Graham Hunter: Barcelona to win 2-0 on Saturday and why Sunday’s ‘Scottish game’ is a big draw at 14/1

Granada v Barcelona Saturday, 3pm

Those who follow Barcelona casually will automatically think: ‘Magisterial against City, now away to La Liga’s second bottom club – automatic ‘win’.

And while I do back Luis Enrique’s team to take the points it’s precisely that assumption which has, and can again, caused Barça problems.

To begin with, Abel Resino’s team will get after Barcelona with the aggression and disrespect which City notably lacked in the first half at the Etihad.

I’ve beaten them before and see no reason not to do it again, he said pre-match.

More, if Granada have any redeeming feature it’s that they make winning at the Nuevo Los Cármenes a job for rolled-up sleeves and Doctor Martin boots.

Having not played away to Granada (because of their life in the lower divisions) since Sweet, Telly Savalas, Showaddywaddy and Bowie were topping the charts, (the 1970s) Barcelona have played at Los Cármenes three times since 2011 – two single goal wins and a 1-0 defeat last season. Not a stroll in the park, see?

Check, also, Granada’s home record since November. Three  1-1 draws, two 0-0 draws and a 1-0 win. Blood out of a stone territory.

It’s 11 v 11 and we know that if we get it right we’ve a chance of beating Barcelona reckons their striker Jhon Córdoba.

Luis Suarez

You’d imagine that Barcelona face a rival lacking in talent but sharp of tooth and claw. They’ll need at least 21 points out of the 42 remaining, bare minimum, if they want a fair chance of avoiding the drop.

Only twice since 2008 have fewer than 40 points kept a team up. Eight of their remaining fixtures are at home, starting this weekend. Emanuel Insúa, Adrián Colunga, Juan Carlos Pérez and Youssef El Arabi are all suspended while it’s likely that Jeison Murillo and Pito won’t be fit to start.

Barça? This is a test for Luis Enrique. Cup semi final on Wednesday, both the Clásico and the second leg against City just around the corner – the post Champions League effect will probably make him want to rotate the team. Possibly heavily.

But he’s got to minimise that and he’s got to get his choices right. Gerard Piqué is already out, suspended.

This team is more competitive, better balanced when both Mascherano and Rakitic start. Imperative that he realises this and keeps them in the XI. I think it’s reasonable to expect Pedro to get game time, perhaps a goal, and for Luis Suárez (above) to maintain his increasing strike rate.

Outside ‘anytime’ bets include Rakitic and Xavi. Anything other than a win would come close to putting the league out of Barcelona’s reach – would potentially leave Madrid coming to the Camp Nou in three weeks to kill of their opponents.

Enough of a stimulus to win? I think so. 0-2 to the visitors.

Graham’s bet: Barcelona to win 2-0 @ 5/1 or Barcelona to win by exactly two goals @11/4

Luis Suarez to score anytime 5/6

Nuno Espirito Santo 840

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Valencia v Real Sociedad, Sunday, 11am

Rumours that both teams will be bag-piped onto the pitch wearing tartan trims on their shorts, that Billy Connolly is gonna be in the Presidential Box and that Primal Scream will perform at half time are untrue… I think.

But has there ever been a more Scottish game in La Liga?

Valencia’s assistant is Ian Cathro [Dundee], only 28 but a friend of Nuno Espirito Santo (above) since they met on an SFA training course at Largs [West of Scotland]. Real Sociedad are led by the duo of David Moyes [Glasgow] and Billy McKinley [Glasgow]

Last week, as tipped here, La Real did Ian Cathro’s team one hell of a favour by beating Champions League-slot challengers Sevilla up at the Anoeta.

In doing so they scored four goals for the first time since pumping Madrid 4-2 at the Anoeta in August. But the truth is that La Real are a strange old beast when it comes to goals.

Last season they scored four or more goals on five separate occasions – not bad. But Carlos Vela [now injured] and Antoine Griezmann [now at Atleti] were principal actors in those dramas.

More, only twice in 15 matches under Moyes had La Real scored more than once – but as soon as Vela gets injured they scored seven in three, six of which have come in the last two. [2-2 at Almería, 4-3 at home to Sevilla]

David Moyes

Valencia are ferocious at home – only Atlético have won more points ‘en casa’ but they’ve played a game more. Los Che’s record at the Mestalla this season is: Played 12, Won 10, Drawn 1, Lost 1, For 27. Against 8. Points 31.

So, here’s the rub. For all their recent revival and move up to mid table, notwithstanding the fact that they’ve beaten the European Champions, the Europa League holders and Barcelona this season La Real are La Liga’s worst away team this season. Six points out of a possible 33.

For months and months now, long before Moyes, they’ve carried ‘baggage’ on the road. Short and simple, they’ve had a complex of low confidence. Not since April 2014 have they won away in the League.

Thus, if you want to go with the banker-bet it’s that Valencia will impose themselves. Negredo should start, Piatti’s on the best form of his life, Nuno has big choices in midfield, only two from Andre Gomes, Dani Parejo, Enzo Perez and Javi Fuego will start [Fuego and Parejo I’ll bet]. Piatti’s return to form increases the chance of a set-piece goal too – think Otamendi and Mustafi.

So, there’s your daily bread. Back it if you fancy Valencia to win at 4/7.

But, given the occasion, I’m going for a tartan tin of shortbread instead. They are odds-against but I think La Real, who’ve won at the Mestalla on their last three visits, can make a draw.

Imanol Agirretxe is on a run of goals, Sergio Canales would love to score against the club that doubted and dumped him. Moyes’ team has had ‘comeback’ results in their last two, the stamina is up and while it’s the underdog bet I’d say another couple goals and a dramatic score draw.

Graham’s bet: A 2-2 draw @ 14/1

diego simeone, atletico madrid manager

Sevilla v Atlético, Sunday, 6pm

If you got off Bismarckstraße then followed Kaldenkirchenerstraße for about 3km before hitting the A52 and then the gloriously fast A57 it’d take you bang on an hour to do the 82km from Mönchengladbach to Leverkusen [albeit there are roadworks just before Dormagen this week]

That’s the distance between the venues where Sevilla [holders] beat Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Europa League and Atlético [beaten finalists] lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. Borussia are third in the Bundesliga,

Leverkusen 6th. Atlético left Saúl behind in a Leverkusen hospital because of the damage he sustained to his kidneys in a challenge which saw him taken off in the 42nd minute. Guilherme Siqueira was also injured, Tiago sent off and Diego Godín’s suspended for the second leg.

All in all you’d say that taking their respective European weeks into account and the fact that this match is at the Nervion – it’s decidedly advantage Sevilla.

But of course there’s the ‘hangover’ effect. Atleti played Tuesday, Sevilla Thursday.

Last season Sevilla played 19 times to win the Europa League. Nine of them were away. Not once did they win away in Europe and then win in the League a couple of days later. The first example of which was winning 6-1 in Podgorica against Mladost and then losing 1-3 at home … to Atlético.

This season it’s remarkable – three Europa League away ties before this week and three thumping wins, beating Villarreal 2-1, Depor 4-1 and Granada 5-1.

Gabi

So, let’s go with the form book. In defeat at Leverkusen not only did Diego Simeone’s team get significantly out-run, 110.3km from the German team, just under 106km from the Spanish champions. That’s a whopping 7km less than Atleti run on average this Champions League. A sign of mental, as well as physical, fatigue.

Notable, too, that it’s two horrible away performances for the Champions and two defeats without scoring [Celta, Leverkusen]

Sevilla haven’t lost at home for 28 matches in all comps, since March last year.

