Prohibitive favourites Real Madrid can't overlook relegation-bound Malaga
Veterans of the weekly campaign to ace the Spanish football pools, La Quiniela, fight the small battles first. Betting against the bigger sides leads to larger returns. Will Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico drop points is the key line of inquiry.
There will be few punters outside Malaga playing that game of brinkmanship this weekend. The home side are not being given much hope to pull off what would constitute the shock of the season so far in La Rosaleda and hardly surprisingly: Malaga have been in a shocking state since day one.
While Zinedine Zidane is contemplating the prospect of becoming the first manager in history to win the Champions League three times in a row, Jose Gonzalez is staring down the barrel of Segunda next season. Whether or not he remains at the helm to oversee it is another matter but when Abdullah Al Thani dispensed with Michel in January, the list of coaches willing to take on the job was not extensive.
Malaga's problems began before the season did, the abrasive personalities of Al Thani and Michel already on collision course. Gonzalez inherited a rudderless ship, much as he did when hired by Granada in the second half of 2015-16. Then, he inspired his side to a dramatic final-day reprieve. Now, he needs to win five of seven games remaining to even stand a chance.
Michel, a key member of Real Madrid's legendary Quinta del Buitre, was never going to last the season. That he made it to January was a surprise; Malaga's league position when he left wasn't. From week three of 2017-18, they have been in the relegation zone. It would require the combined talents of the managers of the current top four to give the Anchovies even the slightest chance of survival at this stage.
Malaga set about building the walls of their own prison last summer, a fatally flawed transfer policy leaving the club's fans to watch a relegation sentence played out under searchlights they helped to fund. Where they looked for hope, their players found the shadows and stayed there.
The only question remaining is when the numbers confirm the inevitable. The "if" packed up months ago as Malaga embarked on a winless run of 14 games to rubber-stamp one of the worst campaigns in Spanish top-flight history. That a completely unexpected 1-0 victory against Villarreal snapped that spiral on April Fools' Day was no coincidence: the inability to secure a point from only the sixth time Malaga had scored twice or more all season against direct rivals Depor a week later added the jester's hat.
Zidane will not have forgotten that his side are one of the other five on that unflattering list after a fortunate 3-2 win last November, but the chip on Michel's shoulder was chiselled by Michelangelo for that performance.
A glance at the benches from last weekend highlights the gulf between the European champions and the club propping up the table. Chasing a point, Gonzalez was able to call on Samu Garcia, Borja Baston and Adrian Gonzalez -- no relation of the current manager but his predecessor's son. Zidane, with a Champions League quarterfinal looming, was able to call on Luka Modric, Isco and Karim Benzema against Atletico.
Add in the extensive injury list Gonzalez faces and Zidane could chuck Guti's under-19s on in La Rosaleda and still reasonably expect not to be beaten.
Even the inclusion of Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente, Borja Mayoral, Theo Hernandez and Achraf Hakimi would leave the Real boss with five outfield numbers to make up and a raft of Champions League winners to fill them.
The fixture list has also smiled on the Frenchman. After Malaga he faces a pale shadow of last season's Athletic at home and then has a weekend off before the opening leg of the tie against Bayern Munich, courtesy of Sevilla's participation in the Copa del Rey final.
Luka Modric will be handed a rest after picking up a knock against Juve but Zidane has little cause to hold back the rest of his big guns in La Rosaleda. Cristiano Ronaldo will be particularly keen to stretch his legs against a side who have managed only five clean sheets all season as he attempts to overhaul Leo Messi's six-goal advantage in the Pichichi stakes, even if his manager prescribes a day off.
Complacency has provided Zidane's detractors with a stick this season and the Frenchman beat himself with it against Juve, making a double change at halftime to counter the opposition's width and use of Mario Mandzukic as a penalty area bully picking Dani Carvajal up by his ankles. Even then, Madrid scraped through.
Malaga are a different prospect, and not in a complimentary way. Al Thani's decision to shake, rattle and roll in January was the right one but the dice have not fallen kindly for Gonzalez.
The Anchovies have won one of their past 24 Liga meetings with Madrid and average 0.8 goals a game during that time. It will take a little more than that to upset the odds on Sunday.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.