Sevilla v Real Betis
Betis have enjoyed an intoxicatingly good start to the season, of course, but we’ll be able to assess their credentials a lot more accurately in a couple of weeks. Following up this away derby are matches against Barcelona and Real Madrid. Is their vertiginous position in the table merely a consequence of Real not having had to face the big two yet, or is there substance to their fast start?
This is a proper, “hot” derby, as the reaction to Beñat’s injury time stroke of genius last season showed. That brilliant free kick, driving it under the wall as they jumped, was the goal that launched a thousand webpages. It was no fluke either: two rounds ago he ripped in another, this time a sublime effort from the left wing at Getafe.
Of course, the optimism was punctured last Friday by what Pepe Mel will tell you was the most predictable defeat of the season so far. For a week before Betis’ home match against struggling Granada he’d been warning us that “these games are very dangerous. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking we’re going to win easily. It’s a problem we’ve had historically, and that’s why this is the most difficult and most important game of the season so far. The whole of Spain is praising us and being too nice to us, which is always dangerous.”
Mel claimed he would have preferred a death-or-glory match against Real Madrid or Barcelona than a visit from Granada. Well, he’ll get his wish starting next week, and in the meantime a trip to the Sanchez Pizjuan should liven his team up.
Sevilla will probably welcome the derby as well, as it might shake some life into a side whose promising start is in danger of fading away. They were unbeaten in their first five games, with that memorable victory over Real Madrid thrown in for good measure, but since then have won just one in six. With no wins in four in the derby, since a league double in the 2007-8 season, they owe their fans a result.
Michel certainly didn’t pull any punches afterwards, claiming his side “has issues that have to do with morals and respect for the shirt.” Whether this was merely a psychological ploy or not is a good question: it’s certainly an all-or-nothing approach to team motivation! Sevilla are liable to go into the match pumped up to show they care for the badge – or totally demoralised!
If you want a bizarre pointer to the result, and prefer consulting the entrails to the form in working out who’s going to win, why not cast an eye at the outcome of the boat race last week. This post from the outstanding “Forever Betis” blog explains in more detail and offers pictures and video of the event, but it boils down to a rather high quality boat race between teams of Real and Sevilla supporters. It was held last weekend, and the result? Betis were triumphant. Read into that what you will!
Key Match up
Gary Medel v Salva Sevilla
I must admit that at the start of the season I wasn’t sure that Salva had quite made the transition from outstanding Liga Adelante player to the top division. I’m sure now.
Ignore the breakaway goal at Granada: when you’re 3-on-1 with the keeper you really only ought to be judged if you fail to emerge with a goal. However, he’s been prompting smartly in front of the midfield duo and offered good service to Molina and the two wide men.
El Pitbull’s job will be to stop him doing exactly that. I’ve always liked the little Chilean, a feisty presence in front of his back four who is willing to venture forwards into more advanced areas of the pitch when necessary. In this match, you suspect it will be the former approach which he’ll be drawing upon: in a hot-blooded derby like this, nobody will want to take a step backwards in midfield so his tigerish tackling will come in handy, and he’ll need to be on his toes to ensure there are no effective breakaways from the Betis front four, who’ve been operating very effectively as a unit.
He’ll need to keep that aggression under control though: he was sent off in this fixture last season after picking up a second yellow card in injury time after the award of the free kick from which Benat scored the winner.
And he’ll have to keep an eye on crafty Salva, if only to frustrate sub-editors around Europe: if Sevilla scores the winner against Sevilla, the headlines will be terrific!
My son’s just bought Jesus Navas for Liverpool on Football Manager 13, and I feel responsible. Having encouraged a love of Spanish football in him, he’s a knowledgable follower of La Liga, but has he squandered millions of imaginary pounds on the little winger? After all, if the new version of the game is as well researched as usual, transplanting Navas in a different country sounds like a recipe for disappointment!
Navas’ fragility in the face of change is well known; he likes to be in a secure, familiar environment.He’ll have plenty of backing on Sunday, of course, but with that support comes a great responsibility: in a misfiring Sevilla side which relies on width to open up the opposition, Navas will be crucial. But is he in the best of form? He has played twelve games this season for club and country, completing ninety minutes in each, but doesn’t have any goals or assists to his name yet.
