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Dec 7, 2012

Home ground advantage

This upcoming weekend La Liga will reach its 15th week, which means that 37.5% of its fixture list will have been played. That percentage, depressingly close to this column's success rate, nonetheless allows us to draw a few sound conclusions about the state of things in the tournament, as three sneaky good teams have started to show their power, two wannabes look lame on the pitch and trouble off it, two managers have finally been fired and the title already looks bound to finish in the hands of Tito Vilanova's Barcelona.

Add to all this information the fact that the four worst visiting teams play away from their stadia this weekend, and our forecasting abilities should improve noticeably from now on. Or so I keep telling myself...

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

1. Espanyol (20th) - Sevilla (11th): X.

In a delayed, but highly appreciated response to an old request from the Asociacion Espanola de Periodistas Dislexicos (AEDP) or Spanish Association of Dyslexic Journalists (ASDJ) - yes, we couldn't even get the acronyms in the right order - of which I am the proud chairman, two La Liga clubs decided to fire Mauricio Pochettino (Espanyol) and Mauricio Pellegrini (Valencia). Having that couple out of the league will help our Association immensely, as we'll finally be able to remember Manuel Pellegrini's name without mixing it up with those of the previous duo.

This likely boring match reunites the worst home team in Espanyol - five points in seven matches - and a bipolar Sevilla at their lowest ebb of the season, wannabe-come-mediocre since their derby win over Betis. Sevillistas' boss Michel put it bluntly last week: "We thought we were top class, but our squad is just what it is." And given that we are all what we are, I'll remain non-committal and will go for an 'X'.

2. Real Sociedad (9th) - Getafe (6th): 2.

In the last month, Getafe evolved from a decent side to a legitimately imposing team for the rest of La Liga. Still ignored by most supporters in the surroundings of Madrid, the Getafenses have grown progressively as a squad, as Luis Garcia's firm hand gives consistency to the side, even without a decent scorer among his players.

They excel away from home and should have the upper hand against a Real Sociedad side that produced the upset of the weekend last time out, taking advantage of an unrecognisable Valencia at the Mestalla. But the Realistas get top marks for inconsistency, and it could be a tough loss at home.

3. Malaga (5th) - Granada (18th): 1.

What happens when the best defence in La Liga - Malaga, 10 goals in 14 matches - meets the worst attack - Granada, 11 goals in 14 matches? The theory says that Malaga will at least draw this match, and factoring in the relevant element of them being hosts, a win becomes the most rational conclusion.

Malaga boss Mauricio Pellegrini enjoyed the luxury of resting several players in their meaningless midweek Champions League match, so the Malacitanos will indeed show their best side on Saturday night, determined to win an Andalusian derby that has proved elusive over the last couple of years.

4. Valladolid (7th) - Real Madrid (3rd): 2.

The last time Real Madrid played against a sneakily good team, in that case Betis, the Madridistas lost in Sevilla. Valladolid play with impressive organisation, which helps to get one clean sheet after another, and Oscar's talent up front has been enough to get to the nobler part of the table.

But for them to defeat Real Madrid, the Merengues need to have another off day, just like they did against Betis, and that does not seem likely, at least until they surpass Atletico in the standings. Real Madrid will win in Pucela and, mark my words, Ronaldo will not score a free-kick.

5. Osasuna (16th) - Valencia (12th): 1.

Would you be shocked if I told you that pretenders Valencia are at this point the worst away team in the league? With two points in seven matches - one of them at the Bernabeu, surprisingly enough - the Valencianistas have embarrassed themselves more often than not on their trips during October and November. Couple that with Jose Luis Mendilibar's renaissance in Pamplona (four consecutive matches without conceding took them out of the relegation zone) and the verdict is a clear - '1', a tough start of Ernest Valverde's tenure with Valencia.

By the way, growing rumours state that the Basque would have accepted this job already knowing that he'll be Marcelo Bielsa's replacement at Bilbao next season. Sounds preposterous, but I guess that's what Valencia deserved when they offered only a meagre six-month contract to Valverde.

6. Levante (8th) - Mallorca (17th): 1. Another proud member of the worst visitors' club in La Liga, Real Mallorca, travel to Valencia on Sunday. They will suffer mightily against Levante - at this point a Spanish powerhouse in their own right. The Levantinos have become inhabitants of the top half of the table by taking care of this type of match - home game against a weak rival - so they should not disappoint this column, granting us at least one correct result this weekend. That is all I am asking, (Levante boss) Jose Ignacio Martinez.

7. Athletic de Bilbao (15th) - Celta (14th): 1.

In another instance of surprising La Liga data, the not so long ago consistent Athletic have enraged their faithful this season with the worst defence of the competition with 32 goals conceded in 14 matches. Not only that, but less than a year after heroically eliminating Manchester United en route to the Europa League final, the Bilbainos just said goodbye to the current edition of the tournament, after a collection of lacklustre displays that prompted boss Marcelo Bielsa to publically regret the way they've played this term in Europe.

On Sunday, the Basques host Celta, another poor visitor. One would like to believe that Athletic should be able to overcome their messed up line-up and Fernando Llorente's announcement - for lack of a better word, as he 'announced' something everybody knew already - that he'll leave the club in June, as well as the likely irritation of their fan base by defeating the Gallegos at San Mames. However, if I were you, I would not bet the house on it.

8. Atletico de Madrid (2nd) - Deportivo de La Coruna (19th): 1.

This looks like an easy pick, as Atletico show a perfect home record - seven wins in seven matches at the Calderon - while Deportivo morph into their old Segunda Division selves when they travel. However, the simple memory of Atletico's self-destruction at the Bernabeu makes me shiver. Are they back to their old, unreliable identity, or does that only happen when they face Real Madrid?

Is there a force from beyond that makes the Rojiblancos choke against the Merengues, while at the same time allows CR7 to score free-kicks only when he plays against Atletico? Was all that scripted? Has somebody actually proved that six-degrees-of-separation blahblahblah? Too many questions and not enough answers. For now, we'll just have to trust Atleti.

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

The leader and the fourth-place team in the standings meet each other. After 14 matches, one has a 15-point advantage over the other. I know this subject has been done to death, but La Liga is going south fast if they don't get their act together quickly and somehow manage to increase the competition among teams.

Ten years ago and regional derbies aside, the visits of Barcelona and Real Madrid were the two matches of the season. The tension during the week reached dizzying heights, the whole city spoke about the upcoming match and the players gave their best to defeat the two giants.

Now the possibility of a win sounds so remote that most coaches rest players, or have some of them pick up suspensions in advance for them to be available against the following team. And what is worse, most stadia struggle to show 60% of attendance when the big two arrive.

All of that to say that even though Barcelona are rightfully entitled to take a day off, especially when Leo Messi is bound to rest after that injury scare, I still can't see Betis becoming a matagigantes (giant killer) by defeating Barcelona two weeks after having beaten Real Madrid. That's just not the way La Liga works nowadays, unfortunately.

10. Rayo Vallecano (10th) - Zaragoza (13th): X. Two pleasant surprise teams of the season should provide for an entertaining end to the weekend. With very limited squads at first sight, both have over performed so far, and any extra point before the winter break will only make them feel more confident. Rayo obviously possess far more offensive talent, but Zaragoza have impersonated their manager's firmness of old at the back - Manolo Jimenez used to play as a quite physical left-back for Sevilla - so even if the match delivers the promised back and forth struggle, a draw is a likely outcome.

PS. You can follow me on twitter (@Alvarez).

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

Last week: 2/10 (20%) Season: 56/140 (40%)

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