Granada v Real Madrid
This feels like an all-or-nothing sort of affair. Granada will surely either pull off one hell of a victory or suffer a terrible thrashing. Suffering a mundane defeat just doesn’t seem to be an option.
The reason? Granada are a funny old team. They somehow fail to add up to the sum of their parts, and don’t deliver on the progressive signs they often exhibit, but their reaction to this has been unusual: they’ve just kept plugging away in the same manner.
The change of management this week probably won’t make much of an impact on their approach, except to perhaps give extra motivation for a group of players keen to impress the new coach. The introcduction of Lucas Alcaraz has surely come too late for him to change things massively, so surely he’s going to have to refer to the blueprint established by his predecessor, Juan Antonio Anquela.
The conundrum is quite simple, if contradictory: Granada have set themselves up in an attacking manner all season, and have quite a bold approach to the game. Yet they don’t score goals. Juan Antonio Anquela constantly tinkered in an attempt to squeeze some productivity out of his attacking players, often getting increasingly bold as games wear on. It didn’t tend to work, but that didn’t stop him from trying, which in itself was surely something to celebrate. It’s a shame he’s gone.
Where that leaves them against a side with as awesome an attacking arsenal as Real Madrid is also pretty obvious. Alcaraz’s predecessor’s reputation (that is Anquela’s) is based, to a great extent on a similar situation to this, and his response was to be bold. As coach of Alcorcon in 2009 he took the bull by the horns after drawing Manuel Pellegrini’s megateam in the Copa del Rey, and walloped them 4-0. A 1-0 defeat in the return leg secured the famous Alcorconazo.
Having enjoyed such success by taking the bold option, and having inherited an attack-minded set-up, one has to assume that, rather than adopt the brace position and try to limit the damage as so many so against Los Merengues, he’ll actually go for it. As I said in the opening sentence, this opens up two clear possibilities: it works and we have one of the games of the season; or his side are picked apart on the break and get slaughtered.
Obviously, logic heavily favours the latter outcome, but whichever happens, it’ll probably be worth drawing a seat up and watching!
Apart from the fact that what we’ve seen all season suggests Granada will be true to themselves, there’s also some logic in having a go at Real. After all, their defence is the soft underbelly at the moment, hampered as it is by injuries. Why play the game on their terms and let them dominate possession and feed their voracious forwards when you can instead look to push the onus onto the back four and see how they react?
It’s a shame for Granada, perhaps, that this game isn’t taking place a week earlier. Getafe frustrated their more illustrious neighbours last Sunday in a match which saw Jose Mourinho distracted by his planning for the midweek Clasico. Perhaps that was the opportunity to catch them off guard; there’s no pressing reason for Mourinho to rotate this round, in fact he has suspended players available again after sitting out last Wednesday.
If Granada are to pull off a shock, they’ll have to keep their focus a great deal more successfully than they did when they last played host to Los Blancos. That match, in the penultimate round of last season, offered up a textbook illustration of mass hysteria.
Granada, fighting for survival, took an early lead through a superb Franco Jara goal and held it until the 81st minute. That was when Moisés Hurtado decided to flatten Cristiano Ronaldo rather than mark him to concede as ludicrous a penalty as you could imagine. Not that this made much of an impact on the logical parts of the Granada players, staff and fans’ brains. They pilloried the referee, Carlos Clos Gómez, for giving the decision.
Their mood wasn’t improved when Ronaldo scored the penalty, and got even worse when, with results elsewhere turning against them, David Cortés scored an unnecessary own goal in the fourth minute of injury time.
Clos Gómez’s decision-making had been impeccable but he was still a ludicrous appointment as referee because he hails from Zaragoza and Real were scrapping for survival themselves. This made him a sitting duck when he blew for time before Granada could take a corner, and things got ugly. Two players were sent off for abusing him in the centre of the pitch, then Dani Benitez hit him in the face with a water bottle.
The nastiness continued into his changing room, and by the end of it Granada had shamed themselves (apart from coach Abel Resino, who acted with admirable dignity) and bought themselves a final day showdown with Rayo which they’d have to enter into with three players suspended. They might just need to keep their discipline a bit better on Saturday.
Allan Nyom v Cristiano Ronaldo
Nyom is big, strong and agile. Cristiano Ronaldo is, well, Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid are no one-man team, but it certainly stands to reason that if you can contain him you’ve a better chance of staying in the match. Nyom has the physical attibutes to deal with Ronaldo in the air and is no slouch in a sprint, but the problem is that his interests don’t necessarily lie in this part of the game.