Navas’ devastating, direct approach on the right can turn any game. Handling him will be an interesting task for the inexperienced Álex Martínez, although the pacy Juan Carlos ought to be able to get back and offer support. Still, Michel might want to point out to Navas that having a run at Martínez, a full back with just six top flight starts to his credit, is a scenario where he’d expect him to finally bear fruit. Unless he feels piling too much pressure on his gifted but fragile winger is a bad idea, of course!
Still, at least my lad’s Liverpool side ought to get their money’s worth by marketing Navas. No matter where he is, he’s got great eyes! I’ll have to ask if he bought Navas’ image rights in his contract negotiations!
Granada v Atletico Madrid
I’m growing to like Granada, a side which always offers an attacking threat even when they’re being outplayed. Atletico might find them awkward customers, not to mention an interesting side with which to measure themselves against Barcelona and Real Madrid, the only sides to keep clean sheet against Granada since the opening day of the season.
But they’re flawed: they’ve yet to keep a clean sheet at home, and haven’t shut the opposition out in sixteen games: their last clean sheet was in a home win over Getafe last April. I’m not saying they’re Zdenek Zeman’s Roma (second top scorers in the Italian league, but with the worst defence – it’s enough to make you convert to Serie A!) but they’re fun!
Admittedly, you can make any case if you twist the statistics in your favour, and there’s another reason for Granada’s lowly league position apart from their defensive problems. Although they tend to hit the net regularly, they’re still one of the lowest scorers in the division, with eleven goals from eleven games. Yet they feel like they’ve got more goals in them, and certainly have threatening players going forward. Perhaps it’s a case of the eyes deceiving the brain, but they look like an attacking threat even if the facts don’t bear that out. Perhaps they just need to find the right balance to make the most of their attacking possibilities, and their impressive win at Betis last Friday, admittedly referee-assisted, might just have been the first sign that Juan Antonio Anquela is getting it right.
Atletico got back to winning ways in the last round after their two-game blip, but if they’re serious about maintaining their title push, this is the sort of game they simply must win.
The gifted Frenchman is in danger of becoming one of those promising youngsters who never quite lives up to his billing. Having gone through the much-vaunted French national training centre of Clairfontaine, seen throughout as one of its star pupils, represented his nation at all the age levels and been coveted by many of Europe’s big clubs as he shone at the Paris St. Germain academy, he doesn’t seem to have quite kicked on from his promising beginnings.
And now he finds himself performing as the creative spark for Granada, driving forwards and seeking space on the edge of the opposition’s area. The shifting of Youssef El-Arabi into a more advanced position has given him scope to play in the hole and it seems to suit him. He’ll find this a real test though, as Atletico like to play on the counter-attack. Therefore, there might well be a lack of space between the lines for him to exploit and he’ll need all his cunning and drive to break down Diego Simeone’s carefully constructed defensive block.
Iriney v Raúl García
Diego Simeone felt there had been a surprising lack of intensity in his side’s run-ending loss at Valencia a fortnight ago, but might that have been partly down to his apprach to the match? Instead of the 4-2-3-1 which had stood him in good stead up until that match, he withdrew the man behind the striker, playing more of a 4-3-2-1 with Emre in a deeper role than the likes of Raúl García had been playing. The outcome was a lack of supply and support for Radomel Falcao and a toothless performance.
Simeone hasn’t made the same mistake since and Garcia is back in the starting line-up. Four goals from seven starts this season tells you that he’s able to get into the box and feed off Falcao’s scraps, and he’ll be looking to get at the soft centre of the home side’s defence in this match. To get there, though, he’ll have to get past Iriney, which is easier said than done.
The journeyman Brazlian enjoys a good scrap and his attempts to limit Garcia by hook or by crook should be interesting, He’s experienced and smart, but with Mikel Rico a more attack-minded option alongside him rather than a double pivot, will there be too many counter-attacking threats in his area of the ptich for Iriney to handle?
Celta de Vigo v Mallorca
Two sides in serious trouble. Mallorca have crashed to six losses in a row, of course, and Joaquin Caparros must be feeling concerned. Similarly Celta have one draw and four losses in their last five games in all competitions, but at least they’re unbeaten in four at home. With no away points to their credit so far this season, it’s looking increasingly like their Balaidos form will be the decisive factor in their season.
