Graham Hunter: Don’t bet against Messi and this 12/1 shot in Saturday’s Champions League Final

Strip away all the back-stories: Buffon and Pirlo back in Berlin where they won the World Cup; Suárez facing a tense re-match with Evra and Chiellini; Xavi’s last game for Barcelona – and what you get is your core story – ‘Do you dare bet against Messi?’

Football, the ultimate team sport, is once again under his thumb.

Since January 4 this year Juve, as a squad, have scored 60 times in all three of their competitions.

Since January 4 Messi, alone, has scored 36 and given 14 goal assists – it’s completely remarkable.

Lionel Messi

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He ripped up the Copa del Rey final last weekend with two beautiful goals and a clever part in the third.

When the big games arrive – so does Lionel Andrés.

One of my early interviews with him was Autumn 2006 when he was admitting that it had been a flash of temper which made him refuse to go down to the pitch in Paris and celebrate with his team mates after Barça beat Arsenal in the Champions League final.

Not being named in the match squad by Frank Rijkaard had absolutely infuriated him.

He closed that subject with a:

God willing I’ll be back to lift that trophy a few times in the future.

Well, he’s had the opportunity twice and in both 2009 and 2011 he took that opportunity by scoring past Edwin Van Der Sar twice.

Not a bad record. (Ex Juventus keeper Van Der Sar was 38 when he first conceded to Messi in a Champions League final, Gigi Buffon is 37).

But add this context. Messi has played in 23 ‘final’ matches for Barcelona – 12 ‘one-off’ finals and 11 other ‘home-and-away’ finals. 23 matches … 20 Messi goals.

Of those 18 finals he’s only lost three.

Lionel Messi beats Xabo Alonso

And it might guide you to know that the only one-game finals Barcelona have lost with Messi in their side are the ones where he hasn’t scored – the 2006 Spanish Supercup and the Spanish Copa finals of 2011 and 2014.

Stop Messi and you have a chance – that’s the message.

During 2015 he’s shown his big-game mentality. Goals home and away against the reigning champions – Atlético. Goals in key matches against Valencia, Sevilla, Athletic and the Catalan derby with Espanyol plus a nifty assist for the first goal against Madrid in the Clásico.

Notwithstanding all that – IF you want to oppose him, oppose Barça then perhaps there’s a gentle hint.

He’s gone from having scored eight in six Champions League games during the 2014 group stage to having scored twice in six games in the 2015 knock-out matches.

Okay – he was just stunning despite not scoring in the home win over Manchester City

And the two he did get, plus an assist, were in the epic 3-0 semi-final win over Bayern.

But, figure it as you wish, there’s been a drop-off in him hitting the net in the Champions League this calendar year.

Champions League Final

So, how do you rate the test that lies in front of him?

He’s never played Juventus competitively, never played Italy either. Thus it is that despite he and Buffon having played well over 1500 competitive club and international matches between them they’ve never gone toe-to-toe.

Who wins – the good big one or the great little one? Lucky it’s not boxing.

Might Buffon (below) in any way intimidate Messi – it’s not so ludicrous?

Messi’s penalty misses tend to come against keepers he thinks loom large in the goal. Something he once told me about Abbiatti at Milan.

Gianluigi-Buffon

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Speaking of Milan, Messi’s faced the defensive strategies of Juve coach Maxi Allegri eight times in the Champions League when he’s been in charge of the Rossoneri. Eight times, eight goals.

Where else might there be some fun? I pointed out last week that Barcelona have just begun to drift a little from nearly an entire season of excellence defending set plays or the ball into the box from open play.

But conceding like that to Bayern, Deportivo La Coruña and now Athletic [Iñaki Williams] in the Copa final tends to indicate that this is where Juve will surely concentrate. Chiellini, Pogba, Vidal, Morata all look like goalscorer candidates.

Andrea-Pirlo-840

Of the two golden veterans, Pirlo (above) and Xavi, only the Italian is sure to start. But is Iniesta fully fit after his calf problem? Might Xavi get some game time? Probably, yes.

Pirlo scoring a direct free kick ain’t the daftest idea, Pirlo perhaps winning the MVP [if there’s a market on that] isn’t outright crazy.

Xavi said last week:

I adore watching Pirlo play, we’ve been facing each other for club and country since we were kids.

They’ll probably be playing together in Qatar from next season.

Xavi-840-x-500

So, Xavi? Well he has a remarkable record. Goal assists in each of the two Champions League finals in which he’s played. A goal assist in each of the two European Championship Finals in which he’s played.

A goal and a goal-assist in two of this three Copa Finals against Athletic Bilbao, a goal against Juventus the last time they faced each other, a goal assist in the World Cup semi final, a goal and an assist in the World Club Cup final.

If he’s on the pitch at any stage on Saturday night then you might want to back him as an anytime goalscorer.

This is quite possibly Barcelona’s tightest final since Sampdoria took them to extra-time in 1992.

I reckon both teams to score. Then either 2-1 Barcelona or 2-2 and penalties. But if Messi wants it, if Messi performs – don’t back against him. It’s that simple.

Graham’s best bets:

  • Both teams to score and Barcelona to win @13/5
  • Barcelona to win 2-1 @ 12/1. 

 

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Graham Hunter: The 13/2 shot that should still see Barcelona crowned Copa del Rey champions

The first thing to establish is that this is neither a ‘home’ game for FC Barcelona nor an ‘away’ match for Athletic Bilbao. Ok, sure, the Basques have had to travel and Barça haven’t. But by kick off something remarkable will have happened – The Camp Nou will be far, far more red and white than it is supposed to be.

Each club was given around 39,000 tickets for this blue-riband match in a 98,000 capacity stadium – but you can expect to see red and white ribands, scarves, txapela hats, strips, banners and flags everywhere.

The Barça fans will be present, don’t worry about that. But so absolutely enormous is the hunger from the Athletic support to see their first trophy since 1984 that you can expect black market briefs to have landed in Basque hands. To the extent that, I guarantee, some Barcelona fans will have sold the tickets they won in the club lottery to Athletic fans just in order to fund a trip to Berlin for the Champions League final next Saturday.

Lionel Messi

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If you are old enough to remember how the FA used to allocate the Tartan Amy about fifteen or twenty tickets for Wembley but by the time kick off came there were at least 60,000 of us there …. like that.

  • NB: If you are shading the odds based on location and the fact that Athletic have only won 18 times in 87 years of visits to the Camp Nou bear this in mind.

The concept of travelling fans in Spanish football is utterly different from the UK and Ireland. If any away team takes 1000 supporters to an away ground that’s regarded as pretty stellar. In La Liga there’s no guaranteed quota for ‘away fans’ to the extent that there is in the Premier or Champions League.

Thus if there are upwards of 50,000 Athletic fans in the Camp Nou, and I think there will be, then that utterly changes the atmosphere from any visit by Los Leones to play Barcelona in any of their home stadia.

There are a few famous occasions of mega favourites [mostly Madrid] losing the cup final in their home stadium. On their centenary in 2002 and in Jose Mourinho’s last ever Madrid game when they lost to Atleti in that dramatic 2013 Copa Final.

The second thing to establish is that if there has ever, in the history of this crazy sport of ours, been a support which is able to exhibit primeval levels of desire, and to transmit that sufficiently for their team to narrow the quality gap on an opponent – it’s the support of the Athletic fans.

That last trophy they won was in May 1984 against Diego Maradona‘s Barça [and it ended in Bruce Lee-Enter the Dragon style scenes between the two sets of players because of bad blood over the Butcher of Bilbao Andoni Goikoetxea-Maradona incident earlier that season] but they’ve lost their three subsequent cup ties against Barça, including the Copa Finals of 2009 and 2012, on an 8-2 aggregate.

However, believe me, it was a life-changing experience to listen to the Athletic fans at the Calderón Stadium three years ago. They’d just lost the Europa final 3-0 to Atlético and this was a gambler’s last-gasp chance at redemption.

Within what felt like the blink of an eye they were not only 3-0 down, again, but being toyed with. It was Bambi versus the Terminator. But, boy, those fans just never let up – a Phil Spectator Wall of Sound from start to finish. Part encouragement to their battered players, part pure defiance. Just monumental.

Luis Suarez

 

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At the end of the match when Barcelona were celebrating, Xavi and Puyol sought out an Ikurriña [Basque] flag [It’s red with a white cross superimposed on a green X] paired it with the Catalan ‘Senyera’ flag and placed them both, symbolically, in the centre circle together. A real gesture of respect.

These are the two sides which have most won La Copa and it is a regular pairing in the final too. But recent years have seen not only a resurgence of the ‘Clásico’ final but a complete alteration of Real Madrid‘s valuation of winning the domestic knockout tournament.

Thus, make no mistake, there’s a reason why this isn’t being held at the Santiago Bernabéu as Athletic wanted it to be – Florentino Pérez has got the huff.

Remember the days when not everyone could afford a football, and one dumpy kid whose parents splashed out on him every Christmas would sulk: ‘It’s my ball and if you wont’ pass to me I’m leaving, and it’s coming with me’? That’s our Florentino.

Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti sacked, Rafa Benitez as good as confirmed, money to be spent, David De Gea likely to join… the last thing old Don Florentino wanted was for Basques or, worse, Catalans to be celebrating in ‘his’ stadium as they lifted the Copa up to the skies

This is the first trophy Rafa will be expected to lift when the final is played next season, in April most likely. Just watch Los Blancos clamour to hold the final in the Bernabéu or the Camp Nou then if they’ve qualified!

But… to business. If this is to be Athletic’s Copa then by far the most likely route to glory is a set play. Or the second ball off one. Barcelona are markedly better at defending them this season but lately have lost goals to both Bayern and Deportivo in this way.

Athletic have a couple of powerful weapons in this department – both Aritz Aduriz [by far their leading all-comps scorer this season, all time stat = three goals v Barcelona] and their ex-Liverpool stopper, Miki San Jose [six goals this season, none in nine v Barcelona], are aerially adept.

Bet your bottom dollar that Luis Enrique, and his tactical/strategic guru Juan Carlos Unzué will put special emphasis on Barcelona not conceding corners or free kicks in their own half.

Gerard-Pique-Barcelona

But here’s the rub. Plenty of Ernesto Valverde‘s players have figures like: Played Barcelona 15/18/20 times Won: 1. If you want reason to believe that some kind of ‘opposition’ to Barcelona might be worth your while when you punt then it’s got to be based around the coach, Valverde.

For Athletic, in his first spell over a decade ago, for Espanyol and for Valencia he’s turned up a series of draws home and away and he won his first Catalan derby as Espanyol coach 3-1 – albeit as the Frank Rijkaard era became moribund.

Barcelona have been in ‘off’ mode since beating Atlético at the Calderón two weeks ago – valuable rest and recuperation for tired minds and bodies. But will that give them turbo-charged sharpness and power to overhaul Athletic in a blitzkreig first half …. or will it leave them just a little sluggish and vulnerable to being closed down?

