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Feb 22, 2013

European hopes take a hit

A couple of weeks ago, when the last-16 round of the Champions League was about to start, the usual wave of over-optimistic patriotism appeared in the Spanish media. La Liga aimed at a 'pleno' - all four teams making it to the next round - as that was indeed what the best league in the world should aspire to.

However, the first leg has gone by leaving behind a collection of setbacks. Indeed, three defeats and one home draw hardly feel like reason to celebrate. As usual, Spain's balanced media have gone to the other - defeatist extreme. Judging by Thursday's press clips, you'd say all four teams have already been eliminated, the second leg becoming an annoying formality.

It is neither here, nor there, dear colleagues. If there's something we know about knockout tournaments, it is that a good first leg result gives you a certain advantage to prepare for the second match, but hardly means that you're bound to go through. Valencia, Malaga, Real Madrid and Barcelona weren't that good two weeks ago, and of course they're not that bad today either.

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

1. Athletic de Bilbao (15th) - Real Sociedad (6th): 1.

The most interesting Friday evening match so far this season is no less than a Basque derby. That's already an exciting game in its own right, but add the fact that it'll be the last of these high profile encounters to be played in the wonderful San Mames, as well as the hosts' desperate need for a win, and the impressive sequence of the visitors - seven wins, six draws and only one defeat in their last fourteen matches - and this has all the makings of a classic.

The Bilbainos had shown glimpses of their previous selves early on in 2013 but lost steam with two consecutive defeats in which they didn't score. As though it were necessary, Bielsa also did his bit to stir things up during the week. Asked about his record after 100 matches in charge of the Leones, his rocky answer was: "Negative, it couldn't be any other way". He then went on to complain about things only he understands. Classic El Loco.

This pick comes down to the weight of history. It would be a fantastic memory for the Realistas to close their appearances in San Mames with a famous victory, but they haven't won there since 2001 and the very committed Leones won't let that happen. Otherwise they'll suffer shame and disgrace in their own city until the end of times. No pressure there, folks.

2. Mallorca (19th) - Getafe (11th): 2.

As long as Mallorca keep giving goals away on set pieces, their relegation-bound status will not change. We did see an enthusiastic squad in Valencia creating chances and enjoying more of the ball, but their umpteenth mistake defending a corner cost them another three points. And when the visitors are no other than Getafe who, according to whoscored.com, thrill on attacking set pieces and aerial duels, an away win sounds likely. Well, unless you believe that Mallorca's boss Gregorio Manzano can teach his squad a thing or two about defending corners in just a week.

3. Zaragoza (17th) - Valencia (5th): 2.

Valencia's boss Ernesto Valverde took over two and a half months ago. In that period of time, Valencia have played ten matches - including fixtures against Real Madrid and Barcelona - with the following record: 7W, 1D, 2L. This sequence took the Ches from the 12th to 5th spot in the La Liga standings. Not bad, eh?

Well, guess what. During Sunday's win over Mallorca, Valverde's substitutions - one of them forced by Tino Costa's red card after only 27 minutes - were booed beyond belief by the Mestalla faithful. "Sometimes it's tough to play in this stadium," Valverde said after his team held on for victory. He should know.

One of the keys to Valencia's recovery is their performance away from the Mestalla, with Valverde's side having won their last four matches on the road. Their visit to La Romareda offers an excellent chance to keep their hopes of securing a Champions League spot alive. A depressed Zaragoza, flirting again with relegation after seven winless matches, hardly look like a threat.

4. Deportivo de La Coruna (20th) - Real Madrid (3rd): X. We've been here before, haven't we? An away match, nothing to play for, an opponent in desperate need of three points, an unwelcoming stadium, a couple of defensive mistakes, struggling to create chances. Real Madrid are in cruise control in La Liga, which means that they win their home matches and do the bare minimum when they travel. However, I don't think that Depor can score against the Madridistas. I know that Granada didn't even need a shot on goal to defeat them, but I wouldn't bet on another own goal for Depor to win this one. Given that their boss, the recently appointed Fernando Vazquez, knows a thing or two about shutting down big teams, let's go for a draw that should give his squad some encouragement for the remainder of the season.

