Last week was all about Espanyol Barcelona’s fierce clash with cross-city rivals FC Barcelona and this week the derby focus shifts from the religious temperament of Catalunya to the more volatile and voluptuous Basque country.
It’s a classic Spanish derby with more than a hundred years of history shaping both the teams. When Basque representative Althletic de Bilbao take on Castillan powerhouse Real Madrid at San Mames on Saturday, there will be more than just 3 points at stake. It’s the Basque nation against the Spanish capital, one of the biggest fixtures in Spanish football calendar. Two teams who have never played outside the Spanish top flight, two teams with vastly contrasting fortunes, two teams who value history and pride in equal measure.
Reigning Spanish champions Real Madrid are top of La Liga tree after 14 rounds with 32 points, 4 more than their nearest challengers FC Barcelona and Villarreal whereas Bilbao are sitting petty much comfortably in mid table with 17 points so far. But to state a tortured cliché: when there’s a derby at stake, the form book flies out of the window. Bilbao go into this match on the back of a 3-0 demolition of Valencia but know that a defeat to Real on Saturday and they could very well be looking nervously over their shoulders— the Los Leones are just 4 points clear from the dropzone. Real too bounced back from a disappointing run last weekend when they struck off Racing Santander 3-1 at the Bernabeu with exhibition stuff from Raul. But Bernd Schuster might want to rest a few key players on Saturday to keep them fresh for midweek’s clash with Lazio in the UEFA Champions League at home.
But any slip-up from Real on Saturday and 24 hours later Barcelona could wrestle the initiative. All this week the Catalan giants have been tormented by news reports about a deal been struck between Chelsea and Barca over Ronaldinho and about Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich who appears to have taken a fancy towards Barca manager Frank Rijkaard. Although such reports hardly help Barca President Joan Laporta’s cause to maintain stability at the club any easier, Lionel Messi and co would definitely not be bothered by the arrival of Deportivo la Coruna in town. Depor are struggling for goals and struggling for points—the Galician club that was once gracing the dizzy heights of the UEFA Champions League is now flirting with relegation. Depor are third from bottom with 13 points from 14 matches and Miguel Angel Lotina’s team would be hoping for a draw at best at Camp Nou.
Third placed Villarreal are level on points with Barca and too have a relegation threatened team to fight against this weekend. In their 7 away games so far this season, the Andalucians have not have had any win and sacked manager Hector Cuper immediately after last week’s 2-0 home defeat to Atletico Madrid. Villarreal too suffered a 2-0 home defeat to Valladolid last weekend but Manuel Pellegrini’s men have enough firepower to over come Betis this time around. Altletico Madid who are fourth in the table, 5 points off the pace, play mid table Getafe.
The darker end of the tunnel witnesses a relegation 6-pointer on Sunday when promoted sides Almeria and Valladolid tussle at the Estadio del Mediterráneo, with only goal difference separating them. A draw wouldn’t help either’s cause to survive in La Liga for another season and both teams come off the back of fantastic victories over top draw teams, Almeria humiliating Sevilla FC 1-0 while Valladolid upsetting Villarreal 2-0.
Speaking of Sevilla, Manolo Jiminez has a heck lot of work to do to escalate his team’s tempo. The two times running UEFA Cup winners are only 12th in the league table and more agonizingly just 3 points ahead o safety. This weekend they confront promoted Real Murcia who have just 1 point fewer than them.
Like Sevilla, Valencia too are underperforming although they have not stooped as low as Sevilla have (point-wise). Out of the Champions League, the Los Che could be fading out of the running for the championship should Ronald Koeman fail to stop the rot. Koeman has been unable to do anything to this exceptional Valencia side except make it worse in terms of result and last week had to survive the humiliation of the mass hanky wave the the Mestalla when they lost to modest Bilbao. With 24 points and no wins in their last two league matches, Koeman’s side are already 8 points behind leaders Real Madrid and have to win away to Osasuna to stay in contention for the Spanish title.
Elsewhere in La Liga this weekend, rock-bottom Levante host increasingly vulnerable looking Recreativo de Huelva, high-flying Racing Santander would be looking to inch closer towards a UEFA Cup spot by defeating Real Mallorca who are 1 place and 3 points below them and Real Zaragoza entertain fifth place Espanyol at La Romarede.