Real Betis v Barcelona
Betis are plenty of fun this season! You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get with them, but it’s almost certain to be exciting! Having beaten Real Madrid at the Benito Villamarin a fortnight ago, they’re perfectly capable of giving Barsa a fright.
Their joie de vivre and spirit was perfectly summed up in the thrilling 3-2 win at Deportivo last weekend. 2-0 up thanks to the in-form Rubén Castro, they were pegged back to 2-2 but Joel Campbell showed why Arsenal invested in him with a superb winner. Gripping, edge of the seat stuff, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from Pepe Mel’s side this season.
“The fact that almost all today’s newspapers reported that Betis are now 13 points clear of the relegation zone gives you some idea of just how far into dreamland we’ve wandered. Do you think fans of Tottenham or Schalke or Fiorentina – the fourth-placed clubs in England, Germany and Italy – are still worrying about going down? ”
Pepe Mel has been trying to dampen expectations, something he attempted unsuccessfully before the aberration against Granada: “With 14 games gone we’ve got 25 points, something we couldn’t even have dreamt of in the summer.
“But I’m not looking beyond Barcelona on Sunday because every time we do that, we go wrong. If we don’t look at the future, we’ll achieve our object and the important thing is that Betis are a long way from the relegation zone.”
Mind you, in the same press conference where he predicted calamity against Granada he also explained why he’d rather be facing Real Madrid than his Andalucian neighbours:
“If we were playing them or Barcelona, I wouldn’t have any doubt that we’d be going for the jugular.”
He was true to his word a fortnight later when Betis beat Real; let’s see if his side will do it again.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are finally making people stop talking about their vulnerabilities. The post-Pep feeling that things can surely only go downhill, coupled with a defensive frailty, has encouraged the critics. However, Tito Vilanova’s side has simply carried on regardless, totting up the wins, and the doubters have gone rather quiet.
The return of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique has been a major factor in this improvement, and you suspect their presence will have a crucial bearing on a fixture which has troubled Barcelona of late. In thw 2005-6 season they managed to heavy victories at the Benito Villamarin, but since then they’ve struggled in the green and white cauldron, winning none, drawing three and losing two.
Pepe Mel masterminded the most recent victory over Barsa, and as a second division manager too boot! Admittedly, it was the second leg of a Copa del Rey tie two seasons ago which was pretty meaningless, as the Blaugrana had won the first leg 5-0, but it was a pretty strong side which Guardiola put out. Mind you, in his days at Tenerife he also experienced a 6-0 home defeat to Barcelona, so let’s not assume he has all the answers!
Let’s go obvious here; the guy could finally get the record he’s been pursuing so publicly in this match. The phenomenal amount of goals he has scored in this calendar year would be enough to mark him out as a remarkable player alone; when you factor in everything else he brings to the party, you appreciate his incredible worth to Barsa.
He’ll be up against a central defensive paring which is far from being Pepe Mel’s first choice as well, of course, but as often happens in football, the Betis coach has accidentally stumbled upon a successful pairing and the defence looks sound. Betis defended heroically against Real Madrid when they had to, and Messi will have to work hard to find space between the lines and behind the defence if they do the same again.
He hasn’t always had the happiest of memories of the Benito Villamarin, either. Although he scored there in the 2011 Copa del Rey tie I mentioned above, he also missed a penalty in that game and played the full ninety on the last day of last season without hitting the net, a fact which wouldn’t be worth mentioning with mere mortals, but is remarkable for Messi this year!
Ruben Castro v Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol
Castro’s scoring record for Betis is terrific – he hits the net mre than once every other game. Barcelona hold no fears for him either, as he put three past them last season, and he comes into this match in prime form, with five goals in his last five matches, including two in the victory over Deportivo. In fact the only game he didn’t score in during that sequence was the 1-0 win over Real Madrid, and he more than played his part in that memorable victory.
His movement is sharp, he’s nippy and gets in behind defenders; everything Barcelona have found troubling this season. But now Pique and Puyol are back.
The statistics are well worn by now: everyone knows that when those two are united at the back, Barcelona tend to win. However, Castro will pose them a challenge as he fits neatly into the system Mel has constructed. He links to drop off, link up and then get into the spaces he’s created as defenders follow him, and in the likes of Benat and Salva Sevilla he has players on the same wavelength, capable of sliding those killer balls into his path. Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano will be happy to play supporting roles in this conflict rather than be utilised to mark Castro themselves!