5. Barcelona (1st) - Sevilla (10th): 1.

Yes, they're mortal. Yes, they lose matches. Yes, there's ways to defeat them. But for that to happen, their opponents must pull off an almost perfect display in both attack and defence, and the Blaugranas have to play clearly below their own high standards, especially in the attacking third. That's why it happens so rarely, and that's why the return leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against AC Milan at the Camp Nou sounds mouth-watering.

Even factoring in Barcelona's hectic calendar - including the Copa del Rey semi final against Real Madrid on Tuesday - the Azulgranas should take care of Sevilla. They play at home, are hurt in their pride after their defeat in San Siro, and have several players wanting to prove their worth.

The visitors, clearly improved since Unai Emery took over, haven't won at the Camp Nou since 2002, when Joan Gaspart was Barcelona's President. That feels like a century ago, and honestly I can't see it happening again on Saturday.

6. Rayo Vallecano (7th) - Valladolid (13th): 1.

These two clubs have become extremely pleasant surprises this season, although Valladolid have not won in their last four matches as an injury plague has taken its toll on the team. "If someone's concerned with the results here, just imagine how they feel in La Coruna," Valladolid boss Miroslav Djukic said when asked about the increasing pressure on his shoulders. To prove his point, the Vallisoletanos still sit closer to Europa League spots than to the relegation zone, so there no cause for concern just yet. One still favours Rayo, who have been impeccable in their last four home matches, to win this one.

7. Celta Vigo (18th) - Granada (14th): 2.

The most bizarre sequence of events this week took place in Vigo. On Monday, Celta President Carlos Mourino decided to fire coach Paco Herrera and replace him with Abel Resino, a reasonable enough name if you need someone to get your team out of trouble. Mourino only forgot to tell Herrera, who found out he'd been made redundant through the media.

The president also failed to remember that one of Abel's assistants, former forward Salva Ballesta, had been in serious trouble with the extreme left-wing Celta supporters during his playing career because of his ultra-conservative ideology. Apparently, the Celtarras got in touch with Mourino, demanded him not to hire Salva, and the president obliged.

This was a non-issue for Abel himself, who took the job anyway and left his right-hand unemployed. "It's a decision made by the club, period," said Abel, becoming more of a Cain in the process. This column believes in karma, and all this mess can't end well. Granada will maintain their positive run since Lucas Alcaraz took over.

8. Atletico de Madrid (2nd) - Espanyol (12th): X.

Atletico are back to their old selves. Their Europa League exit was trademark Atleti, and here is why: 1. They played a terrible first-leg, losing 2-0 at home in a match plagued with ill-advised decisions. 2. They sent a side with several fringe players to start in the second leg, as though elimination wasn't a big deal. 3. That side scored with seven minutes to go, roping most of their followers into the belief of a miraculous comeback, as the tournament suddenly seemed to matter a lot and 4. They obviously fell short. That is Atleti in essence.

And if Espanyol really are what they've shown since boss Javier Aguirre took over, the Rojiblancos better watch out. Their perfect home record is bound to be broken, although I'm not macho enough to go for an away win.

9. Betis (8th) - Malaga (4th): X.

At some point, we knew this would happen. Betis's slump in form has finally arrived, with a mere total of two points in their last five matches. This means that boss Pepe Mel has decided to take his players to a hotel for three days to avoid distractions. I'm not sure this will make a huge difference against Malaga's stellar defence, although they are still granted a draw.

10. Levante (9th) - Osasuna (16th): 1.

Last week I forgot that Levante had already won the status of being a 'big' club in this column, which means that we should trust them to win at home and at least draw away against most clubs. Osasuna is one of them. They won't be able to stop the Levantinistas, exultant after another impressive display in the Europa League.

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

Last week: 8/10 (80%)
Season: 107/240 (44%)

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