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Mar 1, 2013

A dull finale awaits

During the last few seasons, most La Liga followers - this scribe included - have revelled in the large number of subplots the league standings have provided. The title race was previously reserved to two candidates, but it was indeed a race. Add the relegation battle involving half of the table, and five or six teams fighting over the remaining Champions League and Europa League spots, and the Spanish football fanatics have had plenty of stuff to discuss in the past.

This year, and not unlike other top European leagues, most of that fun seems over with a third of the season still to be played. There's no race for the title, while at the other end of the table two teams - Mallorca and Deportivo - look as good as relegated, with Celta looking like a very qualified - or unqualified - third candidate. The only real competition takes place between the fourth and sixth spots, but no one watches any tournament to find out who'll finish fifth, right?

Not to flog this subject to death, but La Liga urgently requires a set of measures to improve its clubs' finances to increase its competitiveness. There'll always be bigger and smaller, richer and poorer, but there are ways to introduce a certain balance to proceedings. We will all be better off for it.

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

1. Getafe (9th) - Zaragoza (17th): 1.

"We're not allowed to mention the word 'Europe' in the dressing room," says the reasonable Jaime Gavilan, Getafe's skipper. Two consecutive wins have taken the Azulones to the upper half of the table, and once there, daydreaming starts to happen even if you try to avoid it. Led by their no-nonsense coach, Luis Garcia, the squad keep publicly talking about fighting relegation, but they all know that if they take care of lowly Zaragoza on Friday, Europe is indeed a possibility.

The visitors, missing five injured players, haven't won since December. Without their best player, goalkeeper Roberto, they'll have to wait at least another week.

2. Real Madrid (3rd) - Barcelona (1st): 2.

On paper, it's hard to decide which one of the two giants cares less about this derby, as La Liga has become an annoyance to their seasons.

The Madridistas need to be fresh for Manchester United on Tuesday, and already feel good about themselves after their dominating Copa del Rey victory at the Camp Nou. Why endanger the health of any starter in a competition that's over for them? Real could field a B-side with Antonio Adan, Jese Rodriguez and Kaka, although that would probably irritate the old school Merengues. In his line-up, Jose Mourinho will have to juggle between his team's upcoming challenge in Manchester and the thirst for Azulgrana blood that the public will very likely show on Saturday at the Bernabeu.

A similar logic would apply to the Barca, and Andres Iniesta ratified this on Wednesday: "We need to focus all of our strength on AC Milan," he said. With a 12-point advantage, what is the point of risking an injury in Madrid? However, there's a huge difference in Barcelona's case - they do need a win to get some of their swagger back after their system's flaws were exposed by Milan and Real in the past two weeks. With or without Cesc Fabregas, with or without David Villa, the Catalans will go to the Bernabeu dying to prove they're not done. Pay attention to a tiny bloke who goes by the name of Leo... he'll be out for revenge.

3. Deportivo de La Coruna (20th) - Rayo Vallecano (8th): 1.

Random prediction: One of the bottom two teams will pull off a classic great escape with a shockingly good run of form to end the season. Now it's a question of picking between Fernando Vazquez - the Spanish Arrigo Sacchi - or Gregorio Manzano - Mallorca's equivalent of Chelsea's Rafael Benitez.

My vote goes to Vazquez, if only because his players look to have thrown their support behind the recently appointed manager. If they want to build momentum, the Deportivistas must start winning now, against their former centre back Paco Jemez, by breaking down the tactics of Rayo's successful coach. It won't be a pretty win, but all the hosts need is three points.

4. Osasuna (14th) - Athletic de Bilbao (16th): 1.

A month ago, some of us still thought there was light at the end of the tunnel for Marcelo Bielsa and Athletic. That light proved to be a high-speed train coming their way very, very fast. "No one ever enjoys full trust, especially when results don't go our way," declared Athletic's vice president Jose Angel Corres, in a not-so-subtle suggestion that the eccentric Argentinean boss should be shown the door.

This high stakes match at the Reyno de Navarra almost sounds like a final, and if we are to judge by Cesar Cruchaga's opinion, Iker Muniain - the former Osasuna youth team player who controversially emigrated to Bilbao - felt the pressure in advance and forced his fifth yellow last weekend to avoid the likely 'persona non grata' treatment that would have been waiting for him in Pamplona. "Es un cagon ('He's a wimp')," Cruchaga said.

