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Feb 11, 2011

Quiniela - Week 23 - The Iceman cometh

After twenty two matches, La Liga's title race might not be as exciting as some of us expected but, at this stage of the season, there are still plenty of exciting subplots worth our attention. For instance, Valencia and Villarreal's head-to-head competition for third place, or Athletic Bilbao's refreshing challenge for a Champions League spot.

However, the most interesting and dramatic fight is now developing in the lower half of the table. Up to nine teams are separated by only five points, which means that one week your favourite side could be calmly classified in 11th and, two weeks later, could very well be in the relegation zone.

Panic has already spread among those troubled teams: coach sackings, emergency signings and desperate calls for fans' support have been the norm in the last couple of weeks, and should only increase from now until the end of the season. Identifying which of those sides are able to keep their cool will be key to a positive outcome of our quinielas.

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

1. Atlético de Madrid (8th) - Valencia (4th): 2.

Dear non-Spaniard, there are two ways to identify trouble in any La Liga club: first, when the President publicly states that the coach's job is safe - arguably a usual sign in every single top level club globally - and second, when players, coaching staff and club executives meet for a three-hour meal during which all of them swear each other maximum effort and dedication for the rest of the season. Atlético's 'One for All and All for One' lunch happened last Wednesday. It guarantees Rojiblanco fans 15 minutes of hard work at the beginning of Saturday's match, and then a massive team collapse as soon as Valencia show they've come to Madrid to guarantee their Champions League spot.

2. Sporting de Gijón (13th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.

Even with ticket prices going from €90 to €150, El Molinon will be packed to watch Guardiola's team. The home side saw their best streak of the season come to a screeching halt at the hands of Athletic last weekend, and now face Barcelona, who last week broke Real Madrid's long-standing consecutive wins record in La Liga.

Barcelona usually have trouble in weekends after international football. In this case, they have more reasons than ever: eight of the thirteen Barca internationals played a full ninety minutes for their national teams. One of them, Gerard Pique, was hailed by the Colombian fans present in Madrid (and myself) due to his now evident relationship with singer Shakira. However, in the current state of things, all those trips and tiredness among the Barca stars don't look like enough advantage for Sporting to stop the Catalans on Saturday.

3. Racing de Santander (16th) - Sevilla (7th): 2.

New/old coach for Racing: Marcelino Garcia Toral, who took the home side to the Europa League in 2008, is back in Santander. His previous spell at Racing's helm granted him the love of the local supporters, therefore the new owner, Indian millionaire Ali Syed, made his first decision a very popular one.

After seven winless weeks, the home side badly need some good news. 'New coach, sure win', the Spanish saying goes, only in this case it doesn't sound remotely possible. Even after defender Martin Caceres told the press that coach 'Gregorio Manzano only picks his friends to play', Sevilla behave quite consistently away from the Sanchez Pizjuan, and should get three points to keep alive their chase for a Champions League spot.

4. Levante (18th) - Almeria (19th): 1.

Both teams, mightily threatened by relegation, were indeed responsible for 'Quiniela Busters' last weekend. Levante broke Villarreal's undefeated home streak, while Almeria beat the so-far-impressive Espanyol at home, after a horrendous display by goalkeeper Kameni. Despite their scarce resources, the home side, motivated by their coach by using the inspiring example of Team Hoyt, seem determined to avoid relegation and have won their last two matches.

Almeria don't know how to win away from home, unless they play neighbours Sevilla. Not even Argentinean Leonardo Ulloa's impressive run of form should avoid a hard fought, ugly home win.

5. Málaga (20th) - Getafe (9th): 2.

Weeks go by and Manuel Pellegrini, the Chilean coach, hasn't still made an impact for Malaga. The Malacitanos are by far the worst defensive team in La Liga (47 goals suffered in 22 matches, a whopping nine more than second-worst Almeria). Winless in their five last matches, they have also lost keeper Sergio Asenjo and influential midfielder Duda to injury.

