This is the first LigaFever post in our new house, Football España. From now on, our writing will feature here as well. It’s a perfect fit for us, as Football España offers a window into Spanish football well beyond Barcelona and Real Madrid, which has always been our goal too.
If you aren’t familiar with La Quiniela, it’s simply a preview of the weekend’s matches with a prediction that, according to the numbers in the last few seasons, is more often wrong than right. Accuracy aside, what matters is to give our readers a tongue-in-cheek overview of what can happen each matchday. We publish a Quiniela every Friday and a weekend summary every Monday; I, Eduardo Alvarez, usually write the former and Phil Ball the latter, although every once in a while, we swap to accommodate our agendas.
Shall we? Let’s start. Remember, it’s 1 for a home win, X for a draw and 2 for an away win.
- Athletic Club (8th) vs Granada (17th): 1
Well-coached team vs poorly-coached team results in an easy prediction, especially when the difference in budget also favours the former. That said, and as it’s been mentioned before in this Quiniela, Athletic generate plenty of chances but can’t score to save their lives. Their starting line-up includes Raul Garcia, Iñaki Williams and Oihan Sancet, none of them pure scorers, and off the bench there isn’t much available to shake things up if needed. I would not be surprised if they resort to signing some kid from Real Sociedad to add some spice during the winter transfer window.
Granada, with a few seasoned veterans, will aim for a draw, but Robert Moreno is only living off that 3-0 win at Levante. He’ll run out of credit soon.
- Alavés (14th) vs Celta Vigo (15th): 1
Alavés looked like dead meat, but in five matches they’ve turned things around. With a tenth of the talent Celta have, the hosts now look like a cohesive unit, something that the visitors haven’t achieved in a while. With no major absentees in either side, let’s see if the in-shape Joselu can outscore Iago Aspas & co. And believe me, after reviewing Celta’s likely starting 11 (Brais Mendez, Denis Suárez, Nolito, Aspas, Santi Mina) it’s hard to stick to that “1” prediction, but they have been consistently burning my optimism for the last two seasons.
- Valencia (10th) vs Rayo Vallecano (6th): 1
If you didn’t catch last weekend’s clash between Valencia and La Real, please read Phil’s rant about it. The hosts looked positively Bordalesque, using every trick in the book to waste time, throw La Real players off their pace and wreak havoc in general. For 90 minutes, football became secondary.
Now that we know they can do that, let’s see if they can play ball too. They do have the assets, as Phil also mentioned in his piece.
- Mallorca (13th) vs Getafe (19th): X
The visitors’ have finally reacted, riding Enes Unal’s best form since he arrived in Spain. Not sure that’s sustainable, but they also have recovered some of their defensive shape (three goals conceded in the last four matches). Given that Mallorca aren’t exactly killing it in attack – Take Kubo won’t play – this looks like a stalemate which will give the visitors another point in the right direction and will frustrate a slightly disappointing Mallorca so far.
- Villarreal (12th) vs Barcelona (7th): X
Xavi’s start at the helm of Barcelona hasn’t brought the expected revolution yet, which in fact makes sense. This is a dysfunctional squad with plenty of gaps that is excessively dependent on very young players, so it’s hard to turn their performances around in just a handful of training sessions. That said, you can see Xavi’s hand already on the way players are positioned on the pitch and the line-ups themselves. What used to be a broken defence has now gone two matches without conceding – with remarkable luck involved in both, but that also counts when you’re trying to build a winning mindset.
The main issue, however, does not lie at the back. Lionel Messi’s departure left a gaping hole on the offensive side of things, and without him Barcelona have scored 20 goals in 13 matches, only the 7th most in La Liga. They used to lead that ranking easily when the Argentine played at Camp Nou. Under Xavi, they’ve only managed to produce one goal, and that was from the penalty spot after a controversial play.
The new coach needs help, and from what we’ve seen so far the best option could be – injuries permitting – Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman showed plenty of dynamism in the Champions League draw with Benfica, and Xavi spoke highly about him after the match. For all the young talent in midfield, there’s no finisher in this team, and someone with Dembele’s skills could partially cover that flaw. Rumour has it that in order to reinforce their ability to score, Barcelona want to sign Arthur Cabral from Basel. The 23-year-old Brazilian forward has scored 24 times in 23 matches so far, but the state of things at Barcelona is indeed desperate when the main solution to their scoring woes is a striker from the Swiss Super League (yes, the Swiss already have a Super League).
Villarreal haven’t quite clicked yet, which is hard to understand when you look at the squad. They have plenty of talent, youth and options off the bench. Perhaps Unai Emery’s distraction with Newcastle had something to do with it, but with a third of the season gone by they sit in the wrong half of the table and have a dangerous trip to Bergamo in December, when they take on Atalanta for a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
This is a huge test for Xavi. On a good day, the hosts’ approach is similar to what he wants to implement at Barcelona, plus they have a combination of experience to manage the match – Manu Trigueros and Dani Parejo – and use some speed up front – Yeremi Pino, Arnaut Danjuma – that looks like a lock to make the pre-Xavi Barcelona suffer. I’m going for the “X” because of the visitors’ newfound defensive solidity.
