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Jan 1, 2010

The Soccernet Quiniela - Week Six - Back with a bang

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for all of you Quinielistas! After the traditional Christmas break, La Liga will be back this coming weekend with renewed energy and another set of ten matches that will be tricky to predict.

Before we get into that, allow me a quick comment about the Spanish FA Christmas dinner; a traditional yearly event in which its president for the past 25 years, former Athletic Bilbao player Ángel María Villar, invites most of the Spanish media (and this writer) to a night of tasty food and delicious wine and to indulge in a recap of the year and a peek into the near future.

In a somewhat disjointed speech, Villar indeed had some news for the ever-hungry media: Vicente del Bosque, whose contract was set to run out in July 2010, will continue holding the reins of the national team for another two years, "no matter what happens in South Africa," according to Villar.

The president also spoke about Spain's joint candidacy with Portugal to hold the 2018 or the 2022 World Cup. This Iberian partnership prompted a surreal set of pseudo-historic comments by Villar, who ended up defending a politically unified peninsula. It felt like listening to a much less articulate version of José Saramago, with a Bilbao accent.

Before letting the cava flow, Villar spent some time celebrating Barcelona's amazing season (more on that later on), voiced his wish that a Spanish team makes it to the Champions League final in May - to be played at the Santiago Bernabéu - and looked forward to the 2010 World Cup, given that "Spain have never had a better team since I watch football".

I was never a big fan of the Spanish FA, whose level of marketing sophistication to sell Spanish football abroad would make noted marketing guru Philip Kotler faint in disgust, but at least it seems that after all these years at the helm, Villar has learned a thing or two and his approach is finally bearing fruit.

As we have nothing worth mentioning from the last quiniela of 2009 - most readers and myself (5) got between four and six correct results - let's face the first quiniela of 2010. As usual, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Valencia (4th) - Espanyol (13th): 1.

Valencia's home record (W2, D4, L1) is simply awful for a theoretical title contender. They can't afford more mistakes at the Mestalla, as they are already risking their Champions League spot given that Mallorca, Deportivo and Athletic are within three points of them.

The chés face Espanyol, who finally ended their dreadful streak with a 2-0 home win over Almería. In that match Joan Verdú, who played for Deportivo last year, showed he is one of those rare midfielders who knows how to manage the rhythm of matches. Keep an eye on him.

In any case, the periquitos have not won away from Barcelona since mid-September, and they will probably have to wait for another two weeks to get a real chance to break that spell.

2. Barcelona (1st) - Villarreal (9th): 1.

First of all, a huge 'congratulations' to Barcelona, whose 2009 campaign was arguably the best ever by any club. The blaugrana won all major titles available to them (six, no less), achieving a feat that will be very difficult to repeat. Taking a look at Barça's previous two seasons, it's obvious that this amazing 2009 would have not happened without Josep Guardiola, who turned the team around and converted them into a winning machine.

A good example of the attitude of this Barcelona side is that several players (namely Rafael Márquez, Daniel Alves, Gabriel Milito and Maxwell) had permission to come back from holiday on January 2, but decided to arrive four or five days earlier and train for the Villarreal match. Only Lionel Messi stayed in Argentina for the full vacation period. Long gone are the days of Ronaldinho Gaúcho skipping most training sessions. Would you come back to work early from your holiday? I thought so, I wouldn't either.

Despite Villarreal's recent recovery (three wins in a row) and their positive results at the Nou Camp in the last two years, a look at their away record this season would depress any yellow fan as they have secured only one win and one draw in seven matches. Coupled with Barça's perfect home record, this has to be a '1'. Either way, it will be the most entertaining match of the weekend.

3. Atlético Madrid (15th) - Sevilla (3rd): 2.

Atlético's front office finished 2009 with a great piece of business by selling striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle to Sporting Lisbon for 6.5 million euros. The Portuguese side paid a reasonable amount of cash for a forward who has not scored once this season.

The rojiblancos continue to make more noise with their off-the-pitch maneuvers - Is Maxi Rodríguez leaving for Boca Juniors? Will they hire Lanús' young star Salvio? Will Kun Agüero stay for the rest of the season? - than with their performances on the pitch. However, they need the points against Sevilla - the biggest quiniela busters of the season so far but a team very well equipped to win away from the Sánchez Pizjuán.

Atlético's defensive frailties on the flanks offer the kind of space that Sevilla wingers Jesús Navas and Diego Perotti love to exploit. On top of that, colchonero starting defenders Juanito and Tomas Ujfalusi are suspended. This has all the makings of yet another stormy evening at the Vicente Calderón.