They now host the bipolar Getafe, the most unpredictable team in the league. The significant absentees, coupled with the huge pressure on Malaga's shoulders, make this an excellent occasion for Getafe to pull an away win. Next week the Getafenses will lose at home to Racing, just to keep us all guessing…

6. Hércules (15th) - Zaragoza (12th): X.

Royston Drenthe tried his best until the very last second of the transfer window, but he couldn't pull it off: Hercules will be his team at least until June. Once more, the Dutchman will have to win back the trust of his coach and team-mates, who now appear to have had it with him.

The Drenthe Factor has been unsettling Hercules for most of the season, especially in the last couple of months. The Alicantinos have lost their last four games for a combined 10-0, and need to react pronto. Zaragoza, one of their direct rivals to avoid relegation, arrive at the Rico Perez stadium after a decent run based on a strengthened defence, and that should be enough to scratch another valuable point.

7. Real Sociedad (10th) - Osasuna (14th): X.

Xabi Prieto, arguably Real Sociedad's most valuable player so far, will miss a very interesting match against Osasuna due to suspension. His team disappointed in Madrid last weekend, just one week after their Sunday rivals defeated the Madridistas at the Reyno de Navarra.

The Osasunistas haven't won away from Navarra yet - only two points after 11 away matches - but they're tough enough to get a point in San Sebastian. The home side lose a great deal of inventiveness and creativity without Prieto, the Spanish Matt Le Tissier.

8. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) - Villarreal (3rd): 2.

Some tricks will only take you up to a certain point. Back in October, Miguel Angel Lotina, Depor's boss, switched to a five-man defensive formation; a decision which took his side out of the relegation zone after a dismal start of the season. However, recent opponents have shown they have remembered how to play against that tactical disposition: Depor have won only one point in their last five matches, and are back in the danger zone. During the week, Lotina has experimented again with a traditional back four, but he'd need much better defenders to stop Villarreal's attacking line.

The Amarillos laid an ominous egg last Sunday, but they still are a superior side. If they score first, Depor's worst relegation nightmares will be back in Riazor.

9. Espanyol (6th) - Real Madrid (2nd): 2.

Other than Spain's match against Colombia, admittedly a boring one except for the impressive ovation the Bernabeu presented Barcelona's Andres Iniesta with, the news of the week in Madrid goes by the name of Cesc Fabregas. According to Marca, the Madridistas have made a €60m offer to Arsenal for the young midfielder, €15m more than Barcelona. Given Cesc's background and his close friendship with several Barcelona players, it would be surprising if he joined Real, but we've seen more shocking signings, haven't we?

On Sunday, Madrid meet their equipo hermano, Espanyol, who've lost their last two matches. Despite the traditional atmosphere of fraternity between both teams, Real Madrid's track record against Espanyol in Barcelona isn't particularly bright: 27 wins in 75 games. However, Emmanuel Adebayor's addition has freshened up their offensive line and they should get the three points to keep their struggling title challenge alive.

10. Mallorca (11th) - Athletic de Bilbao (5th): 2.

Both teams have a lot to play for on Monday evening. After getting only one draw in their last four matches, Mallorca are just five points away from the drop zone, while Athletic's four consecutive wins got them into Europa League spots, even getting their Champions League expectations going.

One has to like Athletic's excellent run of form, and can't help being concerned with Mallorca's shortage of resources, especially in the offensive front. This could well be another match decided by the Leones' striking force: Fernando Llorente, Gaizka Toquero and Iker Muniain.

PS. Quick reminder: you can follow me on twitter! (@Papamoskis).

Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. If you get 10 correct results, your name will be mentioned in the following Quiniela column!

1. Atlético de Madrid (8th) - Valencia (4th): 2.
2. Sporting de Gijón (13th) - Barcelona (1st): 2.
3. Racing de Santander (16th) - Sevilla (7th): 2.
4. Levante (18th) - Almeria (19th): 1.
5. Málaga (20th) - Getafe (9th): 2.
6. Hércules (15th) - Zaragoza (12th): X.
7. Real Sociedad (10th) - Osasuna (14th): X.
8. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) - Villarreal (3rd): 2.
9. Espanyol (6th) - Real Madrid (2nd): 2.
10. Mallorca (11th) - Athletic de Bilbao (5th): 2.


Last week: 4/10 (40%)
Season: 104/200 (52%)

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