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Jan 25, 2013

Rumours unravel Real

On Thursday morning, Marca caused a stir with its frontpage headline: 'It's Mou or us', in XXXXL-size font. According to the sports newspaper, Real Madrid captains Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos had explained to president Florentino Perez on Tuesday that several starters will consider leaving the club in June if Jose Mourinho keeps his job as coach of the Madridistas.

Media reports surrounding the tense relationships inside Real Madrid's dressing room have been rife of late and this sounded like another of them, until the president himself decided to make an extremely infrequent public appearance to rubbish the rumours.

"It's absolutely false," he said during an unexpected press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu. "I have come here solely to deny a story that is false and seeks only to destabilise an institution that is over 100-years-old and is the most prestigious in the world."

Hyperbole aside - someone please define 'prestigious', 'institution' and especially 'world' for me - the president's reaction, followed by a joint public statement from Casillas and Ramos denying the story, only fuelled the speculation. At the end of the day, no one had rubbished the previous 50 stories about the ongoing feud between Mou and some of the players - an issue conspicuously unaddressed by Perez.

That said, the most surprising point in all of this is the obvious fall out between the club and Marca - a traditional ally of Perez that has since November decided to accelerate the deterioration of Mou's reign at the Bernabeu. In a public move aimed at getting the support of the socios for the upcoming elections, Perez might have lost a very strong partner.

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

1. Celta (17th) - Real Sociedad (9th): 1.

If you're familiar with the NFL, you've probably heard of 'The Parcells Game'. Bill Parcells, one of the top coaches in American football, coined that expression to describe the fall in performance that most teams experience after a huge match with a successful result.

Well, that is exactly what will happen with Real Sociedad after their famous win over Barcelona on Tamborrada day. Like the game itself, the subsequent humongous celebration surpassed all expectations. Now it'll be tough for the Realistas to find the motivation to re-enact a similar display in a low-profile match against a small team away from home.

By the way, the Celticos have just signed leftie Daniel Pranjic from Sporting Lisbon. On paper he is a fading star, but it's a smart acquisition if they can get just a decent couple of seasons from the former Croatia international.

2. Levante (8th) - Valladolid (10th): 1.

Three consecutive Levante defeats and a very rare loss by leaders Barcelona against Real Sociedad give us a clear shirt colour-related warning: January isn't a good month for the Spanish Azulgranas. We already saw this same script last year, as both Levante and Barcelona underperformed following the Christmas break.

However, the hosts' record at home still impresses: six wins, one draw and only two defeats against Barcelona and Real Madrid are killer numbers. And even though Valladolid keep improving, they are still only average travellers. A tough home win is in store.

3. Zaragoza (13th) - Espanyol (15th): 2.

"We can't cope with two tournaments," announced boss Manolo Jimenez on Wednesday morning, right before Zaragoza's midweek cup tie against Sevilla. He and his b-side promptly solved this calendar issue by capitulating in the match, as they lost 4-0 with two sending offs. Mission accomplished, now they only have one competition to worry about.

You know well how this column feels regarding those karma-altering decisions. The football gods won't be happy, and will favour Espanyol with endless breaks of luck on Saturday.

This paves the way for one of the feel-good stories of the second half of the season, as the Pericos rise from their own ashes and end up close to the top six, fighting for a Europa League spot with a very limited squad. If only Javier Aguirre knew how to keep his team's level of motivation going for longer than ten months.

4. Deportivo de La Coruna (20th) - Valencia (7th): 1.

Depor gave away one point last weekend, when infantile defensive mistakes cost them dearly in Pamplona. However, boss Domingo Paciencia's work in the squad is quickly becoming apparent, as the side look more disciplined at the back.

After three consecutive winless matches against Real Madrid, Valencia have lost some of the focus they had regained when new boss Ernesto Valverde joined the club. The Basque coach starts to remind of Juan Manuel Lillo: fantastic interviews, impressive eloquence, juicy titbits and great common sense, but huge difficulties to translate all that speech into a pragmatic way of playing. Concerning signs. A home win is on the cards.