So, once again, the cautious will say:

Atleti are a team with Simeone-esque amounts of character. They’ll bounce back. Ok, if so then I’ll not argue with you going for them to win or draw. But I think there’s info to suggest that Sevilla are in line to beat Los Colchoneros for the first time since 2010.

It looks like Koke could return, but after only three weeks recuperation from a Grade 2 hamstring tear – it’s a risk.

If you like the detail, or if there’s a card market, there have been nine red cards in the last seven meetings between the two.

Vitolo is on fire, six goals in 313 European minutes, Bacca’s not scored against Atleti in three meetings thus far. He can change that.

Graham’s bet: Sevilla to win 2-0 @ 13/1 Vitolo to score anytime 10/3

Carlo Ancelotti840

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Real Madrid v Villarreal. Sunday, 8pm

Because Villarreal regularly take big European scalps, because they play dynamic, attractive football, and because one Wednesday they’ll be no more than a 2-0 win over Barcelona from reaching their first ever Copa final there will be some who look at this match and ponder whether a shock is feasible?

Here’s the case against: They’ve never won at the Bernabéu, they’ve not taken a point there since Fabio Capello was deploying players like Raúl Bravo, Emerson and Antonio Cassano against them.

They had a big, energy sapping, win away in Austria on Thursday and…. drum roll… Denis Cheryshev, candidate for their player of the season, is contractually unable to play because he’s on loan from Madrid. [Unless Villarreal stump up a €250k fee].

Yes, at the turn of the year they stopped Atleti going a year unbeaten at home with a 1-0 win in the Spanish capital. But a few weeks later they were capable of returning to Madrid and losing to Rayo.

This is a talented, quick, technically able team [missing full back Juame Costa due to suspension this week] but still one which is a work in progress.

Gareth Bale

Don’t expect many changes for Madrid. Modric is nearly ready but shouldn’t start. Bale (above) has worked, hard, all week, often on his own, to try to be fit after suffering a dreadful tackle in the win against Elche last week.

Jesé was due a start but has he blotted his copybook by being caught leaving his birthday party in the early hours.

Madrid will have put the fine-tuning of a week without a game to good use but they are squad in need of that three-game per week pattern in order to hit their ramming speed.

I’d expect Villarreal to have their chances, perhaps for Vietto or Musacchio to score but for a combination of Ronaldo, Benzema and  perhaps Kroos to overwhelm them. 3-1or 3-2. Thereabouts.

Graham’s bet: Real Madrid to win. Correct score 3/1 @ 9/1 or 3/2 @ at 20/1

 

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Graham Hunter: The devil is in the details if Man City want to beat Barcelona over two legs

Playing at this level of the Champions League is like signing an important contract – it’s all about the small print.

Read the big phrases, get excited by the special-offer clauses, but miss the detail and you’ll be turned over.

You’ll get a rusty Ford Cortina and an loan-shark APR instead of a Range Rover and easy, stable repayments.

Small print, detail, is at the heart of whether Manchester City can eliminate Barcelona this season – as opposed to the series of crucial, naive errors which left them defeated home and away against a far less impressive Barça last term.

Go back to the first leg last February.

Manuel Pellegrini now admits that he was more fixated on not conceding an away goal than he was by prioritising playing on the front foot, putting Tata Martino’s side under pressure – turning it into a rousing, racy English version of a big European night.

Manuel Pellegrini

“Last season we wanted to put the brakes on Barcelona in the first leg because the value of the away goal is almost always determining in the Champions League” Pellegrini revealed at the weekend.

“This time we’ll go for the match from the very outset – albeit with consideration for the fact that we’re playing a dangerous opponent”

That tactic was the first mistake. City surrendered the initiative. Martin Demichelis was given a man-marking job on Leo Messi. Largely he did it well until the 53 minute.

There followed a series of errors from City which turned the entire tie.

Jesus Navas thought he’d been fouled. So did his team mates. City ‘stopped’.

Not stock-still but they relaxed, they expected the whistle. There was a drop in concentration and intensity. Barcelona whisked the ball upfield.

City’s first mistake – assuming that the whistle would go. Not playing flat-out until it did.

The next belonged to Vincent Kompany. Before Navas lost the ball Messi had looked lazy and self-indulgent.

He was isolated upfield, significantly offside. Barely trotting back.

Meanwhile Iniesta was racing out of his own half with the ball at his feet.

Passing immediately to Messi wasn’t an option.

But Kompany wasn’t aware of where the Argentinian striker was. He’d ‘lost’ him, mentally.

Lionel Messi

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So with Iniesta running towards him Kompany did the ‘natural’ thing of jogging backwards to try and get in line with Demichelis in the hope that City’s midfield would intervente make the first attempt to close Iniesta down.

As Kompany urgently jogged backwards, Messi had begun sprinting to try and get onside.

The combined effect, the defender going backwards, Messi running towards him, cut the time needed to get the striker onside.

Iniesta noticed, waited, slid the perfect pass into the striker and suddenly City were sunk.

Demichelis tried to compensate, made the ‘last-man’ tackle and though he was unfortunate that the referee called it a penalty, rather than a free kick, it was suddenly 10-man City v Barcelona with a spot kick.

Details. Small details. Already turning the tie.

Another such was the Neymar substitution. All season he’d played on the left. This time Martino brought him on down the right. In the 16 minutes he was on the pitch he regularly combined with Dani Alves, already playing like a winger, to overwhelm Gael Clichy. Alves nearly scored.

Neither Pellegrini nor City, albeit with ten men, knew how to react. Nothing was done, Neymar and Alves combined again in the match’s last minute and suddenly the single away goal was two. Total disaster, but foreseeable and preventable.

Man City v Barcelona MBS

The second leg was much, much more competitive. City played with a great deal more poise, intelligence and conviction.

Until the key moment.

Cesc Fabregas’ through-ball to his long term ‘partner-in-crime’, Messi, for whom he’d been creating goals since they were 14, should have been intercepted and recycled forward by Joleon Lescott. To do so was simplicity itself.
But somehow he ends up deflecting the pass straight into the path of Messi who scores. 3-0 and goodnight Vienna.

There’s a haunting image of Pellegrini, in the Camp Nou stands because of his red card in the first leg, head in hands. Frustrated, desolate. Disbelieving.

There are individual elements which, objectively, push forward the likelihood of City performing much more dangerously this season.

Kun Agüero had zero impact a year ago – now he’s fit and in lovely form.

Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko

City intermittently posed a real goal threat in both of the ties last season, Edin Dzeko in particular pulling a brilliant save from Victor Valdés – already a three time Champions League winner. At that stage teh Catalan already had 104 outings in the competition under his belt.

Tonight, Ter Stegen, 22, [six Champions League matches] will keep goal for Barcelona. Patently a very good young keeper, superb with his feet, Manuel Pellegrini’s scouts will have noticed him flapping at corners and cross balls this season – noticeably in conceding the second goal in a 3-2 defeat at PSG in the group.

No Touré tonight – but unquestionably the possibility of Kompany, Fernandinho, Dzeko, Bony or Lampard adding a headed goal at some stage in the two ties. Stegen faces a test of fire.

What about a health-check for those who don’t see Barça regularly?

Neymar’s form this season has been sublime – as has his partnership with Messi. “We look for each other with the ball, all the time” Messi told me about the intuitive link-play which was such a part in the 42 goals scored in the eleven straight wins between defeat to David Moyes Real Sociedad and the appalling performance in losing 0-1 at home to Málaga on Saturday.

