plays they are by no means invulnerable. Mbia is fit and loves to score a header.
- Only twice in 23 home matches this season have Sevilla failed to score, only three times in 22 away trips this season have Barcelona failed to score.
- So: high chance both teams to score; fate says ex-Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic scores for Barcelona; Messi’s sights are in with his free kicks and is due to net one soon;Bacca, Vitolo, Mbia, Krychowiak all might repay faith.
Barcelona are not on high form but have a really grim determination about them these days. For that, for Messi and for their eight year record in Sevilla they’ll start favourites.
But if you back a score draw you’ll not be alone.
Valencia – Levante, Monday 7.30pm
Football is remarkable. Valencia have beaten both the Spanish and European champions this season, have a new, wealthy owner, brim with good new players, the crowds have been huge and vibrant … but they’ll enter the city derby with nerves.
Levante have been fighting relegation all season, are on their second coach this term and lost at home in midweek but there’s a genuine sense that they are both robust and capable of staying up.
But, Frank Carson-stylee, there’s more.
Levante, pretty remarkably, have three wins and two draws in their last six Valencia derbies. Given the relative resources and squad-calibre that’s a standout achievement.
One of the defeats of Valencia was this season – one of only two wins in their first ten home matches. Some kids.
And more. Nuno Espirito Santo may have been looking for the gypsy who’s thrown a curse or whoever on his staff broke a couple of mirrors.
Last week they played a weakened Villarreal side, one which went on to be pumped 0-3 at home by Espanyol in their next match, but Los Che squandered chances, played without enough zest and dropped two points. Major chance missed
Then, away at Athletic, they had Otamendi wrongly sent off and, winning 0-1, dropped two more points in the final seconds when Aduriz scored from a blatantly offside position.
Suddenly they are not only not third but they’ve gifted Atleti a three point lead.
Okay, Levante like facing Valencia. They absolutely require points for survival but Los Che have just three more home games after this one and, by hook or by crook, they simply have to win. On balance, just, it’s worth backing them to do that.