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Jan 11, 2013

The Ballon d'Or fallacy

Last Monday, 11 football players who ply their trade in La Liga were chosen to fully configure the best team of the year at the Ballon d'Or gala. That achievement is one of the worst things that could have happened for Spanish football. Of course, instead of trying to understand the real reasons behind it - because of its revenue distribution, La Liga has two, and only two, loaded teams, plus Spain's national team is enjoying an unprecedented phase of success that can hardly be explained based on the domestic competition - most media and powers-that-be enthusiastically applauded the feat and proceeded to declare the utter dominance of the best tournament in the world.

Denial never helped anyone to fix problems, but this is pure blindness, which goes one step forwards or, rather, backwards. Either the league quickly addresses the issues regarding the diminishing competitiveness of the tournament and the subsequent and predictable decrease in ratings and attendance, or we'll end up with empty stadia, even more broken clubs than we currently have and a tedious competition. Will those two superteams be able to sustain their income in that scenario?

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

1. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) - Rayo Vallecano (7th): 2.

Did I get the standings wrong? No, Athletic and their topsy-turvy season lie 14th, while humble Rayo and their exciting offensive approach currently sit seventh. "We shouldn't defend poorly just because we want to score," Marcelo Bielsa said this week in a concise account of Athletic's defensive problems. Last year, everyone on the side could score; now, they all lose their position going forwards, and the opposition simply exploits the open spaces. They have conceded 37 goals in 18 matches - something that hadn't happened since 1949, a time when formations with two defenders and five forwards were the norm.

This season's Rayo are masters at punishing defensive gaps. Unless they take a day off - which they have done in a few of their trips - San Mamés' width should help them to get their fourth win in a row.

2. Valladolid (11th) - Mallorca (16th): 1.

After a rough spell, Mallorca have gone two matches undefeated, while Valladolid haven't won in their last four - in fact, right since I started singing their praises for their organised tactical approach. Therefore, I now state that the Vallisoletanos will, despite their chaotic formation and complete lack of a gameplan, defeat Mallorca. They will win out of pure luck.

3. Espanyol (18th) - Celta (15th): 1.

While Espanyol's Joan Capdevila asked for forgiveness - "We apologise. You can lose to Barcelona, but you have to fight harder than we did" - president Daniel Sanchez Llibre explained that he's not selling the club to undisclosed investors... yet.

Given the precedents all over Spain - every single sale operation so far has started with the president of the club denying the deal - don't be surprised if the Periquitos end up owned by some unknown investment fund. Such is life.

Of course, the rumours don't help the squad at all, but boss Javier Aguirre should be able to grind out a win on Saturday. Especially against Celta, who defied the football gods by resting players when they had the chance to outclass Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. When you do that, you pay for it sooner rather than later.

4. Osasuna (20th) - Real Madrid (3rd): X.

I know what you're thinking - reverse jinx - but hold that thought for three paragraphs.

For their own high standards, Real Madrid have travelled poorly this season: their 13 points in ten matches trail Barcelona's perfect 27, Betis' 19, Atlético's 14 and equal those of (gasp!) Zaragoza. Injuries (Pepe, Marcelo, Gonzalo Higuain and now Xabi Alonso), poor runs of form (Angel Di Maria), disciplinary issues (Fabio Coentrao) and suspensions (Sergio Ramos, who showed terrible timing to pick up a five-match ban) have affected pretty much every line of the squad, and the team now play in a bizarre make-do formation that features Michael Essien as a right back, Alvaro Arbeloa as a left back, the player-formerly-known-as Ricardo Carvalho and youngster Rapahel Varane as centre-backs, and a bunch of central/offensive midfielders.

This formation guarantees no wing play and total reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo's goals. The Portuguese has been impressive on and off the pitch - winning the Fashion Ballon d'Or with a mesmerising €3,500 tuxedo and scoring left, right and centre - but how long can he sustain this?

