Deportivo La Coruna v Celta Vigo
(Primera vuelta: 1-1)
Remember those carefree days of round 9 When the Galician derby returned to the top flight? Both sides were full of the joys of spring, and talk revolved around the skill of Valeron, the potential of Aspas. Now, things are rather more grim in the north-west. This match has nothing of the poetry of football: it’s all about a battle for survival.
The likelihood is that the chances of clinging onto their top flight lives have passed for both clubs, but this match represents a slim glimmer of hope. A winner might just be able to got some momentum going and, having probably closed the gap with a win, have a tilt at making a run for safety. But as I said, it’s a slim hope.
So this match will no doubt be full of drama, but it’ll be a war rather than a spectacle. Both sides clearly have the attacking potential to make inroads in the other’s defence.
There seems more hope for Celta, of course. They could take advantage of playing on Friday night by winning and in the process leapfrogging Mallorca and drawing level with the first safe team, Zaragoza. It might only be a temporary clamber up the table, but psychological blows like that can make a difference, and anyway, the form of the sides at the bottom of the table means they wouldn’t necessarily find themselves back where they started come Sunday night anyway.
What stands between Celta and that dream scenario is their absolutely hideous away form, of course. It’s been an issue which has dogged them all season: the four points they’ve picked up on the road (from an available forty-two!) represent a pitiable effort, and they’ve scored the least away goals in the division to boot. In fact, if they fail to hit the net on Friday they’ll have an unenviable record of scoring one goal on average every two away games!
As for Depor, being nine points adrift of safety means that time is virtually up. It defies logic to suggest that a side with such a miserable record is suddenly going to make up so much ground in the final third of the season, but the cliché tells us that form goes out of the window in local derbies, so if they are going to pull off a remarkable escape act, this seems the logical point to start. They’ll have to do something about the fact that their home form is the worst in the division in the process: with the worst home side in La Liga facing the worst away side, something’s got to give!
Granada v Levante
(Primera vuelta: 1-3)
Granada might understand Michael Corleone’s sentiments: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” Those back-to-back wins over Real Madrid and Deportivo made it three out of four for them, and they followed that little run up with a brave 2-1 defeat to Barcelona, whom they led for 24 minutes.
They began to pull away from danger, and seemed to have set themselves up perfectly for a run of three games against sides in and around the drop zone. However, one point out of nine from those key matches has allowed their rivals to steal a march on them and now they find themselves back at square one on the fringe of the relegation spots.
The frustrating nature of those results only adds to the sense that an opportunity to pull away from the bottom has slipped through their fingers. Last round’s goalless draw at Real Zaragoza might not be too bad an outcome when taken in isolation, but gallingly they lost to late goals against both Real Mallorca and Celta Vigo, Tomer Hemed’s winner coming in the last minute after Granada held the lead over the islanders in the first half.
Levante, meanwhile, seem to be neither one thing nor the other at the moment. Their loss of form ought to be alarming, but the tight nature of the middle of the table, stretching from fourth place down to around fourteenth, means that they still haven’t lost touch with the European places. They need to hit some form soon to earn themselves a repeat invitation to the Europa League party though: their last league win was back in January, seven games ago!
Levante won the reverse fixture comfortably, with Obafemi Martins hitting the first two goals to announce himself as another crafty purchase by the club. Three goals in his last seven starts suggest he’s getting back to something like his best form in time to help propel his side back up the table.
Having confidently predicted Granada’s demise due to a lack of goals in a rash moment during the winter break, I’ve had to eat my hat as the goals haven’t dried up: not that they’ve been prolific, but twelve goals from the ten games after the break represents an improvement on the seven they mustered in the same number of matches before Christmas.
A lot of that is down to Odion Ighalo. He’s got four of those goals, spread over the last eight games, and has stepped up to the mark more effectively than one might have expected. Before the break he hadn’t hit the net all season and had looked unconvincing when thrown on as a substitute, often when the side was desperate and gambling by squeezing as many attacking players onto the pitch as possible.
However, being forced to give Ighalo a more prominent role due to Youssef El-Arabi’s absence at the African Cup of Nations might turn out to be the making of him. In fact, he seems to have established himself as a potentially more reliable option up front that the man he covered for: EL-Arabi caught the eye in October when he scored in four consecutive games. The trouble is, those four goals remain his total for the season.