Is Luis Suárez‘ hamstring fully healed?

The obvious thing to point to is that Messi loves playing Athletic – 15 goals in 22 matches against them. He doesn’t hate finals either. He’s only lost four of 17 with Barcelona and in the 22 matches those finals have entailed he’s scored 18 times plus given four goal assists.

Graham’s Bets

So, in summary. Barcelona should win, it’s far from ludicrous to suggest that Athletic might make them struggle to do so – in fact backing FCB to have to come from 1-0 down and win 2-1 doesn’t look a hopeless cause to me.

Messi, Aduriz, Piqué, San Jose and possibly [finally!] Iniesta might be worth ‘any-time’ shouts.

  • Barcelona to come from behind and win – 13/2
  • Barcelona to win 2-1 – 17/2
  • Iniesta to score anytime – 12/5

If there was a market where you can back which fans will make more noise, throughout… back the Basques.

 

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Graham Hunter on La Liga: A tasty 9/1 ACCA with wins for Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla

Málaga – Sevilla, Saturday, 5.30pm

It’s all happening in Andalusia. Three brilliant games at La Rosaleda, Almería and Granada.

There may be 207 km and two and a half hours of travel between these two cities but, believe me … this is a derby match. What’s more, there’s heaps at stake.

A win can give Málaga Europa League football if they secure seventh place but three points for Sevilla would guarantee them a Champions League slot if Valencia draw or lose in Almería.

And were there not a sizzle to Sevilla playing in the Rosaleda then their ex midfield star, Duda, clearly intends to provide it. He’s now the Málaga player with the most Primera Division appearances but he also spent two years with Sevilla.

Vitolo-Sevilla-840

In fact the last time Sevilla had to beat Málaga to reach the Champions League his goal helped them do just that. About this match he says: “This will be intense and competitive because we want European football next season – they want Champions. “But to me it’s ‘just another game’ – important only for what we want out of it. “And my Sevilla were better than this one – we had much more quality!”

Unai Emery wants no distraction, no quitters, nobody saving themselves for the ‘glory’ of Warsaw when they play Dnipro in the Europea  League final this Wednesday. “We’ve two clear ways to achieve our goal of Champions League football – the league and winning the Europa League.

“So Saturday, in Málaga, is our first final – not ‘the game before THE final. “We need to oblige Valencia to win and to think about nothing other than that. “I’ve told my players that anyone who’s not totally focussed on beating Málaga should say so and won’t play because this is our most important game of the season”.

Emery has taken his entire squad to Marbella, on the Mediterranean, where they’ll train for this game and the Warsaw final.

Javi Grácia loses Sergi Darder to injury and Miguel Torres to injury, which restores Tissone and Juanpi to the squad which is: Kameni, Amrabat, Weligton, Camacho, Samuel, Javi Guerra, Horta, Juanmi, Tissone, Ochoa, Recio, Angeleri, Duda, Rosales, Boka, Sergio Sánchez, Juanpi, Samu Castillejo.

The lowdown goes like this. Málaga have had an awful end to the season. Since February they’ve lost nine of the last sixteen matches, often beaten by relegation fodder, often not scoring until late in the game, beaten by a ten man Elche. That said, they’ve won two and drawn one of their last three home matches with Sevilla.

681x94_cashout_accas

It’s the eighth best home team v the fifth best away side – one which tends to win or lose on the road (just two draws  in 18 visits). Sevilla won the home leg of this, but it was their only win in six matches against Málaga.

The home side should be: Kameni, Rosales, Welligton, Angeleri, Boka: Recio, Camacho: Samuel Garcia, Amrabat, Samu Castillejo: Guerra.

Sevilla might well be: Rico, Diogo, Arribas, Kolo, Navarro: M’Bia Krychowiak: Denis Suárez, Iborra, Reyes: Gameiro

IN-PLAY: To get seventh Málaga must out-point Athletic today or finish tied on points in seventh in which case they win the head-to head. Seventh means European football if Barcelona win the Copa next week

  • Sevilla to break their bad run v Málaga, win by a goal [1-2] and seek ‘anytime’ help from Gameiro, Mbia, Iborra, Duda or Amrabat.

 Almería – Valencia, Saturday, 5.30pm

Since they drew at home to Celta last week Nuno and his players have been sending out SoS signals to their fans. ‘Be there for us!’ has been the message.

This is mega, mega tense. At the beginning of the season Valencia‘s majority shareholder, Peter Lim, told his management team that Champions League football wasn’t the most important thing it was the ONLY thing.

They are fourth, right now, with more points than Sevilla and the ‘head-to-head’ advantage over Unai Emery‘s team but … BUT – if Valencia do anything other than win and Sevilla beat Málaga then, suddenly, Valencia are stuck with Europa League football, Lim is furious, Nuno’s job is in the balance and Jorge Mendes may think twice about moving his best players to the Mestalla. Hence the SoS.

Hundreds and hundreds of fans have flocked to the Mestalla to buy tickets and there are bus-trip travel deals being sold with the tickets too.

valencia

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André Gomes, one of Valencia’s big success stories this season is not only out, but he’s had surgery which might keep him out beyond the beginning of next season.

Valencia tend to win at Almería but only drew here last season: 2-2. A result which would leave them very vulnerable to Sevilla leap-frogging them. So what do we draw from that given that only 11 of the 22 starting players are still at their clubs a year later?

Almería’s situation is complicated. A win here might give them safety by relegating two from Eibar, Granada or Depor. In your match calculations it’s important to note that nothing other than three points would keep Sergi Barjuan‘s team up. The Dream Team legend, left back for Cruyff, reckons: “it’s only sporadic errors which have been preventing us winning and if we keep playing as we’ve been then football will repay us. “This will be an open game, we’ll give everything and it’s vital, vital that we get the first goal because Valencia concede so few”.

Further complication comes from the fact that the Court for Sports Arbitration will announce during the week whether administrative issues in payment of international transfer fees will rob Almería of three points. If so then, no matter this result, they are down. It’s a €20m spin of the dice in terms of lost revenue.

Nuno Espirito Santo 840

Nuno is likely to win this one with Alves; Barragán, Otamendi, Mustafi, Gayá: Feghouli, Enzo Perez, Javi Fuego, Parejo, Rodrigo De Paul: Alcácer

The stand-out threat is Thievy. Bad, bad boy when he’s full of himself off the pitch, but potentially one hell of a player. Really. Skilled, aggressive, quick, football-smart about which position to take up and three goals in his last five. Good partnership with Zongo too. “I’m intelligent, I”m good in the air and I’ve really benefitted from the new coach playing me in the middle not stuck out on the wing” reckons the on-loan Espanyol striker.

Anytime? Look for Thievy, Zongo, Hemed and for Valencia Parejo, Gayá or Alcácer.

IN PLAY: Valencia are third if they win and Atleti lose, fifth if they don’t win here and Sevilla do win. If Almería don’t win they’re down. If they finish tied on 35 with two or three other teams they stay up on head-to-head – only if they are in a direct head-to-head points-tie with Eibar for third bottom do they go down after having won this game.

  • Valencia to win this one – 8/13

Granada – Atlético, Saturday, 5.30pm

It ain’t a calamity but, as they say in Spain, Atlético ‘lo tiene crudo’.

In other words the harsh reality is that the newly deposed champions, who played the final of last season’s Champions League and contested the quarter final this year [earning in the region of €90m by doing so] will have to pre-qualify for next year’s tournament if they lose here and Valencia win at Almería – how about that?

Cholo Simeone takes with him to the beautiful Andaluz city: Oblak, Miguel Ángel Moyá;Jesús Gámez, Juanfran,Miranda, Godín, José María Giménez, Siqueira; Raúl García, Tiago, Saúl, Gabi, Mario Suárez, Koke; Griezmann, Raúl Jiménez.

Which tells you that Fernando Torres, Arda, Mandzukic are all absent for one reason or another.

The reason they’ll face ferocious rivals, despite Granada’s horrible season [Sandoval is their fourth coach] is that a win gives the home side guaranteed survival and that would become their fourth win on the trot. Not bad killer form when the chips are down.

Fernando Torres 800

If it’s a guide, Granada haven’t won this fixture since 1973 when Pepe Reina‘s dad was in goal for Atleti and the last five Granada v Atleti Liga meetings have had three single goal wins for the visitors and two 0-0 draws.

El Arabi has scored four since Sandoval took over, Rochina and Robert Ibañez were super last week in the 0-3 win at Real Sociedad.

Expect Griezmann and Raúl Garcia to start up front, expect Granada to give Atleti a test and the crowd to be a baying mass – this is an atmospheric, aggressive stadium

Expect Cholo to go through his squad like a dose of salts if they aren’t motivated and don’t ‘show’ here – there would be casualties in the summer market in that case.

IN-PLAY – Atleti stay third with a win or a draw. Defeat means a real possibility of fourth. Granada stay up with a win but should they end up tied on 35 points with three others, or on a straight head-to-head with Depor they go down.

  • Score draw – Griezmann, El-Arabi, Robert, Saúl, Godín all worth a wee punt

Barcelona – Deportivo, Saturday 5.30pm

To quote the Beastie Boys ‘You’ve got to fight! ‘For the right! ‘To Paaaarty!!’ That’s what Barcelona, and Xavi in particular, have done so that’s what’s going to happen.

The Liga trophy will be presented post match, it’s Xavi’s last League game at the Camp Nou, he’ll start, it’s Barcelona’s last game before the Copa del Rey final – so after the final whistle there’s a party.

Obviously an atmosphere like that, and the fact that Luis Enrique will dramatically shuffle the pack and give ‘backup’ players their chance to show [Vermaelen will get game time whether from the kick off or off the bench] can detract from a team’s razor sharpness and winning attitude.

Luis Suarez

But it shouldn’t here. Luis Enrique will watch players’ attitudes hawkishly and there’s a race to be part of not only the starting XI for the two big finals to come but also to even get on the bench – that’s how competitive things are at the Camp Nou right now.

Squad: Bravo Masip Montoya Xavi Pedro Iniesta Messi Neymar Jr Rafinha Mascherano Bartra Douglas Jordi Alba S. Roberto Adriano Vermaelen Mathieu Munir

The last time Depor visited here when Barça had wrapped the league up they drew 0-0 in a dull game – but that result wouldn’t automatically keep them up this time.

If they win they survive. The way to understand the head-to-head rule in this case, particularly if you are following and betting ‘in-play’ is that should Depor end equal on points with Eibar they’ll win the head-to-head – but finish equal third bottom with either Almería or Granada and they’ll lose it, thus go down.

