West Bromwich Albion
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Real Betis
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Week 22 - Far away, so close

Last season, most La Liga followers spent the final third of the tournament focusing in the long list of candidates for relegation. At one specific point, up to eleven teams could end up in the Segunda División, which set up an exciting end of the season. Things have changed slightly this year, with an interesting twist. After 23 matches, only seven points separate the 4th and 17th spots, which means that a decent run from a current theoretical relegation candidate could end up in a serious challenge for European football next season. This leads us to two conclusions: a) Villarreal supporters, please wait some more matches before throwing the towel and b) When team #17th beat team #5 (scroll down to match #5) on Sunday, we can't call it an upset anymore nor complain about it. Just get on with it and try to forget our seasons' total one more week. Shall we? Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win. 1. Racing de Santander (18th) - Sporting de Gijón (19th): X. The weekend kicks off with the first competitive 2nd half of the season match between Racing and Sporting in years. During the past few seasons, both brother teams met each other in the final weeks of the calendar, one of them fighting the relegation battle while the other enjoyed a more relaxed position. More or less craftily, both ended up helping each other with a timely loss or draw. This time it's different. The clubs currently sit in relegation spots and desperately need these three points. At least 2.000 Sporting fans will make the short trip to Santander, but I doubt they'll witness a victorious afternoon for their team. Karma has a funny way of getting back at you, and this match sounds like a trademark example. The contest will end up in a draw, and both teams will drown in the relegation waters, ironically embraced in a fatal hug after seasons of helping each other out at someone else's expense. 2. Betis (12th) - Getafe (14th): 1. Even though no club just six points clear from relegation should feel safe at this point, Betis now behave as though their only aim is to finish ahead of neighbours Sevilla. While their offensive game is one of the highlights of the season, led by the hugely improved Ruben Castro, there are still too many matches for the Beticos to get overly excited about beating their hated rivals to the punch, or to the manzanilla in this case. However, they have a grand chance of adding three more points to their tally on Saturday. As Getafe's boss succinctly put it, 'being a Getafe defender is a high-risk profession'. Only three out of eight will be healthy enough to play this weekend, a factor that clearly points at a Betis win. 3. Málaga (9th) - Zaragoza (20th): 1. When you outspend most of the Primera Division in the summer, you probably expect at least a top-six finish. Malaga, the fourth worst away team, keep disappointing supporters and gamblers alike when they travel, which is costing them dear in the standings and us in our bets. In any case, they sit only two points away from a Champions League in this compact tournament. And when Zaragoza and their hopeless boss Manuel Jimenez (who last week said: 'Things look complicated, even maybe beyond solution') are due to pay you a visit, you can safely count on three more points to cover up a quite unsatisfactory performance so far. 4. Espanyol (4th) - Levante (7th): 1. Even though Espanyol did let down 99.9% of gamblers when they lost to Zaragoza a fortnight ago, there's not much room for a déjà vu here. Since mid-December, Levante have been able to find new ways of losing every weekend, including a back-four once proud and now disjointed after conceding 15 goals in their last five games. Their latest defeat at home to Rayo (5-3 score, no less) saw them say goodbye to 18 consecutive weeks in European competition spots, while their staggering signing strategy has started to backfire. Night lovin' Pedro Botelho, who had already been fired from Rayo Vallecano due to his partying escapades, went back to his old ways during Levante's visit to Madrid two weeks ago. Tough times for the other Azulgrana side in La Liga. 5. Villarreal (17th) - Athletic de Bilbao (5th): 1. The visitors just classified for the last-16 round of the Europa League, where they'll meet Manchester United in what could become an instant classic. But this European competition has previously taken its toll on Athletic's performance in La Liga, especially when they travel away from San