5. Real Madrid (3rd) - Getafe (11th): 1.

Newspaper covers aside, the real news of the week comes from Real Madrid's absentee list after their cup tie in Valencia. First, Iker Casillas broke his left hand, which will cost him at least two months on the sidelines. Thank God Antonio Adan already looked in much better shape than Iker and was bound to start anyway.

Speaking seriously, Jose Mourinho does have a point in all this goalkeeping soap opera: Real Madrid do need a reasonably competent second 'keeper. Now we'll see what happens in two of the most important months of the season with Adan having to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Unless they sign somebody, which would come as a last-second fix - the kind that rarely works out.

On top of that, Angel Di Maria - whose importance for Real has been underlined in the last two weeks - and Fabio Coentrao - who has left us deeply wondering what positives he has brought since joining the club - will sit out against Getafe after being sent off in Valencia.

One can't think of a better scenario for the Getafeses to get at least a point at the Bernabeu - turmoil in the Madridista dressing room, a nervous goalie, several injuries and suspensions. But still, you look at Getafe's starting XI and think: 'An upset at the Bernabeu? Naaahhh'. We'll have to wait a few more days, until the Copa del Rey semi-final, to see the Real Madrid season start to really implode.

6. Rayo Vallecano (6th) - Betis (4th): 1.

Had someone told me that in the 20th week Rayo and Betis would meet each other fighting to maintain their top six spots, I would have laughed at him/her, which only goes to show that in this crazy competition everything is possible from spots 3 to 20. Best remember that.

Rayo have the upper hand here. They comfortably watched Betis make a half-hearted effort to overcome their two-goal deficit in the Copa del Rey against Atletico, and have the home ground advantage. Fresh legs will win this one.

7. Barcelona (1st) - Osasuna (18th): 1.

If you watched every single Barcelona match this season, you've seen 89 goals (66 scored by the Azulgranas). If you watched every single Osasuna match this season, you've seen 37 (only 16 by the Pamplonicas). What does all this mean? That if you support Osasuna, you do it for reasons well beyond football, which often is the case.

Two things have changed for the Pamplonicas: first, they hired three players in the transfer window, a refreshing change from previous seasons. Second, the referee actually gave them a hand to defeat Deportivo, something unheard of since the season started. But those promising signs can't hide the fact that stopping Barcelona at the Camp Nou is totally out of their reach, even if the Catalans had to work hard to save their first 'match ball' against Malaga in midweek.

8. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) - Atletico de Madrid (2nd): 1.

Fernando Llorente will play for Juventus from July 1. Athletic's fantastic bargaining strategy left them without a single cent for their striker, who after all the controversy hasn't even broken a sweat for them this season.

Getting to the pick, I guess nature calls once again. For some reason I can only see factors for Atleti to lose this one: no rest during the week, a demanding month of January, all the media glow describing Atleti as the next big thing. I really like Athletic for this one, after their solid, if a bit unlucky, visit to Betis last weekend.

9. Mallorca (19th) - Malaga (5th): X.

I can't see how Mallorca will score against the best defence in the league, while the Malacitanos must be exhausted after their midweek Copa del Rey showdown with Barcelona. It's hard to see anything at all happening in the Son Moix stadium. Better stay at home, which is what most of the Mallorquinistas were doing this season anyway.

10. Sevilla (12th) - Granada (16th): 1. An Andalusian derby closes the fixture list on Monday. Unai Emery has taken advantage of the customary 'champagne effect' that new coaches have on this Sevilla squad to help the club remain undefeated for three consecutive matches after booking a spot in the semis of the Copa del Rey.

The calendar brings him Granada, who survive by getting the odd win every four or five matches, just when their boss Jose Antonio Anquela seems to have both feet out of the club. Given that the Granadinos won last week, we expect them to go back to hibernation mode for at least a couple of matches. It should be an easy home win to build the hype around Emery's comeback to La Liga.

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

Last week: 3/10 (30%)
Season: 85/200 (42%)

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