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Weekend Premier League predictions

Premier League

Courting disaster

Not a great week for Spanish football in general, although late on Sunday night Getafe's 0-1 win at the Bernabéu confirmed what this column has been writing for some time - (sorry to blow my own trumpet but nobody seemed to be listening) - namely that Madrid's first half of the season had gone too well, and that given the way that destiny tends to think, whoever he or she is, the second half was unlikely to be so tickety-boo for them. And in the general yin and yang way of the La Liga, Barcelona were just as unlikely to suffer such a poor second half, having done their purgatorial bit before Christmas.

But more of that later. Why has it been a poor week? Well - in the Champions League only Barcelona managed to win (at Celtic), but neither Real Madrid nor Sevilla should have too many problems in making the quarter-finals after losing narrowly away to Roma and Fenerbahçe respectively, but scoring away goals in the process. They both played pretty well too.

The problem resides more with what happened in the UEFA Cup, where Atlético Madrid failed to score against Bolton at home and waved goodbye to the competition, and Villarreal also stumbled at home to the Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg, leaving Getafe as sole survivors. In recent seasons, the strength of La Liga has been more apparent in this competition, with a host of more modest sides putting up a good show and Sevilla dominating the field for a couple of seasons. Now that argument sounds a little hollow, and one wonders whether Getafe would have such an easy time of it against Tottenham again, now that Juande Ramos has taken over.

Elsewhere the hanky-panky at Valencia has been clouding the scene somewhat. But there are two clubs in the city, lest anyone should forget, and at present it's difficult to decide which one is mired in the deeper crisis. Perhaps they should have some sort of competition to decide.

Levante, you may recall, were threatening some sort of public embarrassment exercise for all and sundry in protest at the fact that they still haven't been paid for several months and that the municipal authorities seem unconcerned, but perhaps that's because all the attention is focused on their bigger neighbours - the players of whom have all been paid, but who had spent part of the week sitting in court whilst a civil judge presided over one of the most divisive cases ever to occur within the walls of a professional football team. It's an ongoing horror-story that other clubs would do well to learn from, although the whole sorry episode is far from over yet.

Levante, for their part, had threatened to carry out a sit-down protest at the Camp Nou, since the fixture promised them maximum exposure. In the end, a players' vote on Friday came down narrowly against the act, but it all ended in tears anyway when they lost 5-1 to a resurgent Barcelona, despite equalising in the first half and looking like they might pull off an unlikely result, for a few minutes anyway.

However, the Valencia case, which features defensive midfielder David Albelda versus the club, has been attracting all the media attention this week. Unlike several of the Valencia-based blogs that are all scratching their heads in confusion, perhaps the only thing to say at the moment about this particularly surreal situation is that the club have had it coming, as they say. Liverpool should take note, since Valencia has not been the same since Rafa Benitez left it - and he might have stayed had he felt an ounce of confidence in the Board of Directors. Benitez has new problems of a distinct nature over in England, but he must be looking at the news of former club and wiping his brow muttering 'There but for the grace of…'

It seems that David Albelda and Juan Soler, the Valencia president who bears a remarkable resemblance to a standard fall-guy from a Cohen Brothers movie, tried to come to some settlement out of court last week, but the negotiations fell apart on Soler's insistence that Albelda sign a clause preventing him from playing for any 'major' Spanish club. Albelda, as you surely know now, along with fellow-veterans Cañizares and Angulo, was told by new manager Ronald Koeman (allegedly during a five-minute interview back in December) that he had 'best find himself another club' because the Dutchman was uninterested in his further services. Albelda and Cañizares were both in their tenth season at the club, and Angulo was starting his eleventh.

No matter - during the previous season the dressing-room had clearly been divided over the on-going handbags between manager Quique Sánchez and Director of Football Amedeo Carboni. It's not entirely clear, but it would seem that the three condemned men had pinned their flag to the Carboni camp, and had thus been at loggerheads with several of the squad from the moment that Carboni had left in the summer. Manager Sánchez, stuck in the middle of two camps, finally lost his authority and had to go, but Koeman immediately fingered the problem on arrival and decided to go for broke. He may yet be proved to be right. But meanwhile, inconsistency abounds.

