Atlético Madrid v Real Madrid
(Primera vuelta: 0-2)
Real will have an eye on Dortmund as they prepare for this, but whether Jose Mourinho’s days in Madrid are numbered or not, he’ll know he needs to take this game seriously. A man acutely aware of his own legacy, he won’t want to have on his CV that he was the man who was in charge when Real’s remarkable domination of Atlético finally ended. He won’t want to have finishing below their city rivals in the league either.
Last season this match took place almost exactly a year ago. It was a clash which encapsulated the recent pattern established when these sides have met.
Atlético had hope for a while. They actually dreamed of shedding the burden of their inferiority complex and sticking it to Real. And then Ronaldo happened.
When Radamel Falcao equalised a brilliant Ronaldo free kick not only did the home side think they might be in with a chance of grabbing a memorable result, but they also hoped they might strike a blow to Jose Mourinho’s hopes of snatching the title from Barcelona. Schadenfreude was in the air and the momentum was with it.
Ronaldo soon put a stop to that. He put Real back in front with a shot from the edge of the box, completed his hat trick from the penalty spot and then teed up Jose Maria Callejon for the fourth. In the process he became the first player to score twenty away goals in a La Liga season.
Atlético’s hope died right there, and it hasn’t shown much sign or re-emerging in this fixture since. The fact remains that they haven’t beaten Real this century. They travelled to the Bernabeu earlier this season with genuine hope that they might get their first win since 1999 against their great rivals in the grand manner: by opening up a gap in the table through a victory on Real’s own patch.
Instead, they capitulated rather weakly and Diego Simeone’s impressively organised side looked like it had feet of clay for the first time.
As Sid Lowe has pointed out, more than fifty teams have beaten Real since Atlético last managed the feat. It’s become an issue. So how does Simeone address it?
Obviously, Mourinho’s selection offers him hope, although no doubt he won’t want to beat anything but the best Real are able to put before him. His own selection will be crucial too, though. His side’s success has landed him with a rather awkward conundrum.
Radamel Falcao is a force of nature up front, of course, and Diego Costa has also enjoyed a good season, embellishing the progress he made last season at Rayo. Two fine strikers: the problem is, they’re not necessarily a good combination.
Costa spent a fair part of the opening part of the season making an impact off the bench, or in rotation. Falcao’s injury meant he became the main focal point up front, and since the Colombian’s return Simeone has been trying to fit them both into the same team. It just doesn’t quite seem to work.
The shape has evolved from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, and it looks a little cumbersome. The supply and width offered to Falcao from the second line has been replaced by a strike partner with fairly similar attributes to his own, and the new approach hasn’t quite gelled. They’re still very good, but are they as effective as they were in the first half of the season?
Atlético have come a long way since then, but the inferiority comples still remains. Although Simeone has introduced a new confidence and a defensive stability, a weakness remains in the most difficult area for him to address: his player’s heads.
Ronaldo’s hat trick last season was the first a Real player had managed at the Vicente Calderon since Alfredo di Stéfano in 1953. Who would bet against him doing it again this weekend?
Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona
(Primera vuelta: 1-5)
Barsa can clinch the title with victory if Real Madrid drop points in the derbi, can hit their hundredth league goal of the season. But it would take something special to lift the gloom which lies upon them, and indeed lies upon both sides of this fixture.
Bayern’s devastation of Tito Vilanova’s side on Tuesday has traumatised them. How could it not? Barcelona’s sense of invulnerability was destroyed, their philosophy challenged. How could they not doubt themselves when the theory which underpins their whole playing ethos has been undermined. It turns out that controlling possession doesn’t mean you’re safe from danger at the back.
Bayern exploited Barcelona’s adventurous full backs and vulnerable centre backs beautifully. They had quality on the flanks, provided good service into the middle, and were both forceful and decisive in the box.
On paper a Marcelo Bielsa side should be well-equipped to exploit the same shortcomings Bayern did, especially as Barcelona will surely select a side with one eye on preparing for a tilt at a miracle in the return leg. Pacey movement of the ball, high speed exchanges down the flanks as his wide men overload, and Fernando Llorente waiting in the middle to dwarf the poor little central defenders. Oh, hang on, that was Athletic from last season, wasn’t it?