Neymar

Six draws and a win in their last ten, Depor are fighting. Historically they’ve only won three times at the Camp Nou, the last being twelve years ago when Luis Enrique was playing and Espanyol manager Sergio Gonzalez scored! Depor something like: Fabricio, Laure, Sidnei, Lopo, Canella: Domínguez, Begantiños, Borges, Cavaleiro, Lucas, Salomão

Barcelona: Masip, Montoya, Bartra, Mathieu, Adriano: Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha: Pedro, Messi, Neymar/Munir

Could Depor win? Stranger things have happened given the Barça XI but no way with Luis Enrique’s players treat this like a kick-around and they’ll want to send Xavi on his way. Goals? Xavi, Messi, Pedro, Lucas, Sidnei for your ‘anytimes’.

  • Both teams to score, Barcelona win.

 

  • Sevilla, Valencia and Barcelona to win, with a draw between Atletico and Granada – 9/1

 

 

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Graham Hunter: La Liga is on the brink but I’m ready to strike with a 28/1 acca this weekend

I won’t go into the deeply complicated reasons for the strike which has been announced for immediately after this weekend. But what you’ll have to take into account when you are betting on La Liga for week 36, is that most teams and most players will go into these games with the mentality that this may very well be La Liga’s final, and thus decisive, weekend.

There’s always the possibility of arbitration and conciliation but right now you’d call that an ‘odds-against’ proposition.

Barcelona v Real Sociedad, Saturday 5pm

David Moyes

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Various football rules and Spanish laws mean that if there’s no compromise thrashed out then we could very easily be left with a 36-week Liga – the title, the UEFA positions and relegation could all become formalized by late on Sunday night.

Thus you should imagine that everyone involved has that extra incentive to give everything they’ve got – one last push.

Barcelona‘s players and fans should probably form a guard of honour and applaud David Moyes and his Txuri-Urdin footballers on to the Camp Nou pitch. It was that defeat at the Anoeta in January, a miserable low-point in terms of performance, man-management and player-coach relationships, which utterly galvanized Barça. They trudged off that wet Basque playing surface looking not just beaten but dispirited, disjointed and lacking in spirit.

From that day to this, they’ve won 16 of 18 Liga games (one defeat, one draw), six out of six cup games and five out of five Champions League games.
Twenty nine matches, twenty seven wins, and 94 goals since January.

And there’s the rub – The last time Barcelona lost or drew against La Real at the Camp Nou Johan Cruyff was in charge and it was mid-1995.
In the intervening twenty years, there have been some hammerings – 4-1 and 5-1 in the last two visits for example.

Barcelona-800

Moyes’ team is now fitter, plays with a clearer pattern and young talent has been promoted, to good effect. But they’ve not really conquered their affliction of going on the road and representing the character and thorny stubbornness which they can display at the Anoeta. That might cost them here.

A complicating factor is that Barcelona left a lot out on the pitch on Wednesday against Bayern - a lot of energy spent and a huge amount of adrenaline burned off. Luis Enrique‘s men increasingly look like champions, whether by default or merit, but they’ve not been invulnerable here. The 0-1 defeats to Celta and Málaga testify to that.

Squad Rotation

There’ll be some squad rotation – you’d expect some from Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Pedro and Bartra to get starts, and some from Suárez/Neymar, Busquets, Iniesta, and Rakitic to get a rest.

Might this be Xavi’s last game at the Camp Nou? Yes. He’ll leave this summer and the strike means it’s feasible that this is the Camp Nou’s last match for three months. It’s also feasible that if Barcelona drop points it’s ‘adios’ la Liga. If Madrid were to win later on and La Liga to be abandoned at J36 then that, as they say, would be that.

Moyes loses Zurutuza to injury and might well start with: Rulli Zaldua, Ansotegi/Mikel, Iñigo Martínez, De la Bella; Markel, Rubén Pardo, Granero; Xabi Prieto, Canales, VelaMikel González has had his suspension overturned and is available

  • Barcelona by three. Messi and Neymar to ensure it. Barcelona -2 is 4/9.

Real Madrid v Valencia, Saturday 7pm

Gareth Bale

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Pre-strike this game was intriguing enough. But now!

Valencia‘s road-form is just about their only minus of the season. They’ve already registered 23 points more than last term, scoring 13 more than 2013/14. Away from home, however, there has been a slight inconsistency – sometimes lacking in strategic discipline, which would underline their lack of a top class striker to bring goals and points when everything seems against you.

Bluntly, the addition of Álvaro Negredo hasn’t yet been a success. Having said all that, that weaker Valencia side last season not only drew at the Bernabéu, but they cost Madrid the title.

More? Valencia have managed three consecutive draws at the Bernabéu so who could totally disregard them on a weekend when Los Blancos have much, much more to think about in midweek – they need a ‘remontada’ (fightback) against Juve.

To the next complicating factor. IF Barcelona have drawn or lost to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad then this will be an absolute and utter baying mob of a stadium. In that hypothesis, victory would stand a decent chance of winning Los Blancos the title, either by a point or on the head-to-head rule.
Valencia, if the league ended this weekend [something which nobody can guarantee], would automatically finish fourth as they have a three point lead over Sevilla and the ‘head-to-head’ advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Their most reliable striker, Paco Alcácer, reckons: “We are quite clear that we’re going to Madrid to win and that we can do it. “We’re not going to throw away the great work of the season, and getting into the Champions League is our only objective”.

Diego Alves seems fit having suffered from thigh muscle problems a few days ago, Enzo Pérez is likely to return – likely with Javi Fuego, Dani Parejo and Sofiane Feghouli in midfield. Rodrigo Moreno is suspended so Piatti and Alcácer up front looks most likely.

Carlo Ancelotti needs to figure out who to rest, who needs more game time. Bale, anonymous in Turin, desperately needs a game like this to earn some match sharpness. Benzema might make this test in order to warm up for the visit of Juve, but the Italian needs to figure out whether this is just a shade too early for a striker who could be vital on Wednesday?

It is time for Chicharito to be restored, and score. Ronaldo looks in the groove. Parejo scored one and made one here last year and has had a stellar season in terms of goals – so he, Otamendi or Piatti might stand an investment.

  • Madrid to win by exactly one goal is 11/4

Levante v Atlético, Sunday 11am

Gabi

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This fixture presents one of the most remarkable records in Spanish football. Levante, a traditionally a struggling, under-resourced, backs-to-the-wall kind of club have won five, drawn one and only lost three of their Primera Division home meetings with Atlético – Spain’s third force. Three of the last results between these sides at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium have been 2-0 to Los Granotes.

The last one was a year ago, and Atleti’s legion of fans broiled in the heat without a thing to shout about as Levante hustled and hassled the champions-elect out of their mojo. David Barral (worth a shout this weekend), scored in that game, and has twelve in 31 games this season – his best pro-rata return ever.

Levante’s threat is lessened thanks to the suspension of Victor and Simão. The former should have been out last week and available this one but the May Day holiday meant that the disciplinary committee didn’t sit in time and the five-booking suspension is held over for this visit of the champions. For Cholo Simeone‘s mob, Diego Godín is also banned. Other than that, he’s got a wide choice of players and they’ve all had a clear week to recuperate mentally and physically.

Raul Garcia

‘Marca’ headlined this ‘The worst stadium at the worst possible time’. Only at the Camp Nou has Cholo a worse record in his three years in charge, compared to a draw and two defeats at Levante.

From training it looks a little like Simeone will try to end his impoverished record here via: Oblak, Juanfran, Giménez, Miranda, Siqueira, Arda, Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Griezmann and MandzukicFernando Torres and Raúl García benched.

One thing that might be worth taking into account is that Atlético feel dreadfully cheated of a win after last week’s officiating in the 0-0 draw at home to Athletic. They had at least two legitimate goals chalked-off, perhaps a penalty too, and in the dressing room afterwards the squad’s fitness coach, Óscar Ortega, absolutely tore strips off the Atlético President, Enrique Cerezo, for not ‘pressurizing’ referees and the Spanish FA in public sufficiently – i.e. so that Atleti get more favourable treatment.

You might reckon that this frustration, bottled up for a week, might be taken out on Levante. Griezmann, Siqueira and/or Arda to put an end to Atleti’s horrible run without a win here since 2007.

  • Atletico to win is 1/2

Celta Vigo v Sevilla, Sunday 8pm

Vitolo-Sevilla-840

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A bit of a ‘ghost’ contest this one.

Between the two clubs there will be at least 11 important players missing via suspension or injury. The key nine are Nolito, Álex López, Hugo Mallo, Cabral and Larrivey suspended for Celta plus Reyes, Tremoulinas and Mbia for Sevilla. The first two are suspended, and Mbia suffered a head injury in the brilliant 3-0 win over Fiorentina in the Europa League semi final on Thursday.

The Galicians have three wins and a draw in the last five of these fixtures at the Balaídes. There’s a hint of doubt though, in the fact that Celta are in the bottom half of the table for home form. That’s depite the fact that they recently gave both Barcelona and Real Madrid barnstorming games (1-1 and 2-4) and they beat Atlético [2-0] not that long ago.

Add to that that Sevilla are top five in terms of away form and you might be tempted to back Unai Emery‘s side who look like they may defend their Europa League title and land a Champions League place that way.

Who Emery rests before the trip to Florence this week is a key – and hard to discern. Time for Gameiro, Iborra and Denis Suárez to get starts. Aleix Vidal, is in the form of his life – just beyond good in the last few games.

Maybe look at Vidal, Vitolo, Gameiro and Iborra for threat. Charles, Santi Mina and Orellana need to step up for the light blues.

Carlos Velasco Carbello is the referee, and for those who count cards and like to punt on that market, he booked nine and sent one off the last time these two sides met in Sevilla last January.

  • Draw at 13/5

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Graham Hunter: La Liga is on the brink but I’m ready to strike with a 36/1 acca this weekend

I won’t go into the deeply complicated reasons for the strike which has been announced for immediately after this weekend. But what you’ll have to take into account when you are betting on La Liga for week 36, is that most teams and most players will go into these games with the mentality that this may very well be La Liga’s final, and thus decisive, weekend.

There’s always the possibility of arbitration and conciliation but right now you’d call that an ‘odds-against’ proposition.

Barcelona v Real Sociedad, Saturday 5pm

David Moyes

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Various football rules and Spanish laws mean that if there’s no compromise thrashed out then we could very easily be left with a 36-week Liga – the title, the UEFA positions and relegation could all become formalized by late on Sunday night.

Thus you should imagine that everyone involved has that extra incentive to give everything they’ve got – one last push.

Barcelona‘s players and fans should probably form a guard of honour and applaud David Moyes and his Txuri-Urdin footballers on to the Camp Nou pitch. It was that defeat at the Anoeta in January, a miserable low-point in terms of performance, man-management and player-coach relationships, which utterly galvanized Barça. They trudged off that wet Basque playing surface looking not just beaten but dispirited, disjointed and lacking in spirit.