At the court hearing, Koeman claimed to have made the decision to oust the three from the squad for 'technical reasons', which is clearly piffle. Soler then claimed to have supported Koeman's decision - as if the president himself had washed his hands of the whole affair, only to then insist on the 'anti-major club' clause for Albelda, the most valuable of the three players. His buy-out clause stands at 60 million euros, and so Albelda has decided to take Valencia to court for that precise amount, which legally speaking is fair cop. On the one hand it seems designed to force Soler's hand, and on the other it appears to be a PR move by the player, to force the issue out into the open and to oblige the club to underline the real reasons for the players being thus marginalised (as if he doesn't know!).

But Albelda claims that nobody has explained to him why he has been dropped from the squad, particularly considering the fact that he is still one of the main pieces of armoury in the Spanish national squad. Indeed, on hearing of the trouble, both Juande Ramos at Tottenham and Avram Grant at Chelsea instructed their lackeys to make some phone calls in a Spanish direction.

It would also be interesting to know what Soler considers to be a 'major Spanish club'. Atlético Madrid have been sniffing around, and so it would appear that they are therefore major. But Albelda - apparently not wanted by Koeman for footballing reasons, cannot play for any other Spanish club of note - which presumably means someone 'major' enough to afford him. Then again, if he wins the 60 million, he could afford to go where he liked. Grimsby have already left a message on his agent's answer-phone.

However, the darkest aspect of all this is the fact that both sides in the case subpoenaed various players to testify on their behalf. So Albelda called in his buddies Villa, Joaquín, Vicente and Silva, whilst Soler called in anyone starting with 'M' (Morientes, Mora, Moretti and Marchena) plus Baraja, and Helguera. As you can imagine, you won't find this in the trainer's manual of 'How to build team-spirit'.

On top of this, Koeman claimed to have told Soler that his decision was 'permanent' and that the players would have to leave. In court, Soler claimed that he had understood the arrangement to be 'temporary', a declaration that left Koeman with a bloodless face. It was as if Soler was experimenting with a first attempt to discredit him, to see where it might lead. It almost sounded as if he might eventually come down on the player's side, or that he was preparing the ground for a peace-pipe session with Albelda - which is all very well, but it cannot be done at Koeman's expense, since that will fatally undermine what little authority he has left.

Koeman is no fly-by-night, however, and has a strong character. Amidst all the chaos, the club had a Saturday night game against struggling Recreativo, and at home to boot. Curiously enough, the normally awkward bunch that make up the Mestalla decided to get behind the team, and despite the 1-1 draw applauded them off the pitch. They did indeed deserve to win, but it was as if the crowd was attempting to de-factionalize the squad, offering the whole team their unconditional support, whichever side of the dressing-room they were getting changed.

The judge, meanwhile, has retired to consider his verdict, and will pronounce within a month. Whilst he does his considering, Soler can think about how he goes about saving his own face and the club's bank account. I'm no lawyer, but at the moment things look to be balanced in Albelda's favour.

They also look to be tipping Barcelona's way, now that there are a mere two points separating the clubs. Madrid look all nervy and frail, and the Catalans on a roll. Even Ronaldinho is smiling again, and Messi is simply confirming the fact that he is some kind of extra-terrestrial force against which no earthly armoury exists.

Celtic would certainly confirm this fact, although they would do well not to give him the freedom of the pitch in the return game at the Camp Nou. It was brave of manager Gordon Strachan to attempt to play their way into the game, but he had simply miscalculated. In what was a wonderful if one-sided match in Glasgow, Barcelona simply shifted their defence up to the half-way line and employed their midfielders in a harrying role, correctly assuming that if they gave the Celtic players no time on the ball, their inferior technique would show.

The result was 75% possession in the visitors' favour, a statistic almost unheard of at that stage in the Champions League. The fact that Celtic scored twice seems as irrelevant as it seems unlikely, given that statistical facts, but at times the difference in tactical nous and technical ability seemed of Grand Canyon proportions.

It's not over yet, as they say, but if Celtic pull it off then it will be the greatest win since David picked up that stone and wrapped it in a sling.

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