Athletic are also under a cloud. They’re probably safe, but seem incapable of actually pulling completely away from the bottom three. It appears that they’ll eventually be safe as a result of fixtures running out for the clubs beneath them rather than because they string together a series of convincing results.
Rayo Vallecano v Osasuna
(Primera vuelta: 0-1)
Osasuna are four points clear of the drop; a couple more wins would allow them to finally drag themselves over the finishing line. Perhaps they’ll be able to repeat what Rayo did to them at around this point last season.
Movilla opened the scoring in the fifth minute, and before a half hour had passed Michu had chipped in with two more. It was 4-0 by half time as Diego Costa joined the party and goals in the second half by Armenteros and Tito completed a spectacular 6-0 result.
And it could have been even more spectacular. They also hit the post twice and Osasuna keeper Andrés Fernández was the best player on the pitch.
The result was the high point of Rayo’s “Japanese strike” against the owners. To protest against the financial mire the club was in, they worked harder, increasing their value and making it more difficult for the owners to shift them on.
However, they went on to lose their next six games, saving themselves only on the last day of the season, thanks to Raul Tamudo’s injury time miracle.
Still, at the time the result appeared to have guaranteed their survival in the Primera. They stood twelve points clear of the drop with seven games remaining. What followed was a terrifying collapse, but never mind that: in a strangely similar situation to Osasuna’s they put in a fine performance. Now the tables are turned and the visitors need to do something similar.
Not that Osasuna are about to score six goals, of course. Give them a month and maybe they’d manage it. But digging in and getting one might well be enough bearing in mind their solidity at the back.
Real Betis v Deportivo La Coruna
(Primera vuelta: 3-2)
Depor’s campaign to establish themselves as this season’s Real Zaragoza takes them to Seville, and a game which might not be as unpromising as it appears on paper. Okay, Betis have enjoyed a fine season, but they’ve tended to drop points in games like these: namely winnable home games.
Real Sociedad v Valencia
(Primera vuelta: 5-2)
If Real are indeed the real thing then here’s a chance to show it. Their momentum certainly shows no sign of abating, but Valencia are one of the sides that covet the Champions League spot they currently occupy. Indeed, an away win would see the visitors leap into fourth place, which would be quite an achievement by Ernesto Valverde. They were sensational last weekend, but will lack Roberto Soldado after he picked up a daft yellow card for arguing against Malaga.
Real Zaragoza v Real Mallorca
(Primera vuelta: 1-1)
A relegation six-pointer and you can’t help having a sneaking regard for the visitors. Neither side could make any claim to be consistent, of course, but Real have looked the more likely to dig out results in recent weeks.
Espanyol v Granada
(Primera vuelta: 0-0)
Not an encouraging fixture for struggling Granada to have at this sensitive point of the season. Espanyol are finishing the season strongly, Granada are in decline. Home win, surely.
Levante v Celta de Vigo
(Primera vuelta: 1-1)
Celta are looking to pull off a miracle. Two miracles actually: survival and a decent away result. Levante might just be the side to offer them hope: they were certainly generous to their north-western neighbours two rounds ago!
Malaga v Getafe
(Primera vuelta: 0-1)
How Getafe could profit from Malaga this season! Victory would boost their chances of grabbing a Europa League slot; confirmation of Malaga’s European ban would aid their cause even more. With the home side in danger of falling into a depression to end the season after their Dortmund trauma, Getafe are in with a shout here.
For Malaga the good news from last Saturday was that Julio Baptista looked like he coming back to something like his best. The bad news was that the rest of the team were at their very worst!
Real Valladolid v Sevilla
(Primera vuelta: 2-1)
The only game of the round which essentially has nothing riding on it. Valladolid essentially packed their bags for the beach a few weeks ago, but Sevilla’s away form might offer them a chance to give their fans a pre-Summer break.