From that day to this, they’ve won 16 of 18 Liga games (one defeat, one draw), six out of six cup games and five out of five Champions League games.
Twenty nine matches, twenty seven wins, and 94 goals since January.

And there’s the rub – The last time Barcelona lost or drew against La Real at the Camp Nou Johan Cruyff was in charge and it was mid-1995.
In the intervening twenty years, there have been some hammerings – 4-1 and 5-1 in the last two visits for example.

Barcelona-800

Moyes’ team is now fitter, plays with a clearer pattern and young talent has been promoted, to good effect. But they’ve not really conquered their affliction of going on the road and representing the character and thorny stubbornness which they can display at the Anoeta. That might cost them here.

A complicating factor is that Barcelona left a lot out on the pitch on Wednesday against Bayern - a lot of energy spent and a huge amount of adrenaline burned off. Luis Enrique‘s men increasingly look like champions, whether by default or merit, but they’ve not been invulnerable here. The 0-1 defeats to Celta and Málaga testify to that.

Squad Rotation

There’ll be some squad rotation – you’d expect some from Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Pedro and Bartra to get starts, and some from Suárez/Neymar, Busquets, Iniesta, and Rakitic to get a rest.

Might this be Xavi’s last game at the Camp Nou? Yes. He’ll leave this summer and the strike means it’s feasible that this is the Camp Nou’s last match for three months. It’s also feasible that if Barcelona drop points it’s ‘adios’ la Liga. If Madrid were to win later on and La Liga to be abandoned at J36 then that, as they say, would be that.

Moyes loses Zurutuza to injury and might well start with: Rulli Zaldua, Ansotegi/Mikel, Iñigo Martínez, De la Bella; Markel, Rubén Pardo, Granero; Xabi Prieto, Canales, VelaMikel González has had his suspension overturned and is available

  • Barcelona by three. Messi and Neymar to ensure it. Barcelona -3 is evens.

Real Madrid v Valencia, Saturday 7pm

Gareth Bale

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Pre-strike this game was intriguing enough. But now!

Valencia‘s road-form is just about their only minus of the season. They’ve already registered 23 points more than last term, scoring 13 more than 2013/14. Away from home, however, there has been a slight inconsistency – sometimes lacking in strategic discipline, which would underline their lack of a top class striker to bring goals and points when everything seems against you.

Bluntly, the addition of Álvaro Negredo hasn’t yet been a success. Having said all that, that weaker Valencia side last season not only drew at the Bernabéu, but they cost Madrid the title.

More? Valencia have managed three consecutive draws at the Bernabéu so who could totally disregard them on a weekend when Los Blancos have much, much more to think about in midweek – they need a ‘remontada’ (fightback) against Juve.

To the next complicating factor. IF Barcelona have drawn or lost to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad then this will be an absolute and utter baying mob of a stadium. In that hypothesis, victory would stand a decent chance of winning Los Blancos the title, either by a point or on the head-to-head rule.
Valencia, if the league ended this weekend [something which nobody can guarantee], would automatically finish fourth as they have a three point lead over Sevilla and the ‘head-to-head’ advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Their most reliable striker, Paco Alcácer, reckons: “We are quite clear that we’re going to Madrid to win and that we can do it. “We’re not going to throw away the great work of the season, and getting into the Champions League is our only objective”.

Diego Alves seems fit having suffered from thigh muscle problems a few days ago, Enzo Pérez is likely to return – likely with Javi Fuego, Dani Parejo and Sofiane Feghouli in midfield. Rodrigo Moreno is suspended so Piatti and Alcácer up front looks most likely.

Carlo Ancelotti needs to figure out who to rest, who needs more game time. Bale, anonymous in Turin, desperately needs a game like this to earn some match sharpness. Benzema might make this test in order to warm up for the visit of Juve, but the Italian needs to figure out whether this is just a shade too early for a striker who could be vital on Wednesday?

It is time for Chicharito to be restored, and score. Ronaldo looks in the groove. Parejo scored one and made one here last year and has had a stellar season in terms of goals – so he, Otamendi or Piatti might stand an investment.

  • Madrid, surely? By a goal. Madrid -1 is evens.

Levante v Atlético, Sunday 11am

Gabi

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This fixture presents one of the most remarkable records in Spanish football. Levante, a traditionally a struggling, under-resourced, backs-to-the-wall kind of club have won five, drawn one and only lost three of their Primera Division home meetings with Atlético – Spain’s third force. Three of the last results between these sides at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium have been 2-0 to Los Granotes.

The last one was a year ago, and Atleti’s legion of fans broiled in the heat without a thing to shout about as Levante hustled and hassled the champions-elect out of their mojo. David Barral (worth a shout this weekend), scored in that game, and has twelve in 31 games this season – his best pro-rata return ever.

Levante’s threat is lessened thanks to the suspension of Victor and Simão. The former should have been out last week and available this one but the May Day holiday meant that the disciplinary committee didn’t sit in time and the five-booking suspension is held over for this visit of the champions. For Cholo Simeone‘s mob, Diego Godín is also banned. Other than that, he’s got a wide choice of players and they’ve all had a clear week to recuperate mentally and physically.

Raul Garcia

‘Marca’ headlined this ‘The worst stadium at the worst possible time’. Only at the Camp Nou has Cholo a worse record in his three years in charge, compared to a draw and two defeats at Levante.

From training it looks a little like Simeone will try to end his impoverished record here via: Oblak, Juanfran, Giménez, Miranda, Siqueira, Arda, Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Griezmann and MandzukicFernando Torres and Raúl García benched.

One thing that might be worth taking into account is that Atlético feel dreadfully cheated of a win after last week’s officiating in the 0-0 draw at home to Athletic. They had at least two legitimate goals chalked-off, perhaps a penalty too, and in the dressing room afterwards the squad’s fitness coach, Óscar Ortega, absolutely tore strips off the Atlético President, Enrique Cerezo, for not ‘pressurizing’ referees and the Spanish FA in public sufficiently – ie so that Atleti get more favourable treatment.

You might reckon that this frustration, bottled up for a week, might be taken out on Levante. Griezmann, Siqueira and/or Arda to put an end to Atleti’s horrible run without a win here since 2007.

  • Atletico -1 is 8/5

Celta Vigo v Sevilla, Sunday 8pm

Vitolo-Sevilla-840

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A bit of a ‘ghost’ contest this one.

Between the two clubs there will be at least 11 important players missing via suspension or injury. The key nine are Nolito, Álex López, Hugo Mallo, Cabral and Larrivey suspended for Celta plus Reyes, Tremoulinas and Mbia for Sevilla. The first two are suspended, and Mbia suffered a head injury in the brilliant 3-0 win over Fiorentina in the Europa League semi final on Thursday.

The Galicians have three wins and a draw in the last five of these fixtures at the Balaídes. There’s a hint of doubt though, in the fact that Celta are in the bottom half of the table for home form. That’s depite the fact that they recently gave both Barcelona and Real Madrid barnstorming games (1-1 and 2-4) and they beat Atlético [2-0] not that long ago.

Add to that that Sevilla are top five in terms of away form and you might be tempted to back Unai Emery‘s side who look like they may defend their Europa League title and land a Champions League place that way.

Who Emery rests before the trip to Florence this week is a key – and hard to discern. Time for Gameiro, Iborra and Denis Suárez to get starts. Aleix Vidal, is in the form of his life – just beyond good in the last few games.

Maybe look at Vidal, Vitolo, Gameiro and Iborra for threat. Charles, Santi Mina and Orellana need to step up for the light blues.

Carlos Velasco Carbello is the referee, and for those who count cards and like to punt on that market, he booked nine and sent one off the last time these two sides met in Sevilla last January.

  • Draw at 13/5

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Graham Hunter: Barcelona and Real Madrid can overcome tricky tests to set up this 5/2 La Liga acca

Cordoba v Barcelona – Saturday, 3pm

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How Barcelona, and in particular Luis Enrique, view this game can be judged by the squad. Córdoba are relegated, having scored only 21 goals in their 34 games thus far. While the vast majority of people have been talking about Spain’s neck-and-neck run-in for the title this has been considered a ‘gimme’. Turn up, look at the ball-to-flag distance and collect the three points without having to putt.

Not Lucho. He sees a dogged rival in Real Madrid. He expects them to win at Sevilla. He sees a Córdoba free of any responsibility in this game, free to run till they drop and take risks if they choose too. He sees a Córdoba incapable of winning often but capable of only single goal defeats here to Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid.

Thus despite the midweek visit of Bayern Munich to the Camp Nou, despite the tantalizing prospect of reaching the Champions League final in his first season the Asturian coach has named every one of his important first team players – not choosing to rest or protect one of them. Thus he chooses from: Ter Stegen, C. Bravo, Piqué, Rakitic, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta, Suárez, Messi, Neymar, Rafinha, Mascherano, Bartra, Alba Adriano, Alves Mathieu.

There’s a decent likelihood that Messi, Suárez and Neymar start up front although only a banker-bet that two of them do so. Luis Enrique argued on Friday:

“Taking the foot off the pedal now would be like the marathon runner who gets to 24 miles with a record time but then starts to walk. Until we achieve the objectives there’s no relaxing and the objectives are to win the trophies. The league is in play at Córdoba”

It’s all about attitude. If his players repeat that of their coach they’ll win. But might it be a struggle? Feasible. The instinct to save just a little for a midweek Champions League match is often wholly subconscious.
Will Barcelona’s players conquer it? The guide so far this season says: ‘Yes’.
Much is being made of the fact that this is Barcelona’s first Liga visit to Córdoba since an infamous 1-0 defeat, held to have been scandalously reffed, in 1972 – a defeat which cost them the title.

Luis Enrique

I’m fairly sure 43 year old revenge won’t be a motif here, especially given the Cup tie here in 2012 [when Tito Vilanova put out a very strong side and only won 2-0 against the then Second Division side]
Córdoba coach Jose Antonio Romero reckons: “Anything can happen in a one-off game and we can’t take it as the starting idea that we’ll simply lose by 5-0. “I’ve beaten Barcelona in the Juvenil leagues and this is a dream come true”.

If his dream does come true then mark it as one of the biggest shocks in living memory. That would need Ghilas, Fede, Florin or Bebe to score.
Other than that bank on Suárez, Messi, Rakitic or Piqué to see Barcelona through, probably by two.

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Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao – Saturday, 5pm

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The only way to start to eye this up is to state that the confirmed absence of Aritz Aduriz doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Athletic to win at the Calderón – just far, far, far, far, far less likely.

Aduriz, club-trotter, has loved being home after careers at Valencia, Mallorca and Valladolid scoring at much closer to one ever other game compared to one in three the rest of his career.

This season he’s not only been Athletic’s leading scorer by far, he’s a true leader – and appears to be improving technically with every year over thirty which passes.

