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May 10, 2013

Earning one's stripes

It's all about tennis this week in Spain, with the ATP and WTA tours setting up camp in the capital. Sergio Ramos was in attendance on Thursday, Ronaldo will doubtless make an appearance with his rather fine girlfriend at the business end of the tournament and the whole city is united behind serial scowler Rafa Nadal. Seriously, the man could smile occasionally on court. The organizers basically do whatever they can to make sure he wins after all, and hire models as ball girls. It's not all bad, Rafa...

But as a shareholder in Mallorca, maybe the king of clay is merely concerned that a tumble on the slippery surface of Primera could send his local team crashing into the hoardings this weekend. Or perhaps he's just annoyed as a Real fan that Barcelona (for who his uncle Miguel Angel "The Beast" Nadal played) are likely to win the title this weekend.

All that aside, this week's Quiniela features a few gems as the season winds down. Osasuna - Getafe is not one of them but much like everybody other than Serena, the numbers need to be made up somewhere. Will Barcelona sing the Aliron in the Calderon? Will Jose Mourinho drop the entire squad and offer boots to the traveling support? Will anybody be sober for Rayo v Valencia?

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

Levante (12) - Zaragoza (16): X

A point will suffice for Levante to ensure its survival in Primera - a mantra that has been the club's byword ever since last season when a flying start, including a 1-0 win over you-know-you, propelled The Frogs to the top of Primera for a few refreshing weeks. The magical 40-point mark was achieved in mid-March and only then did Levante dare to dream that it may get a fairytale peck on the cheek and morph into a princess - not that there's much demure about Levante most weekends.

The trials of a European campaign, a squad thinner than a vegan gap-year student posted to Madrid and the internal match-fixing ruckus that has seen several first-team regulars shunted to the fringes of the team do not bode well for the rest of Levante's season. Zaragoza is on something of a mini-roll as it strives to grace Primera with its presence again next season having clawed its way out of the relegation zone and, while I have no wish to fan the flames of suspicion as the term draws to a close, a draw seems a logical outcome here for both sides.

Athletic (14) - Mallorca (20): 1

Nothing but a win will do for rock-bottom Mallorca in Saturday's early game and the chances of Athletic being amenable to an, ahem, off-field incentive are positively zero - although question marks were raised over The Lions' last-gasp final day escape act in 2006-07 when it beat, ahem, Levante, as mentioned last week.

It's not the final day of the season yet and Athletic have not entirely extricated themselves from the scrap at the bottom. Former golden boy Fernando Llorente's current worth to the side was highlighted this week by a court side appearance at the Madrid Masters and some kind words toward Juventus, his soon-to-be paymasters. Ander Herrera, a Zaragoza escapee who briefly threatened to break into the Spain side but now would be lucky to play for the Basque Country, summed Athletic's current situation up rather more concisely earlier this week: "If we beat Mallorca we'll stay up." With Gregorio Manzano facing late fitness tests on key defenders Alan Hutton, Pedro Bigas and Antonio López, expect that to happen in San Mames.

Valladolid (13) - Deportivo (18): 1

In what will be the last mention of match-fixing this week, professional Jabba the Hut impersonator and president of Deportivo since around the time Death Star 2.0 was blown up, Augusto Cesar Lendoiro, merrily told a press round table breakfast affair at which LFP president Javier Tebas was the guest of honor that "practically all the final day matches in La Liga are fixed." Lendoiro also suggested that even regional premiers have been involved in arranging results that suit the economic needs of their fiefdoms: a Primera team can be worth a huge amount of money to areas of Spain with little else to offer in the way of tourism.

Now forgive me if you're from Valladolid, but there isn't much there to draw the millions of people that visit Spain every year. A half-finished cathedral and "Spain's greatest collections of polychrome wood sculptures" about exhausts the list of attractions. There are 12 points up for grabs still and Valladolid is 11 clear of Mallorca. Lendoiro might as well leave his "travel case" in A Coruña this weekend. Valladolid needs its football club, and Miroslav Djukic has got them playing some bloody good stuff this season. Depor's run has to come to an end at some point and few will weep if it provides the odious Lendoiro with a ticket to the unemployment line, however they may feel about an otherwise splendid club.

Osasuna (17) - Getafe (8): X

A friend of mine is Navarrese by birth, so of course he supports Real Madrid. I have friends and pseudo-family who live in Getafe and have links to the club. So of course they all support Real Madrid. In fact, I have only ever in more than a decade in my adopted land met a single person from Pamplona who supports Osasuna, and a single person from Getafe who supports Getafe.

I'll leave it there this week as I'm supporting David Ferrer, while I suppose Andy Murray should be the beneficiary of my considerable vocal contribution down the old Magic Box.

There'll be little magic in this one, but Osasuna are my tip for third through the Primera exit door. However, no game is immune from the specter of a little bung or two and this one is no exception. If Osasuna beats Getafe, a local meat supplier has promised the squad 18 kilos of chistorra, a type of sausage favored in the Basque area but largely ignored in the rest of the country, as this bore draw will certainly be.

Espanyol (11) - Real Madrid (2): 2

Espanyol is safe thanks to the appointment of veteran Mexican schemer Javier Aguirre, but the contribution of Mauricio Pochettino will not be forgotten in the blue-and-white half of Barcelona. It was simply time to go. The spark had faded. The ecstasy of sticking one on Barcelona in his third game in charge had long given way to the romantic equivalent of claiming a headache while reaching for the remote to find a documentary on Dutch textile weaving in the 13th century.

