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Graham Hunter: A Catalan conflict can open the door for Real Madrid and a 9/1 treble

by Graham Hunter | April 25, 2015

Espanyol v Barcelona – Saturday, 3pm

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Right, so it’s a bit neck-and-neck at the top of La Liga just at the moment and we’ve six games left.
The top two might meet in the Champions League Final and they don’t particularly like each other.
It’s kinda tense.

Which makes Barcelona’s stroll across the city to Espanyol not exactly a … stroll. There’s a Spain Oddity, which might appeal to David Bowie, whereby if two teams finish on identical points the first criterion via which to separate them is – head-to-head. It becomes a little like a Cup tie. ‘Which team won more of the Liga meetings between the two and if it has been a win apiece then what’s the goal aggregate?’

Thus it is that if Barcelona should drop two points between now and the end of the season and Madrid win all their games they’ll finish tied on 94 points. The reason that Madrid would win the title in that scenario is that the first Clásico ended 3-1 to Carlo Ancelotti’s side while Barça won the second 2-1 – ergo Madrid win the title on a 4-3 aggregate over their nearest rivals.

I think it’s a cool system.

So what Madridistas are doing this weekend is sending positive vibes to the only other set of fans who dislike the Blaugrana just as much as they do – those at Espanyol. Just as a matter of interest, the last time Spain’s Primera Division was settled on the head-to-head rule was as recently as 2007 – Madrid winning thanks to a victory and a draw in the two Clásicos.

Espanyol fans will be dreaming, happily of their part in that when on the penultimate day, after Leo Messi had put Barcelona ahead with a Maradona-style ‘it was my head ref honest!’ goal via his hand, they equalized in the last minute and effectively cost Frank Rijkaard’s side the title.

It’s not identical this weekend because the Catalan derby is being played in Cornella, not at the Camp Nou. But there’s a hint of … ‘could we screw them up again?’ The hard fact for the league leaders is that while they’ve only lost three times in the last 24 away Catalan derbies [and since the Power8 stadium was inaugurated in 2009 they’ve three wins and two draws] not even a draw is guaranteed to keep them top.

In fact it’s feasible that dropping points here could cost Luis Enrique’s men the treble. Feasible at least.
So, how to call it?

In Barcelona’s favour – attitude, determination not to cede the title to Madrid, determination not to trip up here of all places, a good winning run, Suárez and Neymar on good goal form.

A photo posted by FC Barcelona (@fcbarcelona) on

Against them – the fact that they aren’t putting in 90 minute performances too regularly right now. A draw at Sevilla thanks to a major second half drop off, a thrashing of PSG in the making at 2-0 up by half time and in total charge surrendered because they drop into cruise-control for the rest of the match. Espanyol – their two great positives are ex Madrid keeper Kiko Casilla and ex Barça striker Sergio García.

Casilla says: “When it comes to this derby it doesn’t matter the size of your budget or your salary bill – it’s us v them and they aren’t the only ones with a say in who wins the league”. Fightin’ talk.

Los Periquitos have only conceded four times in eight matches and a draw’s not impossible here. Barcelona, on form, will win and stay top – Suárez and Piqué profile as possible scorers. Neymar? One in seven in La Liga, four in four all comps. But Espanyol not to be discounted – a 0-0, a 1-1 and a 1-0 are three of the last five results in this fixture. Barça have every important player available, Espanyol bring back Salva Sevilla and Juan Fuentes while Víctor Sánchez is suspended against his old team and Felipe Mattioni injured.

Atletico Madrid v Elche – Saturday, 5pm

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There were more good words than good play from Atleti in midweek when they lost the Madrid derby and exited the Champions League. Cholo Simeone refused to blame the referee for Arda’s red card, all the players who spoke mentioned departing the competition with pride, that they’d be back soon and more determined than ever. There was a ‘we’ve not let anybody down vibe’.

Now we’ll see whether the painted smiles masked broken hearts. This is when the reigning champions need to prove that they gave their utmost against Madrid, that they left beaten but unbowed and that they are capable of not carrying any psychological after-effects into this match. Atleti’s four point lead over Valencia, guaranteeing them Champions League revenue again next season is utterly vital for this club and you can expect them to fight like tigers to protect it.

