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Nov 16, 2012

Month of the '2'

Last week, this column discussed the surprising resilience of the La Liga coaching fellowship this season, with no one fired after ten weeks. This idyllic period of calm seemed bound to finish, this columnist had predicted, as three top-flight coaches were due to get the boot during the weekend. Jose Luis Mendilibar, Juan Antonio Anquela and Philippe Montanier needed their teams to win away from home for the first time in the season against clubs in better shape than theirs if they were to keep their jobs.

Not only did they win, they all did it convincingly. Granada defeated fourth-placed Betis in Sevilla, Real Sociedad prevailed over fifth-placed Malaga at La Rosaleda, and Osasuna demolished Espanyol on their own turf, ending the Pericos' four-game unbeaten run. Talk about a shocking string of results.

This unexpected chain of events led me to analyse the frequency of away wins - or '2's in Quiniela jargon - since the season began. During the first nine weeks, La Liga averaged 2.5 away wins per set of fixtures. Since November started - two weekends ago - that number went up to 5.0.

See what I'm getting at? Away wins will show us the way to the perfect ten in this crazy November, so let's start. Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Osasuna (20th) - Malaga (5th): 2.

Yes, Saturday will commence with a '2', setting the tone for the rest of the weekend. Malaga's two consecutive home defeats demand a response. The Malacitanos have had a full week of training to examine what went wrong, having finally been separated from the Champions League and Copa del Rey distractions that would appear to have taken away some of their physical and mental focus in La Liga.

Osasuna have won only once at home this season, and they look like one of those teams who need every single factor to go their way for them to win a football match. A rested Malaga are simply too much for them to deal with.

2. Valencia (9th) - Espanyol (19th): 1.

The fact that a decent number of Espanolistas are currently calling for Mauricio Pochettino's head tells us a lot about how fickle football fans can be - and I include all the rest of us non-Espanolistas in that statement. Since the Argentinean took over in early 2009, the team managed to overachieve every single season, despite their lack of financial resources and the customary sale of their best players year after year. Up until now, Pochettino has made the most of their limited assets. Hasn't he earned more than ten weeks to get his team going?

Both clubs have had hectic weeks off the pitch - the visitors in the middle of the election process and the hosts weathering the hangover effects of a stormy general meeting of socios, which ended up being quite heated. With the exception of Malaga, those circumstances rarely produce great football, so I see a dull 1-0 win for Valencia, with the Ches scoring from a set-piece, as has been the case with 33% of their goals this season.

3. Barcelona (1st) - Zaragoza (11th): 1.

For the first time this season, Barcelona have their first-choice back four available. The news is indeed daunting for the rest of La Liga: the Catalans lead the tournament undefeated despite the fact that their defence has been well below their usual high standards due, among other things, to the fact that Jordi Alba, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Dani Alves haven't had much of a chance to get acquainted on the field. What can possibly happen now that they're back?

Zaragoza defender Paco Montanes seems to share this concern, but with an upbeat twist: "We've got nothing to lose against Barcelona, so why not take some risks?" Even if boss Manolo Jimenez has managed to bring back some of the team's fighting spirit in the last month, a win at the Camp Nou against a full Barcelona squad - Alexis Sanchez's recent injury actually boosts Barcelona - sounds out of the question.

4. Real Madrid (3rd) - Athletic de Bilbao (12th): 1.

Markel Susaeta, Athletic's talented winger, dug himself a pretty deep hole during his first press conference for the Spanish national team. Whatever sentiment he intended to express, his words - "We represent a thing" - were never going to be well received among the currently over-stressed Spanish patriots, who interpreted the word 'thing' as a way to avoid mentioning the word 'Spain', something certain Basque or Catalan separatists tend to do. The Spanish FA immediately issued a statement explaining that, by using the word 'thing', Susaeta was referring to the national team's style of play - based on ball possession - and not the country (assuming we still can use that word to represent what the region formerly known as Spain now stands for).

The Basque ended up playing well and scoring in the friendly match against Panama, thus representing both 'things' with brilliance. It won't be that easy on Saturday, as his team will miss their top two midfielders, Ander Herrera and Oscar De Marcos, for their trip to the Bernabeu. The Madridistas need a convincing win before their key Champions League match against Manchester City, so expect a fully focused Real Madrid, with the likely cameo of Jose Callejon, who's impressed Jose Mourinho in the last couple of matches. And, needless to say, the Bernabeu will let young Susaeta know what they think about a thing or two.

