During the last couple of seasons, Spanish football had become a safe haven, an escape route from an increasingly ugly reality in the country. Clubs and national team successes kept piling up, while taking us Spaniards to a parallel world, much more entertaining and motivational than that we had to face in our everyday lives.
However, that numbing effect has started to run out, as the nation's financial and political structures deteriorate, threatening to implode at any point in the near future. For the first time since I began writing this column, it's been hard to focus on the usual flow of football news throughout the week, as other, much less encouraging matters caught my attention. But let's try to look at the bright side of destruction: maybe some detachment from football will end up helping me to improve my scores.
Shall we? Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.
1. Valencia (15th) - Zaragoza (12th): 1.
The first five La Liga matches haven't been kind to Valencia, who have played better than anyone would tell by looking at the standings. But something larger seems to be going on with the Ches: the carefully orchestrated restructuring of their debt just fell apart, and they have a concerning number of key players recovering from serious injuries (Ever Banega, Sergio Canales, Pablo Piatti, Fernando Gago…). I admit that the word 'jinx' crossed my mind.
The calendar brings Zaragoza to Mestalla, which is a decent start to turn your luck around. The Manos enjoy a mid-table position simply because of two wins over the bottom two teams this season, Espanyol and Osasuna. If Valencia can't win on Saturday, one would recommend them to look for some paranormal help to change their destiny.
2. Malaga (4th) - Betis (6th): 1.
Manuel Pellegrini has been collecting rave reviews recently, as his Malaga overcame serious challenges and put together a brilliant first month in all competitions, with an especially remarkable defensive unit. They should keep it up on Saturday, given that they host a frustrated and very likely tired Betis, who lost a thriller and two suspended players vs Atletico in midweek, while the Malacitanos enjoyed a rare week off. Easy home win.
3. Real Sociedad (14th) - Athletic de Bilbao (16th): 1.
Not the best time for either team to play a derby, but I guess all the clichés apply in this case. 'Anything can happen', 'a derby is a derby', 'it's just not another match', 'there are no favourites'… The hosts will have to trust Enaut Zubikarai, their reserve goalie, who in one of his extremely rare starts last season allowed no other than Mallorca to score four times in seven minutes in a cup tie. The visitors, still far from their best, have drawn their last three matches and desperately need to recover the joy they played with only three months ago. If Real Sociedad can manage to keep the ball away from their goal, this should be a surprisingly easy derby.
4. Sevilla (5th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.
Just like neighbours Malaga, undefeated Sevilla have started the season off the right foot, based on a more than tough defence while getting fantastic returns for their scarce goals. However, and even though coach Michel has prove he can raise to the occasion more often as a manager than he did as a player, defeating the top two in just three weeks sounds excessive.
On the Catalan end, the eight-point advantage over arch-rivals Real Madrid is being milked to exhaustion by the pro-Barcelona media, which only makes sense. Such a large lead after only five matches provides a clear psychological edge, and 'Sport' and 'Mundo Deportivo', as well as some of the more outspoken Barcelona players, are making a fantastic job of mentioning the gap whatever the topic under discussion is. Is Alexis underperforming? Maybe, but Barsa are eight points ahead of Real Madrid. Is there a problem with Barcelona's current lack of pure centre-backs? Yes, but that feels different when you're eight points ahead of the Madridistas. Do Barcelona look less fluid than in previous seasons? Sure, but who cares when Real Madrid trail by eight? Do you get the point?
5. Granada (18th) - Celta de Vigo (11th): 1.
Believe me, this one should be much more fun than you think. A) There's really bad blood between both teams, ever since the Granadinos eliminated Celta in their promotion playoff two seasons ago in the Segunda Division, after what is called a second leg 'encerrona' (trap) in their stadium. B) Celta arrive in Granada madly in love with their new marketing phenomenon, Park Chu-Young, who not only is selling tons of Celta shirts in South Korea, but also needed just two minutes on the pitch to score his first goal for Celta. C) Fabian Orellana, Granada's Chilean striker, just arrived in the beautiful city of Granada from Vigo this summer. Yes, he used to play for Celta. When asked whether or not he'd celebrate a goal assuming he scored on Sunday, he said: 'Sure. Goals must be celebrated'. My over / under for red cards in this match currently sits at 2.5, and I'm thinking it's low. Having said that, when a group of Northerners travel South in mid-September to play at noon -which means scorching heat -chances are that they'll collapse at some point in the second half. Easy home win.
