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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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The Soccernet Quiniela - Week Four - Back on track

Quick recap from last week's quiniela: six correct results, beating all of my readers - with one exception who managed to get six as well - AND my maid (five). Decent, but still nothing to brag about. At least I can spare you my usual five paragraphs of lame excuses, and focus solely on this week's matches.

Let's start; remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Zaragoza (17th) - Athletic (8th): 2.

Besides their better position in the table, Athletic have a brilliant track record at Zaragoza: they got at least one point in more than half of their visits to La Romareda. Athletic defend well and can easily score from set pieces, so the visiting side should make the most out of this trip.

Only two points clear of the relegation zone, Zaragoza will begin to feel the pressure, and miss regular starters Abel Aguilar (suspended) and Pablo Amo (injured). Dark times ahead for the blanquillos...

2. Barcelona (1st) - Espanyol (14th): 1.

At first sight, this one can't be more lopsided. Barcelona and Espanyol have played 75 Liga matches at the Nou Camp, with 57 home team victories. The La Liga leaders have convincingly won their last four matches (including two Champions League do-or-die encounters), while free-falling Espanyol have lost four in a row (no goals scored, 11 suffered!). This should be the week's über-'1', the safest pick of the quiniela.

However, this is a derby, and we all know their tricky ways. Only last season, Espanyol started their comeback from the dead with an amazing 1-2 win at the Nou Camp. It was the first time in La Liga history that the colista (bottom of the table) defeated the leader. And three seasons ago, Espanyol managed a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp that eased Real Madrid's path to their 30th La Liga trophy.

In any case, and even though Lionel Messi will not play, Barcelona have now reached their cruise control mode. Unless something really negative happens or Pep Guardiola decides to rest half of the team for one specific match, this column is riding them until the end of the season, and that's that.

On an unrelated side note, I am happy to tell you that Dmitro Chigrinski has been lightning quick in his integration into the Spanish/Catalan culture: "Here everybody is happy and smiles because it's always sunny". He only omitted paella and flamenco. Welcome to Spain, Dmitro!

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

Emotional hedge alert! For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an emotional hedge situation happens when you bet against your own team, thinking that if they win, you'll be happy and won't care about losing your bet, and if they lose, your anger will be compensated by the cash you just won. As explained in the Commandments column, we at the Soccernet quiniela are totally against emotional hedging, or at least I pretend I am.

Real Madrid are a huge question mark right now. The side are still unbalanced to say the least, and their defensive deficiencies are blatant. Pellegrini is still struggling to find the right combination on the pitch, and, as expected, has to deal with plenty of off-the-pitch controversy. Only this week, Bernd Schuster, probably bored while he orchestrates his saviour-like comeback to Xerez, said that "leaving Raúl on the bench against Almería was a total lack of respect from Pellegrini". Thanks for sharing that with us, Bernd. It is really useful.

In-form Valencia will miss the classy David Silva, injured until next year, but have plenty of attacking resources to cover for him. It's likely that the home side will wait for Real Madrid to try to surprise them at the counter attack, with David Villa dying to score against the madridistas after Florentino Pérez and Jorge Valdano snubbed him last summer. Without CR9 and Kaká, this looks like a '1' to me. And again, no emotional hedge involved here. Promised.

Allow me a quick tangent here. I am sure most of you saw CR9's nude torso after he scored an easy tap-in against Almería last weekend. He had missed a penalty earlier, but even with that in mind, his seemed an over-celebration that ended up costing him a stupid yellow card.

To me, this was yet another example that illustrates Cristiano's discomfort with the baggy shape of Real Madrid's current jersey. The biggest metrosexual alive (David has lost some of his mo-jo, you'll give me that) needs to show off his pectorals / arms / six pack, and that shirt does not help him at all, which is probably why he took it off in that ill-advised outburst. When I wrote about this at the beginning of the season, many of you thought I was kidding. I am sure his Rambo impression made you look at this under a different light.

