This preview covers Sunday’s games in La Liga. For a preview of Saturday’s two matches, click here.
Real Madrid vs. Deportivo
TV: Pay-per view in Spain, not available in England
A match which ought really to have been played yesterday (pro-Madrid bias after the application to switch the kick-off was submitted as late as Thursday!) pits Real Madrid’s unbeaten home record against a fourth-from-bottom Deportivo side who seem to play in a less inhibited manner when away from home (indeed, some Depor players have complained about the support at home, and 5 of the measly 8 points the club have won this season have come away from home).
Real Madrid’s level has again plummeted in recent weeks, after experiencing a mini-revival against Recre; the performance against Olympiakos was exceptionally abject and the club was again reliant on Casillas plus a few moments of individual quality (this time, Robinho was the “hero” with two goals and two assists, earlier in the season it had been Sneijder) to win the match. Real Madrid have a few injury problems, with Cannavaro and Diarra joining long-term casualties Pepe, Heinze and Robben on the sidelines. Sergio Ramos is expected to move into central defence to partner Metzelder, whilst a hugely disappointing Michel Salgado will resume service at right-back. With Sneijder’s mini-dip in form, there exists the possibility of a start for HiguaÃn in place of the Dutchman. For Deportivo, the only missing players are former great Juan Carlos Valerón and striker Alberto Lopo. Watch out for Football Manager star Andrés Guardado, who has adapted seamlessly to the Spanish league.
Real Madrid: Iker Casillas; MÃchel Salgado, Sergio Ramos, Metzelder, Marcelo; Gago; HiguaÃn, Guti, Robinho; Van Nistelrooy, Raúl.
Deportivo de La Coruña: Aouate; Manuel Pablo, Piscu, Coloccini, Filipe; Juan RodrÃguez, Sergio, De Guzmán, Guardado; Verdú, Xisco.
Form: Real Madrid have won three games out of the last five, and have a 100% home record this season, although the club have conceded at the Bernabeu in all but two of those games. Deportivo have won just one game out of five, the away win at beleaguered Sevilla two weeks ago, and have scored just six goals all season. The last five meetings between the two sides have offered up home wins, but Deportivo have been far more successful at the Bernabeu than Real Madrid at the Riazor; Depor having won in Madrid in 2004 and 2002.
Prediction: in what could well be a shaky performance, an early goal would go a long way to settling Real Madrid’s nerves, in what is a must-win game before the trip to fellow title-chasers Valencia. Ultimately, I expect Real to be victorious, but it won’t necessarily be pretty. 2-1.
Levante vs. Atlético Madrid
This fixture in-form and high-scoring Atlético Madrid travel to Valencia to face last-placed and winless Levante, who sacked manager Abel Resino two weeks ago. Atlético’s main worries will be with defensive inconsistency — a clean sheet against exciting Zaragoza is sandwiched between three-goal hauls for Barcelona and Lokomotiv Moscow, and the defending in Russia was fairly atrocious. These worries will be compounded by the absence of Mariano PernÃa, who will be replaced by Antonio López at left back, although the latter is arguably a better defender (though clearly less of an attacking threat) than the former. On the other hand, with 24 goals in their last 8 games, a fearsome strike duo in Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlán and the form of such players as Maxi RodrÃguez (a great loss for the club when injured for the entirety of last season), the Madrid giants will expect to score more than one goal at leaky Levante.
For Atlético the only real debatable points come on the Atlético wings, where Maxi and Luis GarcÃa seem to be preferred to Simao and Reyes, both of whom will most probably make the bench. For Levante, José Serrano will replace the suspended Bruno Cirillo at centre back, whilst the midfield is difficult to pick considering the fact that it is only new manager De Biasi’s second game in charge.
Levante: Storari, Descarga, Ãlvaro, Serrano, Rubiales, Juanma, Miguel Ãngel, Tommasi, Savio, Riga, Riganó.
Atlético de Madrid: Leo Franco; Perea, Pablo, Ze Castro, Antonio López; Maxi, Raúl GarcÃa, Maniche, Luis GarcÃa; Agüero, Forlán.
Form: Atlético recovered well from the hammering at Barcelona by dishing out a hammering of their own to Zaragoza, before the aforementioned trip to Moscow. Levante have lost their last five, and the last four by at least a two goal margin. Atlético have won the last three league meetings between the two clubs, scoring 8 goals in their most recent two visits to the Ciudad de Valencia stadium.
Prediction: whilst I do believe things will start getting better for Levante at some time (whether or not they will avoid relegation is another issue indeed), this match does not augur well for the home side. Unless something goes drastically wrong, Atlético will run out easy winners; 2-0 or 3-1.
