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Semifinal matchups

#UltimateUCL 3 days ago
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The 22 Champions League winners

#UltimateUCL Sep 7, 2014
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Apr 26, 2013

Series of sideshows

There is only one game to watch this weekend - Levante versus Celta of course. Or, if you prefer a bit more meat on your menu del dia, there is always the prospect of Barcelona winning the league title, Zaragoza being all-but relegated or Atletico finally putting a 14-year hoodoo against the noisy neighbour to rest at the Calderon.

I write this against a backdrop of a police helicopter and plenty of flashing lights as yet another protest in the capital unfolds. Unemployment in my adopted country hit 27% today, and while the bankers and politicians line their pockets, the common man starves.

Someone once said religion is the opium of the masses. In Spain, football fills that particular void. The people could do with a little cheer, especially after Spain's rough handling by the Bundesliga this midweek peeled off another layer of what remains of national self-esteem. Radical upheaval is required to set this country straight. Hell, I might even form an independent political platform based on fairness, transparency, and proportional representation.

But it is the weekend, so for now, I'll settle for a slightly less embarrassing return on the Quiniela than last week.

1. Rayo (8th) - Osasuna (15th): 1

Friday night's game will take place under the floodlights of the Estadio de Vallecas -- unless someone cuts the wires again as once occurred before the visit of Real Madrid. A small aside for Trivial Pursuits fans: my club, Charlton Athletic, was the first in England to be targeted by an Asian betting ring that fixed matches by blowing the lights when the result suited them, and at a point in the game where the rule book prevented a replay. After 70 minutes or so if memory serves.

The Rayo lights-out was performed by a disgruntled fan, who did not care much for the club's financial plight, and paradoxically chose to inflict some costly damage to vent his spleen. Now solvent, stable and chasing a European berth, Rayo looks good for a win here in a stadium that last year couldn't even pay the electricity bill. Osasuna is famous for being flaky on the road and with top scorer Piti awaiting a contract sit-down, I fancy an unsung Liga hero to bag the points here.

2. Levante (12th) - Celta (19th): 2

The big one, for Celta fans at least. For Levante, the season has been over for some time and Juan Ignacio Martinez's side has been stuffed in two of its last three outings. A loss by the single goal in Barcelona last weekend was conditioned more by the home side not caring two hoots about the match than any resilience on the part of the visitor.

Out of European contention, out of Europe, and safe from relegation, Levante is like a care home patient willing himself to be in with a shout of a final fling with a pretty nurse, in the full knowledge that he's too far down the line to do anything about it anyway.

Meanwhile, Celta is riding high - well, in 19th place - after a dramatic last-gasp win at Zaragoza and welcomes Iago Aspas back to the fold after the striker's ill-advised rearrangement of Carlos Marchena's face. The Vigo club is royally screwed financially if they go down and this is the sort of game they need to get points from. Everything logically then points to an away win.

3. Athletic (14th) - Barcelona (1st): X

A curious conundrum for Barcelona at San Mames; win, and they may wrap up the title. But with the almost impossible task of running roughshod over Bayern next week in the Champions League, the suspicion is that Athletic will get a fairly easy ride here.

This is the final mini-clasico in a stadium that has seen its fair share and while Athletic, their fans, the board and the city of Bilbao at large would not particularly mind Barcelona winning the league on its turf, I have the distinct feeling that the azulgrana will have to wait a further week for its domestic laurels.

4. Atletico Madrid (3rd) - Real Madrid (2nd): 1

The footballing gods did not smile on Real Madrid in Dortmund, although your columnist certainly did when number four hit the back of the net. In Atletico's case, divine interest has for 14 years been the same as hearing the words "Jesus loves you" at the start of a similar stretch in a South American jail.

But the gods are smiling on the banks of the Manzanares this weekend, although the weather is not, which portends a wet backside for yours truly in a stadium with more leaks than a Spanish political party. Radamel Falcao, Atleti's get-out-of-jail-free goal machine, is back in the scoring mood. Arda Turan might be fit and even if not, The Onion, Koke and Adrian have been doing enough to make the opposition weep in the absence of the stylish Turk.

Brazil international Diego Costa (words I never thought would feature in one sentence) has had his yellow card against Sevilla very kindly withdrawn by the Disciplinary Committee and Real will field a weakened side with Dortmund in mind. The added impetus of condemning the reigning champion to the status of former if Barcelona should win will not be lost on the players or Real-despising maniac Diego Simeone.

It's going to happen. This year is the end of Atletico's derby sentence. 2-1. Bingo.

5. Zaragoza (20th) - Mallorca (18th). 1

To pinch a phrase from knight of the realm Sir Alex Ferguson, it's squeaky bum time at La Romareda. Zaragoza has had nothing but six-pointers recently - sandwiched between matches against Barca and Real - and it has not earned a single one. Celta's late winner last weekend was a hammer blow and anything other than victory here will pretty much send The Wasps down to the second tier.

The unemployment mention in the intro was not random. Many of Zaragoza's players will find themselves in the ever-lengthening line if the club descends, and there will not be many takers. The home side is dishing out cheap tickets in a bid to fill the stands for what really is that oft-bandied misnomer in Spain: "A cup final."

