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Mar 5, 2010

The Soccernet Quiniela - Week 15 - La Furia are ready

I can think of very few times when I have started to write the quiniela column feeling more upbeat than today. Spain's convincing midweek win in Paris lifted my spirits and almost made me forget Mr Ball's 4/10 last week. Almost.

The impressive Spaniards played so well that even the usually chauvinistic French newspapers recognised that the Furia currently sit one level higher than most of the other candidates to 2010 World Cup success.

A number of details to celebrate from Wednesday's victory, even if it was a friendly match: new players join the side and maintain the high quality passing and correct positioning; the addition of Jesus Navas, who as a pure winger brings new attacking options to the side; the fact that younger centre-backs can safely take Carlos Marchena's place; and how Vicente del Bosque has modified the original 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-3-1 where the two defensive midfielders can switch positions not only between themselves but also with some of the offensive midfielders when the flow of play demands them to do so.

That does not mean that there are no points of concern. For instance, even when Spain play their most physically gifted midfielders such as Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, they have serious issues to deal with more muscular sides, such as France - and, by the way, with those extra-tight jerseys, the French looked even stronger. I bet Cristiano Ronaldo would score six a match wearing one of those. In any case, at the beginning of the second half, when France began to play tougher, Spain had trouble keeping possession.

And then there is Sergio Ramos. To the untrained observer, it could appear that the Spanish full-back had a fantastic match in Paris: one goal scored, no goals suffered. But once you get to watch him closely, you witness three ill-advised offensive forays at the beginning of the second half that cost him a yellow card and that could have easily seen him sent off. France were too incompetent to exploit the holes he left behind, unlike Barcelona last year at the Bernabeu (that probably marks the difference between last season's and this season's Thierry Henry, by the way).

You also see his 'Token Positional Lapse After a Cross', the same one that allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score against Real Madrid in the first derby of the season, and which also permitted Florent Malouda to head against the post in France's only clear chance during Wednesday's match.

Joan Capdevila (left) and Alvaro Arbeloa (right) are more disciplined, although obviously less talented offensively. However, with Spain's quality both in midfield and the final third, it does not seem like the Spaniards need to take chances with Ramos.

Anyway, it's always great to beat the French. Time to go back to Spain and to the quiniela. As usual, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.

1. Deportivo (6th) - Tenerife (19th): 1.

Of their last five matches, Tenerife have lost four. They are the worst visiting side in La Liga, with only two points in 11 games - even Xerez have done better than that. On top of their pitiful record, their two starting full backs (Bertran and Bellvis) are injured.

Can Deportivo possibly not win this one? With no major injuries (except for Brazilian Filipe Luis, but that's hardly news) and their respectable home record, I don't think so.

2. Almeria (13th) - Barcelona (1st): X.

And fast enough we get to the bomb of the week. Almeria have not lost in their last five matches (three wins, two draws). After a rough first half of the season, they are now nine points clear of the relegation zone, so the pressure has decreased noticeably in the last three weeks. The 'Lillo Effect' seems to be working at full steam, and he knows how to motivate his players for this type of match, for which he's been preparing this whole week.

On the other corner, Futbol Club Barcelona. Most of their starters played mid-season matches with their national teams, some of them quite rough. The team have already showed signs of tiredness, and were only six minutes away from proving Mr Ball right last week. I believe they will tie this one and the next weekend, with a full week of rest, destroy Valencia at the Camp Nou.

3. Real Madrid (2nd) - Sevilla (4th): 1.

The best home side in La Liga play to keep their perfect record (12 wins in 12 matches) right before what will arguably be their most important game of the season so far, next Wednesday against Olympique de Lyon, also at the Bernabeu.

However, Mr Pellegrini can't rest any players for this. He will have to start with his best XI, who have responded well after the defeat in Lyon. In their wins over Villarreal and Tenerife, the merengues scored a whopping 11 goals in two matches. Even the previously disappointing Kaka seems to be getting his act together on the pitch.

Sevilla won't be easy visitors. As has been proven during the season, they show up for the big matches. In this case, two of their players have their own reasons to shine at the Bernabeu. Jesus Navas, apparently a target for Florentino Perez and Jorge Valdano, will want to make an impression, as will Alvaro Negredo, the former Real Madrid player.

However, the sevillistas have some key players injured, or at least not at 100% of their capacity. Luis Fabiano won't play, and Adriano, Renato and Stankevicius will have to make an effort to play in Madrid. We've already seen that Sevilla's second string can't retain the high-tempo approach of the starting line-up. It will be a tough match, but I believe Real Madrid will prevail.

