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Sep 23, 2011

Quiniela - Week 4 - Surprise leaders

Betis, Valencia and Malaga. What do they have in common? Correct. After the four opening games of the season, they are all above Barcelona and Real Madrid. Even Levante are above Real Madrid, which is fair enough, since they beat them last week.

Is this a sign of egalitarianism to come? As Sevilla's president Angel Del Nido declared after the latest round of games, "no". For him, it's just a temporary blip, an unfortunate incident during the banquet of the gods when somebody pulled off the tablecloth. It's especially galling for him anyway, since one of the teams making the early running are his hated rivals, Betis. Normal service should be resumed soon but, meanwhile, it gives hope to people everywhere and restores some of the old spirit of La Liga, where success was viewed as improbable, but never impossible.

Betis' position is something of a shock, and it is the first time they have occupied the dizzy spot of top place since 2001. That didn't last long, and cynics point to four winnable games so far - easy to say in retrospect - apart from the visit to San Mames, which is never easy, however many points Athletic happen to have at the time. But one side of Seville's all a kerfuffle, as well it might be.

So is Valencia, of course, after a terrific game against Barcelona that disappointed no-one. Either side could have won it in the end, but it was definite proof that Valencia have come of age under Unai Emery's shrewd, though slightly annoying, tutelage. Ever Banega was sensational, and ran the midfield in the first half in a manner rarely witnessed against Barcelona. The game proved that Valencia have a side capable of challenging this season for more than the usual three months, and that Barcelona can show the grit necessary to pull themselves out of difficult situations, just days after their stroll in the park against Osasuna. It's rare to see them under the cosh, but it's impressive to see how they never buckled, and were the stronger side at the finish.

Less can be said about Real Madrid, who after an attractive and energetic-looking start have suddenly fallen into the doldrums. Their draw up at Santander was a morale-booster for Hector Cuper's men but left the whole Madrid thing looking a bit on the soggy side. Conspiracy theorists point to the first rumblings against Mourinho from the players' ranks, with Sergio Ramos allegedly left on the bench because he dared to deviate from the manager's line last week regarding referees, cheating opponents and the slings and arrows of life in general. There are those in Madrid (Ramos is one of them) who do not buy into the new Madrid-as-victims gig, and Mou may have to be a little more careful in future. If he's bothered.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I will be in deepest Peru at the weekend, and may find it difficult to report on the weekend's games. Ed Alvarez and myself have swapped roles, as we do occasionally, so here's the ESPNsoccernet Quiniela for the weekend to come. Ed got six last week, so I'll try to keep up the good work. Not only that, but there are some tasty-looking games coming up this weekend. Let's have a look at what might happen.

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

1. Sporting de Gijon (20th) - Racing de Santander (17th): X.

Sporting have done well on limited budgets and low expectations for the past three seasons, but last year's finish of tenth smelt of over-achievement. They seem to be paying for it so far this season, and remain pointless. The visit of Racing, however, should look to them like an opportunity to get things moving. One slight problem is that the visitors will be buoyed by their more solid performance against Madrid, and the fact that Sporting's manager, Manuel Preciado, is a Racing old boy who finds it hard to get aggressive towards his old pals. Looks like a draw to me.

2. Barcelona (4th) - Atletico Madrid (8th): 1.

One of the standout fixtures on a weekend of several interesting-looking encounters. The meeting of these two was always a goal-fest in the past, although the tradition seems to be drying up. Barcelona are finding that their 3-4-3 formation is leaving them more exposed than usual - Xavi himself admitted this - and Atletico's Radamel Falcao has made a scarily good start, scoring six goals in three games, including the one against Celtic in Europe, as well as having two unjustly disallowed. Forlan who? But it's tough to predict what might happen. Atletico also look better at the back, but I'll go for a (narrow) home win.

3. Sevilla (5th) - Valencia (2nd): 2.

Another excellent prospect at Sevilla, with the hyperactive Valencia as visitors. The game could be a temporary make-or-break for both sides, but it could go either way. Both undefeated so far, a win for Sevilla would put them up with the frontrunners and confirm their usual potential for the season. Jesus Navas is back to form, and Alvaro Negredo is a constant threat. But I can't quite see it. I'll stick my neck out. Valencia are looking seriously good. Away win.