BUT, for the last three or four performances the Brazilian’s accuracy, ruthlessness in front of goal and consistency have dipped – noticeably. Bad timing.

Suárez has been playing with wonderful cleverness and selflessness – a modern Henrik Larsson. The only thing missing, now, is a clinical finish. Will it come now?

Luis Suarez

Rakitic has been the element to make everything tick. “Barcelona are less elaborate now than they were at the peak of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets” Pellegrini says. “More direct .. but still as dangerous because of the quality of their players”

Rakitic is one of those footballers who seems to be everywhere, can tackle. pass, play divine wall-passes, has a goal in him and won’t be shy of the power of English football.

His form is a central building block for Barcelona. If he’s dynamic they press and win the ball and use it much more dangerously.

I suspect it’s worth thinking about both teams to score, possibly twice each, worth thinking about Kun and Messi to exchange ‘anything you can do I can do better’ goal-moments.

If City make similar errors, if they haven’t learned, matured – they’ll be beaten twice.

If Barcelona play anything like they did against Málaga they’ll really suffer at the Etihad. In fact, in that case, they’ll be beaten.

But when that ‘Champions-hymn’ shimmers out, it’s Pavlovian for Barça. They’ll be up for it and we’ll have fun watching this tie. Better balanced than last season, more goals, but everything still revolving on details. Tiny details.

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GRAHAM HUNTER: They’ve room to improve but bank on Real Madrid and Barcelona this weekend

Graham’s quick-firebets:

    • Barcelona to win 3-1 – 9/1
    • Valencia to win 2-1 – 8/1
    • Atletico to win 3-2 – 33/1
    • Real Sociedad to win 2-1 – 9/1
    • Cristiano Ronaldo to score and Real to win – 8/11

WIN ACCA:
Barcelona, Valencia, Atletico, Real Sociedad and Real Madrid all to win – 15/2

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Barcelona v Malaga – Saturday 3pm

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The standard expression is: A week is a long time in politics.

This weekend should prove that five months is an eternity in football. There was a shocking, shocking stat last time Barça went up against these lads from the Costa Del Sol capital – at La Rosaleda late last September. Luis Enrique’s team not only drew 0-0 but didn’t have a shot on target.

That was then, this is now. Back in September coach Javi Gracia could start with Camacho in midfield and Amrabat up front. Both suspended now from the team which has 66 bookings and five red cards in their 24 League matches. They’ll be missed.

Now Suárez, unavailable in September, is a major force for good in Barça’s ‘Goals For’ column – both those he tucks away and, more impressively still, those he either creates directly via an assist or via the tremendous job he does of taking players away from Messi and Neymar.

@leomessi & @luissuarez9 #igersFCB #FCBarcelona

A photo posted by FC Barcelona (@fcbarcelona) on

Barcelona have scored 56 times in the subsequent 18 games, are Europe’s form side, bar none, and tend to thump Málaga at the Camp Nou. Not since Louis Van Gaal was the manager in late 1999 the current manager, Luis Enrique, only lasted 61 minutes and previous manager Pep Guardiola only managed 69 minutes have Málaga won at Barcelona. The intervening years are littered with four, five and six goal defeats, just twice has their been only a single goal margin.

Gracia says: “We’ll have to be very, very, very good to take a point but we’ll attack and counter-attack when we can”

So, once again, we probably aren’t debating the result (is my guess) – just its margin.
The visitors’ form has fallen off a cliff. One win in seven league matches since just before Christmas.
It should be a slaughter. But will it?

Take two things into account. Luis Enrique might ‘protect’ Neymar before the City game and Carlos Kameni just loves to thwart Barcelona. The Cameroon keeper has played this lot more times than any other team since arriving in Spanish football and not only won at the Camp Nou with Espanyol he has three 0-0 draws against Barça for Espanyol and Málaga.

Maybe, just maybe, Kameni has one of ‘those’ days, Barcelona hold something in reserve for Lancashire and the win margin is lower than it should be?

Messi has fourteen goals in his last ten matches, 12 in 14 against Málaga over the last ten years. For value have a look at Pedro, Rafinha and Rakitic again – although they are outsiders compared to the Neymar-Messi-Suárez trident which is functioning so well. In fact I spent part of Thursday interviewing a very happy, very confident Suárez. Great goal last week, another this I’d bet.

  • Graham’s Bet: Barcelona to win 3-1
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Cordoba v Valencia – Saturday 5pm
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You’re probably all too young to remember it but there used to be a US comedy show called ‘Soap’ which, as you may be able to deduce, took the mickey right out of soap-operas. It’s where Billy Crystal made it big. The voiceover at the beginning used to detail who was related to whom, who was doing the dirty with whom, who hated whom, who secretly loved … ok, you get the picture.

The tagline used to be: ‘Confused? You won’t be after this episode of Soap!’ So it is with the sitcom: ‘Suspension!’ at Valencia.

André Gomes is back from suspension, while Enzo Pérez and Antonio Barragán are out because of it. The week before it was Nico Otamendi and Joao Cancelo suspended but now Cancelo will replace Barragán at right back … because he’s, you’ve got it, suspended.

And just to continue the ‘Confused…?’ theme who was it that burned great chunks out of the Cordoba training ground? It’s a mystery, honest it is. But someone took the time to ensure that the team won’t be able to use their training pitch for a long, long time. Unless they pay local experts to renovate it…
Djukic’s team have been training in the stadium meaning the playing surface won’t be all that.

Bad news for the locals – Fede Cartabia, dashing winger and their best player I’d say, is on loan from Valencia so the ‘Clause of Fear’ as it’s called here kicks in. ‘No play!’ say Valencia.
Nuno has had los Che practising shooting all week so you’re obviously guaranteed that it’ll be a header that wins this [Negredo] but Parejo is hitting the net for fun and strikes from distance, Feghouli should start and love a long range effort as does the returning Gomes who’s no longer… suspended.
Away win, HAS to be for a Valencia trying to learn how to win on the road in order to reach the Champions league.

  • Graham’s Bet: Valencia to win 2-1
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Atletico Madrid v Almeria – Saturday 7pm
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Right? A safety pin through the nostril is a heavenly look for one guy, cashmere sweater and cravat for the next. Thus: Luis Enrique is obsessed, OBSESSED I tell you, by secrecy over training and team selection at Barcelona.

On the other hand Diego Simeone, similarly intense as a guy and a manager, practically sold state secrets by voluntarily naming Atlético’s starting XI for this Saturday night game early on Friday afternoon! It is:

Moyá; Juanfran, Godín, Miranda, Siqueira; Saúl, Tiago, Gabi, Arda; Griezmann, Mandzukic

As he was doing it I swear I could hear Lucho Enrique shrieking ‘are you flaming mad you idiot?!!!’ in horror. This has the makings of a good game. Juan Ignacio Martinez, know to everyone as JIM, is a real student of Rafa Benitez, gets his teams organised and tough to break down and he’s got a couple of really lively and threatening players in Thievy [who’s not the soundest temperament-wise] and Hemed [worth an ‘any-time’ punt] up front.

Atleti were simply posted missing last week but as Simeone pointed out they are a totally different side at home, in front of their rabidly supportive fans, and with the elegant Arda Turan in the side.
Unless Simeone’s team get ahead promptly there’s the possibility of a hangover from last week’d defeat to Celta – but with Arda back, Tiago fit again and no experimental tactical nonsense like the coach tried last week the Champions should punch their weight again.