Valencia v Real Betis
(Primera vuelta: 0-1)
7th versus 6th offers up an intriguing match-up. Valencia have been threatening for a while to bust into the European spots without quite managing it, while Real’s unexpected presence at the top of the table has been slowly eroding, but not to the point where they’ve slipped out of contention.
However, the stakes are high here, especially when you consider that Valencia are just two points off a Champions League spot and one would assume that Malaga won’t be granted a European reprieve, meaning in essence there’s one more spot available to the likes of these two.
There’s a renewed air of optimism around Betis. Their last three matches have seen a couple of wins, including a 3-0 thumping of Malaga, and a thrilling 3-3 draw away to Real Sociedad. Furthermore, the attacking cupboard suddenly looks pretty well stocked, with the admirable Ruben Castro fit again, Jorge Molina finding some form and Dorlan Pabon looking to have made good progress on the settling-in process as he starts to fulfil the potential he showed in the last edition of the Copa Sudamericana.
Valencia, meanwhile, are going through a little bit of a stutter. Apart from their elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Paris St. Germain, they’ve dropped seven of the last nine points in the league and need a little bit of a pick-me-up.
Jonas v José Cañas
All of a sudden, the Brazilian has hit form. With so many key players leaving over the last few years, perhaps too much onus has been placed on the likes of Jonas to carry a greater burden, and it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest he’s going to influence matters as Juan Mata or David Villa might. However, four goals in his last four games suggest he’s hit a nice little spell of form, and Valencia will hope he can carry it over into such a big match.
His ability to drift around in deep positions finding space will probably bring him up against Cañas. He’s impressed this season, prowling the midfield with energy but showing more economy when in possession than many in his role –or with his crazy hair – might be expected to.
It will surely be in his more defensive role that Cañas will be most sorely tested in this match, and Jonas’ bursts into the box will need to be tracked. However, whether Cañas can keep his eye on the Brazilian while also playing his role in helping Betis’ midfield to drive forward might be the decisive factor in the match.
Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano
(Primera vuelta: 5-0)
This could be interesting. Barcelona’s recent wobble might give Rayo hope, and they’ve specialised in showing more fight than they ought to in unexpected situations. Throw in another chance for Leo Baptistao to show he can cut it in elevated company, and you never know. But then, did you see what Barsa did on Tuesday night?
Getafe v Athletic Bilbao
(Primera vuelta: 2-1)
Getafe are pootling along, offending nobody and looking forward to another season in the top division, while Athletic are driven by a sense that this season has been an awful anti-climax, albeit a predictable one.
Malaga v Espanyol
(Primera vuelta: 0-0)
Fresh from European glory, Malaga might to well to keep their eye on the ball in this one, especially if the squad is rotated with half an eye keeping the squad fresh for future tests. Espanyol have become the sort of team that can exploit such fortuitous circumstances.
Osasuna v Atletico Madrid
(Primera vuelta: 1-3)
A match between two sides who are probably best at counter-punching: if this was a boxing match you might have trouble selling tickets, and the referee would probably have to tell them both to come forwards at some stage and stop looking to draw their opponent onto them. Not that the actual referee will have to ask for fight from either side, but this isn’t a good tactical match for the neutral looking for an aesthetic treat.
Real Madrid v Mallorca
(Primera vuelta: 5-0)
Jose Mourinho would have to really lose interest in the league to let this one turn into anything interesting! Mallorca might be fighting for their lives, but if they’ve to somehow claw their way to salvation they’ll need to capitalise on other matches than this.
Real Sociedad v Valladolid
(Primera vuelta: 2-2)
The visitors should be pleased with their return to the top flight, and will offer sturdy opposition to Phillipe Montanier’s team, but there’s a spark about the Basques which makes them favourites.
Sevilla v Real Zaragoza
(Primera vuelta: 1-2)
A difficult away match for a side which has hardly set the world alight on the road. If Messi-dependencia isn’t a good idea, Postiga-dependencia seems a terribly fragile way to set up a team, and Sevilla have the rugged defenders necessary to control him.