Athletic Bilbao v Espanyol
(Primera vuelta: 3-3)
There’s something in the chemistry between these two sides, it seems, which makes making time to watch their clashes worthwhile. Each of the last two matches between them have ended 3-3: fasten your seat-belts.
This is a match Fernando Llorente enjoys, having scored in four of Athletic’s last five matches against Espanyol, including the last two matches at San Mames. Looks like that run halts here. Still, if recent history is anything to go by, everyone gets a chance to fill their boots in this fixture.
Athletic’s last home game, against Atletico, offered enough signs of the old Bielsa template to suggest they might just rescue some self respect from this campaign. While that excellent 3-0 victory caught the eye, the away performances which bookended it might be more significant: too often their away performances have been insipid, but two impressive draws suggested a level of resilience which has been absent since their collapse at the sharp end of last season.
New-found resilience is a characteristic of Espanyol under Javier Aguirre as well, of course. The heart they’ve shown in hauling themselves out of the danger zone has been impressive, and they know that the points they earn now could ensure a much more relaxing end to the season than anyone could have anticipated a couple of months ago.
Key Match Up
Mikel San Jose v Verdu
I must admit to having some trouble getting my head round San Jose as a holding midfielder. He looks like one of those players who are physically equipped to play one role and one role alone: in his case, that of lanky centre back. Yet Marcelo Bielsa’s genius lies, in art in in his ability to see the angel in the block of marble and chisel out a player in an unexpected position.
Certainly, San Jose’s conversion to midfield has coincided with an upturn in Athletic’s performances, and while he seems to lack many of the attributes of Ander Iturraspe in that position, he appears to be adapting well.
He’ll get an interesting test in this match though. Espanyol have developed their attacking possibilities in recent weeks, and Verdu will be a crafty opponent. Elusive, his movement will force San Jose into constantly making decisions on his feet: does he follow him into areas he doesn’t wish to enter and create space for the likes of Sergio Garcia to enter, or does he pass him on and hope Verdu doesn’t exploit the space he’s allowed to play killer balls into the danger area? Luckily for San Jose, Bielsa will have mapped out every possible eventuality for him to digest before the match!
Real Madrid v Sevilla
(Primera vuelta: 0-1)
SPOILER ALERT: This preview reveals the ending of a classic of Russian literature. And the result of the weekend’s Real Madrid-Sevilla match, of course.
This match was so nearly the crowning glory for Real Madrid. A 3-0 home win in the noon kick-off on a Sunday left Los Merengues tantalisingly close to the title – if Barsa were to slip up in the evening match at Rayo, the title would be theirs.
The players were told to be prepared to return to the Bernabeu at 11 if the result went their way, to board the celebratory bus to the Cibelles fountain. However, Pep Guardiola’s side delayed the inevitable in fairly emphatic manner with a 7-0 away win: Jose Mourinho had to wait another three days to clinch the title.
The circumstances of Sevilla’s return to the Nernabeu are rather different. Admittedly, Mourinho has been open in his prioritisation of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League now the defence of the title has run aground, but the events of the last week are still alarming for Madridistas.
The drawn first leg of the clasico semi-final wasn’t a bad effort in itself – considering the number of key absences in Madrid’s squad it might almost be seen as a moral victory. However, the fact is that it leaves one of their two remaining ambitions dangling by a thread: they now need to get a positive result at the Camp Nou to progress.
The subsequent defeat at Granada didn’t make a difference to anything really, but its manner was alarming. Mourinho was able to select a stronger side than he had been able to against Barcelona, but their performance was insipid at best. The passing was grim, the creativity absent, and even Cristiano Ronaldo forgot which way he was kicking!
Meanwhile, Sevilla have suddenly found some backbone under Unai Emery, and might just fancy testing it in such a tough venue. The only one of his six matches at the helm which ended in defeat was played in extenuating circumstances – a gutsy 2-1 Copa del Rey semi-final defeat at Atletico, suffered by virtue of two handball penalties and ended with just nine Sevilla players on the pitch.
In contrast to so many of their performances this season before Michel’s departure, Sevilla showed real character in that match: their best spell came after they had been reduced to ten men: the responded boldly and, once Atletico had also lost a man, took control. Not only that, they responded to going behind with bold substitutions, looking for an equaliser rather sit on a 2-1 defeat and hope to respond in the second leg.
You might have thought Emery would be chastened by his experiences over the last six months or so: his Russian adventure ended as happily as “Anna Karenina”. That followed on from his unhappy departure from the Mestellla, where he lost his job at Valencia as the boardroom felt they were stagnating, solid but unable to kick on from the secure third place he had earned them. He certainly doesn’t look like a safety-first coach on his return to Spain. That’s why he’ll pinch a 1-1 draw here.