A similar situation pervades at Real Madrid, where Jose Mourinho seems determined to go out with a bang, albeit of the kind that Iker Casillas and Pepe would prefer not to be on the receiving end of. Results elsewhere may decide the outcome of the Liga title this weekend but Real has still got that tiny, tantalizing glimmer of hope that the inevitable end can be postponed for another week while Espanyol hasn't got anything out of its last two matches. Combined with Real's 10 goals for and five against in its two league games, there'll be some net-bothering here but I believe Barcelona will at least have to earn the title on Sunday.

Rayo (10) - Valencia (5): 1

I'm not sure if it's the municipal po-lis in the rough and ready, hooch-lovin' southern Madrid suburb that schedule Rayo's matches but it seems a shame to dump this one in the early Sunday slot. Not that it will stop the home crowd from turning up a few sheets to the wind anyway. And all the better, because this has cracker written all over it like Christmas.

Valencia have relinquished their three-year old claim to be La Liga's third-best team - or the triple champion of the league of 18, if you will - but they are bearing down on fourth like a Spanish senator on a free lunch.

If anyone were to bother sponsoring Rayo, it should be the people of Madrid. No betting houses or national tourism boards have yet approached the homely club with the best home support in the land so why not? How many football teams can you think of that would all trot along to join a popular protest against the powers-that-be dragging Spain toward the edge of oblivion, as Rayo did during the mass 15-M demonstrations in the capital?

The abyss is precisely where Rayo was headed not long ago and now the club is, as Jordi Figueras said this week "dreaming of Europe." Any club that takes a piffling two million in exchange for Michu deserves its share of luck, but Paco Jemez has made his and the team's own this season. Valencia is not in much better financial straits but at least has the likes of Ever Banega, Roberto Soldado and Vicente Guaita to stave off the ever-voracious and oh-so cleverly run banks.

So let's celebrate a thoroughly decent club that survived criminal mismanagement to rise above the water line dumped annually on the neighborhood during its legendary "batalla naval". And pop an aye in the 1 box in this week's coupon while we're at it.

Betis (7) - Celta (19): 1

Another game this week that falls neatly into the category of why-not-stick-it-on-at-10pm-Saturday-instead-of-Real, the match-up between Europe-chasing Betis and salvation-seeking Celta should be a decent waste of 90 Sabbath minutes. The visitor will feel the loss of Mario Bermejo keenly but Iago Aspas is quite capable of breaching a leaky Betis back line.

The host, meanwhile, has Ruben Castro and Jorge Molina firing on all cylinders and although I can see Celta bagging one in the Benito Villamarin, I can also see Betis netting more than that.

Atletico (3) - Barcelona (1): X

In a rare decent bit of scheduling, the honchos at the LFP have put this game exactly where it should be: Sunday evening, just after the last vestiges of lethargy from the siesta have been shaken off and shortly before the dreadful realization that Monday morning beckons like a police check point in Vallecas at kicking out time. A time when anything is possible and for a few precious hours, the Quiniela may well be the ticket to a life of lazy afternoons on a tropical beach. Or at least enough to give an employer the two-fingered salute - and sustain such a lifestyle for at least the same number of weeks.

That sums up Atletico pretty well in games like this. Will they? They certainly could... but will they really? About as much chance as Charles Ramsey landing a show-and-tell guest spot at his local convent school. Despite a decent record against Barça at the Calderon, which dealt Pep Guardiola his only league defeat in the 2008-09 season and then repeated the trick in possibly the best game I've ever been to, the 4-3 "Thriller next to the Distiller" the following year, I have begrudgingly admired a Messi hat-trick in Camp Nou and spent several weeks trying to banish a 5-0 thumping through the medium of alcohol.

It's the way in these games: either Atletico gets stuffed, or wins or loses narrowly. I'm not sure how many other options there are really - ah yes, Barcelona gets its backside handed back on a plate - but I'm going middle for diddle here. A point will do for the visitor to claim the championship, and outside San Mames there's nowhere the home side would rather it happened. 2-2.

Malaga (6) - Sevilla (9): 2

Malaga certainly did themselves no favors at the Bernabeu - and the referee's decision to give Martin Demichelis a red for not making contact with Cristiano Ronaldo didn't help either - but the game summed up the season for Manuel Pellegrini's tired and testy troops. As Sven Goran Eriksson used to say when England inevitably lost to a team able to concentrate and stay in formation for 90 minutes: "First half good. Second half not so good." A cutting analysis apparently shared by all the ladies he got through in Blighty when, so to speak, on the job.

Joaquin should be back for this one having been sacrificed for some midfield steel midweek and there is nothing he likes better than tormenting a Sevilla right back. But a depleted Malaga, also missing the injured Willy Caballero and suspended Sergio Sanchez, might be blown away by Sevilla, which should be able to call on force of nature Big Geoff Kondogbia. Unai Emery has also apparently found mercurial winger Diego Perotti somewhere at the back of the coat room. Seriously, where did he go? I know he's had a few injuries but it seems he hasn't played since 2011 at least. One of my favorite players from back when Sevilla was really good... Anyway, the visitor is in form and the host just wants the season to be over.

Real Sociedad (4) - Granada (15): 1

I never seem to get Real Sociedad results even remotely right and Granada's away form - the Andalusian side has picked up more wins on the road than at home - suggests more egg-based San Sebastian tapas on face this week, especially as the visitor has recovered from shipping 10 in two games to Atletico and Betis to record back-to-back wins. Reports suggesting Philippe Montanier has penned a three-year deal with mid-table Ligue 1 side Stade Rennes seem incredible with his current side on the cusp of the Champions League and La Real in better shape than when it lost out on the title on the final day of the season 10 years ago. Conspiracy theory? Not when a Basque side is vying with Real for the big cup.

Valencia's result will be in the papers by the time this one kicks off and La Real will either be fifth for the first time since the beginning of March or presented with a chance to put five points between it and Los Che. Cash on the home side to make like Guevara and be chugging a fat cigar at 11pm then. Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section.

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

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