Ernesto Valverde, shorn of his best player, takes to the Spanish capital: Iraizoz, Toquero, Aurtenetxe, Laporte, San José, Iturraspe, Kike Sola, De Marcos, Bustinza, Iago Herrerín, Iraola, X.Etxeita, Mikel Rico, Gurpegi, Viguera, Guillermo, Unai López, Williams

Hidden in there is the truly forgotten man of Basque football, Gaizka Toquero who scored both in a 0-2 win the last time the Basques took three points at Atleti – back in 2011. I can’t confirm rumours that Valverde asked Matt Le Tissier to stay and play this weekend when he collected his ‘One Club Man’ award at the San Mames at the Basque derby this week.

Simeone can choose from Oblak, Moyá; Juanfran, Miranda, Giménez, Godín, Siqueira, Gámez; Arda, Raúl García, Tiago, Mario Suárez, Gabi, Saúl, Koke; Mandzukic, Raúl Jiménez, Fernando Torres and Griezmann.
Atleti have shown the pain of elimination from the Champions League with some stilted football – but they’ve kept on winning. Look for them to do that again via Griezmann, Mandzukic or Raul García. Should be a cracker, intense, no quarter asked or given – worth watching as well as having a punt on.

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Sevilla v Real Madrid – Saturday, 7pm

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The game of the weekend, potentially even of the season. And these meetings are complete roller-coasters.
Recent seasons have seen regular Sevilla home wins [seven of them since 2003] – this is a place where Real Madrid need to fear going. Yet los Blancos have also recorded two consecutive 2-6 Madrid wins when they made Los Rojiblancos look like cardboard cutouts – in May and December 2011. These are explosive, there are often red cards, the Nervion produces a volcanic atmosphere and it’s survival of the fittest. This time there are so many additional angles it’s hard to know where to begin.

Obviously the foremost is the fact that by kick-off Barcelona may well have increased their lead to five points.
IF they haven’t, IF they don’t dispatch Córdoba, then a win here would put Madrid top and completely in charge of their own destiny. Match Barça’s points from then on and it would be Madrid’s title.

Zidane with Ancelotti

Should Barça have won then this match reverts to being a referendum on whether Madrid have the ‘cojones’ to cling on at the top and force Barcelona to win at the Calderón in a couple of weeks time. Just for the record Madrid led 0-1 here last year and then lost 2-1 to two Carlos Bacca goals – the second of which was created by an utter peach of an assist from Ivan Rakitic who’s now at Barcelona.
Ironic. [NB it’s the same referee this weekend as then]

The other key thing which hangs on this match is that Valencia dropped two points in midweek at Rayo meaning that they and Sevilla are tied for the fourth Champions League place – separated only by Valencia’s favourable head-to-head. Unai Emery’s team need to keep on winning – starting here. A massive Uefa cash-pot is at stake.
It’s fifteen months and since they lost at home and their 41 points at the Sánchez Pizjuán is their second best ever – six off the all time record set in 2006. Two more points and they’ll have reached their highest ever Primera points total.

To the game. Sevilla kept Trémoulinas, Reyes, Mbia and Bacca clear of a booking at Eibar so all are free to play with Vitolo the only major injury doubt. Ancelotti has Bale back but does he displace Chicharito – all goals and assists in the last few weeks? [Bale on the bench more likely]

It’s tempting to call this a Bacca v Ronaldo shoot-out. The Colombian’s in his best ever season for goals and assists and won this fixture with a brace. Ronaldo has just one in five but his record against Sevilla…. 18 in 12 matches and seventeen of those in the last eight.

Madrid will probably use Ramos in midfield, he loves a headed goal, Sevilla love to nod a couple in themselves and Iker Casillas doesn’t thrive on dealing with an aerial assault. No sitting on the fence – not one of the three available results here would be a surprise, home win, away win, draw.

Perm from Ronaldo, Chicharito, Ramos or Mbia, Bacca, Iborra for your ‘anytime’ goals.
Look for goals galore, best bet a score draw but my guess is that Madrid, just, have the will and the way to keep their title challenge alive.

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Valencia v Eibar – Sunday, 8pm

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Don’t be fooled by the ‘big guys good at home, little guys weak on the road’ narrative here – there’s masses resting on this one. The little Basque team didn’t win hearts and minds earlier this season because they were cute and charming. Not a bit of it.

They played smart, organised football and were worth watching. They are still attempting to play quite nice football but like a first time Iron Man competitor nearing the tape most of their involuntary muscles are threatening to give way. Eibar haven’t won in 16 matches, have taken a single point on the road since mid January.

But the fact remains that they are alive in either a three, or perhaps four, team mini league fighting relegation. It’s between Depor, Almería, Eibar and possibly Levante. The Mestalla looks an unlikely place to unleash the beast inside – but they’ve nothing to lose.Eibar are like the guy in the old joke who takes a bath once a year every year whether he needs it or not.

The’ve scored five times in their last fifteen – a goal every three matches whether they need it or not.
Gaizka Garitano, who’s spent much of the week in the spotlight thanks to walking out of a press conference at Almería due to the moronic behaviour of a couple of local journos, won’t be pleased that Mikel Arruabarrena, probably his most reliable striker, is suspended.

The stress on Valencia to thump the visitors and assure themselves of three points grew exponentially after Los Che dropped two points at Rayo and let Sevilla right back into the race for fourth place.
Nuno Espirito Santo and his guys have been a real breath of fresh air in this league but their continuity depends on reaching the Champions League.

“The result at Rayo wasn’t what we wanted but playing that kind of football makes me sure we’ll win the remaining four matches and I’m not giving up on the fight to finish third”

is Nuno’s message.

Dani Parejo lost us bucks by missing his penalty at the Camp Nou the other week but keeps repaying faith with, by far, his best scoring season ever. Another in midweek. He, Paco Alcácer and Feghouli are all worth consideration – as is the feasibility of Valencia winning by two clear goals. One of these days, I hope, Eibar will convert neat, adventurous play into a win – but at the Mestalla? Doesn’t look likely.

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Espanyol and Barca to draw, Atletico and Real Madrid to win – 9/1

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Graham Hunter: A Catalan conflict can open the door for Real Madrid and a 9/1 treble

Espanyol v Barcelona – Saturday, 3pm

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Right, so it’s a bit neck-and-neck at the top of La Liga just at the moment and we’ve six games left.
The top two might meet in the Champions League Final and they don’t particularly like each other.
It’s kinda tense.

Which makes Barcelona’s stroll across the city to Espanyol not exactly a … stroll. There’s a Spain Oddity, which might appeal to David Bowie, whereby if two teams finish on identical points the first criterion via which to separate them is – head-to-head. It becomes a little like a Cup tie. ‘Which team won more of the Liga meetings between the two and if it has been a win apiece then what’s the goal aggregate?’

Thus it is that if Barcelona should drop two points between now and the end of the season and Madrid win all their games they’ll finish tied on 94 points. The reason that Madrid would win the title in that scenario is that the first Clásico ended 3-1 to Carlo Ancelotti’s side while Barça won the second 2-1 – ergo Madrid win the title on a 4-3 aggregate over their nearest rivals.

I think it’s a cool system.

So what Madridistas are doing this weekend is sending positive vibes to the only other set of fans who dislike the Blaugrana just as much as they do – those at Espanyol. Just as a matter of interest, the last time Spain’s Primera Division was settled on the head-to-head rule was as recently as 2007 – Madrid winning thanks to a victory and a draw in the two Clásicos.

Espanyol fans will be dreaming, happily of their part in that when on the penultimate day, after Leo Messi had put Barcelona ahead with a Maradona-style ‘it was my head ref honest!’ goal via his hand, they equalized in the last minute and effectively cost Frank Rijkaard’s side the title.

It’s not identical this weekend because the Catalan derby is being played in Cornella, not at the Camp Nou. But there’s a hint of … ‘could we screw them up again?’ The hard fact for the league leaders is that while they’ve only lost three times in the last 24 away Catalan derbies [and since the Power8 stadium was inaugurated in 2009 they’ve three wins and two draws] not even a draw is guaranteed to keep them top.

In fact it’s feasible that dropping points here could cost Luis Enrique’s men the treble. Feasible at least.
So, how to call it?

In Barcelona’s favour – attitude, determination not to cede the title to Madrid, determination not to trip up here of all places, a good winning run, Suárez and Neymar on good goal form.

A photo posted by FC Barcelona (@fcbarcelona) on

Against them – the fact that they aren’t putting in 90 minute performances too regularly right now. A draw at Sevilla thanks to a major second half drop off, a thrashing of PSG in the making at 2-0 up by half time and in total charge surrendered because they drop into cruise-control for the rest of the match. Espanyol – their two great positives are ex Madrid keeper Kiko Casilla and ex Barça striker Sergio García.

Casilla says: “When it comes to this derby it doesn’t matter the size of your budget or your salary bill – it’s us v them and they aren’t the only ones with a say in who wins the league”. Fightin’ talk.

Los Periquitos have only conceded four times in eight matches and a draw’s not impossible here. Barcelona, on form, will win and stay top – Suárez and Piqué profile as possible scorers. Neymar? One in seven in La Liga, four in four all comps. But Espanyol not to be discounted – a 0-0, a 1-1 and a 1-0 are three of the last five results in this fixture. Barça have every important player available, Espanyol bring back Salva Sevilla and Juan Fuentes while Víctor Sánchez is suspended against his old team and Felipe Mattioni injured.

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Atletico Madrid v Elche – Saturday, 5pm

Bet Now: Desktop | Mobile There were more good words than good play from Atleti in midweek when they lost the Madrid derby and exited the Champions League. Cholo Simeone refused to blame the referee for Arda’s red card, all the players who spoke mentioned departing the competition with pride, that they’d be back soon and more determined than ever. There was a ‘we’ve not let anybody down vibe’. Now we’ll see whether the painted smiles masked broken hearts. This is when the reigning champions need to prove that they gave their utmost against Madrid, that they left beaten but unbowed and that they are capable of not carrying any psychological after-effects into this match. Atleti’s four point lead over Valencia, guaranteeing them Champions League revenue again next season is utterly vital for this club and you can expect them to fight like tigers to protect it. You can expect the fans to show defiance by turning up and howling their support for Los Rojiblancos. But was there any damage done between Cholo and Griezmann when the in-form youngster was bizarrely removed from the game in midweek? Otherwise he should have goal solutions …. and it’s time Mandzukic, Torres and Raúl García came to the party again in that respect. Elche? Only two teams have scored fewer than them, only two have scored more than them … so how they hell are they within a win and a draw of staying up? Because they lose to the big guns and neatly pick off the weaklings around them – Cordoba, Levante, Almeria, Eibar. Only if Atleti are carrying a big hangover from losing to Madrid is this not a two goal win for the champions. Gabi and Mario Mandzukic, are back with respect to the Depor game – only Mario Suárez, Ansaldi and Cani are dropped. Get on Graham’s tips: Desktop | Mobile

Sevilla v Rayo Vallecano – Sunday, 6pm

Bet Now: Desktop | Mobile Last week I suggested the big question was: ‘when will Sevilla’s huge European exertions cost them a ‘hangover’ in La Liga?’ the only sad thing being that I didn’t say: right here! This’ll be a 1-1 draw! Different story here you’d imagine. Although the Europa League holders had to travel to and from St Petersburg this week and that doesn’t come without an impact on freshness of mind or physical tiredness the buzz of having eliminated Zenit, the really top quality performance in Russia and the fact that they are at home should be a positive cocktail of advantages.

