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Mar 29, 2013

A farewell prediction

In November of 2009, right after Phil Ball came back from his sabbatical, I wrote my first Quiniela. From the perspective of ESPN FC's La Liga coverage, it made sense to have a preview of the weekend matches to complement Phil's classic Monday morning column. The fact that I had the lack of sanity to predict the outcome of the matches gave the column an intriguing twist, even if most of the times my accuracy was mediocre at best.

During these three and a half years, I have written over 120 Quinielas. Thanks to the readers, the column has grown to enjoy one of the most constructive, well informed and entertaining comment threads in this era of trolling. It got to the point that I spend more time reading the comments than writing the article, as the readers keep the conversation going for the whole weekend. Unfortunately, we haven't had a perfect 10, which proves how difficult this prediction game is, but we have been mighty close a couple of times.

Now it's my time to take some time off. For the next year, the Quiniela girlfriend and I will be travelling around Africa and Asia, doing the sights and some volunteer work, but more importantly, thinking of what we really want to do with our lives after several years of quite stressful full-time jobs.

I'll be back to my writing endeavours once in a while during the trip, and will take a two-week break from my own sabbatical - hats off, please - to write about the Confederation Cup in Brazil this summer. And before we start, I must thank my editors for their amazing job of making sense of my broken English and my random jokes, which do not always go well together.

Well, let's start.

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

1. Rayo Vallecano (9th) - Málaga (6th): 1.

The 'Weekend before a Champions League knockout round match' syndrome will bring us at least three upsets in this memorable Quiniela. The first of them will see Rayo defeat Malaga in Vallecas.

Almost a fortnight ago, the Rayistas proved devotion to their style by keeping Barcelona under 60% of ball possession for the first time in ages. Not that they got a result, but at least they didn't back down when facing the Azulgranas. Malaga, with too many plates in the air - Champions League football next season, Manuel Pellegrini's future and the Sheik's commitment to the club, just to name a few - will drop at least this one in the coming weeks.

2. Celta (19th) - Barcelona (1st): X.

The news from Barcelona can't be misinterpreted: this match is not a priority. Not only the Azulgrana will miss Adriano, Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba and Pedro due to injuries and suspensions, but Xavi Hernandez will not travel to Vigo, as the upcoming Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain is all the Catalans can think of right now. Add in Lionel Messi's exhausting trip to Bolivia during the week and, rest assured, we won't see Barcelona's best version on Saturday.

And who would blame them? A 13 point advantage gives you some leeway after all. However, Celta look so disjointed on and off the pitch - they just limited the use of social networks among their players - that I can't see them beating Barcelona. Prepare for a chaotic match in which you should glimpse promising youngster Gerard Deulofeu. And of course, the match welcomes Tito Vilanova back to Barcelona's bench in what is probably the best news of the weekend.

3. Zaragoza (17th) - Real Madrid (2nd): 1.

Last season, Hamit Altintop would play in this meaningless Real Madrid match. This season, he's just waiting to exact revenge over the club, the Madrid media and those heartless journalists who made fun of him during his brief tenure in the Casa Blanca. Galatasaray, the Turkish Barcelona according to Hamit, await, and the Merengues and their coach Jose Mourinho know better than risking a few players before what feels like the umpteenth match of the season at this point. And, by the way, no risk means that Iker Casillas will start. Feel free to draw your own conclusions from that.

While the Madridistas dream of the Decima - their tenth European Cup - Zaragoza can't afford to keep their winless streak alive much longer. Four points and no wins in 11 matches spell R-E-L-E-G-A-T-I-O-N out loud. But with the comeback of Apoño, Zaragoza's good luck charm, the Blanquillos should give their faithful something to brag about in this rainy Easter.

4. Levante (11th) - Sevilla (10th): X. "I wish I were wrong, but I'm pretty sure it'll take time for us (Levante) to play in Europe again," said full-back Juanfran on Thursday. The defender, more eloquent with words than with the ball at his feet, makes a sensible point that should bring most Levantinistas back to reality: the magic spell has come to an end. The 'other' team from Valencia can't over deliver every single season with such a limited budget, and this year's calendar, with Barcelona and Real Madrid still left to play against, foretells a bottom-half of the table finish for the Azulgranas.

