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Dec 20, 2012

Game over in La Liga

Our worst fears finally came true. Right in the middle of December, the title race ended. The dangerous duopoly that the Liga de Futbol Profesional (LFP) has been gambling on for several seasons finally went bust, as the internal crisis at one of the two contenders - Real Madrid - has delivered the tournament to the remaining one - Barcelona - 21 matches before the end of the season.

"You're exaggerating," you may be thinking. "In other European leagues, the point difference between 1st and 2nd is the same as in La Liga." However, the gap between Barcelona and Atletico is hardly relevant, as the Rojiblancos lack the required depth to keep their challenge alive for a full season (see Diaz, Cata for further reference). What matters is the 13-point hole between Azulgranas and Madridistas, the two clubs this tournament is designed for.

We now face the prospect of Real Madrid regularly fielding B- and C-sides in La Liga until the end of the season, and Barcelona may follow suit soon enough, although Tito Vilanova's tumour recurrence could have an impact on any plans until the end of the season.

With the title race over, you, Phil Ball and myself will keep finding interesting stories in the relegation battle and the race for the Champions League spots, but how sellable is a tournament with just one real contender for the average football fan?

Hopefully this will make the LFP consider options to turn La Liga into a real 20-team competition, although I would not bet on that. Only when attendance and TV ratings fall by 50% will they start suspecting that something went wrong.

And, before we start, Merry Christmas to you all, and especially to Tito Vilanova, fighting cancer yet again. Best wishes to him and let's hope for a full recovery as soon as possible.

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

1. Rayo Vallecano (10th) - Levante (6th): X.

In order to accommodate the traditional Christmas break, the fixtures start on Thursday evening in Vallecas. Both Rayo and Levante have often impressed this season, although applying contrasting approaches: the hosts always go for the win but get thrashed at times in the process, and the visitors masterfully manage matches and more often than not get results. Should be an interesting game to watch. A single point will satisfy both clubs.

2. Real Sociedad (9th) - Sevilla (13th): 1.

This scribe spent two gorgeous winter days in Sevilla this week, and took advantage of the visit to talk to a wide sample of both Sevillistas and Beticos. The city loves its football and you can see that is so every time you ask someone about their team. On Sevilla FC, the jury appeared convinced of the fact that the players have already given up on their coach, Michel, and believe that it is just a matter of time before either he's fired or the club find themselves in the relegation zone. Having this context in mind, let's give Real Sociedad a win that will see them finish the year comfortably after several ups and downs.

3. Espanyol (19th) - Deportivo de La Coruna (20th): 1.

This is the textbook definition of a must-win match, especially for Espanyol, who will try to capitalise on their morale-building draw at the Bernabeu last weekend. Boss Javier Aguirre has quickly identified what his team must do: keep it tidy at the back, work hard in midfield, and use Joan Verdu to carry the offensive side of things, trying to find Sergio Garcia in open space. Garcia featured in Spain's Euro 2008-winning side but is better known because of his expertise at getting relegated with different teams, so he desperately wants to avoid one more drop and played at his best level in years against Real Madrid.

This should be another three points in the bag for the Pericos, leaving a direct rival mortally hurt.

4. Valencia (11th) - Getafe (7th): X.

Immersed in a painfully mediocre season, Valencia have become an average team, something they had entirely forgotten about until Unai Emery left. Now the memories of seasons past come back to haunt the Valencianistas - those long-gone years in which the Mestalla wasn't a fortress and Champions League spots looked totally out of reach. Getafe look sound enough to take a point from Valencia, and - who knows? - maybe three.

5. Atletico de Madrid (2nd) - Celta (15th): 1.

Even though football matches are rarely decided by a single factor, it's hard to avoid questioning the importance of Filipe Luis' injuries in Atletico's most important pair of defeats this season, against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The Rojiblancos have couple of replacements to choose from for their attack, but their back four doesn't work as well if one of their starters gets injured, especially the Brazilian, who is a gifted leftie.

And that's how Atletico's candidacy for the title will vanish into thin air. They will probably keep up for a month or so, and then a couple of injuries will end up costing them dear. In a more balanced tournament, their squad could be enough to mount a title challenge. In Spain's duopoly, they'll have to settle for a Champions League spot.

6. Betis (5th) - Mallorca (18th): 1.

"Que somo gueno, hoe!" ("We're good, damn!") was the most common response when I provoked quite a few Beticos by saying that their team were the biggest flukes of the season. I have to admit that they did have some arguments to support their claim. The players and the coach know each other well and have grown together; some of their best players - such as Benat Etxebarria or Ruben Castro - are reaching their peak this season; and the thought of Sevilla clearly going downhill only stimulates players and supporters to climb higher. They can finish the year really close to the top four if they defeat a depressed Mallorca side, who haven't won in their last 14 matches - you can read a detailed analysis on the Mallorquinistas' poor form by Phil Ball here.

7. Valladolid (8th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.

Terrible news from the Barcelona camp. Tito Vilanova has suffered a relapse of his cancer and will have to undergo surgery again, just over a year after his first operation. It's early to say how this could influence the tournament, as most of us still hope that Tito will be able to overcome this soon enough. Let's wait and see what happens.

The trip to Valladolid won't be as easy as it looks on paper for Barcelona. Boss Miroslav Djukic has put together a very disciplined side that could give the Catalans a couple of headaches. However, one imagines that the Barcelona squad will want to win this one for Tito, and only God knows how many Lionel Messi can score with that type of motivation.

8. Osasuna (16th) - Granada (17th): 1.

Osasuna and Granada, the worst two offensive sides of the tournament, meet in what at first sight looks like a textbook stalemate. Adding up the stats of both teams, they have scored a total of 24 goals in 32 matches - figures that come quite close to explaining football boredom numerically. An 'X' would seem in order, but after a poor start the hosts have slowly regained some of their composure and at this point simply play better than the disorganised Granada. A 1-0 win will feel like a rout for Osasuna.

9. Malaga (4th) - Real Madrid (3rd): 1.

Malaga's boss Manuel Pellegrini could be about to enjoy revenge at its very sweetest. Fate brings Real Madrid to La Rosaleda just when the fall-out between president Florentino Perez and coach Jose Mourinho looks broken beyond repair. "The title race is over for us," the latter said after drawing against Espanyol. "We (Real Madrid) never give up," the former responded a few hours later.

A similar discrepancy cost Bernd Schuster the job a few seasons ago, but the president, unhappy as he is, seems reluctant to pull the trigger, especially when a faction of the club still believes in a Champions League run come February.

The fact is that Pellegrini and Malaga, slighted by Real Madrid and Mourinho in the past, smell blood. The Malacitanos, in great form, will go for the kill on Saturday, taking advantage of the Madridistas' obvious disarray on and off the pitch. Call this 'Pellevenge'.

10. Athletic de Bilbao (12th) - Zaragoza (14th): X.

A visit from a physically tough team to a chilly San Mames before a sceptical set of home supporters sounds like a loaded combo for Athletic. In a downfall reminiscent of that of Valencia, the Bilbainos have lost their self-belief, and the Marcelo Bielsa hype has turned into a righteous judgement of all of the Argentinean's decisions that taints each of his moves with suspicion. The cash-strapped Zaragoza could very well get a result in Bilbao to provide a dumbfounding end to a year that had started so promisingly for Athletic.

Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. If you get ten correct results your name will be mentioned in the following Quiniela column!

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

Last week: 3/10 (30%)
Season: 66/160 (41%)

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