Remember – Sevilla are 24 home games without defeat in over a year, they have a deep squad, they are desperately trying to get a finger-hold on fourth place and they’ve beaten Rayo 5-2, 2-1 and 4-1 the last three meetings.
Indeed while Paco Jemez’s side is fun to watch and has massively over-performed to be so high up La Liga they’ve still lost six of their last seven away matches and twice conceded six goal defeats in doing so.

Beto had a ‘mare for Sevilla and Sergio Rico should return, Pareja is out for months with ligament damage but Iborra, Reyes, Denis Suárez and Gameiro are all available to add freshness to Unai Emery’s athletic, hard running team. Both teams to score, Bacca, Vitolo, Gameiro all looking backable for the Europa League holders.

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Celta Vigo v Real Madrid – Sunday, 8pm

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Of course, even if the underdogs win the Catalan derby it’s never straightforward at the top of La Liga. In theory, Barcelona could suffer the embarrassment of dropping points to a cock-a-hoop Espanyol .. but then be rescued by the team which Luis Enrique made.

Madrid, fresh from their agonizing and tiring derby on Wednesday via which they sneaked past Atlético and into the Champions League semi final must visit the Balaidos Stadium in Vigo where they never get a pleasant welcome and where, last year, they lost. In fact it’s just short of a year since Los Blancos formally kissed goodbye to the title in that 2-0 defeat to Luis Enrique’s mob – both goals scored by Charles.

It was a Madrid team shorn of Ronaldo, Benzema, Carvajal, Pepe and which needed to put Raúl de Tomas, Burgui and Willian José on the bench. They’ve all gone on to great things of course …. hold on. No. And, symmetrically, this huge test of nerve and desire comes when Ancelotti will be without Benzema, Bale and Modric for sure. Marcelo returns and, just as with Barcelona in their match, if Madrid play near their top they can certainly win.

But it may influence how you punt to know that before last season the last time Celta beat Madrid at the Balaídos in La Liga was 2001. [Celta did win 2-1 in La Copa back in 2012]

In between there were six straight Madrid wins – no draws – but five of those wins were by a single goal. Three 1-2’s and two 0-1’s. Almost without exception it’s a hostile, characterful place with a fishing/industrial background and a blue-collar attitude to match the Celta shirts.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Complacency is usually punished. Nolito, as always, is Celta’s best and most threatening player although Larrivey may profit from the aerial ball into the box. That said while Santi Mina’s four goals this season all came against Rayo he’s a quick-footed talent whose reputation would soar if he scored here.

Madrid by a goal would be the percentage bet but go figure for yourselves what the impact of tiredness, tension and injury absences might do.

James Rodríguez is the shining light right now – not only talented and fully integrated but consistently behaving like a team leader. His link up play with Ronaldo and Chicharito make Madrid very tempting here. There’s enough to suggest that both teams score but that Madrid out-gun the light blues.

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Espanyol and Barca to draw, Atletico and Real Madrid to win – 9/1

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Graham Hunter: Real and Barca to come through tricky tests with this 17/2 double

FC Barcelona v Valencia, Saturday 3pm

At the Camp Nou, just over a year ago Valencia stuck their leg out and Barcelona tripped flat on their face.

Effectively it was the defeat which cost Barça the title.

A win would have seen them pipping Atleti to win the league on goals scored.

Barça led 1-0, they pulled back to 2-2 but ended up losing at home to Valencia for the first time since Luis Enrique played against them in autumn 2003.

Camp Nou

In fact Los Che’s previous six visits had all been defeats and they’d conceded a whopping 21 goals.

Paco Alcácer scored the winner that day and it may be worth noting that he has 3 in his last 5 since returning from injury and 12 for club and country this season.

Both Celta Vigo and Málaga have managed 0-1 wins at Camp Nou in the last few months – mainly by playing a terrific, but exhausting, pressing game which capitalises on one of those rare days when not only do Luis Enrique’s team make a single crucial mistake in defence but, somehow, look nervy and imprecise in front of goal.

So, if you fancy Valencia, how to calibrate your chances?

Last week in Sevilla Barcelona committed two pretty horrible mistakes, Claudio Bravo and Gerard Piqué ending up with fingerprints on the crimes, to toss away a 2-0 lead.

But in Paris on Wednesday, despite regularly gifting the ball to PSG, Barcelona finished devastatingly well.
It does feel like there’s been a drop in concentration in using the ball – perhaps Valencia will have their scoring chances.

Lionel Messi

FYI: Leo Messi has played Valencia twenty times scoring fifteen goals [nine of them at the Camp Nou]. However he’s only actually hit the net in eight of those twenty matches – ie less than half the time.

His goals come in clutches, sometimes threes and fours. Thus, if he scores and you’re ‘in-play’ you may fancy backing him to do so again?

FYI[ii]: Diego Alves has always loved testing himself against Barcelona. Not only was he super in Barcelona’s 90th minute away win earlier this season [Sergio Busquets] he has often played absolutely unbelievably at the Camp Nou. Is he good enough to thwart Messi, Suárez and Neymar??

FYI[iii] Kick off times really shouldn’t be important in a grown-up world but, hey, astrologists still make a damn fine living from making things up in the newspapers so the world’s not perfect. Ergo, the last time Barcelona lost at home it was a Saturday and the kick off time was 4pm Spanish.

Just like this….. Again, if you are on this match ‘in-play’ don’t be fooled into believing that if it’s a draw with just a couple of minutes left, and with a return Champions League quarter final coming up on Tuesday, that Barcelona will ‘settle’.

They only have a two point lead over Madrid and nothing, nothing at all, other than a win here will serve if they are going to win the title.

Valencia choose from: Diego Alves, Yoel, Cancelo, Barragán, Mustafi, Otamendi, Vezo, Orbán, Gayà, Javi Fuego, Felipe Augusto, Parejo, André Gomes, Feghouli, Rodrigo, De Paul, Negredo and Alcácer.

Neymar is back on goal form, Parejo’s worth a small investment, Alcácer too. Major pressure on the league leaders. None of the three results would be a shock but … perhaps Barcelona to demonstrate how much they want this title?

Hunter’s Tip: Both teams to score and Barcelona to win at 7/5 

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Deportivo v Atlético, Saturday 5pm

It’s a central theme of Atlético’s title-defence season – key players missing because of suspension.

Not disastrous here, only Gabi is out, but he’ll be followed by fellow midfielder Mario Suárez on Wednesday against Real Madrid. All of which means that a pretty remarkable story should keep growing.

Tiago said his goodbyes to fans and team mates after the Champions League final having failed to renew his contract with Atleti – a deal with Chelsea was as good as signed. But the Portuguese never put pen to paper, financial terms and his fear about how much playing time he’d get brought things to a grinding halt.

His agent got back in touch with Atleti and Diego Simeone insisted to the men in grey suits that he be re-hired.

Nice call Cholo. The Portuguese should start against Depor, he’s played 25 games in la Liga this season and, with five, is third top scorer for the reigning champions in their league defence.

It’s also his best goal total for eight years.

It may guide you that in six of the last seven Depor v Atleti fixtures at the Riazor there’s only been a single goal victory margin, or no goals at all.

Atleti choose from:
Moyá, Oblak, Godín, Siqueira, Gámez, Ansaldi, Juanfran, Miranda, Giménez, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda, Saúl, Cani, Griezmann, Raúl Jiménez and Fernando Torres.

No Mandzukic, no Mario, no Gabi – training suggests a likely XI of Oblak; Juanfran, Giménez, Godín, Gámez; Tiago; Raúl García, Koke, Saúl, Arda; Griezmann

New coach Victor Sánchez brings back Luisinho and Juan Domínguez but Helder Postiga’s still out.

Victor chooses from:
Lux, Manuel Pablo, Álex Bergantiños, José Rodríguez, Lucas Pérez, Medunjanin, Juan Domínguez, Juanfran, Sidnei, Fabricio, Cuenca, Laure, Luisinho, Toché, Cavaleiro, Oriol Riera, Lopo and Fariña.

Hard and hostile for Atleti here – might they drop two points in a score draw? Not an outlandish idea I’d say.

Hunter’s Tip: Both teams to score and the match to finish as a draw at 7/2

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Real Madrid v Málaga, Saturday 7pm

The Málaga brand of football is pretty much like what they used to say about Guinness – sound as a pound on home territory, doesn’t travel well.

How Málaga need a widget.

In fact the this mob have proved the old Robert Louis Stevenson thing about it being ‘better to travel hopefully than to arrive’

Santiago Bernabeu

In 32 visits to Real Madrid’s ground their happy northward journey has ended, embarrassingly, without a single victory.

However, might the fact that Madrid have the ‘Derbi’ against Atletico in the Champions League on Wednesday give Javi Gracia’s sprightly, fun-to-watch team an edge?

Might it, also, make them a bit more chipper about their chances that Karim Benzema, eight goals in his last nine appearances against Málaga, is out injured?

How much do an away win at the Camp Nou and a home draw with champions Atlético [last week] strip away the ‘beaten before we take the field’ malaise which affects so many of La Liga’s minor teams at the Bernabéu?

Those are some of your decisions.

“The fact that Málaga won at the Camp Nou has focussed our attention on them, it means we’ll not take them lightly” Carlo Ancelotti promised on Friday

In midweek Madrid were thwarted by a superb Jan Oblak performance. Without the 22 year old Slovakian performing heroics Carlo Ancelotti’s men would have scored three, maybe four times.

Is Carlos Kameni, a little flappy last week, capable of the same? Having made a habit of beating Madrid while at Espanyol [three of his first four game against them were wins] he’s tasted nothing but defeat in this fixture since joining Málaga.

Thirty two conceded in fifteen games. If this helps your punt you can be wholly sure that Gracia’s team will play to win. They’ll press, they’ll try to pass the ball forward whenever possible and they’ll not abandon their front-foot, passing game Cristiano Ronaldo I hate to emphasise what John Cleese would call ‘the bleedin’ obvious’ but Cristiano Ronaldo is your ‘go-to’ man here. One of his best records is against Málaga – 13 in 14 meetings.

Might Modric be a dark-horse ‘anytime’ bet? He was pinging the ball at goal in midweek – shooting boots on. Should be fun, should be open … should be a home win by a two goal margin.