4. Sporting (10th) - Málaga (18th): X.

Sporting had a terrible month in December as they lost all their matches, while Málaga went undefeated and even managed a victory over the surprise team of the first half of the season, Mallorca.

Sporting play well at home, supported by their impressive fans, but Málaga's experience should make a difference in 2010. This match is screaming 'X' out loud.

5. Getafe (8th) - Valladolid (11th): 1.

Getafe and their coach José Miguel González are finally showing their attacking flair: they have scored at least twice in their last five matches, with striker Roberto Soldado leading the line.

Remember Diego Costa's suspension two weeks ago? Well, Valladolid managed to postpone it one week, so he's not playing against Getafe. His replacement, Mendujanin, is also a pretty decent player, but still lacks the Brazilian's seemingly tireless work ethic. This match is a great chance for Getafe to get closer to the Europa League spots.

6. Racing (16th) - Tenerife (14th): 1.

Tenerife's away record is the worst in the league: one point in seven matches. Add that to a Racing side that has been clearly more energised since Miguel Ángel Portugal took over, and this should be three points for the home team.

7. Almería (17th) - Xerez (20th): 1.

After sacking Hugo Sánchez two weeks ago, the home side hired Juan Manuel Lillo, a coach that came into the spotlight in the mid-90s when he impressively took Salamanca from Segunda B back to the Primera División in consecutive seasons. Lillo was only 29 at the time, and thus became the youngest gaffer ever in Spain's top flight.

After his early success, Lillo's career has been plagued by huge expectation and mediocre delivery in spells with several clubs (Oviedo, Tenerife, Real Sociedad). However, Juanma never disappoints if you're after a bizarre quote, such as "Your rival is also a part of yourself".

Every time Lillo is appointed as a coach, and probably because of his evocative yet confusing verbal skills, a wave of optimism results in an improvement in his team's performance for a couple of weeks at least. Let's ride Lillo's champagne effect for now, especially when Xerez are the visiting side.

8. Zaragoza (19th) - Deportivo (6th): 2.

Last week, Zaragoza confirmed their caretaker manager José Aurelio Gay will lead the club until the end of the season. Mohamed Ali Amar - otherwise known as Nayim, the former Zaragoza and Tottenham player - will be Gay's main assistant. Remember his deciding goal against Arsenal in the Cup Winners' Cup final? Then President Bandrés and all the board resigned and the main shareholder, Agapito Iglesias, took over the top position. What a Christmas week for the blanquillos.

While all that happened in Aragón, Deportivo openly admitted that they won't be able to pay their players in the first quarter of 2010. Not the best of contexts for a football match, but on the pitch Deportivo are a better assembled team and should prevail. There could be tough times ahead for Gay and Nayim.

9. Mallorca (5th) - Athletic (7th): 2.

Two of the most pleasant surprises of the season go head-to-head. Mallorca have a perfect home record (the archetypal Loyal Husband) and Athletic have a very good away one (a well-trained Adulterer). This looks like a draw, correct?

However, Mallorca will miss their two starting centre backs (Nunes and Ivan Ramis), and Athletic have Fernando Llorente (hard to stop, even for a good centre back) and are fantastic in set-piece situations. Athletic look like a safe bet in Son Moix.

10. Osasuna (12th) v Real Madrid (2nd): 2.

My 'Palco de Honor' (VIP Zone) ticket to watch Real Madrid and Zaragoza only confirmed the sad impression I've developed from my more humble South Goal seat during the last five-to-ten years: the Bernabéu has become an opera house, where people are almost afraid to make noise.

Following a trend that you can see in most mass sports, Real Madrid have priced out their blue collar fans and now have a very harmless, but boring supporter base that does not put much pressure on the opposite side. Even CR9, the current prima donna of the opera house, demanded a more "English" attitude from the fans at the Bernabéu. Too late for that, methinks.

This is really not the case at Pamplona, where Osasuna supporters are fun and belligerent all match long. Real Madrid don't really enjoy playing at the Reyno de Navarra that much, but Manuel Pellegrini has come a long way to finally get a well-defined and consistent starting XI. José Antonio Camacho, a Real Madrid legend but now Osasuna's gaffer, will miss at least five players for this match. It is difficult to see anything but a '2' for this one.

Last week: 5/10

Total season: 23/50 (46%)

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