The form suggests this is a home win, and not purely because of Mallorca’s recent tailspin. While Celta’s home form is holding up, Mallorca are no real threat away from the island. Two points and four goals from five away games isn’t going to keep the wolf from the door. Their last away sheet on the mainland came ten games ago, last April at Santander, and the last time they shut out a current top division side on their pwn patch was seventeen games ago, last January at Rayo.
A succession of injuries have stripped the Mallorca side of a lot of quality and experience, and in that context the second half fightback against Barcelona should be seen as quite an achievement. Such flips count for nothing in the table though: if Caparros can demand a continuation of that show of spirit in this match and get a result, it won’t have been a wasted effort, but a defeat will dissipate any positives taken from the performance. Hemed, Victor, Insue and Perreira remain a dangerous quartet who appear to be well suited to complementing each other, with Victor drifting dangerously behind Hemed and the others providing service from either flank. They need to deliver to halt the Mallorca collapse.
They might find a Celta defence which is willing to oblige. Certainly, after last round’s 3-2 loss at Rayo, where a two goal lead was squandered, questions were asked about their resolve at the back and Javi Varas didn’t pull any punches as he argued that his side needed to toughen up:
“Lack of experience is no excuse. We now have to knuckle down because we won’t get these points back. We have to realise every game is important and fight for every ball at every moment.”
“This team has the potential to score goals but we need to be stronger defensively, which so far we have not been.”
“Obviously it’s easier if we can win by playing good football, but we’ve received a lot of compliments without getting the points.”
“If we need to be more practical in order to get the points then that’s what we need to do to achieve what we want.”
They’re not the only side needing to tighten things up though. At the other end, Real have simply conceded too many, and the partnership of Geromel and Anderson Conceicao will be sorely tested by Iago Aspas, of course, who built on his lively showing at Barcelona with two goals at the weekend.
Barcelona v Real Zaragoza
Another record’s at stake: a Barcelona win makes this the best start by a team in La Liga history, apparently. I’m sceptical of such stats, as there’s a new record to beat after every game in that case, but it does add grist ot the mill of the debate about Barsa’s performances. Are they hitting new peaks or flattered by their results so far? Surprisingly, Real Zaragoza might be capable of exploring this issue further.
Deportivo La Coruna v Levante
Levante will be keen, after a couple of disciplined performances in tough fixtures yielded just one point, to get a win under their belts and get back up the table. This might just be the perfect opportunity: Deportivo’s off-field problems are matched by their on-field toothlessness: one win since the first day of the season, four points from the last twenty-one. It’s looking worrying at El Riazor.
Getafe v Valladolid
This ought to have goals in it: Valladolid have scored in their last seven, while Getafe don’t do home clean sheets. Both sides are losing too many games for comfort though, but at least Valladolid are on a three game unbeaten run. Getafe don’t do draws either, but might settle for one here.
Osasuna v Malaga
Not an easy game for stuttering Malaga: Osasuna’s terrific victory in the bottom of the table clash at Cornella El Prat has set up yet another chance for them to rediscover the home form they need to survive. But I seem to be saying this every fortnight, and they never seem to deliver: they only have one home win so far this season, albeit a comprehensive one against Levante. Malaga, meanwhile, need to get back to winning ways: their chances of doing so might revolve on how many of their redoubtable first choice back four are back in action. As expected, it’s been when Manuel Pellegrini has had to fall back on his back-up players that the results have dipped.
Real Madrid v Athletic Bilbao
Last season’s Athletic would have been just the side to test a Real side which isn’t firing on all cylinders; with the early signs of a revival at San Mames, is this a chance for the visitors to make a statement? Sticking to Bielsa’s principles and pushing on seems likely to play into the hands of the kings of the counter attack, but Andoni Iraola has already been putting pressure on the referee beforehand. If Real don’t get an early goal, this game could get interesting.
Real Sociedad v Rayo Vallecano
Rayo keep popping up with little surprise wins, and certainly showed spirit last weekend, while Real suffered a shocking home loss to Espanyol two rounds ago. If you like a little gamble, this might be the away win you’ve been looking for!
Valencia v Espanyol
Surely a perfect game for Mauricio Pellegrino to maintain his side’s fine home form? Espayol arrived battered and beleaguered, their recent mini-revival crushed emphatically by Osasuna at the weekend. Away from the Mestella Valencia are a pretty miserable bunch, but at home they’re looking for a seventh consecutive win in all competitions. Unfortunately for Mauricio Pochettino, Espanyol aren’t likely to provide too much resistance.