Sevilla vs. Valencia
TV: not available in Spain, Sky Sports Extra (8pm, UK time)
In one of the most exciting and traditional ties of the season, Sevilla minus Juande Ramos host a Valencia side still reeling from a poor 2-0 defeat to Rosenborg in the midweek Champions’ League fixtures, two defensive errors costing the club dear, a result which contrasts with Sevilla’s laboured but not difficult home victory over Steaua Bucharest of Romania. Whilst some might argue that Sevilla will undoubtedly miss Ramos (I will write an article in the next few days, about Ramos and the unsung role of the Sevilla backroom staff), Ramos’ departure could finally put a seal on the season of instability suffered by the UEFA Cup champions, affording them closure and allowing them to move on. Valencia, on the other hand, and manager Quique Sánchez Flores, continue to react defiantly to rumours of uncertainty (should Quique really be safe in his job? LINK), and the club will be relishing a league visit to Sevilla, having won their last four away games with few problems. New Sevilla manager Manolo Jiménez will likely stick with a tried-and-tested formula, although he has called up full-back José Ãngel Crespo, who excelled in this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, and Freddy Kanoute has a good chance of returning to the first eleven after the injury sustained on international duty. Valencia’s line-up is difficult to predict, as ever, and Sánchez Flores may ring the changes following Wednesday’s disappointing showing. Harry-Kewell’s Valencian friend, Vicente, may be fit to make the squad for the first time this season, and could add an extra dimension to the 3rd-placed team’s level. David Villa remains sidelined with injury.
Sevilla: Palop; Daniel Alves, Boulahrouz, Dragutinovic, Adriano; Jesús Navas, Keita, Renato, Capel; Kanouté y Luis Fabiano.
Valencia: Cañizares, Miguel, Albiol, Helguera, Marchena, JoaquÃn, Baraja, Albelda, Gavilán, Silva y Morientes.
Sevilla have won two games in a row for the first time since the very beginning of the season (one in the Champions League and one in La Liga), but had previously strung together four straight league losses. Valencia have notched up four consecutive away victories in the league (the best record in the league), form which they have not quite translated into Champions League points. The head-to-head over the last two years is in the favour of Sevilla (three wins, one loss at the Mestalla), but before October 2004, Sevilla lost eleven out of twelve to Valencia, drawing one.
This game is tremendously difficult to call, for which reason I am plumping for a score draw, providing Sevilla are not overwhelmed by Juande Ramos’ departure: 2-2.
FC Barcelona vs. AlmerÃa
TV: Not available in Spain, Sky Sports Extra (7pm)
Despite the disappointment of failing to win at Ibrox, the performance was nowhere near as poor as the showing away to Villareal. In any case, Barcelona are, along with Real Madrid, the only side with a 100% home record this season (Espanyol and Real Zaragoza make up the quarter of teams undefeated at home), and, in spite of the rumours of discontent, which refuse to go away (this time Thierry Henry’s efforts are being questioned), along with the continued criticism of Ronaldinho), this game should not prove too much of a challenge. AlmerÃa have had an excellent start to the season, find themselves in 9th position, and are being commended for their ability to keep possession. It will be interesting to see which players are selected up front, with Bojan and Giovanni both chomping at the proverbial fit (for my money, Bojan should be preferred, especially considering his goalscoring performance last week), although I expect Ronaldinho to retain his place. Barcelona are also one of just two teams with a positive double-figure goal difference, at +10, and with the return of Márquez, Zambrotta and, especially, Yaya Toure, will expect to get right back into the groove in this game.
Barcelona: Valdes, Zambrotta, Abidal, Milito, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Gudjohnsen, Messi, Ronaldinho (I vote for Bojan), Henry.
AlmerÃa: Cobeño; Bruno, GarcÃa, Pulido, Mané; Felipe Melo, Juanito, Corona, Natalio, Negredo, Crusat
Barcelona have the joint-best home record in the league; AlmerÃa have won two out of four away from home, against Deportivo and Murcia, their only loss coming in that unfortunate match against Real Madrid, when many commentators felt they deserved more. The two clubs have little history to choose from in top-flight football.
Barcelona should win this match at a canter and the Nou Camp shall remain impregnable. 3-0.
Zaragoza vs. Villareal
Troubled Zaragoza are suffering the after-effects of their elimination from the UEFA Cup, a waning quality of football, and a disunited dressing room, with the D’Alessandro incident clearly symptomatic of something which isn’t quite working for the club. Pablo Aimar has been a shadow of his former self, and is likely to be replaced by Oscar González, who has given a good account of himself in his limited opportunities so far this season, whilst in-form Sergio GarcÃa may well also start. Villareal again have the chance to move top of the league, providing Real Madrid falter, and whilst the performance at home to Fiorentina was not exemplary, the tie was by no means an easy one, and many top players were rested. For Zaragoza, Sergio Fernández (to be replaced by Real Madrid reject Paco Pavón), Matuzalem and Celades are the most conspicuous absentees, with the Brazilian especially likely to be missed by his club who, despite their struggles, find themselves just three points shy of the European places. Villareal should recall most of the players rested against Fiorentina and have Josico available again, whilst injured Guillermo Franco, star of the win over Barcelona, will be replaced by the brilliant Giuseppe Rossi, who was suspended for the Barça match. Tomasson and Cani may miss out.
Zaragoza: César; Diogo, Pavón, Ayala, Paredes; Sergio GarcÃa, Zapater, Luccin, Oscar; Diego Milito, Oliveira.
Villarreal: Viera, Javi Venta, Fuentes, Cygan, Capdevila, Marcos Senna, Josico, Cazorla, Pires, Nihat, Rossi.
Villareal have been devastating all season, and have the second best away record in the league (3 wins and 1 loss, away to Osasuna three weeks ago). Zaragoza are undefeated at home, despite the poor performances, and have only lost once at home to Villareal in the last eight years, a result which came two years ago.
Another difficult match to call. However, with the influx of players coming back into the Villareal team and the internal unrest being suffered by Zaragoza, I can see only one winner: Villareal to take it, 1-2.