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Europa League round of 16 draw

Europa League

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Ramos back in Real Madrid training

Real Madrid

Best is yet to come

"The hard bit starts now", Jose Mourinho said on Wednesday. Indeed, the Madridistas may be thinking highly of themselves, but they still haven't won anything and sit 13 points away from Barcelona in La Liga. The Catalans looked dead a week ago and now feel entitled to aspire to an impressive double. For both Real Madrid and Barcelona, their recent performances in their Champions League ties have brought life to an otherwise languishing season, adding to their successful campaigns in Copa del Rey and Liga respectively, the hint of flair it needed. Even if La Liga has become a formality for the top three, what remains of the Champions League should have an impact on line-ups, rest, injuries and level of energy. Add to that the upcoming FIFA international dates and we could well see one or two top teams suffering shocking defeats from now until the end of the season. Something tells me that the best is yet to come. Let's start. Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win. 1. Deportivo de La Coruña (20th) - Celta (19th): 1. Not only this could go in the history books as the most depressing Galician derby ever, but it also looks like a clear case of victory or relegation - "win or die", as bluntly put by Celta's striker Iago Aspas - especially for the home side. The Deportivistas, with seven losses in their last eight, have not looked like a Primera side for most of the season, despite two coaching changes. However, the visitors will have to play with a make-do midfield, after losing both Alex Lopez and Natxo Insa to injuries, and the romantic in me still believes that Juan Carlos Valeron has a couple of virtuoso performances left before all is said and done. Depor will go down, but not without putting a mild fight first. 2. Real Sociedad (5th) - Valladolid (11th): 1. Two over-achievers at different points of their respective seasons meet at Anoeta. After winning at El Calderon - not even this column saw that one coming - the hosts are undoubtedly playing their best football of the season. Valladolid have fallen in production recently, in part explained by the injury to one of their best players, midfielder Patrick Ebert, who will be back for this match. Even if the German starts, it seems too early for him to deal with the in-form Realista midfield. A win could leave Real Sociedad in Champions League territory, so expect a full house and an energetic display from Philippe Montanier's squad. 3. Getafe (9th) - Athletic de Bilbao (14th): 1. With two victories in a row, Athletic have reverted to the yo-yo trend they have decided to follow this season. Just when it seemed as though they wanted to flirt with the relegation zone, wins against Osasuna and Valencia gave them some breathing space. Can they win their third in a row? I don't think so. They still look disjointed and dependent on random events, such as Iker Muniain scoring a cracker last weekend. After four wins in their last six, Getafe feel the inviting smell of European competitions, and with Pedro León back, they have enough to take care of the Bilbainos. 4. Real Madrid (2nd) - Mallorca (18th): 1. You didn't quite believe me three weeks ago when I said that either Depor or Mallorca would avoid relegation, did you? I did choose the wrong horse, I'll give you that, but now it's clear that the Mallorquinistas, with consecutive victories, can pull off the great escape. But that prediction - Mallorca's salvation - does not contemplate an upset in Madrid, so could this match become a momentum killer for Mallorca? Nah. Once you see that Marti and Javier Marquez picked up suspensions last weekend, and that no less than five players currently appear in Mallorca's injury list, you'd be forgiven for believing in some kind of planned day off by gaffer Gregorio Manzano. Their next match at home, against Deportivo, is much more important to the Mallorquinistas than their yearly tour around the Bernabeu. With their starters on the pitch, Real Madrid will try to cement their recently gained second spot, while the upcoming controversy over who should be in goal quietly builds up. 5. Valencia (7th) - Betis (6th): 1. A Champions League spot might be in play here when all is said and done. Ernesto Valverde steadied the ship in Valencia, but has lacked a bit of luck as well as a bit of boldness in key matches - think Paris or Bilbao, plagued with conservative decisions, both in the last ten days. Betis, less consistent than the standings show, can light it up on a given match or not show up altogether. In this case I'll pull a Valverde and take the conservative option: Valencia to win and the irascible Roberto Soldado to score. 