Rayo Vallecano v Real Madrid
When the season compilation DVDs are made, the Clasicos are always looked upon as the matches of the season. But surely in 2011-12 the two best matches came when the big two’s mettle was sorely tested by feisty opponents in hostile arenas. Barcelona’s ordeal came at San Mames, where Athletic in full flow slugged out an epic 2-2 draw which was as red-blooded as it was easy on the eye; Real Madrid’s test came in more homely circumstances.
Rayo Vallecano might well have lost this fixture 1-0 last season, and it seemed to precipitate a collapse in form (they lost ten of the next thirteen) which took them from wistful dreams of a European spot to avoiding relegation only through a goal in injury time in the last match of the season. That doesn’t even begin to tell the story.
That match was everything Rayo are about in microcosm. Their mega-rich neighbours arrived at their down-at-heel ground in their down-at-heel suburb of the capital and were given the fright of their life by the febrile atmosphere and the tremendous ferocity and pace of Rayo’s play. Only when Barcelona have been in their pomp have Real been so unable to impose themselves on a game under Mourinho.
They triumphed though, thanks to a brilliant backheeled goal by Cristiano Ronaldo, a ludicrous red card for Michu and that indomitably dogged winning mentality which the best teams have. Where others might have collapsed, they dug deep, rode their luck, and took just about the only chance they had. As it hit the net, twelve thousand disaffected, disenfranchised Vallecano fans spat and muttered “Typical!”
The Rayo squad doesn’t look as strong these days, with no Michu, no Tamudo and no Diego Costa, but the collective looks stronger, which seems to suit what this most left-wing, counter-cultural of Spanish clubs is all about. And the desire to bloody their snooty neighbours’ noses again is strong as it has ever been.
And the atmosphere will be the same. Football has become so sanitised at the highest level, so the authenticity on show at the Vallecas is refreshing. It was doubled for that match (name one other example in this decade where we’ve seem fans’ fists disturb the TV pictures as they pump the air? These days camera gantries are high in the heavens as we’re divorced from the reality of being in the stands.) The intensity will be there again for this game, an intangible which can do funny things to even the best of players. Especially if they’re already eight points behind Barcelona.
And another thing: Ronaldo might have made the difference last season, but he wasn’t sad then. Let’s face it: Real have no chance!!!!!
The elephant in Essien’s room is whether he’ll ever be the same player he was in Jose Mourinho’s time as Chelsea manager. Then he was an awesome force of nature, rampaging through the Premiership with terrific drive and power. He might have developed into one of the true greats with his combination of power and control.
However, a succession of injuries seem to have sapped him of those qualities, and if Chelsea didn’t think that the decline was permanent they surely would have fought ferociously against Real picking him up.
Has the shrewd Mourinho made a rare error based on an even more rare attack of sentimentality? He values loyalty and has always had his favourite lieutenants who have followed him around. He knows Essien’s qualities inside-out from the time they shared at Stamford Bridge, but has he bought him on the basis of the talents he used to have rather than the diminished figure he seems to have become?
This would seem to be the ideal fixture to find out. The old Essien would relish the challenge in what will inevitably be a midfield battlefield. The 2012 version might find it harder to cope. In fact, whether Mourinho deems him necessary for this match will be interesting. There’s no doubt that Essien in his prime would be one of the first names the coach would commit to the teamsheet for a game like this: if he doesn’t start him, we might be given a hint that the Special One has had a close look on Tuesday and decided Essien isn’t quite so special any more.
It’s hard to resist the temptation of concluding that Essien would have been better suited to a move to Italy, where midfield play is more leisurely, than the hurly-burly of La Liga. This is an ideal chance for him to quash that notion.
Leo Batistao v Raphael Varane
A match-up between the kids could prove crucial. Admittedly, Jose Mourinho might decide that Sergio Ramos has spent long enough on the naughty step and bring him back in, but Varane did okay against Manchester City and will have made a point to his manager.
Up against him, Leo looks lively and has had a wonderful start at Rayo, hitting the net twice in his first three games and chipping in with assists too. Real’s centre backs are going to be asked question in this one: if Varane is one of them, it could be a crucial test for him as he tries to kick on.
Real Betis v Espanyol
By this part of the season you can see a team’s narrative starting to form. Some are gearing up for a tilt at glory, others preparing for a relegation battle, and a select few already see the mid-table mediocrity they naturally enjoy approaching. So it’s nice to have a game between two sides who really haven’t worked out exactly what’s going to happen this year.
The reason Espanyol are in a state of flux is quite simple: they’re impossible to read. Having confidently anticipated their demise in the Summer and argued last week that they were liable to be facing up to a long hard slog, I was starting to feel a little guilty early Sunday afternoon.
By then, they held a comfortable 2-0 half time lead over a distressingly familiar husk of last season’s Athetic, and were looking tasty. I prepared to eat humble pie, but quickly revised my diet when this happened. By the end they were clinging on for a home point and I really wasn’t sure what to think at all.
Maybe that’s what we ought to expect from Mauricio Pochettino’s side. With so many youngsters in the side (twelve of the squad on Sunday were 25 or under), they’re liable to be inconsistent, although the coach will hope that in future that inconsistency doesn’t actually show itself during the course of an individual match as it did last Sunday!