Osasuna also enjoy the services of a former Athletic employee, boss Jose Luis Mendilibar, and of a rumoured target of the Bilbainos, the classy Kike Sola, so this is a must-watch. The home team, a far more stable outfit, gets the nod.

5. Valencia (5th) - Levante (10th): 1.

It has been a turbulent week leading up to this Valencia derby, especially in Levante. Their best offensive weapon, Obafemi Martins, just received an offer from MLS side Seattle Sounders and wants to leave as soon as possible. The Azulgranas demand his buyout clause - a discreet €3 million - be paid in full, but Seattle clearly trust that Martins will be able to get out of his contract. The Americans received the surprising support of Levante's manager Jose Ignacio Martinez, who instead of keeping quiet about the whole issue, has already declared that "any player who's not 100% with us may leave whenever he wants to". Great way to improve your club's bargaining power in an already tough negotiation.

Valencia, interested in bringing Raul Albiol back from Real Madrid, have an uphill battle next week in their Champions League second leg against PSG, so I'd be surprised if coach Ernesto Valverde rests players as Los Che look to qualify for the competition again next season. Levante, on the other hand, need to save some energy to face Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, among all the noise of the Martins affair. This will be an easy home win.

6. Granada (15th) - Mallorca (19th): 1.

Given the fact that this column chose Deportivo as the most likely candidate for the great escape, Mallorca should accept their Segunda Division fate. And when you read that Gregorio Manzano's biggest concern is the shocking mental frailty his players have shown in each match since he took over, the end seems near. Granada have proven much more competitive after Lucas Alcaraz joined the club, and now they only need Diego Buonanotte to show his worth and provide that offensive bite they lack.

7. Espanyol (13th) - Valladolid (11th): 2.

I may be wrong - as is the case 57% of the time - but something tells me that now that they feel safe, Espanyol have shifted their focus. The classic 'all that matters is the next match' speech from a team on a mission has been replaced by a mixture of 'who will stay and who will go?' and 'who could we sign for a decent price next season?'. There's still plenty of matches to play, and Valladolid have shown they know how to win away from home when their hosts don't concentrate on the task at hand.

8. Malaga (4th) - Atletico de Madrid (2nd): 1.

During the week, Atletico drew with Sevilla to reach another Copa del Rey final, which further cements the legend of boss Diego Simeone. The only thing this demi-god is still missing, a comprehensive victory over city rivals Real Madrid, could finally happen in the Copa del Rey final, which would be an unforgettable achievement for Atletico.

But this version of Atletico, incredibly dependent on Diego Costa's antics, keeps showing its weaknesses match after match. One of them, a limited bench, will be tested after Tiago's arm injury, which depletes the Rojiblancos of their first option to refresh their already tired midfield. A more important one, their need for Costa to stay on the pitch, will cost them dearly in the near future, as the Brazilian, one of this column's favourite players since his time at Valladolid, doesn't seem to know when to stop his provocative routines.

Malaga took two days off against serious rivals - Porto and Betis - and got two defeats for their troubles. We expect a better version of the Malacitanos on Sunday, as they take advantage of a classic letdown match by Atletico.

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

Real Sociedad's project with Philippe Montanier keeps growing. This group will tell their grandsons that they won at San Mames in the last derby played there, but they are also on track for bigger and better things. Assuming they renew the Frenchman's contract and can keep regular starters like Carlos Vela, the future looks rosy for the Realistas. The visitors, fresh after a balsamic win over Betis, will very likely take a day off to see San Sebastian, a city of impressive beauty.

10. Sevilla (12th) - Celta (18th): X.

The ugliest match of the weekend features hosts Sevilla, in the aftermath of their Copa del Rey elimination, and visitors Celta, with ultra-conservative manager Abel Resino at the helm. The home side will miss Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gary Medel - call it 'the Diego Costa hangover'. Celta will play with their eleven men and the coach in their own half. Expect an extremely boring stalemate.

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

Last week: 2/10 (20%)
Season: 109/250 (44%)

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