- Real Betis (5th) vs Levante (20th): 1
Probably the easiest prediction of the whole weekend. Matches with such an obvious result usually make me feel uneasy, but how can one go against Manuel Pellegrini’s Betis, who just overwhelmed Elche with 20 fantastic minutes and sit fifth in the standings? They have had their off matches, sure, but they’ve been impressively consistent in this first third of the season, both domestically and in the Europa League. And then we have Levante, bottom of the table, looking as depressed as a team can possibly look, seven months without a win (you read that right), with their stadium falling down.
Is there a case for Levante to upset Betis? Unless Jose Luis Morales finds new energy magically, I can’t see it happening. Easy home win.
- Espanyol (11th) vs Real Sociedad (2nd): 1
Espanyol’s defeat in the Barcelona derby was especially bitter. The team had the chance to draw level at least three times in the final ten minutes, but Xavi embraced his inner Johan Cruyff and luck smiled on him. The hosts are a more than decent team, they only lack a bit of help for Sergi Darder and Raul de Tomas going forward.
I do believe that the leading position was giving La Real an extra ounce of motivation, and with last weekend’s draw against Valencia the team will lose a bit of steam. I can picture a tight match with a 1-0 home win.
- Cádiz (16th) vs Atlético de Madrid (4th): X
“X” is the result I usually resort to when I can’t see a clear winner, and this is one of those cases. Atletico have drawn their last two trips (and lost the previous one) and they come into this one on the back of an extremely frustrating defeat against Milan. They haven’t performed well for 90 minutes since they defeated Betis a month ago, and the promise this squad offered when the season started is already vanishing.
Can Diego Simeone turn this around? Of course, but one can feel the effort the team make by trying to stay close when Luis Suarez restricts his playing area more and more. I tend to believe that the best option for Atletico is to start with Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix, using Suarez only in the second half and specific matches, but that means leaving the winner of last season’s La Liga on the bench. Not easy.
- Real Madrid (1st) vs Sevilla (3rd): X
Match of the weekend. A huge test of Sevilla’s ability to become real title challengers. If you haven’t watched them yet this season, do not expect champagne football, that’s not Julen Lopetegui’s style. And yet, when Papu Gomez, Erik Lamela and Joan Jordan get going, some interesting moves happen. As they do almost every summer, the visitors have signed players who contribute from their first day with the team, and now they have a 17-18 deep group that can take them to the end of the season without major slumps in form. They have had some off matches this season, but who hasn’t?
That’s pivotal when you’ve just played a key Champions League match during the week, as Carlo Ancelotti seems to have finally understood. I remember his 2014 squad, who played as well as any Madrid side I’ve seen before he ran the team into the ground by not resting anyone for two months. The new Ancelotti rests, rotates and uses his subs in exponentially higher proportions than the old one. On Wednesday we saw him take off Ferland Mendy, Dani Carvajal (both injury-prone and not 100% yet from their last knock), David Alaba, Casemiro and Rodrygo (in his case to keep the improving Marco Asensio involved). Along those lines, something tells me that Luka Modric won’t start on Sunday.
In terms of the actual match, Sevilla can probably challenge Madrid better than any other La Liga team at this point of the season. Physical, intense, tactically savvy and with enough offensive alternatives to make Madrid’s life difficult. I understand that it sounds quite noncommittal to go for three “X”s for the three most recent La Liga winners in our Football España debut, but that is already a statement about how competitive this season is in Spain.
- Osasuna (9th) vs Elche (18th): 1
I started the season backing this Argentine Elche side strongly, but that bet has backfired. As a result of their inconsistent performance Fran Escribá was fired last week and they haven’t found a new coach yet. Elche haven’t won in their last six and they struggle to score despite some talented assets; they need a new brain on the bench quickly or it’s going to be a long season.
A visit to Pamplona does not sound like a great opportunity to stage a comeback. Osasuna have performed well so far, although their home record is quite underwhelming (one win, three draws and three defeats). This looks like a clear home win unless Javier Pastore and Lucas Boye wake up.
- Athletic Club (8th) vs Granada (17th)
- Alavés (14th) vs Celta (15th)
- Valencia (10th) vs Rayo Vallecano (6th)
- Mallorca (13th) vs Getafe (19th)
- Villarreal (12th) vs Barcelona (7th)
- Betis (5th) vs Levante (20th)
- Espanyol (11th) vs Real Sociedad (2nd)
- Cádiz (16th) vs Atlético de Madrid (4th)
- Real Madrid (1st) vs Sevilla (3rd)
- Osasuna (9th) vs Elche (18th)