Last Tuesday at the Vicente Calderon, Spain and Vicente del Bosque decided to dare. The team started with an unprecedented single defensive midfielder in a false nine formation, which provided a decent first half of football and them leading the World Cup qualifier against France. In the second half, Spain suffered mightily, but Del Bosque stuck to his strategy and kept the side's tactical disposition almost intact.
With 15 minutes to go and a narrow lead, Spain only had one substitution left, which Del Bosque used to replace Andres Iniesta with Fernando Torres, when the team blatantly required another defensive midfielder to manage the match. Why Torres? Well, firstly Del Bosque loves the player, and has made this clear selecting the Chelsea striker for the national team even in his poorest runs of form. Secondly, he perhaps thought that Torres was his best option to kill the match on the counter. Thirdly, and probably the most important factor of all, Torres hadn't played in the stadium that saw him develop into a top-level player since 2007. Del Bosque wanted him to shine before his crowd.
This uncharacteristic sentimental decision, more than any individual mistake, put the match, and Spain's qualification for the World Cup, at stake. Thank God the Marquise usually learns from his own mistakes.
Shall we? Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.
1. Malaga (3rd) - Valladolid (8th): 1.
"Malaga have exceeded all my expectations," Javier Saviola said on Wednesday, in what could become one of the most patronising statements of the season. Any neutral observer would probably state that it's him, El Conejito, who has exceeded all the expectations of the Malacitanos. With the Argentinian on fire, the home side only need Julio Baptista back in the squad to have all of their assets in top form. But now they have more than enough to defeat an overachieving but very naïve Valladolid, who will start to fall down the table soon.
2. Real Madrid (5th) - Celta (12th): X.
'FIFA virus' anyone? Now usurping a dreaded spot usually reserved for Barcelona, the depleted Madridistas have seen seven of their 19 internationals come back injured from the recent break. Marcelo, Fabio Coentrao, Alvaro Arbeloa, Raphael Varane, Sammy Khedira, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema won't be able to play on Saturday, which makes it easier to get 10 correct results in the Quiniela than to guess Real Madrid's starting line-up for Saturday, especially their back four.
This injury plague arrives at the worst possible time, when the Merengues can't afford to drop a single point and when they had started to look threatening again, after a hesitant beginning of the season. "It's a great time to surprise Real Madrid," said Fernando Vazquez, the former Celta boss who defeated the Madridistas at their own turf in consecutive seasons with the Gallegos. Not that one thinks that Celta, entertaining but still winless away from Balaidos, can pull such an upset at the Bernabeu, but a draw against an unrecognisable Real Madrid XI seems within their reach.
3. Valencia (14th) - Athletic de Bilbao (16th): 1.
Who would have thought that, after seven matches, these two wannabes would meet not to fight over third spot, but to try to flee the bottom half of the table? Despite their similar streaks of results, Valencia look better coordinated, have the best attacking talent and can welcome back Ever Banega, which should help immensely. Athletic, and especially their boss Marcelo Bielsa, bought some time with their win over Osasuna last weekend, but there are still way too many issues unresolved in their squad for them to stage an upset at the Mestalla. Another week of 'Will Bielsa keep his job?' articles and radio discussions await us.
4. Deportivo de La Coruna (18th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.
Deportivo kicked off the season with a handful of decent results, but three consecutive defeats saw them drop into the relegation zone and now leaders Barcelona come to town. Depor's fixture list improves noticeably after this egregious visit, but the fact is that they will finish the weekend behind Osasuna in 19th position. After severe exposure in the last three seasons, Barcelona have apparently developed immunity to the 'FIFA virus' and did not add any more injuries to those they already had this week. On a more depressing note, though, the Catalans have lost 7,000 socios (club members) this season according to a quite interesting piece from Marca, while their attendances have fallen by 10% in the first five matches of the season, and that includes a full-house Clasico. A sign of the bleak times, I guess. Can't wait to read Sport's reply piece on Real Madrid socios, surely set to be published at some point in the next 15 minutes.