I've always been fascinated by Helder Postiga. What a striker who has amassed more than 50 caps for his country and hoicked in a goal almost every two games is doing at Zaragoza is a mystery. However, I fancy the pricy Portuguese to earn his keep in a minimum home win here, bringing to an end the side's longest winless run since the Second World War.

6.Espanyol (12th) - Granada (17th): 1

Another team with the icy grip of Segunda on its shoulder, Granada cannot rely purely on the sides beneath being more rancid than they are.

The visitor has Carlos Miranda, Yacine Brahimi and Diego Mainz newly available but Espanyol is on a roll and Granada's weaknesses were ruthlessly exploited by Atletico a couple of weeks ago. Sergio Garcia is not far off when he says he isn't completely out of the running for a crack at the national team and the Spaniard's trusty boots will see off the Andalusian strugglers at Cornella.

7. Malaga (6th) - Getafe (9th): 1

In my street, there is a shop called the happy market. I find the name hilarious because the people behind the counter, the customers and the place itself are anything but cheerful-looking. I think the idea is that the prices should make you happy - or as happy as you can be purchasing plastic crap that will fall apart no sooner than the till slams shut.

I often think about Getafe when in the happy market (they sell light bulbs too. Got to get them somewhere). The atmosphere in the Coliseum most weekends is like browsing in the gloomy den of disposable junk. Getafe's players must be glad to play away - at least they know someone will be watching.

But the trip to Malaga portends little cheer for the travelling contingent. Although the home side is running out of steam, it seems unlikely, with El Geta's scoring record, that much will need to be done to secure a home win.

Whatever, I'll be in the happy market looking for the sort of sink unblocker that can only be imported from China, and is quite probably illegal in Europe, after a minor mishap with a potted chicken. Happy days.

8. Valladolid (13th) - Sevilla (11th): 2

Valladolid has got the better of Sevilla in their last two meetings, but I'm plumping for an away win here because of the away side's form during the week. In a social nod to the problems being faced by many families in the southern region - one of Spain's poorest, where the regional government recently announced it will pay to feed 200,000 kids three times a day at school because they're not guaranteed a square meal at home - players from Betis and Sevilla took part in a day-at-the-circus event for 500 underprivileged families.

Among the larks on show were staged boxing matches, push-up competitions and Alvaro Negredo getting into a cage with a 300-kilo white tiger. It's easy to forget sometimes among the bling, driving offences and general self-importance of footballers that some do have empathy with the people that essentially make the sport possible: the man in the street, where people in Spain are increasingly finding themselves. Last year there was an eviction every 15 minutes.

Not that this has any bearing on the game, but Ivan Rakitic is probably the league's most underrated player and with the formidable triumvirate of Jose Reyes, Jesus Navas and Negredo all good to go, Valladolid will need more than a chair and a whip to keep Sevilla at bay on Sunday.

9. Real Sociedad (4th) - Valencia (5th): X

A top of the table European clash between a side that never does what I want it to and another that made a mockery of last week's forecast by destroying Malaga in seven minutes.

Sergio Canales' injury is a bit of bother for the visitor but as JIM observed recently, Valencia has by far the strongest squad outside of the top two.

La Real suffered last week in the absence of Asier Illarramendi but the Spain player-in-waiting is back for this one. Home advantage is always handy and Sociedad have beaten Valencia in their last three meetings. The possible absence of key defenders Adil Rami and Jeremy Mathieu does not help the visitor's cause either.

As Mikel Gonzalez said ahead of the match: "It's the most important game of the season." With Real in fourth on 55 points and Valencia two shy of that total, a five-point gap in the chase for fourth would be significant. That's precisely why I think La Real will half-bottle this one and settle for a draw.

10. Betis (7th) - Deportivo (16th): X

Percebes are a curious thing. Called, I think, goose barnacles in English, these ugly little suckers cling to rocks in the Galicia region and are salty, slimy and explosive. The first time I met a former girlfriend's grandmother, unskilled in the art of removing the beast's leathery exterior, I emptied the oceanic content of a percebes all over her. "It happens," she smiled. A comment I decided not to dwell upon.

These things are also worth more weight-for-weight than gold. Monday night's clash between Betis and Deportivo is a case of percebes lost: Ruben Castro.

Had the visitor started the season in the fashion they are ending it, Europe would be beckoning. For Betis, a continental jaunt next season is very much on the cards. If Malaga's appeal against a Uefa ban for, ahem, keeping its financial situation somewhat up the old sleeve fails, eighth will do for a Europa League place next season.

As Depor's Riki dryly noted this week: "Unfortunately, nobody here wanted to bet on Ruben Castro." Quite. Six years at Depor, 31 league appearances, four goals. At Betis since 2010 after a bunch of loan spells and a fee of €1.7 million to the Galician club, Castro has banged in 55 in 95 Liga matches. How Depor could do with a striker like that.

Simply because he can, he will, and Castro will open the scoring here. However, Depor is in fine fettle, and will eke out a score draw to inch closer to another lucrative season in Primera.

Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section.

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

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