"I'm in the mood for love, simple because you're near me..." (from "I'm in the mood for love", by McHugh and Fields)
As usual, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.
1. Deportivo (6th) - Real Madrid (2nd): 1.
Ok, ok, I will have to talk about team clusters even if it is just this once. In our previous classification, back in matchday 14, Real Madrid belonged to the Adulterers' club, that sneaky group of teams that prefers to play away from home. After their recent two lacklustre away matches (draw at Pamplona, loss at Bilbao), combined with their impeccable home form, we can safely say they've probably gone back to their wives.
Therefore, an away match does not sound that good to the madridistas anymore. To add insult to injury, CR9 will watch this one from Madrid due to his well-earned red card against Málaga. Gonzalo Higuaín and Rafael van der Vaart will not play either, making way for the Artist Formerly Known as Raúl in the starting line-up. And if that was not enough, the madridistas' track record at Riazor is dubious to say the least.
Nevertheless, Deportivo aren't a happy bunch either. The injury of Brazilian Filipe Luis last Sunday was shocking enough to make a grown man cry (Deportivo's likeable coach Lotina), and then the team was duly eliminated from the Copa del Rey despite a 1-0 win in Sevilla. In any case, this looks like one of those matches when players and coach try their hardest to dedicate a famous win to the recently injured player. '1' seems to be the choice here. And, as usual, no emotional hedge involved in this decision. As far as you know.
2. Sporting (10th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.
Have Barcelona lost their swagger? For quiniela purposes, the question is utterly irrelevant. At least statistically, they simply keep killing their opponents. Since their home draw against Villarreal, Barça have played three matches, winning all three with a combined 12 goals scored, zero suffered.
The Copa del Rey elimination gave them more time to rest, and they have made the most out of it during one of the most pleasant weeks one can remember in Can Barça. Dani Alves became their only issue, with a niggling injury that could keep him out of this one.
In any case, it will be too much rice for such a small chicken, as the old Spanish saying goes. The inexperienced Sporting side could become more inexperienced if their Youth Team player Christian Portilla starts for them this week, as it seems to be the case. He'll probably ask for some autographs from Xavi, Iniesta, et al. In summary, another Barcelona rout in the making.
At least the Gijón club will cash on it (tickets range from €90 to €140, quite expensive for the usual sportinguista standards, but a full house is expected anyway).
3. Atlético de Madrid (11th) - Málaga (16th): 2.
No one was happier than this columnist when Atlético's coach Quique Sánchez Flores stated on Tuesday that "the only scenario I consider is a win at Balaídos", talking about their midweek Copa del Rey tie against Celta. I had at least ten jokes ready along the lines of "Famous last words", positive as I was that Atlético would exit the Cup.
Surprise, surprise. 1-0 away win, and Atlético are in the semi-finals, after two depressing outings against Getafe and Celta (first leg of the Cup). What comes next? The umpteenth beginning of the miraculous comeback?
I don't think so. Every Atlético supporter knows by now that they're in for a painful Sunday evening against Kings of Draw Málaga. The rojiblancos will be tired from their Thursday effort, are well aware that they are pretty much playing for nothing in La Liga, and face a team that desperately need some points and will want to offer a win to broken-nose Patrick Mtiliga. This is a '2', and not an unexpected one.
4. Sevilla (6th) - Valencia (3rd): 2.
No doubt this will be the match of the weekend. Sevilla desperately need the win if they want to get back into the Champions League spots, while Valencia can't afford a defeat if they want to keep up with Real Madrid. Both teams will miss some players (out of form Dragutinovic for Sevilla; Miguel, Joaquín and Mathieu for Valencia), although none of them is irreplaceable.
Despite their surprising draw at Tenerife last week, Valencia have shown more consistency than their host in this beginning of 2010. The deciding factor of this match should be Sevilla's usually weak defending of fast midfielders coming from behind (one of Valencia's preferred plays). David Silva, Antonio Mata and even Pablo Hernández should make the difference at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Also, pay attention to David Villa, who never plays poorly in two consecutive matches, and was awful last week in Tenerife.
5. Xerez (20th) - Mallorca (4th): 2.
Mallorca were eliminated in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals by Getafe, so Professor Manzano won't be a happy chap this week. His blunt statement after their narrow defeat was simply "My players are (expletive) up". Other than that, this trip to Xerez should be a walk in the proverbial park for the bermellones, with a full squad aiming to maintain their Champions League spot for one more week.
6. Valladolid (17th) - Almería (15th): 1.
Valladolid are going down in flames, and fast. No wins since the beginning of December and an extremely predictable game plan (long ball to Diego Costa) have started the usual noises that precede a gaffer's firing. José Luis Mendilibar has been through this before, so let's see if he can prevent the ship from sinking. The fact is that he can't afford not to win on Sunday.
In the opposite corner, meet Juan Manuel Lillo. After Almeria's defeat last week, our "Master of the Soundbite" - as baptised by Phil Ball in his last Monday column - insightfully pointed out that he and his team were "full of pride, but what matters is being full of points". Mr Lillo starts to sound too practical.
This match could really go either way, but I am leaning towards the home team showing at least this once that they care for their manager. Otherwise, he'll be gone by Monday morning.
7. Getafe (7th) - Racing (13th): X.
First of all, congratulations to the home side, who made it to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, defeating an impressive Mallorca in the process. However, it's a shame that they've let Cosmin Contra go in the same week. Contra, almost a legend in Spanish football, was an integral part of the amazing Alavés side that lost the UEFA Cup Final against Liverpool in 2001.
And what can we say about young Sergio Canales, who also took his team to the semis, even scoring from a free kick? He's only one headed goal away from showing a full offensive arsenal in just one month. Thanks to his impressive performances, Racing are unbeaten in January (both in Liga and Copa del Rey), and have now become an intimidating visitor. That is probably why some columnist included them in the "Late Bloomers" cluster well over a month ago…
Both teams are in good shape, so this match should be fun to watch. It sounds like a good time for Getafe to draw their first of the season.
8. Villarreal (9th) - Osasuna (12th): 1.
Osasuna usually plays well at El Madrigal (unbeaten since 2005). However, they suffered a frustrating Copa del Rey defeat in midweek and that should show on Sunday.
9. Tenerife (18th) - Zaragoza (19th): 1.
Another do-or-die encounter between relegation-threatened teams. Zaragoza continue their revamp effort with new signings, although none of them sound too enticing. For instance, they got goalie Roberto from Atlético de Madrid on loan. When you are happy to take defensive players that even Atlético themselves do not want, you're probably in trouble. They also hired Italian hatchet man Matteo Contini, who in his introductory press conference admitted his reputation as a beyond-tough defender and stated that he does "everything humanly possible to avoid that the other team score". No prisoners, then.
Even though Tenerife are only three points ahead of Zaragoza, their internal atmosphere appears healthier, and their last few showings have been incomparably better than those of the maños. That, coupled with Zaragoza's dismal away record (two draws and no wins after ten matches), make for a clear verdict. '1' indeed.
10. Espanyol (14th) - Athletic de Bilbao (8th): 2.
The periquitos have only managed to beat one single team that was better positioned than them in the table, and that happened back in September. Since October, they have won three matches only, against Almería, Tenerife and Zaragoza. Hardly a murderers' row.
Their visitors have a decent away record (four wins and two draws in ten matches), and impressed at least for 20 minutes in their last week defeat at Deportivo. Espanyol are hardly equipped to deal with Athletic's intense midfield work and aerial threats. The visitors should aim for Europa League spots after this match.
Last week: 7/10 (70%)
Season Total: 44/90 (49%)