  • Graham’s Bet: Atletico to win 3-2
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Real Sociedad v Sevilla – Sunday 11am
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Well now. David Moyes has a fan in Valencia owner Peter Lim and here’s a chance for the Scot to do the Singaporean a favour by defeating the fifth-placed side – Valencia’s main Champions League rivals.
La Real have been working hard this week. There have been a couple of double training sessions, the first of which prevented Moyes from going back to Lancashire and expert-analysing the Preston North End v Manchester United FA Cup tie on Monday night.

blog_moyes_hdr

What La Real did NOT have was a testing and draining Europa League tie on Thursday night followed by the long trip up north from Andalusia to the Basque Country and then a Sunday midday kick off. More, Sevilla’s Europa League tie with Borussia Moenchengladbach is now delicately balanced at 1-0 and the defending champions prize retaining the trophy very, very highly. Second leg next week – could some of Unai Emery’s men have the match in Germany as a higher priority than this one?

Perhaps, just perhaps, all this narrows the gap between the two sides slightly. Grzegorz Krychowiak, a titan for Sevilla in recent weeks, is suspended for his red card last week. Iborra might be worth looking at for a goal – he’s got himself in a cartload of scoring positions over the last few games.

So, make your own careful judgments but with Canales, Chory Prieto, Granero and Agirretxe all looking in form there’s a hint that La Real could take advantage of the situation and finally notch a win [there’s only been one of them since beating Barcelona on January 4]. IF you back them and they are ahead with ten minutes left mebbe Cash Out, there’s a long history of La Real letting a result slip away in the late stages of games this season.

  • Graham’s Bet: Real Sociedad to win 2-1
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Elche v Real Madrid – Sunday 8pm
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‘I’d like a piece of their crisis!’ was the tone of the Elche coach’s press conference before this match.

Asked, legitimately enough, whether this was the best time of the season to be hosting Madrid, Fran Escribá was invited to move away from the wall but didn’t want to dance. Elche have put two wins together on the trot when, previously, they looked like they couldn’t even spell the word if you gave them w_n as a starter clue.

Carlo Ancelotti

Los Blancos have lost three times this year and Carlo Ancelotti found himself, as per usual with this brutally demanding club, bang in the middle of a hurricane of doubts and criticism. But his rival this Sunday pointed out:

“They’ve one foot in the Champions League quarter final where they are defending champions, they are still league leaders and they just became World Club champions. That’s a very ‘Real Madrid’ kind of crisis”

Escribá looks like a talent. His “dream” is to go back and manage Atlético on his own [where he was assistant to Quique Sanchez Flores], so this is something of a job audition for the future. “It’s a good moment to face Madrid firstly because of how we are playing, with confidence. “Two months ago it’s possible that the players and people around the club might have said that an ‘honourable defeat’ was acceptable against Madrid. “Now my players feel strong – capable of winning”

Nice little atmosphere brewing – Elche are the ninth-best supported club in La Liga this season. Madrid will need to be up for it. If you back ‘shocks’ look at their hustle-bustle striker Jonathas and their dancing-feet winger Garry Rodrigues. Me? I think Madrid aren’t near their best yet but they are shaking off their lethargy and they won here last season in the 90th minute (1-2) thanks to Ronaldo. Something similar this time – Ronaldo and mebbe Isco? Ps: think there’s a Bale goal coming because he’s begun to work a good deal harder.

  • Graham’s Bet: Cristiano Ronaldo to score and Real to win – 8/11
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Graham Hunter: Barca to run rampant at Levante and Torres to bag you a 7/2 winner

Valencia v Getafe Sunday 11am

Back to beginnings.

Quique Sanchez Flores was not only an aggressive right back for Valencia for nearly 300 games in the 1980’s it was in his single previous season at Getafe coach that he did well enough to earn his shot at coaching Valencia.

That was when Los Che were reigning champions [04/05] and QSF had just been pinched, by Madrid-based Getafe, from the Real Madrid youth coaching system.

His Getafe beat the title-holders [then coached by Claudio Ranieri] at the Coliseum and lost 3-1 at the Mestalla but he’d done enough to inherit when Valencia got shot of the Tinkerman.

QSF only lasted two and a bit seasons but he did precisely what is now demanded of Nuno Espirito Santo – qualify for the Champions League.

Old Quique has football in every corpuscle.

He shares a birthday with Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Carlos Tevez, his dad, Isidro, was a repeat trophy winner with Real Madrid, his Godfather was Alfredo Di Stéfano while he himself won the title with Los Blancos and went to Italia 90 in the Spain squad.

But he’ll be doing damn well to repeat Getafe’s 3-1 win at Valencia last season. They’ve only played at the Mestalla ten times in the league -eight defeats, that one win and a draw.

Quique Sanchez Flores

It’s a sign of the changing times at the Mestalla that only two Valencia players from that rarest of rare defeats last season will start on Sunday [Barragán and Parejo].

Nuno doesn’t fancy the lunchtime kick-off [midday here in Spain] so he fixed a closed-doors friendly against Zenit on Thursday at midday just to practice the ‘feeling’.

Valencia won 1-0 [Parejo scored again] and it looks like they’ll start Alves, Barragán, Mustafi, Otamendi, Gayá; Enzo, Fuego; Piatti, Parejo, Rodrigo DP; Negredo.

Geta did Valencia a huge favour last week, beating Sevilla, I’d expect them to repeat the good feeling this week by losing here.

None of those who’s goals won the first meeting this season [0-3 Valencia] will start: Alcácer, Rodrigo Moreno and André Gomes.

Parejo can’t stop scoring [already the highest total of his career], Negredo owes his boss a goal, Gayá, who’s fllying, is a wee ‘outside’ bet.

Álvaro is QSF’s repeat scorer. Five straight wins at home for Valencia in all comps since November, Getafe’s last Liga away win was in October. Back the home team by two.

  • Graham’s Bet: Parejo to score anytime and Valencia to win 16/5

Barcelona v Levante Sunday 4pm

Their main striker, David Barral, scores a hat-trick as often as Jose Mourinho admits: ‘You’re right, I was out of order’.

So it’d be nice to try and play-up Levante’s chances.

But I’m not sure that’s realistic. Since losing to Real Sociedad on January 4 Barcelona have played ten, won ten and scored 37.

There are patches of play where they are as electrically quick, as intuitive and as confident as at any time since the peak of the Pep Guardiola era. Not all the time, but regularly.

This season their La Liga goal-ratio is 62:13; historically they’ve played Levante eleven times at the Camp Nou, winning eleven and scoring 41.

So unless something seismic is about to happen let’s assume a home win …okay?

Luis Suarez

Perhaps the art is in determining the margin. Neymar’s rate of goals since losing at the Anoeta is nine in nine matches – but the last three games have seen him fluff really gaping chances, including a penalty against Villarreal in midweek. So do you back his goal-a-game record or feel critical because he’s not been properly clinical?

Messi should get 2+ goals here but thinking about Pedro, Xavi, Rafinha or Rakitic might bear fruit here because Luis Enrique will certainly try to rotate his first-choice XI throughout the match.

As for Suárez he continues unchanged. Exceptional in his team play, bursting with assists but finishing less ruthlessly than he’d like. Barcelona’s most regular score at home to Levante is 5 – perhaps they’ll have to settle for a slightly less impressive result this time?
Suárez, Messi, Pedro and Barral.

  • Graham’s Bet: Barcelona -3 10/11 and Messi to score two goals 4/5

Celta Vigo v Atlético Madrid Sunday, 8pm

Talk about some sort of curse. It’s not opening the Tomb of Tutankhamun, or running amok with a jack-hammer in a mirror factory.