4. Malaga (14th) - Xerez (20th): 1.

Since Nestor Gorosito took over at Xerez, some things have remained the same at the Andalusian club but others have indeed changed. The jerezanos still lose pretty much every match, but they now at least manage to score once in a while. In their first 18 matches, the jerezanos had only seven goals to their name, while with Gorosito they only needed six matches to score the same figure.

That does not change the fact that they are simply terrible. The perfect visitors for an improving Malaga side (only one defeat in their last five, and that was the Xavi-Messi rescue mission last week) to put more distance between themselves and the relegation zone.

5. Espanyol (15th) - Villarreal (8th): 1.

Espanyol aren't in deeper trouble because of their home record. Out of their 27 points, 21 come from their home matches, which should give us some confidence in the periquitos. On top of that, Villarreal are probably the most unstable side in La Liga, and own a dismal away record (one win and two draws in 11 matches). New manager Juan Carlos Garrido has not been able to change much of the amarillos so far, which means they keep playing reasonably well at home and they are amazingly poor away. Let's trust the streak to continue.

6. Mallorca (5th) - Sporting (10th): X.

Gregorio Manzano, Mallorca's boss, just won the Manager Expectations Award of the week with his blog post last Monday: "With 40 points after 24 matches, we have already achieved our goal, which was avoiding relegation." Fantastic. I do agree that, after selling the better half of the side during the off-season, it was reasonable to expect Mallorca to struggle at the beginning of the season. But as early as October, it was already clear that the baleares had put together a decent squad, and that they should have a calm year, even with an off chance they will fight for European qualification.

Now Gregorio brings us back to reality. Relegation has been avoided, he says, sitting in fifth spot after almost two thirds of the season. And I guess I agree with him: Mallorca won't be able to keep that position for much longer, but they should celebrate anyway.

Sporting had a bad slump in form, but they promptly reacted with two consecutive wins. I see a draw for the asturianos to continue with their positive run.

7. Osasuna (12th) - Getafe (9th): 1.

These two teams are at a key juncture in their seasons: do they try to get into Europe next season or do they stay quiet and surf through the season until May? Since Getafe were eliminated from the Copa del Rey, their La Liga form has been extremely poor: only two points in their last five matches.

Rumours about the lack of commitment from the players towards boss Michel have already started to leak, and in this case it all does come down to the bosses. I have seen both Michel and Camacho behave on the pitch as Real Madrid players, and if you ask me, with roughly similar talent in both sides, I would always back a Camacho team over a Michel one. No doubts about that.

8. Athletic (7th) - Valladolid (18th): 1.

The recent change of coach has not improved matters at Valladolid. Actually, the vallisoletanos look like a worse team since former dribble master Onesimo took over, and have put together a string of results that only Xerez would dream of matching. Game after game, it becomes clearer that this side are too young and inexperienced to deal with this type of pressure.

And talking about pressure, the blanquivioletas visit San Mames, hardly the stage to start putting together a comeback effort. After playing their reserves against Paraguay in a midweek friendly match (a decision that did not go down very well in Paraguay), Caparros will want to see his players determined to close in on the Europa League spots. And don't forget, Fernando Llorente must be very frustrated after losing his spot in the national team to Alvaro Negredo. He will want to get it back. Looks like a clear '1'.

9. Zaragoza (17th) - Atletico de Madrid (11th): 2.

Could this be another trademark letdown Atletico match, like the one they played a couple of weeks ago at Almeria? Actually, I got that one right, but I was lucky, as Atletico played well and did not deserve to lose. Even though they are not playing for anything in La Liga, the team look completely different, better structured and determined to win every match.

And even though mighty Zaragoza have an impressive record since they revamped the team (three wins and one draw in their last five), they are still two or three levels below the impressive Atletico squad that I watched at the Calderon last Sunday. It will be an entertaining contest indeed.

10. Valencia (3rd) - Racing de Santander (16th): 1.

Remember that Racing had put together a fantastic string of results when Miguel Angel Portugal took over, enjoying success on the back of Sergio Canales' amazing performances for over a month? Well, that's over. Canales signed for Real Madrid, lost his concentration, and Racing have lost their last three, with nine goals against and none scored. To make matters worse, while his team struggles in La Liga, the kid appeared on the cover of Marca on Thursday kissing Real Madrid's jersey, which did not make the santanderinos very happy, as you can imagine.

Until 2010 arrived, Valencia used to win every away match and play poorly at the Mestalla. Now they can't win away from home (their last win came in the first week of January) and haven't lost a point at home in 2010. Let's predict more of the same, even more if the troubled Racing are the visitor.

Last week: 4/10 (40%)

Season Total: 63/130 (48%)

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