5. Deportivo de La Coruna (18th) - Levante (6th): 2.

The second '2' of the week rewards the business-like Levante over the daring, but often-ineffective, Deportivo. The naivety of the home side will surely be punished by the other Azulgranas, masters at making the most of a couple of chances.

The statement of the year award goes to one of this column's folk heroes, Sergio Ballesteros: "I have never assaulted anyone." His club's campaign to convince the world of their commitment to fair play - which is so clearly lacking - ranks quite high in the list of the most shameless PR exercises ever. When Juanfran and Ballesteros are starters in your team, you know what you are. Just get on with it and give up on your poor Richard Nixon impressions.

6. Celta (17th) - Mallorca (15th): 2.

Having lost six in a row, this sounds like a do-or-die game for Mallorca, and our experience from last week proves that any team with a coach in trouble playing away from home will indeed triumph. Celta, desperately looking for reinforcements in the centre of the defence as well as in the defensive midfield position, will continue to suffer until the transfer window opens.

7. Getafe (14th) - Valladolid (8th): X.

While president Angel Torres tours the world trying to find a new owner for Getafe, Valladolid look up to the nobler part of the table. Who would have told at the beginning of the season? The Vallisoletanos have the fourth best defence in La Liga, but have not drawn away from home yet. This will be their first 'X' as visitors, as well as Getafe's first 'X' as hosts this season.

8. Granada (16th) - Atletico de Madrid (2nd): X.

"It's still early to speak about [winning] the title," Radamel Falcao said, probably thinking that he won't be around to see whether or not Atleti keep their fight with Barcelona going until June. The rumours about his exit in January grow every week, which would be terrible news for Atletico. Falcao's impact can't be measured only by his goals or assists - the impressive growth of his supporting cast, now tirelessly active and taking advantage of the huge spaces the Colombian opens in rival defences, is probably the biggest reason for Atletico to be where they are in all competitions this season.

Granada, and especially coach Anquela, bought some time last weekend. They know how to make life difficult to the visiting teams, so expect a tough test for Atletico and their array of internationals, tired after a long week away from Spain.

9. Sevilla (10th) - Betis (4th): 2.

The good news: after years of violence and chaos in this derby, both clubs appear determined to extinguish its terrible reputation once and for all. A number of events during the week showed the two club presidents chatting amiably and inviting both fan-bases to enjoy the match together in peace. The bad news: you can't be really sure of how all this will work out, especially when the atmosphere at Sevilla is as charged as it is right now.

Boss Michel complained publically about his players after their defeat in Bilbao, while the radical supporters, the "Biris", have agreed to comply with some demands for the club to be admitted back into the Sanchez Pizjuan. In a tense stadium, with the problems between Michel and his players clear, Betis have a great platform to hurt their arch-rivals, so this will be the fourth '2' of the weekend.

10. Real Sociedad (13th) - Rayo Vallecano (7th): 2.

In just over one season in La Liga, Real Sociedad boss Philippe Montanier has mastered the art of flirting with the pink slip without actually getting fired. He leads a club with 18 youth-team graduates players in the first-team squad - that is something that makes ESPN's Phil Ball proud, but has also generated some inconsistency that Montanier haven't been able to eradicate.

Carlos Vela and David Zurutuza won't play on Monday; therefore, Rayo and their almost reckless approach away from home deserve our trust. And if you have not seen the Rayistas play this year, this match in Anoeta should be an excellent place to start. Entertainment guaranteed.

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. Osasuna (20th) - Málaga (5th):
2. Valencia (9th) - Espanyol (19th):
3. Barcelona (1st) - Zaragoza (11th):
4. Real Madrid (3rd) - Athletic de Bilbao (12th):
5. Deportivo de La Coruña (18th) - Levante (6th):
6. Celta (17th) - Mallorca (15th):
7. Getafe (14th) - Valladolid (8th):
8. Granada (16th) - Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
9. Sevilla (10th) - Betis (4th):
10. Real Sociedad (13th) - Rayo Vallecano (7th):

Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 45/110 (41%)

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