Sevilla can't understand the reasons behind their poor results away from home, with two points won of the last 18. ('We haven't found the key, but we need to get to the European spots one way or the other.') If they don't, Unai Emery will probably feel like Bill Murray trapped in Punxsutawney. After four seasons selling his best players in Valencia, the last thing he needs is another dose of that in Sevilla.

5. Valladolid (12th) - Osasuna (15th): X. If you think these two teams fare closer than expected in the standings, well so do I. But the reality is that Valladolid have seven more points than Osasuna, a more telling sign of their different seasons. This match brings the visitors' coach Jose Luis Mendilibar back to the stadium where he was fired three years ago, so there's our required bit of Morbo for the weekend.

To tell you the truth, this won't be pretty. Both teams haven't won in their last three and will be happy to get one point closer to salvation.

6. Mallorca (18th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (20th): 1. A few weeks ago this column predicted that either Mallorca or Depor, at that point looking like already relegated clubs, would not get the drop. I picked Depor, but the facts quickly demonstrated that Mallorca was the chosen one. Don't let Depor's recent derby win fool you: Mallorca's coach Gregorio Manzano has this under control. "What looked impossible is now possible," he stated this week after his team got two wins in three matches. Only two points away from relegation, Mallorca have everything to send Depor down and get more teams involved in the trouble zone. In Manzano we trust.

7. Espanyol (13th) - Real Sociedad (4th): 2.

If you haven't watched Real Sociedad in the last few weeks and rightly suspect that Phil Ball is somewhat biased in favour of the Realistas, you may be wondering how good they really are. The answer from this column, an icon of objective football journalism - unless we're discussing a certain team who plays Match 8 this weekend - is that they are shockingly good.

Not only do they have a handful of skilful players, but the way they play together is fluid, quick, entertaining and fun to watch. They have hit their stride and look even better away from Anoeta, so couple this with Espanyol's obvious relaxation after a fantastic sequence of matches - how have they not renewed coach Javier Aguirre's contract yet? - and this looks like the first away win of the, for the time being, last Quiniela.

8. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) - Valencia (5th): 2.

I know that Roberto Soldado can't play on Sunday. I know that Atletico have every single player available for this match. I know that the hosts have been almost spotless at the Calderon and that Valencia have been only average away from the Mestalla. I know that Diego Simeone looks like someone who knows how to lead, while Ernesto Valverde seems a tad bit soft to guide his players to do something really outstanding. I know, in summary, that this match looks like a '1'.

However, Atletico's backbone travelled overseas for the international dates, Valencia really enjoy playing Atletico at the Calderon and this scribe couldn't possibly write the final Quiniela of the season tipping the Rojiblancos to win. So there.

9. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) - Granada (16th): 1. The first of two Monday night matches will bring some tranquillity to the Bilbainos. If we know coach Marcelo Bielsa, he's prepared this match by taking advantage of the international break, which means 14 full days of analysis and training to defeat Granada. He probably knows Granada's playbook better than opposing coach Luis Alcaraz.

Bielsa also has some tricks up his sleeve: he'll play with three centre-backs on Monday, which sounds like an excessive precaution against the third worst scoring side of the tournament, but that's what Athletic's back four indeed deserve. In any case, Athletic can't lose this one, or at least that's what the Bilbainos I know keep telling me non-stop.

10. Betis (7th) - Getafe (8th): X.

Hidden in the last spot of the weekend, an entertaining match between two overachievers that can still play in Europe next season, led by two excellent coaches in Pepe Mel and Luis Garcia. Betis play better away from home, while Getafe have stronger results at the Coliseum, so let's end this Quiniela with a neutral, peaceful and forward-looking 'X'.

Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. It's the last chance for someone to get all ten correct, so give it a go.

1. Rayo Vallecano (9th) - Málaga (6th):
2. Celta (19th) - Barcelona (1st):
3. Zaragoza (17th) - Real Madrid (2nd):
4. Levante (11th) - Sevilla (10th):
5. Valladolid (12th) - Osasuna (15th):

6. Mallorca (18th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (20th):

7. Espanyol (13th) - Real Sociedad (4th):

8. Atlético de Madrid (3rd) - Valencia (5th):

9. Athletic de Bilbao (14th) - Granada (16th):

10. Betis (7th) - Getafe (8th): Last week: 7/10 (70%)
Season: 123/280 (44%)

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