Nyom is an important part of Granada’s progressive approach, and loves loping forward. This will surely set up an entertaining tussle down the flank and he judges just how much space he can allow Ronaldo behind him. It all adds up to one of the decisive factors in my theory that this is an all-or-nothing game: if Nyom can get involved as an attacking force he might be able to hurt Real; if he neglects Ronaldo Granada could be destroyed.
The left back was sent off last season in this match for calling the referee “shameless” amongst other things after the final whistle, but that’s hardly grounds to single him out: after all, everyone seemed to get a red card after that game. This ought to be a match in which the focus will be more clearly on his ability to actually play the game rather than judge referees.
Siqueira probably needs to perform in games like these. There has been talk for a while of bigger fish looking at him, but if he wants that move to take place he needs to start catching the eye when the world is watching, which isn’t that often for Granada despite the league’s generous allocation of that glamorous Monday night fixture to them on almost as regular basis as they do to Rayo!
Like Nyom on the other side, Siqueira is happier going forwards than going back: is there a player in this Granada side that this doesn’t apply to? His driving runs can cause real damage, and he strikes the ball cleanly both when crossing or shooting. Whether the defensive side of his game is up to the standard of football he’s linked to is a different question, and one which the likes of José María Callejón, Ángel di María and Mesut Özil are likely to examine.
Siqueira is offensively crucial in another manner. For a side which struggles to score goals, set pieces are crucial to Granada. As his two superbly dispatched penalties at Getafe three weeks ago showed, here is a real dead ball specialist. If Granada are to turn the tables in this game, that attribute might turn out to be crucial, because they’re going to have to do something they’ve failed to manage all season and take the chances that come their way.
Osasuna v Celta de Vigo
I can’t quite fathom Celta. Whenever I see them play they look like a nice, mid-table side with some interesting players and the capacity to trouble the better sides in the division. Yet their away record is embarrassing and a quick glance at the table suggests that such a flattering view of their attributes is misplaced.
With Osasuna, meanwhile, you pretty much get what it says on the tin. They’re stubborn, proud of their roots and tradition, and will fight until they get what they want, especially on home turf. A home win looks on the cards in this relegation scrap then.
But Celta’s season will hinge on whether they can start to fulfil their potential in games like this. Surely, man-for-man they’re the stronger side, but time’s running out for them to start turning their qualities into precious life-saving points. A result in the Navarran bearpit could kick-start their survival bid.
Considering the qualities of Iago Aspas and the decent supporting cast around him, it’s something of a reality check to see that Celta’s scoring is better only than those of Granada and Osasuna.
For Osasuna the motivation is clear. Irrespective of other results, a victory in this match would lift them above their opponents and out of the bottom three. Furthermore, their away record is essentially as miserable as Celta’s: they’ve only got one more point on the road. Therefore, form in the Reyno de Navarra is not a bonus, it’s a necessity.
You don’t need to be a genius to work out that the injection of some effective creativity into Celta’s squad could work wonders, and that was clearly sporting director Miguel Torrecilla’s thinking when Pranjic was drafted in:
“He’s a purely offensive player. He can adapt to all kinds of midfield positions, be it on the wing, or in the centre next to a defensive pivot.”
True enough, but it’s been a while since he’s actually functioned effectively in those forward-thinking roles. His move to Bayern Munich didn’t go as planned, he found himself utilised as a stand-in left back and ultimately featured little in Jupp Heynckes’ plans last season. His move to Sporting went so well that six months later they’ve let him leave on loan. Go figure.
Pranjic has got talent, but he’s thirty-one now. Celta desperately need him to live up to his potential, and this match would be as good a place to start as any, because they’ll need some ingenuity to break down Osasuna’s disciplined defence. But have they merely brought in another creator who doesn’t actually create? The answer to that question might have a major bearing on the rest of their season.
Atletico Madrid v Real Betis
Two sides hoping that the last round was all a bad dream. However, Bobby Ewing isn’t going to be stepping out of the shower any time soon, so they’ll have to dust themselves down and get cracking again. Trouble is, in facing each other they’re guaranteed that one of them is going to feel that a bad day at the office has turned into a worrying run of results.
There was always a sense that, at some point, things might catch up with Atletico. It’s no crime to rely on a key player, but the thought of Radamel Falcao being absent for any length of time was always a chastening one.
