Barcelona v Atletico Madrid
Last season this match saw Barceona win 5-0, with Leo Messi scoring a hat trick. Some things change, others don’t. Surely it’s a very different Atletico which travels to the Camp Nou this weekend, but it’s the same old Messi.
It really was a magnificent hat trick, even by Messi’s remarkable standards. However, it’s difficult to imagine Diego Simeone tolerating an Atletico defence melting like an ice cream sundae in the Summer sun, as they did for the Argentinian’s first goal.
“When you come here, either Barcelona put out their kids or you have to produce the game of the century,” claimed Gregorio Manzano, and it’s tricky to imagine the Atletico supremo accepting his fate, or his team’s place in the pecking order, with such resignation.
However, his side did surrender with shocking meekness at the Bernabeu a fortnight ago. A repeat of that performance won’t just see Barcelona disappear over the horizon; with Real Madrid enjoying a three-point gift of a fixture in this round, their neighbours would be breathing down their necks too.
However, Simeone is nothing if not a motivator. His players won’t want to have to come back into the changing room and explain how they failed to turn up again when it really mattered. It might just be that fear of a repetition of their Bernabeu collapse will drive them on: this match might just have come at the right time for them.
And between that debacle and this chance of redemption, Atletico enjoyed perhaps the only fixture easier than Real’s Espanyol walkover. Smashing poor Deportivo to pieces shook off the cobwebs from that grim performance and reminded them of the values that have propelled them to the top of the table. Oh, and Falcao looked quite tasty too!
The fact that Real Madrid have already taken full points from their home match against Atletico might just weigh heavily on Barcelona if they can’t get on top of this match. The convoluted way the Liga programme is put together means that two weeks after facing Real Madrid, every team has to suffer the repeat fixture against Barcelona. So far in this campaign that state of affairs has indubitably favoured Barsa: Real have stuttered at Getafe, Betis and Sevilla; Barsa have gone there and triumphed, striking serious psychological blows as they go. This might be the round where that pattern is changed.
Lionel Messi v Thibault Courtois
Messi accumulates plenty of shots on target every match. Players on 86 goals for the year tend to. Courtois is the latest keeper to get worked by the little genius, and he has a point to prove.
He came out emphatically second best in their duel last season at the Camp Nou last season, of course, as Messi helped himself to a hat trick. The impudent way he popped the third between the keeper’s legs will have stung. But not as badly as what happened in the return match. (The commentary’s stupendous, by the way!).
With nine minutes left and the scores level, Barsa won a free kick outside the left corner of the box. Curling the ball inside the far post from there with his left foot was technically astonishing; pulling it off while the keeper was tied to the wrong post, lining up his wall, was rubbing Courtois’ nose in it.
So the Belgian has a point to prove, and he’s in the form to do it. He caught the eye as a fine prospect in his spell at the Vicente Calderon last season anyway, but this time round he’s added to the impression that he’s most certainly the real deal. Messi’s remarkable 86-goal year includes international statistics, so let’s judge Courtois by the same measure: he’s kept seven clean sheets in his last ten matches for club and country.
Commanding and blessed with excellent reflexes, Courtois has all the attributes of a world class goalkeeper. Trouble is, that doesn’t tend to be enough to handle Messi.
Valencia v Rayo Vallecano
Is this a fresh start for Los Che or just more of the same? The side seem to have responded to the change at the top – or to the rallying calls from the likes of David Albelda – and are looking for a third consecutive win since the managerial seat was vacated.
The new man, Ernesto Valverde has never won his first home game as a manager, and has never been on the winning side against Rayo Vallecano. Superstitious Valencia fans can save their money and stay at home then!
Napoleon wanted lucky generals; Valverde was certainly lucky at the weekend as his side earned a rare away win to mark his first match in charge courtesy of a very fortuitous goal. It was also Roberto Soldado’s first away strike since April. And of course he followed that up with another on Wednesday in the Copa del Rey, in the same stadium.
