Introducing the Soccernet Quiniela
Ladies and gentlemen, please give your warmest welcome to a new segment that will take Soccernet's La Liga coverage to unprecedented heights (or at least that is what I told my editor when pitching this idea): the Soccernet Quiniela.
In Spain, the very traditional quiniela (pronounced kee-nee-ela) is a state-managed weekly bet. Its aim is to correctly guess the outcome of 15 matches (all ten from the Primera División, plus another five from the Segunda). The specific final scores are irrelevant, as the gambler only needs to choose between three options: a home team win (which is represented by the number '1'), a draw (known as an 'X') or an away team win (the number '2') for each match.
Every Thursday, I'll give my 1, X or 2 predictions for the upcoming weekend's matches.
1) Deportivo (5th) - Atlético de Madrid (18th): 2
If the over-under for total goals scored in matches involving Atlético were four or less, I would always take the over. Not only do Atlético's defenders manage to find new ways to torture their fans every week - like Perea in the Madrid derby ten days ago - but their fantastic pair of strikers are loyal beyond belief to this intriguing and often convoluted club.
Despite the current unrest at the Calderón, Diego Forlán has just signed a contract extension that will guarantee his presence with Atlético until 2013, and it's not like the Uruguayan was born by the Manzanares river or has no other teams knocking on his door.
In any case, fun and goals (both scored and suffered) are guaranteed when Atlético play. This weekend, they face Deportivo, who boast the strongest candidates for this year's Resurrected Career Award. Playmaker Juan Carlos Valerón, striker Miguel Ángel Ferrer, aka Mista, and even full-back Manuel Pablo are enjoying a consistent season so far, after years fighting with injuries and/or lack of playing time.
For those unfamiliar with the Rojiblancos, and just by looking at the current standings of each team, this match would look like a guaranteed '1', but I am sure you already know better. This is a trademark away Atlético match in which they destroy an up-and-coming opponent, inflate expectations of a miraculous recovery among their fanbase, and prepare a perfect scenario for another heartbreaking display at home the following week.
2) Tenerife (15th) - Sevilla (3rd): 2
Tenerife are an entertaining team to watch, with just one slight deficiency: they can't score to save their lives and have netted just seven goals in ten matches. Only their home form - with three 1-0 wins - has kept them out of trouble so far, but they will need more help from their strikers, or rather new strikers during the January transfer window, if they want to stay up.
Sevilla are absolutely on fire, and know how to take care of naive teams such as the Tinerfeños. Even Jesús Navas has overcome his anxiety issues and enjoyed an impressive first cap with Spain last weekend. '2' looks like the most sensible option here.
3) Real Madrid (2nd) - Racing (17th): 1
Racing's dismal start to the season did not go unpunished: coach Juan Carlos Mandiá was fired a week ago. He was replaced by a caretaker duo of Juanjo González and Fede Castaños, an original solution that got Racing through their cup tie against Salamanca.
Unfortunately for the santanderinos, this encounter has all the makings of becoming a very painful experience, as it will be Real Madrid's first home match following their Copa del Rey debacle. The Madridistas will want to impress their faithful ahead of their key Champions League match against Zurich on Wednesday, and this looks like one of those frequent 5-2 results against mediocre sides that I mentioned in my premonitory column regarding the worrying outlook for Real this season.
4) Athletic (8th) - Barcelona (1st): X
This looks like a great chance for Athletic to exact revenge over Barcelona after their Copa del Rey final and SuperCopa defeats against the Blaugrana. As is usually the case, the atmosphere at San Mamés will be fantastic.
Athletic have a remarkable home record against Barcelona - boasting 41 wins in 78 matches, the second best home-winning percentage against the Catalans among all La Liga teams - however, some niggling injuries to strikers Muniain, Llorente and Toquero will probably limit their offensive capabilities.
The visiting side will have their minds on their following matches: a midweek Champions League encounter with Inter Milan, with Samuel Eto'o returning to Camp Nou, and the mother of all derbies against Real Madrid next weekend. It's quite a demanding week for the Culés and, with that in mind, Pep Guardiola will likely rest some players. A draw should be a good result for both teams.
