Graham Hunter: La Liga teams in the Champions League, Messi to outscore Ronaldo, Benitez’ to favour La Liga and a 14/1 correct score tip for this weekend

At the beginning of Primal Scream’s brilliant 1990 tune ‘Loaded’ when Frank Maxwell asks Peter Fonda: ‘Just what is it that you want to do?’ Fonda knows the answer.
“We wanna be free to do what we wanna do
“We’re gonna have a good time. “We’re gonna have a party”

And if you asked the Real Madrid fans that same question you’d get exactly the same answer.

Sick of being second best to Barcelona, sick of football they view as pragmatic they want their cake and to eat it.

With champagne, and golden spoons and second helpings.

florentinoperez

But if you asked the President, Florentino Pérez or Madrid’s debutant coach, Rafa Benítez the same ‘just what is it that you want to do?’ question the answer might be different.

Much more pragmatic.

Thursday’s Champions League draw gives them a group perfectly balanced not only for an assault on Europe but for the right kind of early season test.

Paris St Germain have shown over the last three seasons with Barcelona and Chelsea [ten games, two wins, four draws, four defeats] that they are on the rise and that they can threaten anyone on their day.

Not a side Madrid have to fear but one which will mean Los Blancos will need to focus and find top gear [no Primal Scream reference there] in order to subdue.

Madrid start at home, and their first away trip is far easier and less tiring than PSG’s.

Their final group game is at home and against, nominally, the weakest team. Even the schedule is on their side.

However, and this might be heretical, is winning the Champions League actually Benitez’s priority?

‘Just what is it you want me to do, Florentino?’ might well be Rafa’s question to the Madrid President.

RafaelBenitez

Los Blancos have won the Spanish title twice in the last eight years.

Their fans and some of their ‘cyclops-vision’ media not only crave it, they crave the opportunity to wave two fingers at their city neighbours, Atlético, who won the title more recently, and Barcelona, who’ve dominated La Liga for a decade.

More, Carlo Ancelotti was shown the door in the summer just 12 months after winning the Champions League so dramatically against Atleti.

A victory which, if you consider the alternative for Madrid, should really have earned him another five years of job safety at the Bernabéu. It didn’t.

Major League Concerns

So whatever the sheen of Madrid’s history says, whatever the threat of Barça closing the European Cup gap between them still further Rafa Benítez must prioritise doing something he’s not achieved since the last time he coached in Spain, eleven years ago – winning the title.

Will that undermine trying to win La undécima? Madrid’s eleventh Champions Cup?

The answer lies with Ronaldo. Whatever the club’s ambitions he wants more Champions Leagues, he wants to haul Messi back in the Ballon D’Or voting and, judging by his variety of sour looks in Monte Carlo on Thursday, he wants to win the UEFA Best Player In Europe back.

Ronaldo_Messi

Vitally, too, Ronaldo wants to edge ahead of Messi with whom he’s tied at 77 goals apiece at the top of the all-time Champions League scoring list.

With nine games of Rafa in charge Madrid have failed to score on five occasions, usually with Ronaldo absent.

So, I think there’s some fun in the Ronaldo-Messi betting.

The End of His Ron

Ronaldo has significantly outscored his rival over the last four Champions League seasons – by nine.

The last time Messi beat Ronaldo to UCL top scorer was in 2011/12 – coincidentally the last time he had a shot at Bayer Leverkusen or Bate, Barça’s new group rivals.

Against Bernd Leno, Leverkusen keeper, Messi scored six in two matches. In Borisov he put two past BATE.

Clues for this season?

Ronaldo hasn’t faced [and thus not scored against!] any of Madrid’s group rivals.

Lionel Messi

So, a priori, it might be worth an investment that Messi outscores Ronaldo this Uefa season, finishes Champions League top scorer and, thus, establishes the all-time lead.

Valencia, qualifiers, have a group in which Zenit and Lyon are both within Los Che’s orbit – beatable but, equally, capable of exploiting Nuno Espirito Santo’s team if they perform dozily.

The key to qualification is taking at least seven points from the first three games – home to Zenit, away to Lyon and then home to the weakest club, Gent.

In fact having home then away back-to-back matches with the Belgians is manna from heaven in terms of qualifying for the knockouts.