On top of that, Jose Mourinho chose to create conflict in the only position that was fine: the goal. Thank God that this promising kid, Iker Casillas, seems up to the task of getting the starting place ahead of Adan, who indeed needed some competition to recover his motivation.

Despite their poor run of results, Osasuna can probably hold the current incarnation of Real Madrid at bay. And you do know that, if I were reverse-jinxing, I wouldn't even mention the word 'jinx', right?

5. Valencia (8th) - Sevilla (12th): 1.

Even if defender Emir Spahic gave Sevilla a much-needed win last weekend, I still believe that their boss, Michel, won't last long at the Sanchez Pizjuan. He keeps throwing his team under the bus - "a few of my players are clearly distracted," he said after their midweek cup tie. The cash-strapped Sevilla, negotiating the sales of top players in the transfer window, don't need this noise.

Not that Valencia live a more tranquil life. Here come elections, candidates, promises and the like while the only realities are a half-built stadium and huge debt. But the Ches will still prevail easily over Sevilla, who are very lazy travellers.

6. Betis (5th) - Levante (6th): 1.

Well, I guess that, after 18 matches, we can safely say that these two are for real. And while we wait for the most anticipated column of the year, Phil Ball's mid-term review, let's favour the home team - always exuding flair, with Ruben Castro on fire - over the excessively pragmatic visitors, who were recently eliminated from the Copa del Rey after their defeat in Zaragoza.

7. Real Sociedad (9th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (19th): 1.

New Deportivo boss Domingos Paciencia has a tough five months ahead. He's started by cleaning house, as at least four players will leave in the transfer window. He needs to strengthen his defence, right now the worst in La Liga, by signing new players. And he needs to do all this while the club files for bankruptcy.

Even if the Portuguese manager delivered in his first match, defeating Malaga at home, things won't be that easy away from Riazor. Real Sociedad ended a seven-match undefeated run - featuring four wins and three draws - with a honourable loss at the Bernabeu. Their solid performances at Anoeta grant them the tag of favourites against Depor.

8. Atlético de Madrid (2nd) - Zaragoza (13th): X.

Last weekend, my editor wisely baptised this column The Demise of Atletico de Madrid. I had gone for a much less inspired title, as the impending decline of the Rojiblancos was probably the most remarkable point in the article.

And harder they fall. This will become their third draw in a row, as their perfect season at home draws to a close. Zaragoza, owner of a fantastic away record, are exultant after eliminating Levante in midweek and had one more day to rest. They'll get at least one point. Pay close attention to Cata Diaz, who is destined to have an instrumental role in Atletico's fall.

9. Málaga (4th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.

Not that long ago, Malaga disposed of Real Madrid at La Rosaleda in the match already known by the name of 'Pellevenge', so in theory Barcelona should respect what is by far the best defence in La Liga (13 goals in 18 matches). But this game should please the Quiniela Girlfriend, as guessing its correct result requires no research but rather an insightful appreciation of human nature.

Two days after the Ballon d'Or ceremony, Ronaldo scored a magnificent hat-trick against Celta that prompted many to state what a great player the Portuguese is, some even hinting that he had deserved the top honour. Lionel Messi, the actual winner, was rested in Barcelona's subsequent Copa del Rey match against Cordoba, so it's quite likely that the Argentinean has an explosive desire to respond to Ronaldo's fans. The over/under for Messi's goals on Sunday currently sits at three, likely to hit 3.5 before kick-off.

10. Getafe (10th) - Granada (17th): 1.

Adrian Colunga, a fairly useful forward who isn't getting any playing time, wants to leave Getafe. He'd rather go to Valladolid, but his club would prefer to sell him to Granada, who desperately need to add scorers before the transfer window closes.

The Colunga affair is the most exciting news about these two teams, which says a lot. Getafe have lost some of their punch in recent weeks, while Granada never had any. The home team will probably win the least exciting match of the season, which takes place on a Monday evening, watched by the handful of Granadinos who live in Madrid.

Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. Some day someone will guess all ten correctly, we hope.

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

Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 75/180 (41%)

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