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Nov 23, 2012

Spain's top ref handed derby honours

Alberto Undiano Mallenco, widely acknowledged as La Liga's top referee, has just been chosen by the Spanish FA to deliver justice in the upcoming Real Madrid versus Atletico Madrid derby, in all likelihood the first to happen in decades in which the Madridistas trail the Rojiblancos in the standings.

When I read this decision, I could think of no other name to ref the match. Undiano seems to have refereed the last 50 mega-derbies between Real Madrid and Barcelona and pretty much every other relevant match in La Liga, including the most heated relegation battles. Talk about a go-to guy.

How much money does he make? Roughly €60,000-a-year, which, given the potential impact of his decisions, sounds like peanuts. And even though the topic of referee professionalisation has been beaten to the ground by several journalists in the last couple of decades, the Spanish FA continues to neglect a solid review of the refs' training, compensation and career as a whole.

That is probably why there's only one Undiano: you can't find that many bright people ready to embrace the demanding life and, in this context, meagre pay. Let's take care of him, please.

Shall we begin? Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Real Sociedad (9th) - Osasuna (19th): 1.

At this stage of the tournament, two consecutive wins can take your coach from the 'likely to be unemployed soon' category to 'Europa League material'. Real Sociedad's Philippe Montanier won two in a row and now can afford to look down on Jose Luis Mendilibar, Osasuna's troubled coach.

With the noticeable development of youngsters Ruben Pardo and Asier Illaramendi, coupled with Carlos Vela's return to form, the hosts are strongly tipped to win the opening match of the weekend, one of those awkward Friday evening events.

2. Rayo Vallecano (11th) - Mallorca (15th): 1.

The proud owner of the worst defence in the league usually secures a rightful spot in the relegation zone. But once again, Rayo are different. Only the Rayistas could possibly concede 29 goals in 12 matches and sit comfortably in mid-table. Whether that's sustainable long term, only time will tell.

Mallorca have prepared carefully for this match. Boss Joaquin Caparros decided to train this whole week in a downsized Son Bobiloni, Mallorca's base, trying to mimic Vallecas' narrow pitch. Not sure it will be enough. Rayo tend to reduce their recklessness at home, having lost only to Real Madrid and Barcelona, and you already know how much I enjoy their forward line.

3. Valladolid (12th) - Granada (17th): 1.

Denial and taps on the back rarely work when your team look to be in trouble and the coach tries to get a reaction. That is why it's surprising to hear Granada's Juan Antonio Anquela say things like: "We're on the right track", and "Our match against Atletico [a 1-0 home defeat] was perfect".

Valladolid's Miroslav Djukic sounds like a more sensible man, well aware of the importance of winning their home matches: "Staying up demands that we do much better at our stadium." They've drawn their last three at the Jose Zorrilla, all decent efforts, so it's about time the Vallisoletanos collected all three points.

4. Malaga (5th) - Valencia (8th): 1.

Some time ago this would be called a duelo de gallitos (a duel between a couple of cocky wannabes, in a pretty free translation), although using that expression probably reveals that I'm entering my old age. Wrinkles of speech aside, both gallitos arrive satisfied after their demanding and valuable midweek Champions League draws - Malaga snatched one point in Moscow, while Valencia resisted with ten men against Bayern Munich. Neither of them should be at their best, so the hosts get the nod to break their spell of four winless La Liga matches.

5. Betis (6th) - Real Madrid (3rd): 2

History indeed repeats itself. Ask Betis, who seem determined to replicate their ebbs and flows from last season this year. The pattern includes a fantastic first ten matches followed by another ten in free-fall, and then a completely random collection of wins, draws and losses that will eventually take them to safety in the very last month. Not for the faint of heart.

According to plan, the Beticos reached the fourth spot in week ten, only to lose two derbies in a row (at home to Granada and away against Sevilla, the latter in dismal fashion), and now host current champions Real Madrid.

The Madridistas have clearly inverted their strategy this season. Maybe learning a lesson from last year, they started slow, and still seem to be lacking top speed - with the exception of Karim Benzema, finally firing all cylinders. Is Jose Mourinho saving something for 2013? We shall see.

6. Espanyol (20th) - Getafe (10th): 2.

Last Sunday, Getafe boss Luis Garcia started an all-Spanish team for the first time since 2005. No other club - except for Athletic, obviously - have done that this season, and it sounds far-fetched to think that it will happen again.

The more global Espanyol have lost their composure on and off the pitch. Their bitter - and understandable - complaints to the ref in their tough loss against Valencia meant two key players were suspended - Sergio Garcia and Hector Moreno for four and two matches respectively - while the controversy over the presidential elections continues. This won't end up well.

7. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) - Deportivo de La Coruna (18th): 1.

Athletic's season in the Europa League has been so poor that they were eliminated even though their match at Hapoel Kiryat was postponed due to the troubles in Israel and Palestine. The Basques needed Olympique Lyon to defeat Sparta Prague, but their draw meant that Athletic are out and Marcelo Bielsa's position keeps weakening.

With one win in their last 11 matches, Deportivo's Jose Luis Oltra shouldn't feel too relaxed either, especially because one can read the signs of a jinx from Depor's last couple of defeats - missed penalty kicks, bizarre sending offs and awkward injuries usually point at larger forces taking over. Even though Athletic look far from their best, they should beat Depor and their terrible defence.

8. Atletico de Madrid (2nd) - Sevilla (7th): 1.

The trademark Atletico let-down is coming up, I keep telling myself. But so far I have to confess that the evidence for that is quite scarce. Even their bench wins matches left, right and centre, while Atletico's immaculate record at home - six wins in six matches - hardly helps Sevilla's cause.

President Jose Maria del Nido believes that if Sevilla play again the way they did against Betis, it should be an easy win, but the fact is that the Sevillistas have behaved poorly away from the Sanchez Pizjuan, leading coach Michel to more than one display of wrath.

Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa sound like too much to deal with for Sevilla's inconsistent back four.

9. Levante (4th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.

Levante keep making history in both Spain and Europe. Having already qualified for the knockout stages of the Europa League with an authoritative 3-1 win over Swedish side Helsingborg, they occupy fourth position in the table, with only a couple of off days - away defeats against Valladolid and Osasuna - since the season started.

Not that they will beat Barcelona on Sunday, but boss Jose Ignacio Martinez indeed rested some starters and the mighty Granotas should at least give Barca a run - and a decent number of below-the-waist hits - for their money.

One year ago, Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova underwent cancer surgery. His impressive recovery, now at the reins of the best Barcelona to ever start a La Liga season is something simply astonishing. However, if he somehow ends up winning seven Champions League titles and starts selling yellow bracelets, you, dear reader, are entitled to suspect something's going on.

10. Zaragoza (13th) - Celta (16th): 1.

A close friend - a die-hard Zaragocista - tried to convince me that I should report with special importance the fact that Ndri Romaric has not started for Zaragoza in their last five La Liga matches.

"Is that news?" I said. "He joined the team injured, probably overweight, played a couple of matches totally off the pace, was profusely booed and the coach decided to bench him. That's Romaric's career in a nutshell."

"I know," he says, "but coach Manolo Jimenez brought him here precisely because he knew him from Sevilla. He's an (expletive) idiot!" Now we do have news: a Zaragoza supporter finally talks crap about Jimenez.

Other than the Romaric acquisition, Manolo has steered the ship with four wins in their last six matches - yes, with the Ivory Coast international on the bench for most of the time. Celta have no points to their name away from Balaidos, and I can't see why this would change on Monday night.

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

Last week: 4/10 (40%) Season: 49/120 (41%)

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