Now that the Champions League took one step towards the final that no Spaniard wanted to watch, La Liga steps in to offer us the rare privilege of a derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid. And while they both obviously rank among the top four or five teams in Europe, this scribe can't help a certain anti-climactic feeling.
One of football's most widely accepted cliches determines that the outcome of a clasico is impossible to predict, as though the match had a nature of its own that freed it from the weight of running streaks, injuries, home-field advantage and scoring forms. That used to be the case. Then, a certain Josep Guardiola sat on Barcelona's bench, and the previously unpredictable derby became the script of a chick flick, in which the ending is known almost since the guy looks tenderly at the girl in the first scene. Can Real Madrid change that reality on Saturday? You will have to wait until match #3 to find the answer.
Shall we? Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.
1. Mallorca (13th) - Zaragoza (18th): 2.
Annoyed by the growing clásico hype in the media, Mallorca's usually well-behaved Lluis Marti stated on Wednesday that "Al clásico que le den por culo" (The clasico can go f*** itself). Poor manners aside, Mallorca have indeed focused their attention on the almost achieved salvation to keep alive their running streak of fifteen consecutive years in the top flight.
They will have to wait one more weekend, though. In order to maintain some interest in the relegation battle, the resuscitated Zaragoza need a win in Mallorca, and these things find mysterious ways of happening in La Liga. '2' is safer than you can probably imagine.
2. Sporting de Gijon (19th) - Rayo Vallecano (14th): 1.
In a related relegation battle story, Sporting require to win their five remaining matches to stay up. With seven victories after 33 games, it does sound a tad bit challenging. Ok, ok, it's absolutely impossible.
However, if you read what Rayo's players have said this week about their Saturday encounter with the Gijoneses, you'd think they've either thrown the towel beforehand, or that they're applying Pep Guardiola's reverse-jinx tactics (not likely, they're not that shrewd). "It will be very, very difficult", said Roberto Trashorras, while Daniel Pacheco declared that "Sporting will go out to win or die on the pitch". Sounds like Rayo will take next Saturday off in Gijon, throwing a very slim lifeline for Sporting.
3. Barcelona (2nd) - Real Madrid (1st): 1.
The first leg of the Champions League semi-final brought relevant insights for this humongous derby. First, even though we knew Real Madrid were tired, we ignored the extent of it: huge. Second, the fact that certain Real Madrid players, such as Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, lose their cool in big matches has become a norm, and opposition players and coaches already know how to exploit. Third, Real Madrid don't know how play keep ball to defend a positive result, a feat we had seen in previous derbies against Barcelona.
But fourth and more important, Bayern unveiled the ultimate anti-CR7 weapon: you only need one of your players, in this case Arjen Robben, to wear an impossibly tight shirt, far tighter than Ronaldo's. When this happens, CR7 reacts like the bride of the wedding when she discovers a stunningly beautiful bridesmaid equipped with an unseemly cleavage: first shock, then denial, finally frustration. On Saturday, Pep Guardiola should order Carles Puyol to dress an S-size Barcelona shirt and Ronaldo will be history.
Speaking of the Catalans, despite their domination and wasted chances, they played below their usual high standards in London, especially in a dull second half. Barcelona indeed miss David Villa's goal-scoring prowess up front, and Eric Abidal's polyvalence at the back.
In any case, Pep Guardiola's excellent work has turned what used to be a proper rivalry into a feud, in which Barcelona win almost effortlessly. Even if they fall behind, the Barcelonistas now play these derbies as though they knew they will eventually come back, enjoying the lion's share of both possession and chances in every single match. On top of that, Jose Mourinho's siege mentality may have worked out in the past when the dressing room bought into his ideas, but it now feels as though his motivation only encourages certain team members in their reckless displays in high-profile matches, while the rest simply shrugs and gets on with their lives.
I don't need to describe in detail Barcelona's superiority in the derbies since Guardiola took over, as you all know well that data. In what is probably the easiest pick of the weekend, let me paraphrase Pep Guardiola to say that Real Madrid have no chance of winning this match.
4. Sevilla (9th) - Levante (5th): 1.
"We embarrassed ourselves in Getafe", said an outraged Jose Maria del Nido, Sevilla's President, after the Sevillistas conceded four goals in an appalling second-half performance. Just when many thought boss Michel had brought some consistency back, the squad relapsed and threw an important match away.
