The Soccernet Quiniela - Week Five - Group Therapy
After 14 La Liga weeks, we already have a decent pool of hard data that allows us to group teams into clusters with similar behaviour. These clusters should provide us with insight to build our quinielas, and together with our Commandments should combine for a killer prediction tool.
For instance, there's one group of teams that we could call the Pony and Trap Club (unfamiliar with cockney rhyming slang? Let's just say they're not very good). Proud members include Xerez, Málaga, Zaragoza, Almería and Espanyol. You can safely predict defeat as their default result unless they play against each other, in which case 'X' is a pretty safe bet. However, pay close attention to them, as at least one of these sides will undergo a resurrection in the second half of the season.
A second cluster, the Adulterers, prefers to play away from home: Sevilla, Valencia, Athletic, Deportivo and even Real Madrid (more on this one later on) belong to this category. Whenever they are the visiting side, '2' is a more than good option, but you should be cautions when they play at home, even against theoretically inferior opposition.
In stark contrast, Mallorca, Sporting and Tenerife (aka the Loyal Husbands), enforce their home-field advantage, but have difficulties getting points away from home and, in my humble opinion, have overachieved so far. Their squads are short and they should suffer a slump in the second half of the season (married life will do that to you eventually, or so they say).
Then we have the Late Bloomers, teams that have improved following a dubious start and should have a better second half of the season: Villarreal, Racing and Getafe all fit into this fellowship. They'll probably attract new members after the winter transfer window closes.
The following group, the Question Marks, sometimes give you the impression that they should be doing better, but then you also feel that they could collapse at any point in time. Mighty Atlético, Osasuna and Valladolid belong here.
And finally, we have Juggernauts Barcelona, who while not at the same level as last year, have learned to win even when they don't play well.
That is probably why last week's quiniela wasn't really a surprising one. One of my readers achieved a record eight correct results and demanded recognition. Dear quinielaers, I'm afraid you'll have to get a perfect ten to get mentioned in this column. I got a reasonable six, and none of the results I missed seemed shocking or far-fetched.
Now that we know all this, are we ready to go after the perfect ten? As usual, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.
1. Valladolid (13th) - Sporting (9th): 2.
Kings of the draw Valladolid (seven stalemates in 14 matches, including their last three) entertain one of the Loyal Husbands (one win in seven away matches for Sporting). It looks like a potential win for the pucelanos, but here is why we need to do our weekly homework religiously: Valladolid will sorely miss three core players (striker Diego Costa, midfielder Borja and legendary left full-back Marcos) due to suspensions and injury.
Having that in mind, this is a unique testing ground for Sporting to learn how to win away from home. Making the most of easy chances is how Loyal Husbands become great Adulterers (again, this is just word of mouth).
2. Sevilla (3rd) - Getafe (8th): 1.
Quiniela-busters Sevilla have one more chance to redeem themselves. Remember their draws against Málaga and Valladolid? This time they play a much better side, Getafe, who have won three of their last four.
However, four Getafe starters (striker Soldado, midfielders Casquero and Celestini and defender Cortés) won't be able to play on Sunday. Sevilla cannot fail to win this match. They just can't (yes, I am trying to talk myself into this).
3. Tenerife (12th) - Atlético (14th): 1.
Atlético's gaffer Quique Sánchez Flores after last week's home defeat to Villarreal: "The worst is yet to come". I didn't mistype that quote. Quique wasn't confusing "best" and "worst", nor was he trying to imitate Frank Sinatra. He firmly believes that things will get even worse for Atlético. Who am I to argue?
4. Villarreal (10th) - Racing (15th): 1.
Two Late Bloomers face to face. In this case I'll go with Villarreal making the most of their home-field advantage (Commandment #4: when in doubt, '1'). The yellow machine is slowly getting some traction, and should be back in the European spots by the end of January.
Side note: can we get odds on Nicola Zigic leaving Valencia in the winter transfer window and going to Racing for the third time? This deal has worked so well for all parties involved in the past, why not do it again?
5. Xerez (20th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.
Yes, I do follow La Liga and am well aware of the fact that this match was actually played two weeks ago, due to Barça's trip to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. The blaugranas won 2-0.
