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Jan 13, 2012

Week 16 - Agree to disagree

My colleague Phil Ball frequently refers to the always entertaining, but often irritating task of reading/listening to the Spanish sports media, a must for anyone professionally involved with Spanish football. This scribe has been doing so merrily since the early eighties, but only in the last couple of years has the experience become more of a burden than a source of enjoyment.

At this point I'm experiencing a bizarre phenomenon: I don't agree with any journalist. This strange and obviously distressing trend becomes worse when the issue at hand has something to do with a certain manager called Jose Mourinho. If he's being criticised, I find solid reasons to defend him. If his behaviour and results are being praised, I see strong basis to vehemently disagree.

The Copa del Rey will present us with another two derbies between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which means another thousand opportunities to disagree with hundreds of journalists about the Special One. I'm not sure I'll be able to cope. I need football and only football to pull me through. Let's start.

Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Zaragoza (20th) - Getafe (12th): 1.

You could be forgiven for thinking that one, if not all, of these statements are not true: a) Zaragoza appointed new CEO and members of the board on December 30, 2011. They all resigned on January 9, 2012. b) The Player Formerly Known as Jose Maria Gutierrez, 'Guti', is being considered by what remained of Zaragoza's management to reinforce (?) the Manos until the end of the season. c) Three fellow journalists agreed to describe the state of La Romareda stadium as 'disgraceful' after their last trip there. Scary descriptions of trembling stairways, disgustingly filthy toilets and deteriorated seats went on for almost fifteen minutes.

However, they are. At this point Zaragoza have no management, no reinforcements and no stadium. That being said, if the hosts can't beat the extremely soft Getafenses, I hereby declare that I won't tip them to win again during the rest of the season.

2. Granada (15th) - Rayo Vallecano (13th): X.

"The match against Rayo belongs to our Liga", Fran Rico, Granada's midfielder, realistically said. The hosts have defeated quite a few teams of higher status in the standings, such as Athletic, Sevilla and Levante, but they know well that salvations lie in the fight against the lower half of the table.

However, the fact that both sides have overachieved so far makes their lives a bit easier for the time being. Both should be happier to settle for a draw and get one point closer to salvation.

3. Sevilla (7th) - Espanyol (8th): 2.

Dear reader, you were duly warned last week: Sevilla lost their midday match in Vallecas as a result of two foolish defensive mistakes surely provoked by hunger. Then you saw them fight but fall to Valencia in their Copa del Rey tie. It was simply not good enough. The demanding Sevilla faithful have already made themselves heard: defender Emir Spahic and midfielder Ivan Rakitic suffered the wrath of a group of fans after the match, and boss Marcelino Garcia has been reading/hearing names of potential candidates for his job left, right and centre since Real Madrid scored six at the Sanchez Pizjuan.

One could say that Espanyol breathe in the opposite atmosphere. A strongly backed coach in Mauricio Pochettino, a run of results that exceed the expectations of most, and even a rising star in youngster Alvaro, scorer of a hat-trick in midweek and already nicknamed by some optimists as 'The New [Raul] Tamudo'. If Espanyol get to half-time with just a 0-0, this match is theirs.

4. Mallorca (14th) - Real Madrid (1st): 2.

Both teams made it to the next round of the Copa del Rey, but while Real Madrid's win in Malaga had a business-like feel to it, Mallorca's demolition of Real Sociedad emanated exhilaration and excess.

After Sami Khedira's ankle injury it is probable that the Madridistas, by far the best Primera Division side away from home, will rest some players for the upcoming games against Barca, but we've already seen that their B-side dismantles teams ruthlessly away from home. Couple that with the likely relaxation of the hosts, and this is a clear '2'.

5. Valencia (3rd) - Real Sociedad (16th): 1.

A '1' as clear as they come. Valencia are completing an extremely consistent first half of the season, looking solid and reliable home and away in La Liga and doing enough to get to the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey.

Real Sociedad, recently eliminated from the King's tournament after kindly conceding four goals in seven minutes against no other than striker-less Mallorca, appeared to be getting on a decent run of form after six matches undefeated in La Liga (two wins, four draws). However, those results are deceiving.