If you run a fantasy football team or like to look for less than obvious scorers then think about Sofiane Feghouli who just loves Uefa football and consistently rises to the challenge.

Their Group to Luis

Barcelona, who I think are capable of being the first to retain this competition, were given a draw that the naive think was wonderful but which will concern Luis Enrique.

Luis Enrique

Ex coach of Roma he’ll understand how hostile it is there and that starting at the Olympic Stadium in Italy’s capital is no ‘gimme’.

That their third fixture is also away, in Belorussia, means that the reigning champions need to start with concentration and hunger.

You’re laughing at me? BATE Borisov you splutter?

Beat Athletic Bilbao last season, thumped Bayern Munich the season before. BATE better than Barça, no. A niggly little test, yes.

And Now For Sevilla And Atlético

Which leaves the two sides who play at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday night [19.30, Sky] – Sevilla and Atlético.

Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan

Atleti catch Benfica [whose striker Jonas didn’t mind a goal or an assist against the Colchoneros during his time with Valencia] at a good time given their consistent sales policy and the loss of influential coach Jorge Jesus.

Galatasaray and Astana carry their levels of threat/difficulty but Diego Simeone’s side is so hard working, so well balanced and so bloody stubborn that they’ll win the group regardless.

Sevilla? Well aside from the €20m cash windfall of qualifying the Champions League has brought them the reality of fighting for elbow room at Europe’s elite table.

Manchester City, Juventus and Borussia Mönchengladbach [who Sevilla put out of Europe last season] may prove too much for qualification, especially after losing three key players in Vidal, M’Bia and Bacca and needing to integrate new guys like Immobile, Konoplyanka and Llorente.

But, could Sevilla surprise everyone again by qualifying? Might they even retain the Europa League for the second consecutive time if not?

This Weekend

As for Sunday, it’s now six Liga and Cup matches since Sevilla beat Atleti at home.

There’s ill feeling between the sides who jostle to be considered third best in Spain – nearly eight bookings per match, average, over the last four meetings if you are a card-counter.

A splurge of reds in the Copa a couple of seasons ago.

Sevilla are nobody’s mugs though having lost just once at home since March 2014 [2-3 to a Ronaldo hat trick in May]

Griezmann, Llorente and a Coke/Koke any time might pay.

Score draw. 2-2 at 14/1.

Atleti: Oblak; Juanfran, Godín, Gímenez, Felipe; Koke, Gabi, Tiago; Oliver; Griezmann, Torres/Jackson
Sevilla: Beto: Coke, Rami, Kolo, Tremoulinas: Banega, Krykowiak: Vitolo, Iborra, Reyes: Immobile/Llorente

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Graham Hunter: Barca v Madrid again, but Atletico will be knocking on the door

If La Liga’s your bag then it’s already clear you know your football and you know that, technically, tactically and trophy-wise it’s the best league in the world – by far. But if you like the increasing tendency for the survival of the fittest, rather than the survival of the richest, this promises to be the season for you.

  • Athletic Club have already ripped into Barcelona putting five past them in the Supercup.
  • Valencia humbled both Madrid and Atlético last season
  • Real Sociedad beat each of the ‘big three’ last term
  • Atleti defeated Madrid in the Copa final of 2013, won the title in 2014 and performed historically well against Los Blancos over the last twelve months. Four ‘derbi’ wins
  • Atleti can consider they cost Madrid title in that Barça won by just two points last May.
  • Positions three, four and five were separated by a single point each time.
  • Barça lost at home to both Málaga and Celta

Diego Simeone wiki edit

 

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There is ferocious competition – it’s just that such competition, allied to mega-budgets, has forced some absolute excellence out of Madrid and Barcelona over recent years. Four Champions League titles between the clubs since 2009 is testimony to that. Frankly, La Liga’s clubs cope better with doing battle against these two than the rest of Europe does.

But while it’s not realistic to ask Sevilla or Valencia to win the title I think Atleti may be back. Or at least they look as threatening, well-organized, balanced and goal-hungry as in winning the title in 2013/14. What Cholo Simeone needs is a wee bit of help from the big two.