6. Valladolid (13th) - Rayo Vallecano (8th): 2.
Rayo have lost six consecutive points against their two richer neighbours, but their displays were decent, if not impressive at times. Please, make your best effort to watch Jose Carlos, an entertainer if there was ever one, as he seems to have found the right balance between fancy tricks and pragmatic plays, which has obviously resulted in more playing time for him.
After Rayo successfully produced their own episode of 'CSI: Vallecas', life goes back to normal for the Vallecanos. They look more seasoned and experienced that Valladolid, so one expects them to prevail in the Jose Zorrilla, in what could be a reckless, high scoring match.
7. Osasuna (20th) - Levante (9th): 1.
'We shall win and get to four points', confidently proclaimed Osasuna striker Joseba Llorente. Last season, the home team were the first to defeat Levante, at that point still unbeaten after 10 matches. Now Osasuna desperately need the points after their uncharacteristic start to the season, reflected in the strong statements of boss Jose Luis Mendilibar: 'Right now, we can't compete in the Primera División'.
Levante expect Obafemi Martins to become their new Kone, who last season carried the offensive burden of the whole team. We'll have to wait some more time to make sure that he doesn't become their new Royston Drenthe instead.
8. Real Madrid (7th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (10th): 1.
Dressing room controversies aside - at least for now - the Madridistas feel like they're again on the right track. Wins against Manchester City, Rayo Vallecano and Millonarios de Bogota (ok, we could have left that third one out, what a sad thing the Bernabeu trophy has become) have calmed things down at the Bernabeu. There's only one slight problem: they currently sit eight points behind Barcelona (see match No.4), in case you hadn't noticed.
Depor come back to the Bernabeu, where they staged the Centenariazo in the Cup final just over ten years ago. Even if boss Jose Luis Oltra believes that the world's best player is Juan Carlos Valeron -he said so this week -I humbly believe that the difference in the rest of their respective squads should tip this one towards the home side. One man, great as he might be, does not make a team.
9. Espanyol (19th) - Atlético de Madrid (2nd): 1.
Me: Congratulations, Atletic can now be considered to be back among the big Spanish sides.
Friend J, Atlético fan: Why?
Me: You're getting all the calls and winning matches as a result of preposterous refereeing mistakes. Welcome to the club!
J: (Expletive) off! And don't worry, we'll lose in Barcelona. Classic Atleti.
Me: Why? You and ten of your friends could probably beat Espanyol at this point.
J: Remember, we never win two away matches in a row. Not even Simeone and Falcao can change that. And by the way, I was going to get Falcao's shirt but decided against it. It would be a terrible investment; he'll be gone by January.
Atletico fans can always find the dark side of life, as though we needed more of that in Spain.
10. Getafe (17th) - Mallorca (3th): 1.
This pick comes down to the Gravity Law: whatever goes up, is bound to go down, especially if that 'whatever' is named Mallorca and occupies a mindboggling third place in La Liga. If Mallorca win, this would be their best start of the season in their history. I'm not in the mood for records. Time for Getafe to start climbing. 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. Valencia (15th) - Zaragoza (12th):
2. Malaga (4th) - Betis (6th):
3. Real Sociedad (14th) - Athletic de Bilbao (16th):
4. Sevilla (5th) - Barcelona (1st):
5. Granada (18th) - Celta de Vigo (11th):
6. Valladolid (13th) - Rayo Vallecano (8th):
7. Osasuna (20th) - Levante (9th):
8. Real Madrid (7th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (10th):
9. Espanyol (19th) - Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
10. Getafe (17th) - Mallorca (3th): 1.
Last week: 5/10 (50%) Season: 20/50 (40%)