Yes, I admit there’s a pattern forming here. When I look for a key player in a Real Madrid match, I end up picking the other side’s right back. But I’m not just stuck in a rut: there’s logic to my repetitive behaviour, married to the simple fact that Real have run up against some interesting players in this position in the last few weeks.
The logic is simple: the opposing right back is going to have to handle Cristiano Ronaldo. The fact that he’s come up against a procession of players who’d rather be careering forwards than keeping an eye on the high speed genius of improvisation just adds to the fascination of these battles.
Allan Nyom enjoyed a rare triumph for the full backs last week, and Cicinho shares some of his attributes. Dangerous going forward, he has employed his pace to good effect as Unai Emery looks to revive Sevilla’s season, putting in some threatening performances on the overlap. Whether he’s as well-equipped as Nyom to do the other side of the job is a different question.
Nyom is a big, muscular athlete; Cicinho offers a much more slender version of the attacking full back, relying on being speedy and fleet of foot rather than bursting forward through sheer force. This perhaps makes him a better attacking option than Nyom, but he’ll have plenty of defending to do at the Bernabeu against a remarkable physical specimen. His success in keeping Ronaldo at bay will be essential to Emery’s game plan.
Rayo Vallecano v Atletico Madrid
(Primera vuelta: 3-4)
Rayo continue to stay up at the right end of the table, pursuing the impossible. Atletico, meanwhile, know that they’ve got a chance to hang onto that second place as long as Real Madrid keep taking their eyes off the ball. A derby between two over-performing sides: this could be a cracker!
The first encounter between the two sides this season was certainly action-packed, although the 4-3 scoreline doesn’t quite reflect how it went. Rather than be a thrilling end-to-end slugfest as the two sides went toe-to-toe and traded goals, it was instead a rather one-sided affair which Atletico completely dominated until they nodded off in the end, nearly letting a game Rayo pinch what would have been an absolutely remarkable point.
Atletico spead the goals around, and were 4-0 up by the 56th minute, and that was how things stood with eight minutes left. Rayo then sprung remarkably to life as Atletico dozed, and offered a taste of what was to come this season as Andrija Delibasic and Leo Baptistao shared three goals in seven minutes to set up a most unexpectedly exciting injury time.
Last season was an away win, made memorable for Rayo coach José Ramón Sandoval’s attempts to stop Diego taking a quick throw by jumping in front of him: “It was an instant reaction, I thought I was Michael Jordan for a moment” was his excellent explanation.
Radamel Falcao scored the only goal in that game and has hit the net in each of the three games he’s played against Rayo, with Atletico the victors in each. No prizes for guessing who Rayo will be watching this weekend then!
****AROUND THE LEAGUE****
Barcelona v Getafe
(Primera vuelta: 4-1)
It’s difficult to find too much hope to extend to Getafe in this one; their form has deteriorated and their best hope might lie in the intervention of one of those shady Singaporeans Europol have been warning us about.
Celta de Vigo v Valencia
(Primera vuelta: 1-2)
Having lost their crunch relegation face-off in Osasuna and slipped into the bottom three, Celta desperately need to bounce back.
Deportivo La Coruna v Granada
(Primera vuelta: 1-1)
Was beating Real Madrid a false dawn, or has a change of coach sparked Granada into life? Facing a side which looks to be coming down off the high of Domingos’ arrival, this might be a real opportunity for Lucas Alcaraz to build some momentum.
Levante v Malaga
(Primera vuelta: 1-3)
Last season this match saw Levante maintain their memorable run at the top of the table with a convincing 3-0 win thanks to goals from Jose Barkero, Juanli and Arouna Koné, It was their seventh game unbeaten from the start of the season, their fifth win in a row, and helped to establish a momentum which has carried on through this season.
Admittedly they were helped by the dismissal of Willy Caballero within the first half hour, and a calamitous error by his replacement Ruben which gifted Levante one of the goals, but then that’s been the Levante template, hasn’t it? You don’t have to win pretty: just win.
Real Mallorca v Osasuna
(Primera vuelta: 1-1)
One win in seventeen and six points from fifty-one are the damning statistics which sum up Joaquin Caparros’ final matches in Mallorca. One can understand the reluctance to dispense with a coach with a positive reputation, but might the islanders regret not taking action sooner? Their league position is dire and Osasuna will offer stiff opposition as Gregorio Manzano looks to turn things round.
Real Betis v Real Valladolid
(Primera vuelta: 1-0)
Another awkward home game for the side which has managed to defy gravity despite not quite making themselves at home on their own patch.
Real Zaragoza v Real Sociedad
(Primera vuelta: 0-2)
A key game for Zaragoza as they look to put together some result which will insure them against a relegation dogfight at the end of the season.