4. Granada (16th) v Osasuna (12th): X.

Granada are playing some attractive stuff in their first season in the top flight but it's so far only yielded a single win and a single goal. They looked a little shy in the final third of the pitch against Real Sociedad on Tuesday, but might fancy their chances against Osasuna, traditionally poor travellers, and still in shock from their Camp Nou visit. At least they kept a clean sheet against Sevilla this week, and might manage a result at the Nuevo Los Carmenes. I'll go for a draw (probably goalless).

5. Mallorca (15th) v Real Sociedad (9th): 2.

The home side are going through various convulsions both on and off the pitch, and the divorce between chairman and manager is a major problem for the atmosphere around San Moix. Mallorca won their opener against Espanyol but have since lost the rest.

The visitors, smelling of team spirit, are a happy bunch at the moment, and Philippe Montanier has managed to bring in young players, retain a competitive edge, and change the team's rather pedestrian style from last season. It's working so far. Away win. It's a question of moods.

6. Athletic (18th) v Villarreal (13th): 1.

This is Athletic's worst start in 31 years, and people are already beginning to question the policy of tampering with a working machine. Things were going just fine last season but a presidential change saw the departure of Joaquín Caparros, a manager no-one expected to fit in but did, and who managed to win the loyalty of the players. Villarreal aren't exactly steaming either, although they are showing signs of recovery.

Despite the statistics, both teams are probably better than their positions suggest, and time should see some vertical movement. Meanwhile, they have to face each other. My feeling is that Athletic must win soon, and that this is the game they will fancy. Home win - but they'll need to sweat for their supper with Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi back to form.

7. Zaragoza (14th) v Malaga (3rd): 2.

Many people's favourites for the drop, Zaragoza are looking quite plucky after a bad start, as evidenced in their refusal to be battered at Betis on Thursday night, almost coming back from 4-1 down at one stage in a tremendous match. However, it's hardly rocket-science to see that their main problems are at the back, and Malaga are the sort of side who are capable of exploiting this.

Malaga are beginning to rock and roll, as one suspected they might, and if they win this one, they will be announcing real credentials. I'm not 100% convinced as yet, but Santi Cazorla was a very clever signing - rather more than just the icing on the cake. I'll go for an away win.

8. Levante (6th) v Espanyol (10th): 1.

Levante are one of the real surprise packages so far, and their win at Rayo in midweek was almost as impressive as their previous win over Real Madrid. Now it's their turn to take on some Catalans, and they look well-equipped to continue their good form. Espanyol can't quite decide yet what sort of season they want - they're winning and losing in equal measure - and will probably find it hard to overcome Levante's new-found morale. Home win.

9. Getafe (19th) v Betis (1st): 1.

Getafe's measly opening-day point at home to Levante masks the fact that they're playing quite well and losing narrowly in general. Betis are on a roll, but this looks like the sort of game where it might come to an end. Betis have conceded five goals in their last two consecutive victories, a fact that won't be overlooked by an admittedly shot-shy Getafe, who have drawn blanks in their last two. Logic suggest a result for Betis, but I'm not so sure. Home win.

10. Real Madrid (7th) v Rayo Vallecano (11th) 1.

This is a tricky one. It's the Madrid derby that everyone forgets about, and is sociologically the most interesting of them all, with the Castellana a thousand miles from Vallecas in a sense, if not as the crow flies. One is tempted to get romantic here and, although Rayo were undefeated until their midweek slip-up, they will probably suffer the icy wind of their rich neighbours' need to get back on track.

The Bernabeu faithful will not forgive their team the lack of urgency shown in not taking advantage of those rare Barcelona slip-ups, and now they'll want to dissipate the doubts. The line-up should be interesting, after the flimsy performance at Santander. I think it will be a home win, but it won't be a walkover by any means. It's a nice day out for Rayo, and they'll be looking to enjoy themselves.

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. Sporting de Gijon (20th) - Racing de Santander (17th): X.
2. Barcelona (4th) - Atletico Madrid (8th): 1.
3. Sevilla (5th) - Valencia (2nd): 2.
4. Granada (16th) v Osasuna (12th): X.
5. Mallorca (15th) v Real Sociedad (9th): 2.
6. Athletic ( 18th) v Villarreal (13th): 1.
7. Zaragoza (14th) v Malaga (3rd): 2.
8. Levante (6th) v Espanyol (10th): 1.
9. Getafe (19th) v Betis (1st): 1.
10. Real Madrid (7th) v Rayo Vallecano (11th) 1.

• Last week: 6/10 (60%)

• Season: 15/30 (50%)

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