It’s not just his obvious qualities as a leader of the line which they missed: Atletico’s whole dynamic revolves around the Colombian. It’s fine to absorb pressure and play on the counter as long as you’re confident in your ability to turn a fair percentage of your breakaways into goals. However, when you strip Falcao out of the equation, the equation looks a little more shaky.
At Athletic last weekend, the Falcao-shaped hole was obvious. Diego Costa has plenty of admirable qualities, but he looked like a domestique cycling into the wind at times, driving forward with his head down, exploring dead-ends like a malfunctioning satnav. The problem ought to be less pronounced at home, where Atletico naturally have more of the game, and to be fair Athletic did unexpectedly spark into life, as if they suddenly remembered what made them so great last season. But still, you’ve got to be slightly worried about what effect Falcao’s absence will have on Atletico’s season.
Meanwhile, injuries, tiredness and a stutter in form which threatens to turn into something more serious are hanging in the air at Real, leading Pepe Mel to vividly describe the atmosphere as being like “a cafe in a mortuary”. And that was before last weekend!
There’s a frightening sense of reality striking home at the club. All of a sudden Benat isn’t pulling the strings, goals are going past the previously excellent makeshift defence which Mel stumbled on out of necessity, and Ruben Castro’s continued form is as crucial as Falcao’s health for Atletico as Jorge Molina continues his career-long quest to find ever more exotic ways to miss chances. Álvaro Vadillo is a wonderful talent, of course, but at the moment he looks a little lost; at least Joel Campbell has belatedly arrived at the party.
The sides met in the Copa del Rey earlier in the month, of course, with Atletico triumphing fairly comfortably. That’s not to say the margin of victory was huge- 3-1 isn’t a thrashing – but it was a tie which was played out perfectly in terms of Diego Simeone’s tactical masterplan. Strike at home to take the advantage, then take the pressure and hit on the break.
However, Betis can find crumbs of hope in that tie. They got off to an horrendous start, essentially surrendering their chances in the opening quarter of the first leg when they started sloppily and went 2-0 down. From half time in that match onwards they dominated Atletico, and although it’s fair to say that was partly down to Simeone’s plan, they created more chances at the Vicente Calderon than he’d have been comfortable with. However, they were guilty of some poor finishing and the impeccable Thibault Courtois was at his best. Betis desperately need to repeat that performance: apart from the first 25 minutes.
**AROUND THE LEAGUE**
Real Sociedad v Real Mallorca
Three points from a Europa League place, the home team are on the verge of a breakthrough; three points from safety, Mallorca are looking increasingly endangered. Makes the decision to force Michael Laudrup out last season look like a stroke of genius, doesn’t it?
Sevilla v Rayo Vallecano
Now here’s a match-up: the side which has exceeded expectations most this season visit the campaign’s biggest under-achievers. But how long can Rayo defy logic? Sod’s Law says Sevilla burst their bubble.
Valencia v Barcelona
After three bruising encounters with Real Madrid, Valencia could probably do without a game against Barsa. Ernesto Valverde has narrowed the gap between Los Che and the Champions League spots, but this match is hardly likely to improve that equation: the victory at Deportivo in the last round looked like a bit of a false dawn, full of character but lacking quality. Still, at least they’ll get their games against the big two out of the way…
Valladolid v Athletic Bilbao
Are Athletic really back? Probably not, but they did a decent impersonation of Bielsa’s dream team of last season against Atletico, and the draw against Betis was also promising. This is an opportunity for them to build on that, but building on a bubble of promise isn’t something they’ve tended to do this season.
Espanyol v Levante
This is an intriguing one. Espanyol continue to show spirit and have become hard to beat: Levante had “hard to beat” written into their DNA until lately, but now need to get a couple of wins under their belts to get back up to the fringes of the Champions League spots. It could be dour, but it isn’t predictable.
Getafe v Deportivo La Coruna
Depor were worryingly vulnerable against Valencia in the last round, whereas Getafe continue to their worrying wobble and are now without a win in nine. At least the Colunga-Alcácer partnership shows signs of remedying their problem of not quite turning their neat football into results. Still, a first home win since December 1st is a must here.
Malaga v Real Zaragoza
Since beating Real Madrid, Malaga’s only home win was against Eibar in the copa. To be fair, that sequence includes two brave defeats to Barcelona, but they need to win this to keep their push for a Champions League spot – UEFA permitting – on track. Thus they can capitalise on the blips suffered by Real Betis and Levante and – here’s something I never thought I’d be typing – keep Top Four hungry Rayo at bay! That felt good!