Real Betis v Levante
Fifth versus sixth, with the home side level with fourth placed Malaga and Levante just one point behind. It’s shaping up into a terrific battle for the Champions league places, so this match is an exciting prospect.
Betis look superb away, but a little less reliable at home. However, it’s tended to be when the smaller teams visit the Benito Villamarin that their form has faltered: when the big matches have come around they’ve tended to perform, roared on by their famously raucous support.
The results haven’t always gone their way in those matches, but there have been extenuating circumstances. They lost 2-1 to Barcelona, but gave them a rougher ride than pretty much anyone else has, while their 4-2 loss to Atletico was altered by red cards. They led 2-1 in the second half when Damien Perquis was dismissed, and were still in the game at 3-2 down when Joel Campbell followed him down the tunnel. And if you doubt Betis can raise themselves for the big occasions, just look back at what happened when Real Madrid came to Seville.
With Benat suspended and Canas looking to overcome an injury picked up as a consequence of the farcical mess of their training ground rotation policy, Betis could have trouble in the centre of the park though. Mind you, they’ve turned adversity into a virtue so far this season: injuries have been brushed aside as squad members have come in and made the places they’ve inherited their own. Just look at Antonio Amaya.
Levante’s gnarled troop of battlers will test Real’s resolve though. They crashed to a shock 3-0 defeat at Rayo in their last away game, but that uncharacteristic result ended a run of six matches unbeaten on the road.
That result was their first league defeat to a side other than Barcelona or Real Madrid since September, which illustrated just how tenacious they are. If they can go a step further and earn a place at Europe’s top table it would be quite an achievement for a side accumulated on a shoestring. They might not be pretty, but they’re effective.
Malaga v Barcelona
While it’s natural to look at games where Barcelona or Real Madrid might slip up as a intriguing affairs, with the league as good as over these matches are more interesting from the point of view of the fascinating battle for fourth place. With Betis and Levante facing each other this weekend, Malaga will want to defy form and pinch some points off the Blaugrana in order to hang onto the precious Champions League spot.
Barsa are looking imperious at the moment, but they wouldn’t enjoy it if Malaga are able to replicate the energy they showed against Real Madrid. Until about a month ago Barcelona’s defence was a cause for concern. As Javier Mascherano looked increasingly vulnerable under the long ball, they appeared vulnerable and were grateful for the fact that they always appeared capable of scoring more at the other end.
The reunion of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique at the back has changed the narrative: now, nobody dwells on the frailties at the back, and instead we’re directed to look at the record-breaking nature of Barsa’s season.
There’s logic to this – they do look more fluent now than they did at the start of the season, and have registered some genuinely emphatic wins. However, the notion that their defensive issues have now been solved is a myth. That clean sheet against Espanyol was their first in six league games, and in the eight liga matches they have both appeared in, they’ve kept just two clean sheets. Roque Santa Cruz might fancy getting in amongst them.
Osasuna v Real Madrid
The Real Madrid soap opera rumbles on, with a trip to a venue which has often seen them struggle, but has also witnessed a notable victory.
Last season’s clash was a major landmark on Real’s path to the title. They arrived with Barcelona beginning to reel them in, and with Osasuna in threatening form at home it was seen as a match where points could be dropped. However, Jose Mourinho’s side responded to the pressure as champions ought to: Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain hit two each, Ronaldo smashing one in from some distance. However, the pick of the bunch in an emphatic 5-1 victory was Karim Benzema’s superb Marco van Basten re-enactment.
That result ended a poor trot for Real on their visits to Osasuna. The season before they’d gone down to a Javier Camunas goal, were held to a goalless draw the season before and suffered a 2-1 loss in May 2009.
Jose Luis Mendilibar saw promising signs during his side’s Copa del Rey elimination to Valencia in midweek. However, their promising run in November, which seemed to be hauling them out of the relegation mire, has completely dissolved. They haven’t been getting thrashed, but the results aren’t going their way: one draw and five losses in their last six matches is a real worry.
The fact that that run of results came straight after a run of five consecutive clean sheets – they’ve shut nobody out since then – illustrates how their form has collapsed. They took eight points from twelve points in November; they’ve won no points from the twelve points since. They’ll need to rekindle that lost form soon.
Espanyol v Celta Vigo
Getting thumped by Barcelona shouldn’t be a problem as long as Espanyol can put it from their minds and pick up that hard-to-beat form they were showing before last Sunday. Celta’s dreadful away form – 3 points from 27 – makes them appear to be the ideal opposition to regain their confidence against. However, they are looking sprightly and might make the resumption of normal service a tricky proposition.
Real Sociedad v Deportivo La Coruna
Deportivo were mightily impressive last weekend in their first match under Domingos. They were energetic, solid at the back and created a succession of chances against high-flying Malaga. However, the fact that they only took one of those opportunities, and had to dig in for an uncomfortable last quarter of an hour told you why they’re at the wrong end of the table.
Still, at least they did manage to hang onto the clean sheet and spark delighted scenes which showed just how much the result meant to both players and fans. The question is whether they can keep the feelgood factor going under their new boss. This is a nasty match to maintain the momentum in. The fact that Real will feel frustrated not to have capitalised on a rare opportunity to punish Real Madrid at the Bernabeu last weekend might spur them on further.
Athletic Bilbao v Rayo Vallecano
Rumour has it Marcelo Bielsa might ditch his tactical principles and selecting both Aritz Aduriz and Fernando Llorente in attack. If so, it will mark another landmark for him against the Madrid side.
Last season this fixture saw the managerial debut of Bielsa at Athletic, and despite Ander Iturraspe scoring a beauty, it ended in a rather tame 1-1 draw. Since that inauspicious start, the club has been on an amazingly swift journey to thrilling excellence and now back to mediocrity. They’re liable to labour against a Rayo side punching above its weight, offering further evidence that the journey has been completed.
Atletico Madrid v Real Zaragoza
You’d expect Radomel Falcao and co to have enough to win this one fairly comfortably and keep up the pace at the top of the table.
Getafe v Granada
A tough one for Granada. Getafe are doing alright and will be keen to make amends for their tame 3-1 defeat at Rayo, while Granada look even more thin with Dani Benitez out with a torn hamstring, Inigo Lopez and Mikel Rico suspended and most of their strikers on a different continent.
Valencia v Sevilla
Both sides got valuable wins in the last round, but a match which in recent years has tended to be crucial in the allocation of Champions League places has a rather more low key feel at the moment. Both sides needed the wins to keep their fans’ ire at bay and will see this match as a chance to punish a fellow under-performer.
Real Valladolid v Real Mallorca
Mallorca surprised everyone with their gutsy performance against Atletico, but it’ll mean nothing if they can’t follow it up with some wins. This isn’t the most promising of games as their hosts will have endured a week of being berated by Miroslav Đukić for the sloppy errors which cost them at Celta last weekend.