But Joaquin Larrivey did his karma some sort of damage when he scored Celta Vigo’s first La Liga winner at the Camp Nou since World War II.

Prior to that historic night last Autumn the big Argentinian had seven goal in ten league games. Rocket-fuelled.

Since then, not one in 649 minutes and ten games. Three and a half horrible months.

Last season he scored against Atleti for Rayo and quite fancies a return date.

“I’m not sure if it’s true to say that I ‘miss’ the glory of scoring so long as the team wins but I’m hungry to start again and it’s a good battle against Godín and Miranda. “They are aggressive, tough and keep their concentration high for the whole game. “It’d be a great way to start another run of goals getting one against them this weekend”.

And he might be worth a look. Atleti are without Koke [injured], Raúl García and Arda Turan. Interestingly, for a centre half, tough-as-teak Godín will play with a broken nose, using a plastic ‘Phantom’ mask.

Can he be as effective, as fearless in every challenge?? Saúl, despite injuring his knee while making the third goal last week, should be good to start. So Cholo Better Call …. oh, you got there already…
Meanwhile El Cholo Simeone has been practicing this week with Mandzukic, Griezmann and Fernando Torres up front.

A statement of intent.

Celta, remarkably, haven’t won at home to Atleti since 2005 – losing 0-1. 1-3 [twice] and 0-2 in the four games since.

Those two sides shared four goals in the first meeting of the season and a result of that order doesn’t look impossible now that Celta, if not Larrivey, have remembered how to score the odd goal.

Look for Torres, Griezmann, Larrivay and Nolito as likely scorers. Good betting.

  • Graham’s Bet: Atleti win and Torres to Score 7/2
  • Check out the rest of our La Liga bets on el Desktop or el Mobile

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Graham Hunter: Real Madrid can’t afford to do anything but win

Real Madrid v Deportivo Saturday 5pm

Madrid have been jeered by their own fans when Depor came to town before, albeit not often.

That was the infamous Copa Del Rey final when the original cast of the Galácticos were gifted the right to play the showpiece match at their own stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, back in March 2002 because the 6th was their 100th birthday.

Depor came to town, wrapped up the final with very little trouble, 2-1, and the shock rocked Spanish football helping cost Vicente Del Bosque his job just over a year later.

This time the jeering and whistling will come in the form of a retrospective reprimand from the ‘hawkish’ Bernabéu

Losing, pathetically, at Atlético last week was sore enough for the fans.

But the spectacle played out over the last few days in the media as first photos and then a video from Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthday party on that Saturday night has corroded a lot of built-up goodwill between the team, Ronaldo and the fans.

Not a single Spaniard from the squad, nor Bale, Benzema, Varane, Chicharito or Kroos attended. But, as Ronaldo danced and sang with his Colombian pop-star pal, Pepe, Marcelo, Coentrao, Keylor, Khedira and James were present so you can count on hard-line Madridistas being outraged. And letting the team know it.

El Blackoutico! Money-Back if there's a goal inside 15 minutes of Real Madrid v Barcelona

Since losing eight goals at home to Madrid in September the following 19 games have shown Victor Fernández‘ long-standing managerial ability.

Depor have only won five but they’ve also drawn five and the fact that they’ve kept eight clean sheets in that time has meant they’ve gone from a low of last place to 11th today – five points off the relegation zone.

I suppose the very concept of a ‘shock’ result implies one it’s hard to see coming. So, a shock here?

Madrid out-of-form, missing key footballers in front of a skeptical, angry audience. Depor, a bit more sturdy but significantly short of the class that ‘holds out’ for 90 minutes at a venue like this.

If ever the modern, debilitated Depor had even a sniff of that shock then this is it.

But it’s too hard to believe in. Perhaps Madrid will look stodgy, perhaps Depor can frustrate.

However Ancelotti’s team simply CANNOT afford to do anything other than win here or the heavens will fall on their heads. Pablo Insua is suspended, Sidnei injured, José Rodríguez ineligible thanks to the terms of his loan from Madrid.

If you reckon they’ll score, look to Cavaleiro or Oriol Riera for Depor. But unless the home team win by two or three there’ll be hell to pay. Madrid will be: Casillas; Arbeloa, Nacho, Varane, Marcelo; Isco, Illarramendi, Kroos; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo

Perm from Benzema, Kroos, Isco and the out of form Ronaldo. Marcelo is back from suspension but Pepe, Modric,Coentrão, Khedira Ramos and James remain out, injured or are seeking fitness.

  • Graham’s Bet: Madrid -3 13/8

Valencia v Getafe Sunday 11am

Back to beginnings.

Quique Sanchez Flores was not only an aggressive right back for Valencia for nearly 300 games in the 1980’s it was in his single previous season at Getafe coach that he did well enough to earn his shot at coaching Valencia.

That was when Los Che were reigning champions [04/05] and QSF had just been pinched, by Madrid-based Getafe, from the Real Madrid youth coaching system.

His Getafe beat the title-holders [then coached by Claudio Ranieri] at the Coliseum and lost 3-1 at the Mestalla but he’d done enough to inherit when Valencia got shot of the Tinkerman.

QSF only lasted two and a bit seasons but he did precisely what is now demanded of Nuno Espirito Santo – qualify for the Champions League.

Old Quique has football in every corpuscle.

He shares a birthday with Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Carlos Tevez, his dad, Isidro, was a repeat trophy winner with Real Madrid, his Godfather was Alfredo Di Stéfano while he himself won the title with Los Blancos and went to Italia 90 in the Spain squad.

But he’ll be doing damn well to repeat Getafe’s 3-1 win at Valencia last season. They’ve only played at the Mestalla ten times in the league -eight defeats, that one win and a draw.

Quique Sanchez Flores

It’s a sign of the changing times at the Mestalla that only two Valencia players from that rarest of rare defeats last season will start on Sunday [Barragán and Parejo].

Nuno doesn’t fancy the lunchtime kick-off [midday here in Spain] so he fixed a closed-doors friendly against Zenit on Thursday at midday just to practice the ‘feeling’.

Valencia won 1-0 [Parejo scored again] and it looks like they’ll start Alves, Barragán, Mustafi, Otamendi, Gayá; Enzo, Fuego; Piatti, Parejo, Rodrigo DP; Negredo.

Geta did Valencia a huge favour last week, beating Sevilla, I’d expect them to repeat the good feeling this week by losing here.

None of those who’s goals won the first meeting this season [0-3 Valencia] will start: Alcácer, Rodrigo Moreno and André Gomes.

Parejo can’t stop scoring [already the highest total of his career], Negredo owes his boss a goal, Gayá, who’s fllying, is a wee ‘outside’ bet.

Álvaro is QSF’s repeat scorer. Five straight wins at home for Valencia in all comps since November, Getafe’s last Liga away win was in October. Back the home team by two.

  • Graham’s Bet: Parejo to score anytime and Valencia to win 16/5

Barcelona v Levante Sunday 4pm

Their main striker, David Barral, scores a hat-trick as often as Jose Mourinho admits: ‘You’re right, I was out of order’.

So it’d be nice to try and play-up Levante’s chances.

But I’m not sure that’s realistic. Since losing to Real Sociedad on January 4 Barcelona have played ten, won ten and scored 37.

There are patches of play where they are as electrically quick, as intuitive and as confident as at any time since the peak of the Pep Guardiola era. Not all the time, but regularly.

This season their La Liga goal-ratio is 62:13; historically they’ve played Levante eleven times at the Camp Nou, winning eleven and scoring 41.

So unless something seismic is about to happen let’s assume a home win …okay?