The difficulty in working our which way Real will go is more straightforward: thanks to the postponement of the Atletico match their season has barely started yet, and the outcomes of those games they have played have varied wildly.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at that: after all, last season they racked up some good results but also collapsed on occasion. The fact that those notable outcomes tended to come in streaks merely muddied the waters more: sometimes they looked great – they did top the table at one point after all – and at others awful. While they eventually finished up in a league position which was probably a fair reflection of what they were, they took one heck of a circuitous route to get there!
This season looks like it might follow a similar path: scoring five goals in an away win against a side that played in the Europa League final three months earlier then losing at home to a newly promoted side suggests they’ll be as entertainingly erratic as ever, especially as they returned to action last weekend after a 23-day layoff with another away win!
They will be encouraged by Espanyol’s Fernando Llorente-inspired collapse last weekend, and also by the crazy red card picked up by Samuele Longo for celebrating his second goal. Longo has looked terrific since arriving on loan from Inter, and although, as I suggested earlier, a young lad’s form is bound to fluctuate as the season wears on, he’s clearly in fine form at the moment and avoiding him is a real bonus for Betis.
If Wakaso, who looks threatening, is also ruled out by the injury he picked up in setting Longo’s fateful second up with a fine pass, then it might just be the perfect time to face Espanyol. Or time for another crazy defeat.
In scoring one and setting one up, Verdu looked good in the Athletic match, and unlike some of his team mates he continued to function in the second half. Drifting around in the hole, he’s adept at finding space and able to both play the killer pass and get into the box to finish.
Real have kept just seven clean sheets over the last year, and the one they kept against Valladolid was their first in eight. Unleashing Verdu against a leaky defence is a promising prospect for Espanyol; with Longo and possibly Wakaso absent it might also be their only hope.
Real Mallorca v Valencia
I feel guilty pinpointing this match, as I seem to select these teams every week! However, the truth of the matter is that Mallorca are one of the more intriguing sides at the start of this season, while Valencia must look at the number of storming matches served up at the start of the season and wonder if someone in the offices of the league dislikes them!
Apart from their visits to the Bernabeu and the Nou Camp, they’ve also been to the Allianz Arena, of course, and having shown spirit in the first two of those tests, they capitulated disappointingly last Wednesday, a late goal giving the 2-1 scoreline a flattering look.
Real, of course, will be delighted with the start they’ve made, if a little disappointed they failed to take advantage of a struggling Osasuna to maintain their momentum.
The absence of suspended centre back Jose Nunes, a gritty competitor as aggressive as his appearance suggests, will be a major blow to the home team as they look to combat Roberto Soldado though. The experienced Portuguese stopper has looked excellent so far this season, and his likely replacement young Pedro Bigas lacks his authority, and is a little lacking in mobility to boot.
Mallorca’s width is their greatest weapon, of course, and it’ll be interesting to see what they make of Valencia’s new marauding left back, Aly Cissokho. The Frenchman loves charging forwards and could leave gaps behind him for Real to exploit…or might just take the game by the scruff of the neck and drag Nsue back with him.
Mauricio Pellegrino must be acutely aware of the fact that he’s taken over a club which sacked his predecessor despite the fact that he achieved everything most outsiders would have thought was possible for the club. The other fact in his mind will be that after five matches he only has one win and faces a tough challenge if he’s to make it two this weekend.
To ignore form for a moment and consider the bigger picture, Valencia must be aware that they can’t really afford to drop too many more points in the next month or so. Lose this match and they could feasibly find themselves eight points off Malaga, six points behind Sevilla and five behind Atletico, who would have a game in hand. All those sides are genuine contenders for the Champions League berth Valencia consider their minimum aim for the season: this match might just build up the pressure on a young manager in his first job.
Real Zaragoza v Osasuna
Real looked poor last weekend and need to buck their ideas up quickly, but their opponents only picked up their first point of the season last weekend. Both sides will already be nervously considering the consequences if they lose this one. Nil-nil!
Celta Vigo v Getafe
The problem with that terrific derby win over Real Madrid is Getafe still seem to be dining out on it. They’ve gained only one other point this season, although to be fair they’d have taken four points from a run of four games which included both the big two if offered them at the start of the season. Celta need to take as many home points as possible to cement their place back in the Primera.
Barcelona v Granada
Granada were fairly open when they went to the Bernabeu a fortnight ago, which was good. They couldn’t get hold of the bal and were taken apart though, which wasn’t so good. Expect more of the same in this one, which feels like a nice chance to give David Villa some gametime.
Levante v Real Sociedad
Levante will have to get used to recovering from their Thursday exertions: so far they’ve subsided harmlessly to defeat at Valladolid and given the lie to the notion they might be tired by fighting back from 2-0 down to beat Espanyol. Real got a routine win over hapless Zaragoza last week and will be an interesting test of Levante’s stamina.
Atletico Madrid v Real Valladolid
Miroslav Đukić’s side are built on progressive modern foundations, but can they maintain their pressing game throughout a match which will see Atletico knocking constantly at the door? Once the home team start to penetrate, a certain Mr Falcao will be looking to swoop onto anything his team-mates can provide for him.
Athletic Bilbao v Malaga
Malaga continue to impress, but all of a sudden Athletic looked their old selves once Fernando Llorente returned to the fold. This is the sort of challenge to reveal whether that was just a flash in the pan.
Deportivo La Coruna v Sevilla
Following up a game against Real Madrid with a trip to the North-west coast is hardly a generous run of fixtures for Sevilla, but after last weekend they might well feel that anything is possible. Depor last lost a home game over a year ago though, and are already looking like they’ve never been away.