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Jan 18, 2013

At ease, Herr Pep

Bayern Munich it is! Pep Guardiola chose the German giants to continue his coaching career, a decision that caught most of the media by surprise. Whatever happened to England and his anticipated reunion with Jose Mourinho next season? Some even hint that Pep took the easy route, shying away from the more media-intense English League to accept a job that will demand less of him in front of cameras and microphones.

Whatever his reasons may be, we should use this example to practice the art of detachment; not telling people what to do is a wonderful thing, especially when they have shown consistent decision-making, like Pep. You're free to disagree with him over his rejection of the press, his stern rules on players' behaviour or his defence of his own privacy, but ever since he started to coach Barcelona's youth teams, he's shown an impressive coherence in his career choices, including his decision to step down as the Catalan's manager and his sabbatical in New York. Leave the man alone.

And I'll admit that his choice is enticing. Can you imagine a side playing like Barcelona, only made up with tall, blond Germans? God help us.

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

1. Espanyol (16th) - Mallorca (18th): 1.

In only four games - two of them against Barcelona and Real Madrid - boss Javier Aguirre has taken Espanyol out of the relegation spots, but he's not at ease yet. Working hard during the transfer window, the Mexican tries to find veterans able to excel in do-or-die matches, something that will be the norm for Espanyol in the next four months. Bulgarian winger/forward Martin Petrov has become his first signing, and another two reinforcements could be on the way.

Stark contrast with Mallorca. The news coming from the beautiful island spells trouble: dressing room rows between coach Joaquin Caparros and some players, a German shareholder stating that he wants to fire Caparros to hire the controversial Lothar Matthaus. Not exactly the best environment to get a result against the new Espanyol.

2. Granada (17th) - Rayo Vallecano (6th): X.

Last season, these two clubs fought against relegation until the very last match, in which they faced each other and somewhat 'miraculously' (ahem) both got the result they needed to stay up. Granada have not improved since then, but you can hardly recognise Rayo, currently on an impressive four-win run that has taken them to the Europa League spots.

Given that Granada can't score unless it's from the penalty spot, a draw is in the cards, especially when Leo Baptistão, Rayo's best player, picked up an injury and will be sidelined for a month.

3. Real Sociedad (9th) - Barcelona (1st): X.

Starting their B team, Barcelona took a day off in their midweek Copa del Rey match against Malaga and ended up conceding late, having to settle for a 2-2 draw. A couple of defensive mistakes and the token missed sitter from Alexis Sánchez demand that the Catalans win at La Rosaleda next week to stay in the tournament.

But first they need to take care of Real Sociedad in Anoeta. The Realistas look enthusiastic of late despite their Quiniela-buster draw last weekend against Deportivo, and have shown a decent, although not totally successful approach when facing the Catalans in previous matches. We could see Barcelona's boss Tito Vilanova rest some starters here - they need Pinto to get some playing time, now that Victor Valdes ponders life outside Barcelona - and that could represent an excellent chance for the hosts to save one point.

4. Getafe (11th) - Sevilla (12th): 2.

On Wednesday, Unai Emery had his debut on Sevilla's bench. The 0-0 draw hardly gives us any tips on his priorities, but his speech off the pitch sounds spot on: "Our tactical design won't be as important as the players' attitude". Attitude (or lack of thereof) was exactly what got Michel - and Marcelino García Toral before him - fired, and will become Emery's biggest challenge.

Even though it doesn't last long, this Sevilla squad tend to react after a coaching change, so let's favour them over the lately dull Getafe and their suspended gaffer, Luis Garcia.

5. Málaga (5th) - Celta (15th): 2.

Quiniela Buster warning! I do know that Malaga got their unexpected draw at the Camp Nou with a decent number of substitutes in their line-up, but it's hard to believe that the starters will keep their cool and focus when they have the (slight) chance of eliminating Barcelona in just a few days' time.