Luis Suarez

Perhaps the art is in determining the margin. Neymar’s rate of goals since losing at the Anoeta is nine in nine matches – but the last three games have seen him fluff really gaping chances, including a penalty against Villarreal in midweek. So do you back his goal-a-game record or feel critical because he’s not been properly clinical?

Messi should get 2+ goals here but thinking about Pedro, Xavi, Rafinha or Rakitic might bear fruit here because Luis Enrique will certainly try to rotate his first-choice XI throughout the match.

As for Suárez he continues unchanged. Exceptional in his team play, bursting with assists but finishing less ruthlessly than he’d like. Barcelona’s most regular score at home to Levante is 5 – perhaps they’ll have to settle for a slightly less impressive result this time?
Suárez, Messi, Pedro and Barral.

  • Graham’s Bet: Barcelona -3 10/11 and Messi to score two goals 4/5

Celta Vigo v Atlético Madrid Sunday, 8pm

Talk about some sort of curse. It’s not opening the Tomb of Tutankhamun, or running amok with a jack-hammer in a mirror factory.

But Joaquin Larrivey did his karma some sort of damage when he scored Celta Vigo’s first La Liga winner at the Camp Nou since World War II.

Prior to that historic night last Autumn the big Argentinian had seven goal in ten league games. Rocket-fuelled.

Since then, not one in 649 minutes and ten games. Three and a half horrible months.

Last season he scored against Atleti for Rayo and quite fancies a return date.

“I’m not sure if it’s true to say that I ‘miss’ the glory of scoring so long as the team wins but I’m hungry to start again and it’s a good battle against Godín and Miranda. “They are aggressive, tough and keep their concentration high for the whole game. “It’d be a great way to start another run of goals getting one against them this weekend”.

And he might be worth a look. Atleti are without Koke [injured], Raúl García and Arda Turan. Interestingly, for a centre half, tough-as-teak Godín will play with a broken nose, using a plastic ‘Phantom’ mask.

Can he be as effective, as fearless in every challenge?? Saúl, despite injuring his knee while making the third goal last week, should be good to start. So Cholo Better Call …. oh, you got there already…
Meanwhile El Cholo Simeone has been practicing this week with Mandzukic, Griezmann and Fernando Torres up front.

A statement of intent.

Celta, remarkably, haven’t won at home to Atleti since 2005 – losing 0-1. 1-3 [twice] and 0-2 in the four games since.

Those two sides shared four goals in the first meeting of the season and a result of that order doesn’t look impossible now that Celta, if not Larrivey, have remembered how to score the odd goal.

Look for Torres, Griezmann, Larrivay and Nolito as likely scorers. Good betting.

  • Graham’s Bet: Atleti win and Torres to Score 7/2
  • Check out the rest of our La Liga bets on el Desktop or el Mobile

Want £200 Free? Click here to visit Bet365 and claim your free money.

Graham Hunter: Madrid could be set for a tough evening – Cheeky punt on a Deportivo draw at 10/1

Real Madrid v Deportivo Saturday 5pm

Madrid have been jeered by their own fans when Depor came to town before, albeit not often.

That was the infamous Copa Del Rey final when the original cast of the Galácticos were gifted the right to play the showpiece match at their own stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, back in March 2002 because the 6th was their 100th birthday.

Depor came to town, wrapped up the final with very little trouble, 2-1, and the shock rocked Spanish football helping cost Vicente Del Bosque his job just over a year later.

This time the jeering and whistling will come in the form of a retrospective reprimand from the ‘hawkish’ Bernabéu

Losing, pathetically, at Atlético last week was sore enough for the fans.

But the spectacle played out over the last few days in the media as first photos and then a video from Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthday party on that Saturday night has corroded a lot of built-up goodwill between the team, Ronaldo and the fans.

Not a single Spaniard from the squad, nor Bale, Benzema, Varane, Chicharito or Kroos attended. But, as Ronaldo danced and sang with his Colombian pop-star pal, Pepe, Marcelo, Coentrao, Keylor, Khedira and James were present so you can count on hard-line Madridistas being outraged. And letting the team know it.

El Blackoutico! Money-Back if there's a goal inside 15 minutes of Real Madrid v Barcelona

Since losing eight goals at home to Madrid in September the following 19 games have shown Victor Fernández‘ long-standing managerial ability.

Depor have only won five but they’ve also drawn five and the fact that they’ve kept eight clean sheets in that time has meant they’ve gone from a low of last place to 11th today – five points off the relegation zone.

I suppose the very concept of a ‘shock’ result implies one it’s hard to see coming. So, a shock here?

Madrid out-of-form, missing key footballers in front of a skeptical, angry audience. Depor, a bit more sturdy but significantly short of the class that ‘holds out’ for 90 minutes at a venue like this.

If ever the modern, debilitated Depor had even a sniff of that shock then this is it.

But it’s too hard to believe in. Perhaps Madrid will look stodgy, perhaps Depor can frustrate.

However Ancelotti’s team simply CANNOT afford to do anything other than win here or the heavens will fall on their heads. Pablo Insua is suspended, Sidnei injured, José Rodríguez ineligible thanks to the terms of his loan from Madrid.

If you reckon they’ll score, look to Cavaleiro or Oriol Riera for Depor. But unless the home team win by two or three there’ll be hell to pay. Madrid will be: Casillas; Arbeloa, Nacho, Varane, Marcelo; Isco, Illarramendi, Kroos; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo

Perm from Benzema, Kroos, Isco and the out of form Ronaldo. Marcelo is back from suspension but Pepe, Modric,Coentrão, Khedira Ramos and James remain out, injured or are seeking fitness.

  • Graham’s Bet: Madrid -3 13/8

Valencia v Getafe Sunday 11am

Back to beginnings.

Quique Sanchez Flores was not only an aggressive right back for Valencia for nearly 300 games in the 1980’s it was in his single previous season at Getafe coach that he did well enough to earn his shot at coaching Valencia.

That was when Los Che were reigning champions [04/05] and QSF had just been pinched, by Madrid-based Getafe, from the Real Madrid youth coaching system.

His Getafe beat the title-holders [then coached by Claudio Ranieri] at the Coliseum and lost 3-1 at the Mestalla but he’d done enough to inherit when Valencia got shot of the Tinkerman.

QSF only lasted two and a bit seasons but he did precisely what is now demanded of Nuno Espirito Santo – qualify for the Champions League.

Old Quique has football in every corpuscle.

He shares a birthday with Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Carlos Tevez, his dad, Isidro, was a repeat trophy winner with Real Madrid, his Godfather was Alfredo Di Stéfano while he himself won the title with Los Blancos and went to Italia 90 in the Spain squad.

But he’ll be doing damn well to repeat Getafe’s 3-1 win at Valencia last season. They’ve only played at the Mestalla ten times in the league -eight defeats, that one win and a draw.

Quique Sanchez Flores

It’s a sign of the changing times at the Mestalla that only two Valencia players from that rarest of rare defeats last season will start on Sunday [Barragán and Parejo].

Nuno doesn’t fancy the lunchtime kick-off [midday here in Spain] so he fixed a closed-doors friendly against Zenit on Thursday at midday just to practice the ‘feeling’.

Valencia won 1-0 [Parejo scored again] and it looks like they’ll start Alves, Barragán, Mustafi, Otamendi, Gayá; Enzo, Fuego; Piatti, Parejo, Rodrigo DP; Negredo.

Geta did Valencia a huge favour last week, beating Sevilla, I’d expect them to repeat the good feeling this week by losing here.

None of those who’s goals won the first meeting this season [0-3 Valencia] will start: Alcácer, Rodrigo Moreno and André Gomes.