Madrid choose from: Casillas, Keylor Navas, Pacheco: Varane, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo, Carvajal, Arbeloa, Nacho: Kroos, James, Bale, Lucas Silva, Modric, Isco, Illarramendi, Ronaldo, Chicharito and Jesé.

Hunter’s Tip: Real Madrid to win by exactly 2 goals at 3/1

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Granada v Sevilla, Sunday 4pm

Glass half-full or half-empty for Unai Emery? After Thursday’s dramatic and draining comeback win over Zenit [2-1] he’ll be pleased not to have to travel too far to play Granada on Sunday. But he could probably have done without the extra ‘edge’ of an Andalusian derby against a team desperate to claw its way out of the relegation threat they face.

There’s also the extra buzz for what is an aggressive home support that Andalucia’s ‘big boys’, Sevilla, have only played at Los Cármenes three times in the last forty years. It’ll be like there’s a bounty on their heads. Regional pride will see to that.

Yet Granada have been surrender-monkeys recently – white flag at the Bernabéu when losing 9-1 a couple of weeks ago, a sea of white flags last weekend losing 3-0 at Almería

Your big evaluation here is: ‘when will Sevilla’s huge European exertions cost them a ‘hangover’ in La Liga?’

Not here you’d hope. This is a mighty season for Unai’s squad and it would be such a damp squib if it teetered now.

Bacca’s goal against Zenit made it seven scoring headers from Sevilla’s players in their last ten matches. It’d be logical if their second half impact won Denis Suárez and Mbia starting places on Sunday. Each of them, plus Aleix Vidal, might be worth backing.

Finally, Sevilla’s league season only has seven matches left. I don’t know if I can hold on that long without a lame Dick Emery joke. So long as they keep winning I won’t have to reach for …. ‘Ooh they are awful, but I like them…’

Hunter’s Tip: Sevilla -1 goal at 12/5

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Graham Hunter: How Fernando Torres could line your pockets this weekend

Madrid – Eibar Saturday, 3pm

“This is a banana-skin game,” Carlo Ancelotti said on Friday morning. With a straight face.

Well, frankly, you’re as likely to hear the Banana-splits theme played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mr and Mrs Harmonic’s son Phil before you are likely to see Eibar winning at the Bernabéu.

Yes, yes. It’s not hard to understand Carlito’s intention. The European champions were duffed-up in the first half at Rayo Vallecano in midweek, they have no margin of error here and they’ll be without  the excellence of James Rodríguez, the order of Toni Kroos and the returning goal-power of Gareth Bale.

So, fine, avoiding complacency by warning about the threat Eibar carry, that’s okay.

But even though Eibar’s coach Gaizka Garitano was singing from the same song-sheet [‘One banana, two banana, three banana four…tra la la, tra la, la, la…] when he said this week: “People think we are dead and buried but there’s a lot of life left in us”, this isn’t the weekend they can be permitted to show that’s true.

Prior to beating Málaga on Tuesday the Basques had not won since January 10, at home to Getafe, and failed to scored in seven of 10 games. That tells a story. It may not be the greatest story ever told, but Easter’s past now.

What’s true, and has been for a couple of weeks, is that Garitano’s team is playing better. Making chances, making it worth watching them because they are pleasing to the eye.

  • If you fancy a walk on the wild side then Mikel Arruabarrena is, by far, their best prospect of an historic goal in their first Liga game at the Bernabéu. He has two in their last two games and was denied a third, unjustly, by the ref against Málaga.

Next best? Saúl Berjon – nice wee player.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Los Blancos aren’t yet on full ramming speed, will miss James in particular because he’s added cutting edge and verticality in their play since returning.

Also, they have the Madrid derby in the Champions League on Tuesday. However what showed in midweek is that if their silk glove is a bit tatty, their iron fist is in punching mode.

Watching them react, so powerfully, to the nonsense of Ronaldo being denied the most blatant of penalties at Rayo indicated that there is ferocity of spirit and an intent to win this title.

They should have a far harder afternoon than a week ago when hitting nine against Granada but they can be backed.

“We don’t care if Ronaldo’s had his yellow card rescinded and is free to play,” said the Eibar President Friday afternoon. Wrong!

Back CR7 to score, again, back Benzema, back Isco and, have a flutter on Ramos.

  •  Match betting

Málaga – Atlético, Saturday, 5pm

It’s just not practical to take a disparaging tone of voice when speaking about a match at La Rosaleda – even after Javi Gracia’s team lost a bit of steam in recent weeks.

Málaga can play, have individuals who’ll produce clever moments, the crowd is usually numerous and boisterous. [This match is sold-out]. So it’s a trap for the unwary.

However, the instinct to back an upset here, which would have been tempting during the earlier part of Atleti’s bumpy 2015, has diminished a bit.

Diego Simeone’s team went through a spell where they looked leg-weary, psychologically bruised and just a tad vulnerable to energy, organisation and ambition. All of which Málaga have been capable of providing this term.

But Los Rojiblancos can evidently see the finishing tape now, clearly.

It’s like the combined effect of knowing that their guru, their Pied Piper [What do you mean ‘who’? Simeon,e of course!] has renewed his contract and will stay next season plus the knowledge that they are edging towards guaranteeing Champions League football while playing the quarter final of that competition against a team they’ve beaten four times since August has injected pure adrenaline in their veins.

  • Since coming within 12 minutes of a 1-0 home win over Valencia on March 8, but then conceding, Atleti have played five times without conceding; beating Getafe [2-0], Córdoba [2-0] Bayer Leverkusen [1-0] and Real Sociedad [2-0] plus drawing with Espanyol [0-0].

Keeper Miguel Ángel Moyá is back from injury, so is Diego Godín, while Juanfran has served his suspension. Mandzukic and Raúl García are both still injured.

The negative about the home side is that their three recent defeats, and a draw in the last five games, have been against sides lower than them in the table – Granada, Rayo, Eibar and Real Sociedad.

Fernando Torres 800

On the positive side, Gracia was without two significant players when losing at Eibar in midweek – Samu Castilejo and Sergio Sánchez. They return while Sergi Darder, a doubt, makes the squad. Gracia will choose from: Kameni, Amrabat, Weligton, Samuel, Javi Guerra, Ricardo Horta, Juanmi, Tissone, Ochoa, Recio, Angeleri, Duda, Rosales, Boka, Sergio Sánchez, Miguel Torres, Samu Castillejo, Sergi Darder.

Back to bananas, there’s a slip-up threat here but back Atleti, just.

NB: Fernando Torres has five in eight against Málaga; Griezmann has three in eight.

NB1: Don’t look for a goal feast. In only FOUR of the last 11 meetings between these two clubs have both teams scored. Prior to this season the last three games produced only three goals

NB2: have a think about Godín anytime. Each of Málaga’s last two defeats have been 0-1 to back-post headers.

  • Match betting

Sevilla – Barcelona, Saturday 7pm

In life, which do you believe in more? The immovable object or the irresistible force?

Sevilla haven’t lost at home for over a year – since their city neighbours Betis won at the Nervión.

Thirty-one matches in League, Europe and Cup. Immovable.

Barça, in contrast, have won 10 straight away matches, no mean feat, since losing at the Anoeta in their first match of 2015. Irresistible?

The league-leaders carry some baggage to Andalusia – and not just the shadow of Wednesday’s Champions League quarter final in Paris.

Good though he was against Almería during the week, Messi still appears to be protecting his right outstep where he’s felt pain since the Manchester City game at the Camp Nou.

Neymar, dropped in midweek, is out of form and has been for weeks.

Contract talks with Dani Alves have broken down and his agent [also his ex-wife] stated that some of his defensive lapses recently owe to his mental state caused by uncertainty over his playing future. [He’s out of contract in June]. Way to impress the coach Mrs A.

But we have to take into account the fact that not since Alves scored the winner for Sevilla in this fixture back in 2007 have Barça lost here.

Seven wins and two draws in their last nine visits.

Lionel Messi

Unai Emery just doesn’t have a happy record against them either – wherever he’s been he’s found it super-hard, either in adversity or when on top in a game, to emerge with a win.

  • Eighteen matches, four different clubs, no victories, five draws, 13 defeats. What a chance he has here.

Bacca, having been rested at Levante, will start and is the best bet. Sevilla are pretty interesting aerially and while Barcelona have improved, radically, when defending set-plays they are by no means invulnerable. Mbia is fit and loves to score a header.

  • Only twice in 23 home matches this season have Sevilla failed to score, only three times in 22 away trips this season have Barcelona failed to score.
  • So: high chance both teams to score; fate says ex-Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic scores for Barcelona; Messi’s sights are in with his free kicks and is due to net one soon;Bacca, Vitolo, Mbia, Krychowiak all might repay faith.

Barcelona are not on high form but have a really grim determination about them these days. For that, for Messi and for their eight year record in Sevilla they’ll start favourites.

But if you back a score draw you’ll not be alone.

  • Match betting

Valencia – Levante, Monday 7.30pm

Football is remarkable. Valencia have beaten both the Spanish and European champions this season, have a new, wealthy owner, brim with good new players, the crowds have been huge and vibrant … but they’ll enter the city derby with nerves.

Levante have been fighting relegation all season, are on their second coach this term and lost at home in midweek but there’s a genuine sense that they are both robust and capable of staying up.

But, Frank Carson-stylee, there’s more.

Levante, pretty remarkably, have three wins and two draws in their last six Valencia derbies. Given the relative resources and squad-calibre that’s a standout achievement.

One of the defeats of Valencia was this season – one of only two wins in their first ten home matches. Some kids.

And more. Nuno Espirito Santo may have been looking for the gypsy who’s thrown a curse or whoever on his staff broke a couple of mirrors.

Last week they played a weakened Villarreal side, one which went on to be pumped 0-3 at home by Espanyol in their next match, but Los Che squandered chances, played without enough zest and dropped two points. Major chance missed

Then, away at Athletic, they had Otamendi wrongly sent off and, winning 0-1, dropped two more points in the final seconds when Aduriz scored from a blatantly offside position.

Suddenly they are not only not third but they’ve gifted Atleti a three point lead.

Okay, Levante like facing Valencia. They absolutely require points for survival but Los Che have just three more home games after this one and, by hook or by crook, they simply have to win. On balance, just, it’s worth backing them to do that.

  • Match betting

 

 

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Graham Hunter: Vitolo can fire Sevilla to glory at 7/1 and why Barcelona can’t afford to lose at Celta Vigo

Sevilla v Athletic, Saturday 3pm

Spain’s ‘miracle’ team versus Spain’s manager of the month for March. Sevilla [the former] tend to find Athletic [whose manager Ernesto Valverde is the latter] pretty indigestible.The Andalusians have only won twice in the last ten meetings with the Basques home or away. However to balance that – Athletic have just one win at the Nervión in the last 20 years.