Mames. Although Villarreal relapsed from their resurgence with a pitiful 4-0 defeat in Mallorca last weekend, let's trust not only Athletic's likely exhaustion, but also Baruch Spinoza and the possibility of the Amarillos re-creating some of those deadly associations in the short term. 6. Rayo Vallecano (8th) - Real Madrid (1st): 2. If you thought that handshake-gates were restricted to a certain island north of Calais, you were wrong. Just listen to Racing's Domingo Cisma: "Cristiano Ronaldo didn't shake my hand after we played Real Madrid in September". "His attitude is arrogant, and he's a sore loser", he added just in case some journo needed more bait. But while we anxiously wait on the first round table on how to refuse a handshake, featuring Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and other grudge-holding football stars, let's focus on Vallecas. Packed stadium, tiny pitch, Diego Costa on fire – four goals in three consecutive Rayo wins, Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema out for the match... It sounds like a convincing case for Rayo, doesn't it? Not really. The Vallecanos perform well away from Vallecas, but terribly there (2nd worst home side). No chance against this title-smelling Real Madrid. 7. Valencia (3rd) - Sevilla (11th): X. The match that was supposed to represent the tough competition for the third La Liga spot has simply become a 90-minute window for Sevilla to prove they're much better than what they've shown so far this season. The Sevillistas can take advantage of Valencia's likely tiredness after their win over the sophisticated version of Stoke City (i.e. the one that passes the ball on the grass). But a win in Valencia sounds too much of a stretch for Sevilla's boss Michel recently-born project. 'X' is a good compromise for both sides. 8. Osasuna (10th) - Granada (15th): 1. Both teams, performing slightly over expectations, would feel immensely happy if the tournament ended right now: no relegation, a handful of great home matches for their supporters to remember, and the feeling that they have something to build on for next season. However, fifteen more matches could spoil both parties. Osasuna's Jose Luis Mendilibar knows how to get the most out of his men at the Reyno de Navarra (fifth best team so far), while Granada will probably take a day off after their impressive win over Real Sociedad. 9. Real Sociedad (16th) - Mallorca (13th): 1. Speaking of which, some of my most loyal readers questioned my mental sanity when I tagged Real Sociedad as this season's most unpredictable team two weeks ago. Please listen to the following sequence by the Realistas: surprising 1-0 win over Valencia in Mestalla, brutal 4-0 home defeat to Atletico, convincing 5-1 victory against Sporting, hard-fought 2-1 loss at the Camp Nou, solid 2-0 win over Sevilla and horrific 4-1 beating in Granada. For the record, Granada hadn't scored more than twice in a match all season. I rest my case. You can still question my mental sanity, but please find another reason. Anything can happen with the current Real Sociedad on the pitch. Even a 1-0 peaceful triumph over Mallorca and their finally found striker, Victor Casadesus. 10. Atletico de Madrid (6th) - Barcelona (2nd): 2. The most shocking news in 2012: the full Barcelona squad will be available for Sunday's match. You read that correctly, no one is injured. Not even a mild headache. Which begs the question, was this Pep Guardiola's master plan all along? Did he know that after 152 injuries he'd arrive to the final third of the season with all his soldiers in perfect condition, while Di Marias and Benzemas start to have physical issues? Is he that good? We shall never know, I guess. What I do know is that Diego Simeone's Atletico will bore us all to death, even more when Diego Ribas just got injured. Having in mind their lack of firing power, and against most precedents in previous seasons, this smells like an easy visit to the Calderon for the Catalans. PS. You can follow me on twitter (@EdAlvarezSpain). 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. Racing de Santander (18th) - Sporting de Gijón (19th): X.
2. Betis (12th) - Getafe (14th): 1.
3. Málaga (9th) - Zaragoza (20th): 1.
4. Espanyol (4th) - Levante (7th): 1.
5. Villarreal (17th) - Athletic de Bilbao (5th): 1.
6. Rayo Vallecano (8th) - Real Madrid (1st): 2.
7. Valencia (3rd) - Sevilla (11th): X.
8. Osasuna (10th) - Granada (15th): 1.
9. Real Sociedad (16th) - Mallorca (13th): 1.
10. Atletico de Madrid (6th) - Barcelona (2nd): 2.
Last week: 3/10 (30%)
Season: 99/210 (47%)


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