As for Rayo, they subsided to a disappointing home defeat last Monday and will always have one eye on accumulating enough points to insure against the sort of collapse they suffered last season, which left them as close to relegation as it’s possible to be. They’ll be feeling edgy right now, as they’ve won just one game in their last five.
Their defence isn’t looking too clever away from home either: they’ve conceded 19 goals in their last five league games. They look like the ideal side for Valverde to get off the mark at home. Perhaps fortunes are starting to turn under Valencia’s new lucky general?
Real Zaragoza v Levante
A fixture which resonates with Zaragoza fans. On the final day two seasons ago Real survived as a consequence of a victory at Levante, and last season this match marked a notable landmark in their second remarkable escape from relegation in a row. The crowd were beginning to believe, chanting “Yes, we can!” from the stands as the home team nattled to a 1-0 victory while Rayo Vallecano lost to Mallorca. It was a feat described by Sid Lowe as “the greatest escape since … well, since Sylvester Stallone saved that penalty.” They’ve moved on a lot since then.
Monday’s win at Rayo sees them just two points off the top ten. They’re an all or nothing side, and have lost over half of their matches, but they’ve only drawn once (at Mallorca two rounds ago) and the number of wins they’ve accumulated has propelled them up the table. They seem to have perfected the art of beating the teams they ought to beat, which is an excellent recipe for staying up, and it isn’t a recent thing. Those two great escapes I mentioned earlier were achieved courtesy of run-ins which eschewed the draw: last season they didn’t tie any of their last eleven games; the season before they didn’t draw any of their last thirteen!
They haven’t taken any points off teams currently with more points than them, so a positive result in this match would represent an important breakthrough as they look to establish themselves as something more than a club which has to endure a late scramble every season to remain in the top division. Funnily enough, they’ll get to warm up on Thursday night, when the two teams face each other in the Copa del Rey.
Helder Postiga is in good form up front, with Apoño and Franco Zuculini looking lively behind him. The question is whether they’ll be able to break down Levante’s famously well-marshalled defensive unit. In their last nine matches the only sides to either beat them or score more than once past them were Real Madrid and Barcelona, and they haven’t lost an away match since last September.
The way they took Mallorca apart in the last round suggested that the winter break might come at the wrong time for them, Obafemi Martins ran amok and will have to be watched carefully, while Vicente Iborra has started to bring his European scoring form into La Liga and will be looking to build on his three goals in the last five matches.
Celta de Vigo v Real Betis
Can Betis keep it going to the winter break? Maybe so: Celta’s last three home games were 1-1 draws and they’ve won just one of their last eight.
Deportivo La Coruna v Real Valladolid
After the battering they tok last Sunday, Depor need some respite, but they might not find it here. Manucho and Oscar aren’t quite Radomel Falcao and Diego Costa, but they’re a handy duo and the Angolan showed last weekend that he can trouble the best defences. The home team’s defence certainly doesn’t fall into that category. Bottom of the table with mounting financial problems, Depor aren’t looking super at the moment.
Getafe v Osasuna
Tough, rugged, awkward Osasuna are back, it seems. They might have lost on Saturday, but the rather fluky goal they conceded was the first in six matches. Getafe are going well though, unbeaten in four and denied a fourth consecutive win by a last minute goal in San Sebastian.
Granada v Real Sociedad
Granada are in freefall: they haven’t scored in four games and the only home point they’ve taken from the last twelve was against Espanyol. Real, meanwhile, are unbeaten in five and will fancy their chances of returning north with the points.
Real Mallorca v Athletic Bilbao
Marcelo Bielsa has to look at this as an opportunity: Mallorca continue to stagger along, desperately looking for two points to rub together, so this might be an opportunity to build on last weekend’s win.
Real Madrid v Espanyol
Not much to say really: despite Javier Aguirre’s famed motivational qualities, if Real don’t win this Jose might find a bigger audience the next time he walks out fifty minutes before kick off to face down his critics.
Sevilla v Malaga
This should be interesting. Malaga haven’t scored in their last three away games, but their memorable derby win was the only time Sevilla have taken three points from their last seven matches, so something gotta give! Or it’ll be a draw.