However, I feel absolutely entitled to act as if I knew nothing about that, make my own prediction (a '2', of course) and even pretend I'm happily surprised by the result on Sunday. After all, last week I announced that this column would ride Barça until the end of the season, and I wouldn't have thought of any outcome other than a '2' for a match in which the President of the Pony and Trap Club hosts the Juggernaut.
And if you didn't see this one coming... well, you don't know me well enough.
6. Espanyol (17th) - Almería (16th): 1.
Here's when clusters and Commandments collide. According to the former, a match between two members of the Pony and Trap Club should end up in a draw. Applying the latter, 'You shall ride negative streaks unless an extreme event happens', no La Liga streak is worse than Espanyol's. The periquitos have lost their last five, and have not scored a single goal in that spell.
However, one could argue that, judging by the uproar among Espanyol's players, fans and executives, last week's defeat at the Camp Nou could have a galvanising effect, becoming the extreme event that changes Espanyol's fortunes. The Almería camp is hardly quiet either: on Wednesday, President Alfonso García Gabarrón said that he "can't say for sure that Hugo [Sanchez] will keep his job much longer".
Let's solve this the easy way: Commandment #4 states that "When in doubt, you shall pick 1". End of story.
7. Deportivo (6th) - Valencia (4th): 1.
In an interesting contest for the fourth spot (Champions League territory), a Loyal Husband plays host to an Adulterer. Valencia have won their last five away matches, which makes them the Julian (Richard Gere's character in "American Gigolo") of La Liga.
However, the valencianistas have a tough midweek Europa League match at Genoa, right after their draining home defeat against Real Madrid. Depor will play against a worn out ché side dying to go on their Christmas break. '1' looks good here.
8. Real Madrid (2nd) - Zaragoza (18th): 1.
While the overly optimistic Madrid media are already celebrating the best Real Madrid side of all time - on Monday, Marca's Santiago Segurola said that "Pellegrini has built the most exciting Real Madrid team in the last decade" - call me stubborn, but I still have my reservations.
Despite their impeccable La Liga home record, Real Madrid have not played a single consistent match at the Bernabéu yet. Their brightest moments have all happened away (Camp Nou, Marseille and Valencia), thus the 'Adulterer' tag. I need to see more to believe they will deliver in their home deeds.
And talking about beliefs: if you don't consider yourself superstitious, I'll make you think twice about that. Last Saturday, Pepe gave an interview to El País in which he mentioned that he was extremely happy to have broken what he called "the Real Madrid centre-back curse".
According to Pepe, no merengue player had been able to occupy the centre-back position consistently following the retirement of Fernando Hierro. That was until Kleper Laverian 'Pepe' arrived in Madrid. He was the Chosen One, the new centre-back Messiah. The night after this interview, Pepe damaged the ligaments in his right knee against Valencia, and is out for six months. Note to Ezequiel Garay and Raúl Albiol: keep your mouths shut, please.
After one point in five matches, visitors Zaragoza decided to fire boss Marcelino García Toral. His temporary replacement, José Aurelio Gay, is a former Real Madrid and Zaragoza player, so it should be an emotional debut... except for the highly likely thumping the maños will suffer.
I'll be watching this one from the Bernabéu's Palco Presidencial (the Presidential Box, no less), don't ask me how. Plenty of gossip guaranteed next Thursday...
9. Athletic (7th) - Osasuna (11th): 1.
Osasuna are already showing signs of exhaustion, and we haven't even reached the halfway point of the season. The winter break should help them to recover some of their spark, but until then, I don't see them getting too many points and even less so against a hungry-for-European-spots Athletic at the San Mamés.
10. Málaga (19th) - Mallorca (5th): X.
I know I have mentioned Gregorio Manzano's annual salary before (1.8 million euros), but now I'll give you some additional data: not even one single Mallorca player makes anywhere close to that amount. How many coaches make more money than all of their players? Not even The Special One, José Mourinho, has gone this far. And I don't think a single Mallorca fan disagrees with this.
Mallorca are on a roll (only one defeat in their last eight matches, and it was at Camp Nou), while Málaga have not won since the first match of the season. Will they break the spell? Don't think so. Not against 'Professor Apple Tree' (Manzano).
Last week: 6/10
Season's total: 18/40 (45%)