Real Valladolid v Real Madrid
The strength of Barcelona and Real Madrid over the last five years or so has distorted the Liga table somewhat. A surprise team will creep up the league, helped by the fact that the sides beneath the big two are squashed pretty closely together and a little run of results can catapult you swiftly upwards (take a look at Osasuna for proof). However, they then run into the league’s twin behemoths at slump back down. Valladolid are the next team to test this theory.
Miroslav Đukić’s side have made an excellent start to their return to the top flight, but they haven’t played either Barcelona or Real Madrid yet. That’s about to change, with consecutive home games against them.
Osasuna v Valencia
Now here’s an interesting one. Manolo Llorente reacted to protests against him by pushing Mauricio Pellegrino overboard, and now Los Che have a new man at the helm to try and emulate what Unai Emery lost his job for doing as a matter of course: finish third. Ernesto Valverde’s a sound man to drop into such a situation, but he’ll be up against tricky opposition in a resurgent Osasuna. Their early season form was a parody of what’s expected of them as they struggled horribly, their home form particularly short of what’s expected of the fiesty Navarrans. But now they’re back.
They haven’t conceded a goal in 457 minutes and the only goal they’ve let in during their last 6 matches certainly had extenuating circumstances: Patrick Ebert’s 83rd minute winner was superb, and scored on the break against an Osasuna side reduced to ten men. You just can’t defend against this sort of thing.
In fact, that’s the only goal they’ve conceded at home in their last six home games, going back to mid-September, and with a cup victory over Sporting Gijon to add to the win over Rayo in the last round, they’ve back-to-back home wins going into this match.
Which is hardly what Valverde will want to hear as he has one very obvious matter to address: Valencia’s horrendous away form. They’ve been behind at both half time and full time in five of their last six away league games, the one exception being a 1-1 draw at Valladolid which became a desperate affair after Aly Cissokho followed up his first goal for the club by being sent off with 25 minutes left.
Indeed, their only win in four league matches, since their misleadingly encouraging 2-0 win over Atletico, was the highly controversial affair against Espanyol. That 4-0 drubbing by a Malaga side which has looked off colour itself lately, followed by the 5-2 embarrassment in the last round, seem more accurate measures of the challenge Valverde has taken on.
Espanyol v Sevilla
A new saviour for Espanyol: Javier Aguirre is a proven fire fighter, of course, who has enjoyed success at a variety of jobs, taking the Mexican national side to new heights, guiding Osasuna into Europe and flattering to deceive at Atletico (but then, doesn’t every Atleti coach do that?) The obvious parallel to his current task is the miraculous escape act he pulled off at Zaragoza two seasons ago, of course, and he’ll need to pull off some more of his famous motivational stunts to replicate that with a demoralised Espanyol squad. A home game against a Sevilla side which seems to struggle to pull itself together for anything but the biggest of games might be a perfect first home match for Espanyol’s new Mister.
Athletic Bilbao v Celta Vigo
There was a brief moment a few weeks ago where Athletic looked like they were starting to rediscover themselves, but those days are long gone.
Atletico Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna
After last Saturday’s disappointment, what Atletico need is a nice easy home game to get themsevles back on track. Voilà!
Levante v Mallorca
A late equaliser at Celta continued Levante’s good form, and a home game against a side that hasn’t won in eleven matches should allow them to maintain their momentum. At least Mallorca created chances last weekend, but it’s hard to find many more positives from their 1-1 draw with Zaragoza. Needing an 85th minute equaliser to snatch a draw against opponents who were down to ten men and facing a penalty in the 13th minute isn’t great. They won’t have many easier game situations than that this season, and are highly unlikely to get themselves into such an advantageous place in this match.
Malaga v Granada
With speculation about Manuel Pellegrini’s future doing the rounds, Malaga’s wobble is in danger of turning into something more substantial. However, Granada’s win at Real Betis is beginning to look like a real freak result: the only other point they’ve earned in their last seven league matches was last round’s goalless home draw with poor Espanyol. Following the pattern of this weekend, another easy home game.
Rayo Vallecano v Real Zaragoza
A couple of mid-table sides who would probably be happy to see the season out exactly where they are right now is perhaps an obvious choice for the Monday night graveyard shift. Both sides have exceeded expectations by playing some good stuff though, and deserve a better billing. Watching the developing Leo Baptistao against a reshuffled, Loovens-less back four should be interesting.
Real Sociedad v Getafe
Similar to the Rayo-Zaragoza match, these sides will be feeling pretty smug about their performance so far, but unlike those sides will probaby have higher expectations about what they might achieve next. Philippe Montanier seems to have ridden out the storm of a couple of weeks ago, and suddenly the talented young core of his side seem to be clicking. However, Getafe are a tough proposition: only the top two and Betis have more away points than them this season.