6. Málaga (4th) - Espanyol (13th): X. Most of us will be surprised if Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini, patiently building an enviable career by taking average teams with resources to the next level, stays in Malaga next season. His squad, fourth in La Liga and qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions League, have already overachieved after a turbulent nine months during which salaries were not paid, top players were sold by fifty cents to the euro, and the absence of a decision maker in the club was sorely felt for long periods of time. But before Pellegrini ponders his alternatives, Malaga need to take care of a few issues. Given their ban from European competitions next season, it's hard to see them prioritise La Liga, and their huge effort on Wednesday will probably show on Sunday. Espanyol, in the middle of a long negotiation to renew Joan Verdu's contract, have lost their initial energy under coach Javier Aguirre. A draw makes sense. 7. Sevilla (12th) - Zaragoza (17th): 1. Sevilla know how to win a home match - 28 of their 35 points came from matches at the Sanchez Pizjuan. It's their unjustifiable away form - the third worst record in La Liga - that keeps the Sevillistas distant from Europa League spots. Having won their last five at home, it's hard to picture anything but a '1' here, especially when Zaragoza haven't obtained three points in any of their last ten matches. "Our buffer is history", boss Manuel Jimenez said last Wednesday with a hint of desperation in his voice. Sooner rather than later, his squad will need to re-enact last season's heroics, which granted Jimenez icon treatment in Zaragoza. Otherwise, the Segunda Division will feature prominently in the Blanquillos' future. 8. Osasuna (15th) - Atlético de Madrid (3rd): 1. "At this point, Diego Costa is more important than (Radamel) Falcao", Osasuna's centre back Alejandro Arribas stated. He's right, and that is probably one of the reasons for Atleti's recent dip in form, combined with the obvious limitations of their bench. Costa can't help monopolising most of what happens when he's on the pitch, good and bad. His style of play brings happiness and concern alike to the Rojiblancos, who have embraced him as a hero, while the team appear to have forgotten how to play for Falcao rather than thorough Costa. That subtle difference can cost them dear. 9. Granada (16th) - Levante (10th): 1. Predictable letdown game from Levante, who left the Europa League at the hands of Rubin Kazan after a freezing extra-time match in Russia. Another away trip coupled with the absence of their best striker, Obafemi Martins, who left for MLS side Seattle Sounders at the beginning of the week, spells defeat. Granada should get a very valuable three points. 10. Barcelona (1st) - Rayo Vallecano (8th): 1. Wasn't this supposed to be the end of a cycle? Weren't the Barcelonistas done and over with? Didn't these last two weeks give us enough reasons to believe that their approach demanded fresh blood on the pitch and a new tactical thinker outside of it? Well, I guess not. Barcelona's victory against AC Milan had a certain taste of going back to their roots, as the Azulgranas also recovered certain players for the cause. They'll have a field day against Rayo, who will miss three key players - Leo Baptistão, Javi Fuego and José Manuel Casado - due to strategically planned yellow cards in their previous match. Factoring in Rayo's careless defence, this one should become a rout. 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, or maybe not. 1. Deportivo de La Coruña (20th) - Celta (19th): 1
2. Real Sociedad (5th) - Valladolid (11th): 1
3. Getafe (9th) -Athletic de Bilbao (14th): 1
4. Real Madrid (2nd) - Mallorca (18th): 1
5. Valencia (7th) - Betis (6th): 1
6. Málaga (4th) - Espanyol (13th): X
7. Sevilla (12th) - Zaragoza (17th): 1
8. Osasuna (15th) - Atlético de Madrid (3rd): 1
9. Granada (16th) - Levante (10th): 1
10. Barcelona (1st) - Rayo Vallecano (8th): 1

Last week: 6/10 (60%)
Season: 116/270 (43%)


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