Parejo can’t stop scoring [already the highest total of his career], Negredo owes his boss a goal, Gayá, who’s fllying, is a wee ‘outside’ bet.

Álvaro is QSF’s repeat scorer. Five straight wins at home for Valencia in all comps since November, Getafe’s last Liga away win was in October. Back the home team by two.

  • Graham’s Bet: Parejo to score anytime and Valencia to win 16/5

Barcelona v Levante Sunday 4pm

Their main striker, David Barral, scores a hat-trick as often as Jose Mourinho admits: ‘You’re right, I was out of order’.

So it’d be nice to try and play-up Levante’s chances.

But I’m not sure that’s realistic. Since losing to Real Sociedad on January 4 Barcelona have played ten, won ten and scored 37.

There are patches of play where they are as electrically quick, as intuitive and as confident as at any time since the peak of the Pep Guardiola era. Not all the time, but regularly.

This season their La Liga goal-ratio is 62:13; historically they’ve played Levante eleven times at the Camp Nou, winning eleven and scoring 41.

So unless something seismic is about to happen let’s assume a home win …okay?

Luis Suarez

Perhaps the art is in determining the margin. Neymar’s rate of goals since losing at the Anoeta is nine in nine matches – but the last three games have seen him fluff really gaping chances, including a penalty against Villarreal in midweek. So do you back his goal-a-game record or feel critical because he’s not been properly clinical?

Messi should get 2+ goals here but thinking about Pedro, Xavi, Rafinha or Rakitic might bear fruit here because Luis Enrique will certainly try to rotate his first-choice XI throughout the match.

As for Suárez he continues unchanged. Exceptional in his team play, bursting with assists but finishing less ruthlessly than he’d like. Barcelona’s most regular score at home to Levante is 5 – perhaps they’ll have to settle for a slightly less impressive result this time?
Suárez, Messi, Pedro and Barral.

  • Graham’s Bet: Barcelona -3 10/11 and Messi to score two goals 4/5

Celta Vigo v Atlético Madrid Sunday, 8pm

Talk about some sort of curse. It’s not opening the Tomb of Tutankhamun, or running amok with a jack-hammer in a mirror factory.

But Joaquin Larrivey did his karma some sort of damage when he scored Celta Vigo’s first La Liga winner at the Camp Nou since World War II.

Prior to that historic night last Autumn the big Argentinian had seven goal in ten league games. Rocket-fuelled.

Since then, not one in 649 minutes and ten games. Three and a half horrible months.

Last season he scored against Atleti for Rayo and quite fancies a return date.

“I’m not sure if it’s true to say that I ‘miss’ the glory of scoring so long as the team wins but I’m hungry to start again and it’s a good battle against Godín and Miranda. “They are aggressive, tough and keep their concentration high for the whole game. “It’d be a great way to start another run of goals getting one against them this weekend”.

And he might be worth a look. Atleti are without Koke [injured], Raúl García and Arda Turan. Interestingly, for a centre half, tough-as-teak Godín will play with a broken nose, using a plastic ‘Phantom’ mask.

Can he be as effective, as fearless in every challenge?? Saúl, despite injuring his knee while making the third goal last week, should be good to start. So Cholo Better Call …. oh, you got there already…
Meanwhile El Cholo Simeone has been practicing this week with Mandzukic, Griezmann and Fernando Torres up front.

A statement of intent.

Celta, remarkably, haven’t won at home to Atleti since 2005 – losing 0-1. 1-3 [twice] and 0-2 in the four games since.

Those two sides shared four goals in the first meeting of the season and a result of that order doesn’t look impossible now that Celta, if not Larrivey, have remembered how to score the odd goal.

Look for Torres, Griezmann, Larrivay and Nolito as likely scorers. Good betting.

  • Graham’s Bet: Atleti win and Torres to Score 7/2
  • Check out the rest of our La Liga bets on el Desktop or el Mobile

Want £200 Free? Click here to visit Bet365 and claim your free money.

Graham Hunter: Barcelona may be set for a tough night but they can still bag you a 7/1 winner

Getafe v Sevilla Sunday 4pm

If you think this is precisely the kind of fixture for which Quique Sanchez Flores was brought back to win then you’re gonna LOVE this stat.

The two sides have met at this stadium in Madrid ten times in the Primera Division and Sevilla have only won once. Six years ago.

Quique Sanchez Flores

Sevilla won the Cup Final the two contested [2007]. Sevilla won the Cup Final when Quique was the Atletico manager [2010]. Sevilla won when they met at the Alfonso Perez Coliseum in the Second Division.

But in the top flight Getafe are stubborn as mules when this lot come to town.

Less promisingly Quique’s two matches in charge of Getafe v Sevilla, a decade ago, each ended in scoreless draws littered with yellow cards.

IF you want to build a case for this talented, charismatic manager to win this one then here’s what you’re up against.

His eight games in charge have seen two wins, five goals and only three scorers – Álvaro, Diego Castro and Pedro Sarabia.

More, Geta are still without: Vicente Guaita, Babá Diawara, Ángel Lafita, Karim Yoda and Sergio Escudero.

But here’s the rub. Sevilla blew a chance to win in Madrid in midweek – mostly because they couldn’t finish chances.

And, before they return to the capital this weekend it has cost them.

Keeper Beto is out for at least 8 weeks after his collision with Benzema and Unai is without Vitolo, Aleix Vidal and Carriço because of suspension, adding to an injury list of Tremoulinas, Pareja, Reyes, Gameiro and Cristóforo.

They should have beaten the European champions on Wednesday, they are the better team in this match… but this is football.

This is a place they hate coming.

To me it all smacks of either Quique’s third consecutive 0-0 draw against Sevilla, ten years on, or, if he’s lucky, Mehdi Lacen, back from Copa Africa, adding to his regular groovy performances against Sevilla and a 1-0 win.

Graham Hunter’s Bet: 0-0 draw at 13/2

Espanyol v Valencia – Sunday 6pm

So, will this match tell the story of Espanyol’s or Valencia’s season?

That’s crucial.

On Matchday 3 Los Che romped it. 3-0 up until a 90th minute penalty which Sergio Garcia converted
Valencia pushed them about, played on the break, ignored any of Espanyol’s nice passing patterns and just got the knuckle-duster out.

Bish, bash bosh.

That day Lucas Vázquez and Felipe Caicedo were only subs for the visitors. Coach Sergio González had other priorities.

From then till now a great deal has changed.

For example, Valencia are Charles Atlas at home, eight stone weaklings away.

Espanyol now feel very differently about Lucas and Felipe.

Caicedo’s on a blistering scoring run – eight in his last eleven to equal his best-ever goal form which was 2010/11 with Levante. Lucas, on loan from Madrid, looks smart and technically elegant.

Now a regular starter and full of creative threat he, plus Caicedo, Duarte, Moreno, Sergio Garcia and Casilla have transformed Espanyol’s season.

Such that they knocked Valencia out of the Cup, 3-2, with the Ecuadorian striker notching twice.

Estadi Cornellà-El Prat

A result which added to the unsettling fact that although Nuno Espirito Santo is patently a firm part of a powerful and still very new project at the Mestalla there’s growing concern at his team’s apathetic away form and the concept that he’s a tactical tinkerer – too often fiddling with the formation and the starting XI.

Last week they let us down at Málaga – barely showing up.

Play like that again and, although they are a better XI and better squad than Espanyol, they’ll lose.

This week, having already suffered 7 red cards this season, they are without both Otamendi and full back Cancela – suspended.

