Unsurprisingly the papers this morning were dominated by the possible permutations of today’s Champions League draw. El Mundo Deportivo went so far as to run a full page piece featuring Cesc Fàbregas, the Arsenal captain, proclaiming his desire not to meet his beloved Barça until the final. Well, guess what, Cesc!
This afternoon’s updates of the tabloid’s websites will be of more use for current news, but first let’s take a look at this weekend’s final match-day ahead of the winter break.
Two fixtures clearly stand out above the rest; the first of these being the Barcelona ‘derby’ between Barça and Espanyol at Cornellà. ‘Derby’ might be stretching it a bit; the sense of morbo, of rivalry, in this one is generally all one way traffic. But Josep Guardiola has said several times this week that is the second-toughest fixture left in their league calendar; and he certainly has a point. Last season, in a freezing Camp Nou, this writer recalls an absolutely turgid encounter, where a gritty Espanyol side dragged the then-European Champions down to their level. In a game where cards were more frequent than decent openings, Zlatan provided a moment of magic to secure a 1-0 victory for the home side.
Tomorrow night’s encounter will take place in an equally frozen Cornellà, where Espanyol have won every single game this season. The weather will be anything but, at least expect the atmosphere to be hot. Espanyol have really made this new stadium their home, and would love nothing better than to put a spanner in Goliath’s works. Last season’s second encounter on this ground ended scoreless, and Daniel Alves saw red; with Espanyol flying this term, yet still as dogged ever, we can expect something muy feo; an ugly encounter, to put it mildly. I’m loathe to give predictions, but I wouldn’t advise against checking the odds for a similar scoreline this time around. Even if we witness the customary Barça early opener, it should prove to be tight.
Poor Gregorio Manzano. Entrusted with a brief to buck-up his side’s ideas after his predecessor’s shock Champions League qualifier elimination by SC Braga in August, the Andalusian manager has enjoyed an absolutely torrid time of things since their 5-0 thumping at the hands of Barça back at the end of October. Week after week, they were presented with eminently winnable games; instead we’ve seen them reach their nadir in recent weeks, with humiliating home defeats to Getafe and Almería either side of an away reverse at Villarreal. Thank god they managed to progress in the Europa League, because their next stop on the home front is at the Bernebeu against a rampant Real Madrid.
What to make of Madrid? Perhaps we can put the clásico down as a blip, a night where, tactically, Mourinho got just about everything wrong against the one team in the world where you need to have everything right to even dream of getting a result. Ever since that infamous night, it’s been as you were for the meringue; goals have been flying in by the bucketful, di María and Cristiano Ronaldo are again proving a terrifying twosome for any defence to come combat. Mou has been making some tactical alterations of late, altering between his pre-clásico 4-2-3-1, and variations of 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3; on occasion, he’s taken to playing without his one fit recognised centre-forward, Karim Benzema. Little that this has mattered; Real have been swatting teams aside again, and it would be foolish to think that’s going to change on Sunday.
Elsewhere, Villarreal will be looking to put last weekend’s late defeat at Getafe behind them, as they host 10th placed Mallorca. Levante, though very much struggling, have sprung some surprise results already this season; and a Bilbao side travelling there in inconsistent form will need something from Fernando Llorente if they are to end the calendar year on a high.
Sporting’s visit to goal-shy Deportivo tomorrow hardly sets the pulse racing; but the late kick between Real Sociedad and Valencia should be better fare. We can probably put the host’s 5-0 drubbing at the Camp Nou aside, as it’s become standard fare for sides visiting there at this stage. Before that, they impressed in their 2-0 victory over fierce rivals Bilbao in San Sebastian. Valencia threw away a two goal lead at home to Osasuna on Monday, so this could be one worth viewing.
Another potentially interesting one to hunt for online is Sunday’s early clash between Almería and Getafe. The home side have been slowly improving ever since that horrendous defeat by Barcelona; meanwhile, it’s probably time we stopped habitually attaching the word ‘surprise’ to victories by Getafe. They lie seventh in the table, just two points off fifth-place Valencia. Coach Michel has moulded them into a formidable unit and with victories over the likes of Villarreal and Sevilla in recent weeks, added to their stern examination of Barcelona six weeks back, they look to be a match for any team outside of the big two.
In the remaining fixtures, Atlético could confirm their turnaround if they can record a second consecutive league win at Manuel Pellegrini’s struggling Málaga. Already dumped out of this season’s Europa League, perhaps the opportunity to focus their minds on domestic matters will see them regain the sort of form that had some labeling them (Ha!) as potential title-contenders early on this season. Sunday’s remaining fixture sees the side propping up the table, Zaragoza hosting Osasuna. And as for Hércules’ trip to Racing Santander? Well, there’s a reason the fixture schedulers have buried it in the netherworld that is the Monday night slot. But the visiting side have adapted to life surprisingly well in the top flight, and come into this game off the back of a 4-1 shellacking of Málaga; so, who knows?
Saturday (18:00 CET unless stated)
Deportivo La Coruña v Sporting Gíjon
Levante v Athletic Bilbao
Villarreal v Mallorca
Espanyol v Barcelona (20:00 CET)
Real Sociedad v Valencia (22:00 CET)
Sunday (17:00 CET unless stated)
Almería v Getafe
Osasuna v Zaragoza
Málaga v Atlético Madrid (19:00 CET)
Real Madrid v Sevilla (21:00 CET)
Racing Santander v Hércules (21:00 CET)