5) Villarreal (16th) - Valladolid (14th): 1
After a terrible start to the season, Villarreal have shown some signs of life recently, including their honourable 3-2 defeat at the hands of Sevilla. Marcos Senna and Nilmar, who is still struggling to transfer his great form with Brazil to his club side, will be back in the team, supporting the in-form Robert Pires.
Valladolid coach José Luis Mendilíbar keeps working wonders with a limited side, although this year he has enjoyed the excellent addition of talented Brazilian striker Diego Costa on loan from Atlético Madrid, as well as Nauzet Alemán - a player who not only knows how to take free-kicks, but also has the greatest name/surname combination among the 450+ La Liga players, sounding like some kind of German missile. Intimidating stuff, but simply not enough for the Pucelanos to steal a point this time.
6) Xerez (19th) - Sporting (7th): 2
Xerez have only managed to score three goals in ten matches. That is the type of form that sends you straight back to the second division, or at least ends up costing the boss, Jose Ángel Ziganda, his job. Last week, they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Ziganda's former club, Osasuna, so they can now focus entirely on fighting relegation - or at least that's the way their fans prefer to look at it.
Xerez simply do not look like a worthy opponent for Sporting. After an exciting comeback season - sometimes excessively so - in the top-flight last year, the Gijoneses have matured noticeably, especially in their defensive approach. If strikers Mate Bilic and Diego Castro have a decent day at the office, Sporting will win with ease.
7) Espanyol (9th) - Getafe (12th): 1
These teams have already played twice in the past two weeks due to their Copa del Rey tie, in which Getafe outclassed the Periquitos. A surprising outcome given Espanyol's good start to the season and Getafe's difficulties to get going.
Fortunately, the home side have solved the Raúl Tamudo affair: the striker played for a full 90 minutes in last week's Copa del Rey tie and will probably start on Sunday. Despite their elimination from the cup, Espanyol still look the stronger side, and should prevail.
8) Mallorca (6th) - Almería (11th): X
Yes, I know that Mallorca are playing fantastically well at home: five wins in five matches, 13 goals scored, only one conceded. Yes, I agree: Gregorio Manzano is probably the most underrated manager in the Primera División. And, yes, I am aware of the fact that Almería lost Álvaro Negredo in the summer and got Henok Goitom to replace him - which is the rough equivalent of being dumped by Gisele Bündchen and immediately having Amy Winehouse move in.
However, I do believe that streaks come to an end, that Mallorca are performing well above their capabilities and that Hugo Sánchez is as shrewd as they come when his team needs to get a point away from home. This match has 'tedious stalemate' written all over it.
9) Málaga (20th) - Zaragoza (13th): 1
These two teams will struggle all season to stay in the Primera. Málaga have only won one match so far, while Zaragoza haven't been able to win away from La Romareda yet.
The home side were weakened by their pre-season moves, while Zaragoza's summer wasn't much more productive given that their biggest signing was their new coach, former Racing manager Marcelino García Toral, narrowly edging out Jermaine Pennant for the honour. Now you understand what a nightmare summer this was for Zaragoza fans.
Like Getafe and Espanyol, both teams just played in the Copa del Rey, with Málaga making it to the next round after two unbearable matches. This is almost a do-or-die match for the home side and they should make the most of their recent Primera experience to beat Zaragoza. If you are planning to watch this one, plenty of coffee seems advisable.
10) Osasuna (10th) - Valencia (4th): X
Some time around the middle of last season, Osasuna found a reasonably consistent lineup that saved them from relegation and it is still keeping them in the right half of the table this year.
On Sunday, they will host the side that has travelled best in La Liga so far - Valencia, who have won four out of five when playing away from the Mestalla. Their fast counter-attacks and finishing power (what the Spanish media like to call pegada) are great assets for playing away from home, but the likes of Mata, Villa and Silva will struggle to surprise the usually well-positioned Rojillos. Both sides will gladly settle for a draw.
I will be back next week to evaluate my own performance and preview next weekend's matches, including the mouth-watering clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Stay tuned.