5. Getafe (9th) - Levante (11th): X. Getafe's management are currently evaluating whether to launch the following offer for non-season ticket holders: €50 to watch every single match of the second half of the season. That means ten Primera Division matches at a fiver each. Now, Real Madrid and Barcelona won't visit the Coliseum again, but Atletico, Sevilla, Athletic and Valencia are all due in Getafe after Christmas; just those four games would already more than justify the €50 outlay. You know the worst thing, though? The creative management have a better chance of luring some lost Atletico fans from the south of the city to buy those tickets than of seducing new Getafenses for their cause.
Regarding this match, both are bogey teams of this column, capable of defeating anyone and of losing any match as well. They also meet with the same number of points in the middle of the table, so the verdict is obviously an 'X'.
6. Espanyol (20th) - Rayo Vallecano (10th): 1.
I hate these matches: a decent, but so far underachieving side host a much worse team - on paper at least - than them. In normal circumstances, it should be a clear '1'. In the current environment, however, and with Jose Carlos in the starting line-up for Rayo, this column is dying to go for a '2'. But after to-ing and fro-ing, I'd feel like a complete idiot if Espanyol ended up winning the match, so I'll stick to the more sensible '1', hedging my emotions one more time.
7. Granada (15th) - Zaragoza (17th): 1.
Can Granada win three in a row? I am not 100% sure. Can Zaragoza lose three in a row? Of that I am absolutely positive. Couple that with the fact that Granada's boss Juan Antonio Anquela, the man who led minnows Alcorcon to defeat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, has started to show his talent organising competitive sides with very little talent, and the pick is clear.
8. Osasuna (19th) - Betis (4th): 1.
We already know of Betis' champagne starts to the season. Lots of wins, attractive football, excitement galore, but suddenly they start losing silly matches against inferior teams and end up in the bottom half of the table. This will become one of those trademark losses against a team, Osasuna, who misjudged their signings and firings in the off-season and are taking more time to gel than they expected.
9. Real Sociedad (13th) - Atletico de Madrid (2nd): 1.
Several Atleticos wonder why the club's management keep telling everyone that they would let Radamel Falcao go as soon as the first club interested in the Colombia striker offer anything close to his buyout clause - €60 million - because that would solve all of their financial issues, and at the same time they decide to pay €14 million for Luis Miguel Afonso Fernandes, better known as Pizzi - a forward who boss Diego Simeone hardly rates. Hopefully for the club, they know something we don't...
Atleti have been grinding out wins in their last three matches, although their performances have steadily become poorer and poorer. Real Sociedad, winners of all three home matches so far, will become the first team to defeat the Rojiblancos in La Liga this season.
10. Sevilla (7th) - Mallorca (6th): 1.
If we picked this one based on who's got the player in best shape, Mallorca and their Israel forward Tomer Hemed would get the nod. However, choosing one team because their striker scored five goals in two consecutive matches against Luxembourg sounds a tad reckless. Sevilla have Ivan Rakitic back for their cause, and with Jesus Navas in decent form, have plenty of options to defeat Mallorca and leave them behind in the race for a top six finish.
Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. We only need 10 correct results to guarantee Armageddon in December, and your name will be mentioned in the following Quiniela column!
1. Malaga (3rd) - Valladolid (8th):
2. Real Madrid (5th) - Celta (12th):
3. Valencia (14th) - Athletic de Bilbao (16th):
4. Deportivo de La Coruña (18th) - Barcelona (1st):
5. Getafe (9th) - Levante (11th):
6. Espanyol (20th) - Rayo Vallecano (10th):
7. Granada (15th) - Zaragoza (17th):
8. Osasuna (19th) - Betis (4th):
9. Real Sociedad (13th) - Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
10. Sevilla (7th) - Mallorca (6th):
Last week: 3/10 (30%)
Season: 31/70 (44%)