One trusts Celta's level-headed manager, Paco Herrera, to improve his team's performance in the second half of the tournament, even if their top scorer's head might already be closer to Valencia than to Vigo. The rumours of Iago Aspas heading to Mestalla at the end of the season sound plausible, and the Celtistas now only hope he does enough to keep them afloat before he leaves.

6. Osasuna (20th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (19th): X.

An open survey from Marca determined that most fans believe Osasuna, Depor and Granada to be the biggest candidates for relegation. Two of them face each other in what should be a pretty tense encounter at the Reyno de Navarra. The hosts can't score, and in a puzzling decision have loaned leftie Roland Lamah to Swansea, while they keep quiet in the reinforcements' front.

The visitors have managed four points since new manager Domingos Paciencia took over two matches ago. The work of the Portuguese coach can be felt in Depor's defence, previously porous and now increasingly solid. A stalemate feels like a winning bet.

7. Valladolid (10th) - Zaragoza (13th): 1.

"They play better away from home," says Valladolid boss Miroslav Djukic about his opponent on Sunday. The numbers back him up, as Zaragoza have won 13 points as a visitor and only 9 at home during the first half of the season. However, the Maños have had less time to prepare for this match, as they arrive in Valladolid and its freezing stadium after the half-hearted midweek Copa del Rey draw with Sevilla. The hosts' consistent first half of the season and especially the in-form duo of Oscar and Patrick Ebert deserve our trust.

8. Atlético de Madrid (2nd) - Levante (8th): 1.

Even if my ill-advised gambling decisions and my previous columns say otherwise, Atletico's demise is taking longer than expected. Much longer. It feels like centuries. I empathise with Rick Reilly and his stand on Lance Armstrong: I wish I could erase my Rojiblanco-related articles and bets from my past: my passion lied to me.

The Rojiblancos keep winning in Liga and Copa del Rey; their performances at the Calderon have reached dizzying heights of efficiency. Nothing distracts them, not even the umpteenth statement from Radamel Falcao talking wonders about other clubs (this time he chose Paris Saint Germain for his weekly eulogy). They have become winning beasts, and it won't be Levante's group of pensioners the ones to stop them. Unquestionable home team victory.

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

As pointed out by Dermot Corrigan, Jose Mourinho finally started to try some tactical variations to prepare Real Madrid for their upcoming Champions League showdown with Manchester United. The preferred option so far, known as 'The Traffic Jam Lineup', features a bunch of central midfielders (Samuel Khedira, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Mesut Ozil and Michael Essien in a right back position), with little to no play on the wings.

The sides were never Mou's favourite part of the pitch, as he always used Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo open to cut inside, but at least some times they switched positions, while Marcelo's surprise bursts gave the opposition something to worry about on the flanks. Unless the Brazilian and Di Maria recover their form quickly, the Traffic Jam is all Real Madrid have and, just like Dermot pointed out, this alternative needs work.

But sorry if I'm drifting away from the most important element of this match: the ref. Both teams met each other in an extremely controversial first leg match of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, during which Valencia played well, missed a few clear chances and suffered a couple of offside calls that looked plain wrong, while Real Madrid didn't do much and scored twice. The ref issue has always been a heated one between both teams, so all the Ches needed was two bogus offside calls to restart a Holy War against the referees.

Who will decide this match? The ref, I have no doubts. All the other 22 men on the pitch will have no influence whatsoever, as it's so often the case. It's time for Valencia to get their dues, and for Real Madrid to polish their Traffic Jam approach while leaving three points on the table.

10. Betis (4th) - Athletic de Bilbao (14th): 2.

Call me crazy, but I do believe in letdown matches after a tense encounter, in rested teams and in the fact that a good squad can only play badly for so long. Betis played an edgy and demanding match at the Calderon on Thursday, in which they deserved better than the final score suggests. Athletic watched from the distance. The Bilbainos can only get better playing pressure-free away from San Mames, and this looks like a great chance to start recovering their self-esteem.

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

Last week: 7/10 (70%)
Season: 82/190 (42%)

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