You can expect the fans to show defiance by turning up and howling their support for Los Rojiblancos. But was there any damage done between Cholo and Griezmann when the in-form youngster was bizarrely removed from the game in midweek? Otherwise he should have goal solutions …. and it’s time Mandzukic, Torres and Raúl García came to the party again in that respect.

Elche? Only two teams have scored fewer than them, only two have scored more than them … so how they hell are they within a win and a draw of staying up? Because they lose to the big guns and neatly pick off the weaklings around them – Cordoba, Levante, Almeria, Eibar. Only if Atleti are carrying a big hangover from losing to Madrid is this not a two goal win for the champions. Gabi and Mario Mandzukic, are back with respect to the Depor game – only Mario Suárez, Ansaldi and Cani are dropped.

Sevilla v Rayo Vallecano – Sunday, 6pm

Bet Now: Desktop | Mobile Last week I suggested the big question was: ‘when will Sevilla’s huge European exertions cost them a ‘hangover’ in La Liga?’ the only sad thing being that I didn’t say: right here! This’ll be a 1-1 draw! Different story here you’d imagine. Although the Europa League holders had to travel to and from St Petersburg this week and that doesn’t come without an impact on freshness of mind or physical tiredness the buzz of having eliminated Zenit, the really top quality performance in Russia and the fact that they are at home should be a positive cocktail of advantages.

Remember – Sevilla are 24 home games without defeat in over a year, they have a deep squad, they are desperately trying to get a finger-hold on fourth place and they’ve beaten Rayo 5-2, 2-1 and 4-1 the last three meetings.
Indeed while Paco Jemez’s side is fun to watch and has massively over-performed to be so high up La Liga they’ve still lost six of their last seven away matches and twice conceded six goal defeats in doing so.

Beto had a ‘mare for Sevilla and Sergio Rico should return, Pareja is out for months with ligament damage but Iborra, Reyes, Denis Suárez and Gameiro are all available to add freshness to Unai Emery’s athletic, hard running team. Both teams to score, Bacca, Vitolo, Gameiro all looking backable for the Europa League holders.

Celta Vigo v Real Madrid – Sunday, 8pm

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Of course, even if the underdogs win the Catalan derby it’s never straightforward at the top of La Liga. In theory, Barcelona could suffer the embarrassment of dropping points to a cock-a-hoop Espanyol .. but then be rescued by the team which Luis Enrique made.

Madrid, fresh from their agonizing and tiring derby on Wednesday via which they sneaked past Atlético and into the Champions League semi final must visit the Balaidos Stadium in Vigo where they never get a pleasant welcome and where, last year, they lost. In fact it’s just short of a year since Los Blancos formally kissed goodbye to the title in that 2-0 defeat to Luis Enrique’s mob – both goals scored by Charles.

It was a Madrid team shorn of Ronaldo, Benzema, Carvajal, Pepe and which needed to put Raúl de Tomas, Burgui and Willian José on the bench. They’ve all gone on to great things of course …. hold on. No. And, symmetrically, this huge test of nerve and desire comes when Ancelotti will be without Benzema, Bale and Modric for sure. Marcelo returns and, just as with Barcelona in their match, if Madrid play near their top they can certainly win.

But it may influence how you punt to know that before last season the last time Celta beat Madrid at the Balaídos in La Liga was 2001. [Celta did win 2-1 in La Copa back in 2012]

In between there were six straight Madrid wins – no draws – but five of those wins were by a single goal. Three 1-2’s and two 0-1’s. Almost without exception it’s a hostile, characterful place with a fishing/industrial background and a blue-collar attitude to match the Celta shirts.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Complacency is usually punished. Nolito, as always, is Celta’s best and most threatening player although Larrivey may profit from the aerial ball into the box. That said while Santi Mina’s four goals this season all came against Rayo he’s a quick-footed talent whose reputation would soar if he scored here.

Madrid by a goal would be the percentage bet but go figure for yourselves what the impact of tiredness, tension and injury absences might do.

James Rodríguez is the shining light right now – not only talented and fully integrated but consistently behaving like a team leader. His link up play with Ronaldo and Chicharito make Madrid very tempting here. There’s enough to suggest that both teams score but that Madrid out-gun the light blues.

Espanyol and Barca to draw, Atletico and Real Madrid to win – 9/1

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