Vitolo-Sevilla-840

What makes them pretty miraculous, I think, is that only FOUR players remain at Sevilla from the last squad which beat Athletic – and that was just two years ago. They buy and sell at an extraordinary rate such that, even taking Xavi, Iniesta and Vicente Del Bosque into account Sevilla’s sports director, Monchi, is one of the great figures of the last decade in Spanish football. And despite the revolving door policy, buy ‘em short, sell ‘em long, Sevilla are the Europa League champions [again!] and face Zenit in the quarter final in two weeks time.

What’s also strange about them is that those last two victories over Athletic in the last ten meetings have come with ten men – Fernando Navarro being sent off both times. So if you are following it ‘in-play’ and Navarro’s sent off, don’t cash in, double the bet!!!!

If you fancy the red card market then be advised that there have been six sendings off in the last ten meetings between these two. Perhaps it nudges you towards Sevilla that in 14 games in charge against Athletic, the team he played for, Unai Emery has seven wins and four draws while his seven games as a direct opponent to Valverde have brought four wins and a draw.

If you like to back the mode of scoring then here’s a clue – in Athletic’s last five consecutive single-goal wins [1-0 x three, 2-1 x two] they’ve scored three headers and a penalty.

In the last six Sevilla games Unai’s team have scored six headers and two penalties. You’ve been warned.

Single goal win for the home side, both sides to score – look for Adúriz, Vitolo, Bacca, San Jose – perhaps Mbia or Krychowiak for a little bit of value.

Graham’s bet: Sevilla to win by exactly one goal @ 12/5. Vito to score first 7/1.

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Córdoba v Atlético, Saturday 5pm

Gabi

President Carlos González is an odd fish. Last season he built a ‘time-machine’ into which Córdoba fans could file and see images of their ‘future’ in Spain’s Primera Division. Somehow or another, in the most Alfred Hitchcock fashion ever, Albert Ferrer got them to that promised land in the final seconds of the last game of the play-offs.

Suspense? ‘Hitch’ had nothing on it. Just over a handful of games later Old Carlos sacked Ferrer, texting him rather than having the ‘Cojones’ do even speak to the guy who’d taken the club up for the first time in half a century.

Now, on his third coach this season, he’s attempting to turn the remainder of his team’s matches into a mini-league of three teams. Currently bottom of the pile González argued this week.

It’s not the same finishing last as third last because, who knows, there may be some teams relegated because of their financial or administrative affairs and that could save us – you never know.

Sadly, in this country, that’s not the most bizarre idea so it’s an attempt to ‘buck up’ spirits ahead of the visit of the Champions.

His idea, clearly, is for Córdoba to claw and tear every point from their remaining opponents, not with much hope of finishing outside the bottom three – but in case anyone else is demoted for non-football reasons. Harder for them in that they had three sent off last time out, Aleksandar Pantic, Íñigo López and Daniel Pinillos, while the excellent Fede Vico plus Iago Bouzón remain injured.

They do have Nabil Ghilas, Edimar and José Ángel Crespo, fit again while, Fausto Rossi, one of the naughty boys [with Bebé and Ghilas] caught out on the bevvy after losing to Valencia, is allowed back into the squad. Ghilas is the goal threat.

simeone_840

But Atleti will fight still-harder to ensure that they don’t finish in fourth place at the end of the season while they also need to get back in character ahead of the Champions League quarter final against Madrid in a fortnight. Diego Simeone (above) has renewed his contract which will inspire all around him except Mandzukic, you’d guess.

No Miranda, still suspended, so Godín and Giménez at the back. Griezmann, by all accounts flying in training and full of confidence after being with the French team. In fact with Moyá and Raúl García injured take it that Atleti will be: Oblak; Juanfran, Giménez, Godín, Gámez; Gabi, Tiago; Saúl, Griezmann, Koke; Mandzukic.

Trust in Atleti, trust in Griezmann, think about Saúl for value.

Graham’s bet: Atletico Madrid to win @ 2/5.  Antione Griezmann to score first @ 7/2

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Real Madrid v Granada, Sunday 11am

Carlo Ancelotti840

Vicente Del Bosque was a promising young midfield substitute the last time Granada won at the Bernabéu. And this season’s seven out of a possible 42 away points indicates that Abel Resino, historically an Atlético Madrid man, is in search of some sort of divine intervention. Sadly for him the kick-off is midday [Spanish clock] on Sunday when the big man upstairs may be pretty occupied with his dayjob.

You have to like old Abel, who knows that it’ll need a daft combination of circumstances is his team is to prove able.

Granada’s boss reckons:

I’m hoping the ‘FIFA’ virus hits Madrid. I hope they’ve arrived back tired after the international matches, that they think this is going to be a piece of cake.This is a Madrid which can scare you if they are inspired, but also one which has been pretty irregular in 2015, one which their own fans might be a little frustrated at…

Cristiano Ronaldo

Pepe’s out injured for Madrid but, really, they must turn this into a ‘by how many….?’ match.

Barcelona play at Celta later that night and Los Blancos, having just lost the Clásico, can cut the gap at the top to a point ahead of that kick off in Vigo. They can put real pressure on. Granada don’t know what the connection between the ball and the net is – it’s that sad, that simple. Only four of the squad have two goals or more and Jhon Córdoba and Youssef Al-Arabi are tied as top scorers on four. If you insist on picking a Granada any-time scorer then Robert Ibáñez is a tidy wide player picked up on loan from Valencia.

But this will see Madrid’s attacking forces very nearly at full strength. James Rodríguez is back and should start given Isco is suspended. Gareth Bale should have scored in the Clásico, did so for Wales and has looked bristling with confidence again in training. He’s worth a punt. Madrid should win by three and it wouldn’t be a shock if the BBC, [Bale, Benzema, Cristiano] all got a taste here.

Graham’s bet: Real Madrid to win -2 on the handicap @ 8/13

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Valencia v Villarreal, Sunday 4pm

Nuno Espirito Santo 840

This is a little gem of a contest. Valencia is a city which already has a derby match. It’s Los Che against LevanteVillarreal is an hour north up the coast … but sufficient bad blood has developed over the [recent] years to give this the edge of a derby. In the eight years since the Yellow Submarine won at the Mestalla [Manuel Pellegrini’s team facing 9 men when David Villa and Joaquín were sent off and taking advantage via Santi Cazorla, Giuseppe Rossi and Jon Dahl Tomasson] Valencia have been firmly in control of this fixture. Four wins and a draw, fifteen goals in favour of Los Che.

Right now Valencia are a force at home – best record in la Liga. The stadium won’t only be about 95 per cent full, it’ll be raucous, confident, aggressive – and it’ll drive Nuno’s players through any residual tiredness some have from their international duties.

Drawing conclusions from training there’s a decent chance, with Enzo Pérez injured, that he’ll repeat the XI which beat Elche away 4-0 two weeks ago. That would mean no place for Álvaro Negredo in a lineup: Alves, Barragán, Mustafi, Otamendi, Gayá: Parejo, FuegoGomes: Feghouli, Alcácer, Piatti.

Piatti, little buzzbomb that he is, is in the form of his life. Seven goals, equal with centre forward Alcácer, but also wonderful delivery. His dead-ball work is part of the reason Mustafi and Otamendi, central defenders, have seven goals between them. The German got two last time these sides met and either one of them plus Piatti or Alcácer are worth backing.

Juan-Carlos-Villarreal

Villarreal have, at least, had time to re-group after their horrible denuding at the hands of Sevilla. Three games, three defeats, out of Europe, seven goals conceded. Marcelino has a great record of making his team’s super fit, he’s a good motivator and he’s had two clear weeks with the majority of his squad [seven international players left, all came back uninjured] yet he has problems to face here.

Possibly enough to determine the result. Bruno, what a loss, is far off a return while Cheryshev, who’s added pace, aggression and goals, is also injured. Moi Gómez is suspended and Víctor Ruiz is a victim of the ‘fear clause’ in that he’s on loan from Valencia who won’t let him play against them.

With the loss of Gabriel to Arsenal that means that five of the ten players with the most Liga minutes for Villarreal this season will be absent at the Mestalla. Vietto is always worth backing, Musacchio is looking a set piece threat again but this should be a home win. Both teams to score.

Graham’s bet: Valencia to win & both teams to score @ 11/4

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Celta Vigo v Barcelona, Sunday 8pm

Luis Suarez

This could be a bit of fun. You know better than I do that football loves, absolutely loves, a back-story. Celta is where Luis Enrique (above) restored his budding reputation after disappointment and under-achievement at Roma. But he left, following his heart [not to mention his bank-account] after just a year to take over at Barcelona.

Already anyone who knows football is saying: ‘Intriguing, tell me more….’ For a shock it would need something beyond a neat storyline of Toto Berizzo and his players agreeing: ‘Right, we’ll show him!’ Therefore you can throw into the mix the fact that Barcelona will be without Javier Mascherano, suspended, Jordi Alba injured, and until we see how he handles the night [if risked at all] there’s the real prospect of this being a match that Leo Messi should avoid.

Badly damaged by a Martin Demichelis tackle nearly three weeks ago, Messi’s right outstep took another knock during the Clásico and, as a result, his foot was so swollen he couldn’t put on football boots while away on duty with Argentina – let alone play for Tata Martino’s side.

Should he really be risked here with the Champions League quarter final approaching and an away league match at Sevilla next Saturday to deal with first?? Just a little frisson of ‘extra’ is the fact that, back in November, Celta were the first team to beat ‘Lucho’s’ Barcelona at the Camp Nou. A clever, organised, counter-attack performance. They’ll need the same. Although their best player, Nolito [ex- Barça] reckons: “we’ll go toe-to-toe with them” that’s not advisable. High tempo, pressing – yes. Taking them on at football – big problems.

But another voice of experience, Andreu Fontas, also from the Barcelona youth system, reckons they’ve got the drop on his former club.

After a series of games like City in the Champions League, Madrid in the Clásico and then lots of their players away on international duty it can take a lot out of the squad psychologically so I don’t think this is a bad time at all to be playing Barça.

Lionel Messi beats Xabo Alonso

If you routinely punt on Messi to score best to leave it until the lineup is out. It’s vital for Barcelona to win this if they want to be champions so even if it shapes as a bit of a test look to Suárez, who has not had international duty, and Piqué, who’s in love with scoring goals this season, as potential ‘any-time’ scorers.

Nolito has three goals and two assists in his last eight Liga matches and shares Celta’s scoring-burden with Charles and Larrivey. This could easily be both teams to score and there’s the whiff of an upset. Be guided by your overall view of the away team. If they are to win the title they mustn’t lose here, indeed by hook or by crook they probably have to win.

PS cynics may note that it’s the same ref as Barça 0-1 Celta. But he was good that day and has twice been generous to the away side since. Inexperienced but not a ‘Celta man’.

Graham’s bet: Barcelona to win and both teams to score @ 6/4

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