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Jan 4, 2013

The demise of Atletico

Happy 2013, dear Quinielistas! The New Year is here, and with it the old Liga, still featuring a juggernaut, several overachievers, some disappointments and one former title candidate on the brink of self-combustion. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the first Quiniela of 2013.

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

1. Zaragoza (12th) - Betis (5th): 1.

On December 31, 2011, Zaragoza signed coach Manuel Jimenez. At that point, the bottom-of-the-table Blanquillos had ten points after 16 matches and sat five points below safety. It took Jimenez six matches to get his first win, as the season already looked doomed to fail. However, the Andalusian manager and Zaragoza pulled off a fantastic escape with a sensational final third of the season, during which the squad that had looked like a bunch of retirees for five months suddenly became a serious competitor, able to defeat Valencia and Atletico de Madrid, among others.

After a hesitant start, the Manos have recovered their consistency from last year. They should take advantage of Betis' turbulent vacation, as the Verdiblancos anxiously await a resolution of the Benat Exteberria sweepstakes. According to boss Pepe Mel, "selling him for less than €20 million would be a disaster". Athletic de Bilbao should gladly oblige.

2. Levante (6th) - Athletic de Bilbao (13th): 1.

And talking about the Leones from Bilbao, their striker Fernando Llorente is finally negotiating his transfer to Italian giants Juventus. While everyone involved is probably rooting for a swift end to this unbearable soap opera, the Italians have all of the bargaining power now, as Llorente would leave for free in five months. Why pay anything now, unless it's a ridiculously low amount?

Football excels as an endless generator of irrational behaviour, especially in the financial sense of things, but in this case Athletic can obviously forget about the €36 million buyout clause in the striker's contract and hug Aritz Aduritz several times while they sell Llorente for a bag of chips.

Fatal Distraction Syndrome applies here - more so as it's Levante hosting the match, a bunch of geniuses capitalising on other teams' weaknesses.

3. Granada (15th) - Valencia (9th): X.

Three away wins at key points of the season keep Granada boss Juan Antonio Anquela on the Los Carmenes bench. Just when he looks destined to lose his job, his squad upsets someone on their own turf, the team briefly leave the relegation spots and the final countdown clock is reset once again.

But the Granadinos clearly like doing things the hard way. At this point of the transfer window, they have only one striker - Nigerian Odion Ighalo - as the rest have either gone to play with their national teams for at least one month (Moroccan Youssef El Arabi and Venezuelan Darwin Machis) or have left Granada due to poor performances (Italian Antonio Floro Flores).

Given that they are the worst scoring side in La Liga, this lack of attacking options hardly helps, but I still see them getting a point against the bipolar Valencia.

4. Deportivo de La Coruna (20th) - Malaga (4th): 2.

"I'm surprised - we were only one win away from the safe zone," manager Jose Luis Oltra said after Deportivo decided to show him the door on the very last day of 2012. The fact that his squad had won two matches out of 17 didn't seem relevant to him but - oh well - that's probably just numbers.

Portuguese manager Domingos Paciencia took his place. His first recommendation? Hiring Atletico de Madrid's full-back Silvio Azevedo, another Portuguese man also represented by omnipresent FIFA agent Jorge Mendes.

In the meantime, Malaga are trying to offload some players in an effort to avoid UEFA's one-year ban from European competitions by getting their finances and payments up to date. Their starting line-up should remain untouched, though, and that's more than enough to defeat Deportivo.

5. Sevilla (14th) - Osasuna (19th): X.

A very depressing season from both sides so far hardly promises an exciting match. In a startling recognition of their limitations in the transfer market, Osasuna just hired 41-year-old goalkeeper Ricardo Lopez, who was retired at home playing with his kids when he got the call from the Rojillos. "I signed the contract as fast as I could - before the president had time for second thoughts," Lopez half-joked.

Sevilla, more active in the transfer window, really need to get their act together. One point in their last five matches is not what the Sevillistas expected from this squad at the beginning of the season. However, Osasuna know how to get a clean sheet away from home, and this looks like one of them to me.

6. Celta (17th) - Valladolid (11th): 1.

The newly-promoted Valladolid have impressed many this season. Serious, organised at the back and with enough offensive alternatives to earn their points both home and away, the Vallisoletanos would aspire to bigger and better things if they could afford a couple of signings during this transfer window. It does not look like that will happen.

The absences of Patrick Ebert, Jesus Rueda and Manucho will ease the severity of Celta's task on Sunday, and this shortage of players will indeed become an issue for Valladolid boss Miroslav Djukic as the season wears down his squad.

7. Real Madrid (3rd) - Real Sociedad (7th): 1.

Tons of news from the Bernabeu. On the bright side, it appears as though the extremely restrictive policy on interaction with the media has been revised, as Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos all talked to the press this week. Gonzalo Higuain should be back in the starting line-up on Sunday, which may - or may not - improve the Madridistas' attack, which has not been too bright of late.

But we have bad news as well. Injured centre-back Pepe won't be able to play until February, Fabio Coentrao's stock is still falling faster than a zeppelin on fire and, according to Marca, Iker Casillas will observe another match from the bench. Jose Mourinho still believes that Antonio Adan is a better choice than the world's best goalkeeper, and some even state that that's why they pay the Portuguese boss top money.

In any case, no one is interested in watching Real Madrid lose more points, especially the Madridistas themselves - they need to get back in form to face Manchester United in five weeks. Even though their supporters and their manager have already given up on La Liga, this match is key to their chances of starting the year on a more constructive note. Real Sociedad, relaxed because of their good run of results, could test the Merengues significantly, but Mourinho knows this is almost a must-win for him. Any other result would open a Pandora's box at the Bernabeu.

8. Barcelona (1st) - Espanyol (18th): 1.

Yes, I do remember recent seasons in which lower-half-of-the-table Espanyol shocked the table-leading Azulgranas. But those were years in which Lionel Messi was only the best or second best player in football. Now he's become an otherworldly being, for whom small and medium teams mean a guaranteed brace every single time, and he almost seems bored with this kind of match after 20 or 30 minutes.

Espanyol will hold on to the memory of derbies past and especially of their recent performance at the Bernabeu, but another point at the Camp Nou? Out of the question. By the way, Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova may be back on the bench - excellent news after a very speedy recovery. Here's hoping that it's the last time he needs to undergo surgery.

9. Mallorca (16th) - Atletico de Madrid (2nd): 1.

Atleticos feel so sure of this team it's shocking, to the point that they even forget that they root for... the one and only Atletico de Madrid. I just took an even-money bet with a friend who supports the Rojiblancos: I said they'll end up fifth or lower. He immediately accepted. I know it sounds impossible for me to win, but please, dear reader, don't behave like a Rojiblanco: remember, they are indeed Atletico de Madrid!

Their fall will start in the beautiful island, where boss Joaquin Caparros just saved his job with an unexpected win over Betis. The absences of Radamel Falcao, Arda Turan and Miranda will present Mallorca with another victory on Sunday and will therefore plant the first seed of doubts among the Rojiblanco faithful.

10. Rayo Vallecano (8th) - Getafe (10th): 2.

Before they fight for the unofficial title of third team in Madrid, Rayo and Getafe have been busy trying to sell their gems and make a profit or get rid of some salaries. At least three players from each club will leave in the transfer window, with no new signings expected.

It's hard to expect great things from either club in the second half of the season, even though both have impressed at specific points of the first four months. And regarding this result, you only have to take a look at Rayo's last 12 matches: LW-LLWW-LW-LLWW. If this were a high school test, the next result would be 'L', correct?

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

Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 71/170 (41%)

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