Last minute draws and goals from their own half aside, the ever-changing Realistas' starting XI looks unconvincing, as does boss Philippe Mountanier's behaviour, who mercilessly threw his team under the bus after the Copa elimination, talking about 'lack of professionalism' of their players. Not the smartest motivational move from a coach whose team sit only two points away from relegation. Valencia will have a field day on Sunday.

6. Atletico de Madrid (11th) - Villarreal (18th): 1.

The Diego Pablo Simeone Era started exactly as advertised. Constant calls for manly behaviour, tireless running and aggressiveness on the pitch - yes, thus far only on the pitch - and a huge hype around the squad. A packed Calderon will welcome El Cholo back home on Sunday, as his credit with the Rojiblanco faithful ranks up there with that of other Atletico legends.

Curiously enough, Simeone will face Jose Francisco Molina, his team-mate during the 1995-96 Double winning season and since the previous weekend Villarreal's new boss. Atletico's growing bubble should last at least until February, therefore '1' it is.

7. Osasuna (5th) - Racing de Santander (17th): 1.

Some Racing fans must be incensed after their club were outclassed by Mirandes, a Third Division side, in the Copa del Rey. Actually, it's a blessing in disguise. The visitors need to focus their scarce energy and talent to avoid relegation.

Undefeated at home in La Liga this season, Osasuna rested half of their side to face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, so they should be fresh and focused to defeat the Santanderinos. Despite Pedro Munitis' first goal in over a year, the future looks bleak in Santander.

8. Athletic de Bilbao (9th) - Levante (4th): 1.

Just when most people were wondering why Athletic played so well but created so few chances - one more example in which the meaning of 'play well' becomes obscure - the Leones scored four against Albacete, including a back heel strike from Gaizka Toquero (you have my word).

In the same Cup round, Levante hit another four to eliminate Alcorcon and face Valencia in the quarter-finals, but here's when things become tricky. This can't go on any longer: this bunch of thirty-plus lads have been overachieving for four months and counting, with no rest and growing competition from most rivals in two tournaments. After my warning last week, I officially declare inaugurated 'Levante's second half of the season collapse'. This easy Athletic win will kick off a nasty streak for the Levantinistas.

9. Sporting de Gijon (19th) - Malaga (6th): 2.

A broken-hearted Malaga - and especially their goalie Willy Caballero, whose blunder cost them dear in the Copa del Rey - visit a depressed Sporting, languishing at the wrong end of the table and missing five key players for this match.

Not the most exciting of previews, I know, but the Malaguistas have taken care of business against smaller sides and have a grown-up Isco playing better with each match. It sounds more than enough to beat Sporting. Note: the visitors are trying to get Diego Forlan to come back to Spain. Sounds like the cherry on the cake.

10. Barcelona (2nd) - Betis (10th): 1.

Yes, yes, we all saw it was a handball, but even the most one-eyed fans will have to agree that Barcelona's performances away from the Camp Nou, Cornella included, have been dismal this year. An uncharacteristic lack of interest and subpar showings from most of their stars have become a recurring theme when Barcelona travel, which should concern Pep Guardiola as a key roadblock to another La Liga title, even more when Real Madrid maintain clockwork efficiency home and away. At home, however, Barca have been devastating and have yet to concede a goal - scoring 39 in the process.

"We can afford to go to Barcelona and enjoy the trip", said Betis' boss Pepe Mel after three consecutive wins. He forgot to mention that he'll have to pay for last weekend's broken plates as well. Sounds like a trademark 'roll over and play dead' match to close the weekend.

Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. If you get 10 correct results, your name will be mentioned in the following Quiniela column!

1. Zaragoza (20th) - Getafe (12th): 1.
2. Granada (15th) - Rayo Vallecano (13th): X.
3. Sevilla (7th) - Espanyol (8th): 2.
4. Mallorca (14th) - Real Madrid (1st): 2.
5. Valencia (3rd) - Real Sociedad (16th): 1.
6. Atletico de Madrid (11th) - Villarreal (18th): 1.
7. Osasuna (5th) - Racing de Santander (17th): 1.
8. Athletic de Bilbao (9th) - Levante (4th): 1.
9. Sporting de Gijón (19th) - Málaga (6th): 2.
10. Barcelona (2nd) - Betis (10th): 1.

Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 76/150 (50%)

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