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Feb 15, 2013

Focus back on football

When your trade depends largely on unconfirmed news, likely events and rumours, you tend to forget what all the writing should really be about. Then, especially at this stage of the season, the truly great games start to happen and you remember what all the fuss was about. While we turn our heads to the domestic competitions, here's hoping that Wednesday evening's Real Madrid versus Manchester United clash is the first of a series of glorious matches to finish the European season.

Let's start. Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Sevilla (11th) - Deportivo de La Coruna (20th): 1.

Unbeaten five matches after he took over Sevilla's bench, Unai Emery must have thought he had earned the respect of the dressing room. Then his squad visited the Bernabeu and the Basque coach felt what most of his recent predecessors had felt before: "It looks like these (expletive) players want to get rid of me." What Sevilla did at the Bernabeu last weekend was a complete and total no show. The fact that the club has missed at least four deadlines to pay its debts probably does not help either.

But there is nothing better to recover your self-esteem than hosting Depor. In the last Quiniela, we felt boss Domingos Paciencia had started to look for excuses a little too early, but not many of us expected him to resign after only six weeks in the job. According to full-back Manuel Pablo, Domingos "had run out of strength, felt defeated". His immediate replacement, Fernando Vazquez, was at some point in his career nicknamed 'The Spanish Arrigo' due to his innovative tactical approaches. An endearing character, he once called up a radio program to plead his own case after the presenter said Vazquez "managed to relegate every single thing he touched". His defence: "In two occasions, they fired me before the club I coached was actually relegated." Not very convincing.

To be fair, at his apex Vazquez took Celta to the UEFA Cup and had the club from Vigo in the upper half of the table for the better part of three seasons. He also led Compostela, Mallorca and Oviedo to decent performances. Let's see what he brings to the table now that he's been out of the game for six years. In any case, it's safe to say that this challenging tenure will start with defeat.

2. Getafe (12th) - Celta (18th): 1.

"We're a better side than Getafe," says Celta full-back Jonny. One rarely hears this type of public statement from a player, especially when referring to a team they trail by nine points and six positions on the table. One bets his naïve statement prominently appears written in capital letters on Getafe's dressing room - the perfect motivation tool.

The Quiniela's money is on a 1-0 home win. The visitors have already lost 11 times by only one goal this season, the last six of them by a 1-0 scoreline. With this hardly enticing background, I'd be surprised if we see more than 5,000 Getafenses in the Coliseum on Saturday.

3. Malaga (4th) - Athletic de Bilbao (15th): 1.

Their recent history makes it extremely tempting to go for a '1' here, as last weekend Malaga finally fought with determination and resilience in a tough match against Levante, while Athletic showed their worst side in a terrible 4-0 home defeat to Espanyol. Athletic's keeper Gorka Iraizoz took the spotlight with a display that was painful to watch, but like is often the case with 4-0 defeats, no one actually did their job. A special mention must be reserved for Iker Muniai who was last season tipped as the next big thing and is now almost unrecognisable.

The only question is, will Manuel Pellegrini rest Malaga's top players for their Champions League clash with Porto next week? His previous decisions lead me to believe that he'll use most of them for at least 60 minutes, and that will still be too much to handle for the current Athletic side.

4. Granada (14th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.

The hosts are undoubtedly the biggest winners of the winter transfer window. They signed a new manager, Lucas Alcaraz, who counts his matches by the number of wins, and three players - Nolito, Aranda and Recio - who have started and performed well in every game since they joined. Is that enough to stop Barcelona, assuming that the Azulgranas will very likely rotate players?

No, not really. Andres Iniesta's current run of form would defeat the Granadinos even if he played on one leg. The pale man from Albacete even managed a probably unrepeatable feat last weekend when one of his passes was so outrageously good that not even Alexis Sanchez could miss the target. When things like this happen, the verdict is clear - the ceiling for this team has been removed.

5. Osasuna (17th) - Zaragoza (16th): 1.

The stakes in the relegation zone keep getting higher and higher, so this match, not that attractive on paper, could become a nail biter. The hosts get the nod, as their performance since 2013 started looks solid, especially at home, with two wins and one draw. Couple that with Zaragoza's abysmal record in Pamplona - one win in their last 19 visits - and the outcome is clear.

6. Real Sociedad (7th) - Levante (9th): 1.

Levante kept their impressive Europa League run in tact with a 3-0 win over Olympiakos, but they'll probably pay for their effort with a defeat against the in-form Real Sociedad, even if Zurutza and Elustondo, two of the hosts' more impressive players this season, miss the match due to injury.

Here's a remarkable stat: the Realistas have managed to get at least one opposition player sent off in each of their last seven matches - five of them due to Carlos Vela's amazing speed. How do you coach against this?

7. Valencia (5th) - Mallorca (19th): 1.

It's hard to take charge of a team in the middle of the season and make them play exactly the way you want. Valencia's boss Ernesto Valverde is coming to terms with this tough reality, as his version of Valencia, very promising in some matches, looks painfully weak in others. Their midweek defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League tie made it clear that Valverde needs time to get this team up to speed.

Mallorca will give him a chance to polish his starting XI and win a match just by scoring from set pieces. The visitors suffer with dead balls and Valencia have a couple of specialists that should take care of matters on Sunday.

8. Valladolid (10th) - Atletico de Madrid (2nd): 1.

Atletico seem to be operating under the assumption that Real Madrid will continue their lacklustre La Liga campaign until the end of the season. If that is true, the Rojiblancos' strategy of winning all of their home matches could work out, granting them the second spot. That said, their away form of late is shameful with four losses and one draw in their last five games, uncharacteristic of the battle-hardened Diego Simeone squad.

We start to see old habits reborn, and thus I'll put my money on the home side. After a tough Europa League defeat in the Calderon, something tells me that Atleti won't try too hard in Valladolid.

9. Espanyol (13th) - Betis (8th): 1.

I have to admit I felt sceptical when Javier Aguirre was named Espanyol's new coach, even though he'd proven a certain ability to keep afloat seemingly sinking ships. However, he's exceeding all expectations. Two months ago, Espanyol were dead meat. In ten matches, the Periquitos have claimed 19 points, including 13 out of a possible 15 in their last five matches. Four consecutive home wins has seen the fans get behind the squad, which now looks confident beyond belief. Hats off to the Mexican.

And I can't see why this trend should not continue. Betis arrive in Barcelona without two key players - Ruben Castro and Salva Sevilla - and in a four match winless drought that took them out of Europa League positions for the first time in four months. It's time for the Espanyolistas to start dreaming.

10. Real Madrid (3rd) - Rayo Vallecano (6th): 1.

This is a tough one. In all likelihood, Jose Mourinho will utilize this match to train specific weaknesses of his team for the most important week of the season - from Feb 26 to March 5 - during which the Merengues will have to play the second legs of their Copa del Rey and Champions League ties, with a La Liga mega-derby sandwiched in between. If Mou follows my expert advice, his players should constantly concede corners so they can properly train set pieces, their biggest defensive flaw, in a real match situation.

I doubt an upset is on the cards, though. This one looks like a classic vindication match from the under-fire striker pair of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, who'll probably score a couple each, generating a week of over enthusiastic covers from the Madrid newspapers. Whether that duo is enough to eliminate Manchester United and Barcelona is a different story.

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

Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 99/230 (43%)

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