Saturday sees a particularly interesting line-up of La Liga games, with all of the top five in action; 1st-placed Real Madrid travel to 5th-placed Espanyol, 3rd-placed Villareal host 2nd-placed Barcelona, and 4th-placed Valencia away at former Champions’ League regulars Deportivo A Coruña. For team news, predictions and television coverage, see below.
Author’s note: whilst I surely cannot match Gerry McDonnell for humour (except when my predictions go horribly wrong), what I lack for in panache I make up for in statistical analysis. Yay. Fun.
Levante vs. Sevilla, 19:00 UK time
Levante are rooted to the bottom of the table with no wins from seven games: manager Abel Resino, so successful last season, was sacked after the 3-0 defeat to Zaragoza and has been replaced by Italian Giovanni de Biasi. A combination of Chelsea-style circumstances have caused Sevilla to struggle since their promising start to the season, but there can be no better opportunity for the Andalucian club to get back on track. Kanoute should be available despite having had to have stitches after crowd trouble during the African Cup of Nations’ qualifier against Togo midweek. Sevilla will expect to pick up three points here to stop the rot, and they will need to make use of players such as Kone and Kanoute before the African Cup of Nations kicks in — Sevilla are set to be the worst hit out of all of the Spanish clubs.
Prediction: Levante 0-2 Sevilla
Villareal vs. Barcelona, 19:00 UK time
live on Sky Sports Xtra
Villareal are enjoying the best start to a league season in their history, whilst Barcelona are scoring goals for fun, particularly due to the form of Messi, Henry and Iniesta. Last away outing, Barça cracked their away-form curse with a resounding 4-1 victory over Levante, whilst Villareal have not lost at home since the 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid on the opening day of the season. Guiseppe Rossi will be a big loss for the Yellow Submarines, although Nihat’s return to the side should go a small way to compensating for the Italian’s absence; Nihat has a good record against Barcelona from his time at Real Sociedad. Barcelona are still without Márquez, Zambrotta and Yaya Toure, whilst Ronaldinho picked up an injury mid-week and will not travel to Villareal. However, Milito and Puyol have now proved their fitness and will be expected to start at centre back. An interesting tidbit is that Joan Laporta, FC Barcelona’s president, has reportedly asked Yaya Toure and injury-hit striker Samuel Eto’o not to go to the African Cup of Nations in January.
Prediction: in what is a hard game to call, I’m going to go for Barcelona to continue their good form with a hard-fought but not overly difficult victory. 1-2.
Deportivo vs. Valencia, 19:00 UK time
Deportivo got a much needed win last time around, sneaking a one-nil victory at Sevilla, a match in which Freddy Kanoute was guilty of missing several key chances. Valencia’s run of five straight victories was cut short with another debacle at the Mestalla, a 2-1 loss to a Raúl Tamudo inspired Espanyol ensuing from a pretty mediocre Valencia performance. Valencia have won every single one of their away games this season, although these victories came against poor teams in AlmerÃa, Real Betis and Recreativo de Huelva. Deportivo’s squad has a relatively clean bill of health, whilst Valencia will be missing Harry-Kewell style winger Vicente, injury-prone Brazilian Edu, as well as Manuel Fernandes and David Villa. The excellent Marco Caneira and goalkeeping veteran Santiago Cañizares should both be fit, however.
Prediction: Valencia should have too much for transitional (read: not good enough) Deportivo, despite the absence of David Villa. 0-1 or 1-2.
Espanyol vs. Real Madrid, 21:00 UK time
Live on Sky Sports Xtra and La Sexta
Espanyol’s excellent 2-1 victory at the Mestalla moved the club up to fifth position, whilst club president Llibre gave an encouraging interview this week, with an optimistic bulletin on the new stadium and expressing the hope to break into the Champions League places (will Sevilla recover lost ground?). Barcelona will be hoping that Espanyol can do them a favour, especially since Los Culés have been heard blaming their Catalan rivals for having cost them the title last season. Top-of-the-table Real Madrid played some excellent football in their victory of Recreativo (for once, it was the Madrid team hitting the woodwork!), and will approach this match with confidence, as they haven’t lost to Espanyol since September 2005. However, Real will be without sicknote Arjen Robben (what is it with left wingers?) for five weeks, and will also have to cope without Gabi Heinze for three weeks, after the Argentine suffered a groin tear on international duty. This match also pits Real Madrid striker Raúl, who is currently in international exile, against his replacement – Espanyol striker Raúl Tamudo. An interesting sub-text.
Prediction: Real Madrid to come out on top, although it might not be easy. 1-2.
Readers will note that I have predicted four away wins from four fixtures — there is always a good chance of this going wrong. With the exception of Atlético Madrid — Real Zaragoza (preview tomorrow), all of this paves the way for a pretty boring set of Sunday matches.