I have additional information for you: my sources at adidas, Real Madrid's sports apparel supplier, tell me that: a) this season's jersey was designed in Nov/08, when they did not know that Ronaldo would be playing for Real Madrid this season, hence the baggy design; b) the 2010/2011 jersey is almost ready. According to my source, "It is probably the tightest shirt we have ever designed"; and c) if you think he may be exaggerating, just take a look at Spain's 2010 World Cup jersey, produced by the same supplier. It makes Spain's Le Coq Sportif outfits from the 80s look oversized by comparison.

Back to the quiniela.

4. Valladolid (15th) - Málaga (19th): 1.

Two teams in trouble who look dead even in the unpredictability of their performances. In these cases our commandments tell us to play it safe and go '1', but I have been reflecting and I should write an update to include the "Best Player on the Pitch" factor. Whoever he plays for, he tends to swing results more often that we realise. In this case, the best player is Valladolid's Diego Costa - I have been warning you for some time now - so everything points at a home team win. 5. Getafe (9th) - Tenerife (12th): 1.

Both teams have never played before in the top flight. Getafe have a decent home record this season (4 wins in 6 matches), while Tenerife have only conquered one single point in six away matches. Getafe have a superior midfield with Casquero and Pedro León slowly recovering their form, so let's ride los chicharreros' negative streak and back Getafe on this one.

6. Racing (18th) - Xerez (20th): 1.

Who thought Racing would beat Espanyol at Barcelona last week? Not me, obviously. Racing's new gaffer Miguel Ángel Portugal is showing great common sense by playing youngster Sergio Canales, who gives his side an attacking dimension that not many bottom-half teams have.

Indeed not Xerez. It's still early to say this, but they could threaten a mythical La Liga record: Logroñés scored only 15 goals in the 1994-95 season, the lowest ever in a 38-match Liga tournament. Can Xerez go that far?

7. Almería (16th) - Deportivo (5th): 2.

A difficult home match for Almería, who have lost their last three and now face Deportivo (four wins in six away matches). Both teams were defeated last week by the top-two. With hard work and not much noise, gaffer Miguel Ángel Lotina has built a very consistent Depor team that now has too many weapons for Almería.

Despite their good performance at the Bernabéu, this match could easily be the beginning of trouble for the home team and his gaffer, Hugo Sánchez.

8. Osasuna (10th) - Mallorca (6th): X.

In 17 matches, Mallorca have never won at the Estadio del Reyno de Navarra. Could this be the year? Both teams followed similar paths last season: an awful first half in which they seemed doomed to be relegated, and an impressive second half that saw them free of trouble. Their coaches (José Antonio Camacho and Gregorio Manzano, respectively) have a lot to do with that.

Both teams are doing better than expected so far this season. They should settle for a convenient draw that will keep them in a safe zone.

9. Atlético (13th) - Villarreal (11th): 2.

Atlético seem headed for one of those emotional rollercoaster seasons their borderline-masochist fans are so fond of. My words won't be sarcastic enough to describe the colchoneros' flabbergasting midweek display against Porto (0-3 home defeat), after two La Liga wins appeared to have put them on the right track.

The rojiblanco faithful will be "con la mosca detrás de la oreja" (literally, with a fly behind their ears, which pretty much means that they will be suspecting something bad will happen at the Calderón), so if Villarreal manage to score first, it should be another touching riverside evening, with all kind of epithets directed to players, president and owners. It should be fun.

Side note: aside from the tragicomical component, most Atlético - Villarreal matches have been hugely entertaining to watch during the last few seasons. Do NOT miss this one if you have the chance to watch it.

10. Sporting (7th) - Sevilla (4th): 2.

Call me crazy, but even though Sevilla have busted two of my quinielas in a row, I still believe in them. Similarly to Valencia, their structure and tactical acumen are fantastic when playing away. On top of that, the sevillistas just made it to the next round of the Champions League top of their group, so they should be energised and ready to recover their La Liga third place from Valencia.

Sporting are undefeated at home so far, and I probably should respect that running streak, but I still think that Sevilla are too much for Sporting in all corners of the pitch. Yes, I know last time I openly deviated from a Commandment, Sporting were involved too, and I do remember how that ended up (Sporting beating Villarreal at home, killing my '2' prediction). But let's call this my Sin of the Week. I hope Sevilla will make it worth my remorse.

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