It won't happen again on Sunday afternoon. Visitors Levante have broken every single superstitious rule known to man, as they already believe they've achieved their objectives. Listen to Juanlu Gomez: "I am almost certain that we will play in Europe next season". If you believe that reverse-jinxes work in your favour, what Juanlu just did works even more effectively… against you.
5. Real Sociedad (15th) - Villarreal (16th): X.
This match has all the makings of a non-aggression pact. Neither team can consider themselves safe, but one more point would sound like a blessing for both. The home side already started to prepare for next season, with the discussion over manager Philippe Mountanier's future monopolising every debate. Villarreal keep disappointing their fans in new, cruel ways every weekend, but at some point all that talent should show. In any case, 'X' sounds likely.
6. Granada (17th) - Getafe (11th): 2.
If some mysterious force (probably named Spanish FA) wanted to keep the relegation battle alive a bit longer in the interest of ratings, (vid. matches #1 and #2), Getafe should have to win in Granada. Not only that, but a number of troubled teams will probably throw some incentives in the way of the cash-strapped Getafenses, now almost abandoned by the overly-hyped Sheiks that supposedly were the answer to all their financial issues just a year ago.
Who doesn't love conspiracy theories? '2' it is.
7. Racing de Santander (18th) - Athletic de Bilbao (7th): 1.
Understandably, all three Europa League semi-finalists act as though La Liga didn't exist. Starting with Athletic, their final huddle to play their second final of the season, Sporting Lisbon, became the only topic of conversation during the week, while their trip to Santander, in the middle of the two semi-final legs, vanished in the radar.
The Santanderinos only aspire to leave the Primera Division with their heads high, and a victory against the traditionally hated Bilbainos would do just that. Expect a full house in El Sardinero and a no-show from the Sporting-obsessed Athletic and their pro-expropriations coach Marcelo Bielsa.
8. Atlético de Madrid (8th) - Espanyol (10th): 1.
Atlético haven't behaved differently, especially because they were forced to remember some controversial precedents against their semi-finals contender, Valencia (vid. match #9) before defeating the Ches. The Rojiblancos' advantage lies on the fact that they play at home again, reducing their tiredness and counting on their excited supporters to avoid a potential relaxation that would almost kill their Europa League hopes for the next season.
Espanyol haven't kept any form of consistency since they started to flirt with the top-six. Hard to imagine a win in El Calderón.
9. Valencia (3rd) - Betis (12th): 2.
Epitomising the epidemic of whining in La Liga, Valencia spent the days before facing Atletico rehashing their defeat at the hand of the Rojiblancos two seasons ago. The Valencianistas argue that the blatantly erroneous non-call after Juanito grabbed Nicola Zigic's shirt and ripped it to shreds inside the box has become infamous Europa League history, which is probably true, but doesn't change the result of that match.
Couple that with an extremely likely B-side from the Ches and it's the perfect scenario for dark horse Betis, led by late bloomer Ruben Castro to formally join the group of teams aiming for a top-six finish.
10. Osasuna (6th) - Málaga (4th): X.
If we made this pick based on available players only, Malaga would win by a mile. The hosts will miss up to seven players (Kike Sola, Masoud, Ibrahima Balde, Sergio, Echaide, Marc Bertrán and Raul Garcia), while winger Joaquin and striker Julio Batista have finally recovered and will travel to Pamplona.
The visitors smell the possibility of a third place, but have to face not only Osasuna, but also Valencia, Barcelona and Atlético before closing their season in Gijon. Tough calendar, especially if, as this column expects, they draw on Monday against the depleted, but still reliable Pamplonicas.
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. Mallorca (13th) - Zaragoza (18th):
2. Sporting de Gijon (19th) - Rayo Vallecano (14th):
3. Barcelona (2nd) - Real Madrid (1st):
4. Sevilla (9th) - Levante (5th):
5. Real Sociedad (15th) - Villarreal (16th):
6. Granada (17th) - Getafe (11th):
7. Racing de Santander (18th) - Athletic de Bilbao (7th):
8. Atlético de Madrid (8th) - Espanyol (10th):
9. Valencia (3rd) - Betis (12th):
10. Osasuna (6th) - Málaga (4th):
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 132/290 (45%)