Madrid are in the hands of a serial winner. No-one should doubt that IF he’s not undercut by his own employers, IF he’s not caught up in a PR war between Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, IF he doesn’t fall out chronically with the aggressive, quixotic, fair-weather friends of the Madrid media then Rafa Benítez’ talent, added to Los Blanco’s playing resources, could feasibly make them either Spanish or European champions.

Cristiano Ronaldo

 

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But you get my theme? Look at the list of man-traps waiting for him there – and that’s just a sample. It’s a botch-up not to have signed David De Gea by now – Madrid conceded 17 more goals than the champions last season. Can they lock the door this time? Stocking Benítez’s two man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 – will come from Kroos, Modric, Kovacic, Casemiro. Powerful. But the front four? There’s the potential for disharmony, confusion and problems. How to fit in Ronaldo, Bale, Isco, James, Benzema, Lucas Vazquez, Cheryshev, Jesé?

“We have to reach the decisive part of the season attacking and winning games” Benítez said the other day. Madrid fans want that now. In working out your bets you may want to factor in that Los Blancos won ONCE against the rest of the top four in the league. Goal aggregate 8-13 against.

Barcelona have the talent to win another treble –  but do they have the desire or depth of squad? Resources diminished by the FIFA ban [Vidal and Arda can’t play till January and won’t be sent out on loan] they’ve also lost Xavi, Pedro and Montoya. That’s 104 appearances and thirteen goals which can only be replaced by B-team guys and the now-fit Vermaelen. Piqué’s ban means he misses the first four matches. Luis Enrique squeezed every single drop of concentration, effort, intensity and talent from his squad – even hurdled a mini crisis when he went head-to-head with Leo Messi in early January. But can he repeat that?

Lionel Messi 2013

 

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Will Benitez have the same kind of in-squad help from anyone that ‘Lucho’ got from Xavi? [Correct answer: no] Thus, can Atleti sneak in and rob the family silver? If the market closes and they have kept Antoine Griezmann and he’s paired with Jackson Martínez and Luciano Vietto with El Niño Torres showing them what playing for the Colchoneros really means then … possibly.

What a league where it’s Messi-Suárez-Neymar v Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo v Griezmann-Jackson-Vietto! No three-club strikeforces in any country in the world will outscore that lot cumulatively. Atleti can’t be considered outright favourites. But dark horses? Yes.

  • Able to work in lower profile
  • Superb coach
  • Diego Godín settled and committed,
  • Two top keepers
  • Talent, youth and huge experience in midfield
  • A deep squad –
  • A winning mentality.

Last season, before they re-stocked, I worried this might be Atleti’s first trophy-less season since 2008/2009 [which other club around Europe can boast that astonishing record?] Not so sure now. Goalscoring? The eye is always drawn to the Messi v Ronaldo battle – barring injuries they should split the top two positions. But I think the gap will narrow.

Both Suárez and Neymar look capable of increasing their tallies [without misfortune the Uruguayan will have over two months extra via which to do that compared to last season] Messi is much more focussed on trophies than scoring records and, as such, might increase his ‘assist’ tally. Not a suggestion I’d make about CR7.

David Moyes

 

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Benítez wants Benzema to: ‘…break the 25 goal barrier’, while both Jackson Martínez and Griezmann have all the equipment to exceed 30 goals in all competitions. Who’d be a goalie?

I’m backing Athletic for the Copa [five Cup finals reached since 2009], Marco Asensio to be the stand-out ‘revelation’ of the season, Sporting and Betis to fight it out for fans of the season … but what of David Moyes and La Real?

Shorter on goals than Danny De Vito is on centimetres this is, finally, a squad and an XI which should be competitive. But things haven’t yet ‘clicked’. Bruma’s wing-pace, the goal potential of Carlos Vela and Jonathas, Pardo’s control of midfield organisation. Moyes made them work their socks off in pre-season. But La Real couldn’t score.

They’ll should be much more robust, much less likely to be powder-puff away from Anoeta. And if things do ‘click’ they’ll fight for a Europa League place. But as Samuel Eto’o once said: ‘Goals! They are like rats up a drainpipe if you chase after them – you’ve just got to wait and let them come in their own time. Right now, La Real could do with a rat-catcher.

Happy season punters.


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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

  •  Shoot over to all the latest La Liga odds on Desktop | Mobile 

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

  • Hey you! Jog on and get all the latest La Liga odds here on Desktop | Mobile 

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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