Home wins in January over Celta, Almería, Valencia and Sevilla [10 scored 1 conceded] tell you that Espanyol aren’t to be sneered at, a home loss to Eibar before that tells you that they ain’t the Bank of England either.

Caicedo, Sergio G and Stuani worth a look for the home side, Piatti, Negredo and Paco Alcacer for the visitors.

Graham’s Bet: Espanyol win at 7/4

Athletic v Barcelona Sunday 8pm

This is one for the superstitious – those who see patterns in numbers and statistical trends which mustn’t be ignored.

The last time Luis Enrique’s mob were ‘oop north’ in the Basque country it was the first match of the year, at the Anoeta, and it was grim.

An own-goal, a defeat – both ridicule and a mini-mutiny for having left not only Neymar, Piqué, Rakitic and Alves out – but Messi too.

The defeat came just after a mini holiday.

Now they are back in the Pays Vasco – after a mini holiday.

Another mini revolt, too. The players, and to be fair the coach, didn’t want to play a scheduled friendly in Qatar this week so it was cancelled.

Everyone bar Piqué and Neymar had two and a half days off.

San Mames stadium

So, what chances of the result or the performance at San Mames repeating that of the Anoeta and leaving the title chasers with egg on their faces again?

Do you sense a pattern emerging?

It’s a thorny place, traditionally. Since 2004 Barcelona have three wins, six draws …but only two defeats in league and cup at the San Mames.

The key fact, however, is that given their four point deficit to Madrid at the top Barcelona can’t afford either of the latter two results. Not even a draw.

It’s February, so to pretend that this is an all-or-nothing weekend would be immature.

But it paints as an opportunity. Barcelona cure their travel-ills and get a bit Jack Kerouac. Memorable on the road. [Geddit?]

Away from the Camp Nou they’ve dropped thirteen points and consistently looked vulnerable.

Luis Enrique

But IF they’ve shed that personality, IF the form at the Calderón and Riazor is the real Barça then here’s the script.

They pick up three points and Madrid draw in the derbi.
Gap down to two points with a Camp Nou Clásico still to play.

That’s got to be how Luis Enrique is figuring this weekend.

What makes this particularly juicy for the neutral is that Athletic have stemmed the hemorrhage of bad results recently.

Wins and draws against Málaga and Levante in Cup and League have brought three goals for Aduriz and a sixth of the season from man-mountain defender Miki San-Jose.

Susaeta has set up three of the last four Athletic goals and they DO like to notch with a header.

Something Barcelona notoriously struggle to cope with.

Summary? Barcelona too improved, too many options, too much quality. 2-1 to the visitors.

Up to you, but if both San Jose and Piqué start I’m gonna take a wild punt on both to score. But that’s how I roll.

The sane will look to Messi, Neymar, Suárez [who’s increasingly vital for this attack] and Aduriz for scorers.

Graham’s Bet: Barcelona to win 2-1 at 7/1

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Graham Hunter: Goals all round, points shared and a 16/5 winner in today’s Madrid Derby

Atlético v Real Madrid – Saturday 3pm

Almost every stat for the Spanish champions is down on last season.

Out of the Cup earlier, fewer points than at this stage a year ago, fewer goals, more goals conceded, more defeats, worse disciplinary record.

One thing, however, is shiningly better.

Their record in the Spanish capital ‘derbi’.

Last term they played Real Madrid five times, winning once, losing three and drawing the final domestic encounter 2-2 having led 2-1 at home in a typically volcanic Calderón meeting.

Which is where battle resumes on Saturday afternoon – this time with the figures drastically in favour of Diego Simeone’s troops.

simeone_840

These two have squared off five times this season [with another in the Champions League not yet out of the question] but the Spanish champions have the Indian sign over ‘the Vikings’.

Since August Atlético have beaten the European champions:

  • in the league at the Bernabéu
  • at the Calderón in the Spanish Supercup
  • again at home in the Copa Del Rey while eliminating Carlo Ancelotti’s Spanish Cup holders.

The two further draws, 1-1 and 2-2, mean that since losing that most dramatic Champions League final last May, Atleti are undefeated in three competitions and five matches against their bitter enemies.

The five games have yielded 12 goals with Madrid the only ones who have [twice] drawn a blank.

Not since January 2008 have Atleti failed to score at home in the league against Los Blancos –

How will it go?

Even though they can most certainly win, even though ‘form goes out of the window in a derby’ Madrid don’t quite look in shape.

No Pepe, no Modric, no James, no Ramos, no Marcelo.

Bale anxious in front of goal, Ronaldo just back from a two game suspension and noticeably short on top form and goals.

Since mid-December in three different competitions he’s scored just four times in eight matches.

Prior to that he’d hit 32 in 22 matches across Liga, Supercopas and Champions League.

A big dip.

But the boy likes a show.

On form they can take a draw or a win – if Ronaldo’s not at the races then Madrid are cooked.

Vicente Caldreon

 

  • Ronaldo has 15 goals in 19 games against Atleti – seven of which came at the Calderón.

But, with half an eye on how temperamentally he played in getting sent-off and banned at Córdoba recently, old Crissy-boy also has seven yellows and a red in those 19 derbis.

Diego Simeone has his work cut out, as do you to pick a scorer.

Six of his players, Tiago, Raúl García, Fernando Torres, Arda Turan, José Giménez and Mario Mandzukic, have a goal against Los Blancos this season.

He’s going to start with Torres on the bench, Mandzukic and Griezmann up front ? Harsh on El Niño from El Cholo?

The Frenchman hasn’t hit the net against Madrid this season but is otherwise scoring for fun. Work out whether Simeone’s choice is going to be good or bad and you’ve a better chance of winning money.

I’ve a narrow feeling for both teams to score, no Ramos no Pepe, what price Godín or Miranda from a set play? Score draw anyone?

Graham’s Bet: Both teams to score and match to finish as a draw at 16/5

Getafe v Sevilla Sunday 4pm

If you think this is precisely the kind of fixture for which Quique Sanchez Flores was brought back to win then you’re gonna LOVE this stat.

The two sides have met at this stadium in Madrid ten times in the Primera Division and Sevilla have only won once. Six years ago.

Quique Sanchez Flores

Sevilla won the Cup Final the two contested [2007]. Sevilla won the Cup Final when Quique was the Atletico manager [2010]. Sevilla won when they met at the Alfonso Perez Coliseum in the Second Division.

But in the top flight Getafe are stubborn as mules when this lot come to town.

Less promisingly Quique’s two matches in charge of Getafe v Sevilla, a decade ago, each ended in scoreless draws littered with yellow cards.

IF you want to build a case for this talented, charismatic manager to win this one then here’s what you’re up against.

His eight games in charge have seen two wins, five goals and only three scorers – Álvaro, Diego Castro and Pedro Sarabia.

More, Geta are still without: Vicente Guaita, Babá Diawara, Ángel Lafita, Karim Yoda and Sergio Escudero.

But here’s the rub. Sevilla blew a chance to win in Madrid in midweek – mostly because they couldn’t finish chances.

And, before they return to the capital this weekend it has cost them.

Keeper Beto is out for at least 8 weeks after his collision with Benzema and Unai is without Vitolo, Aleix Vidal and Carriço because of suspension, adding to an injury list of Tremoulinas, Pareja, Reyes, Gameiro and Cristóforo.

They should have beaten the European champions on Wednesday, they are the better team in this match… but this is football.

This is a place they hate coming.

To me it all smacks of either Quique’s third consecutive 0-0 draw against Sevilla, ten years on, or, if he’s lucky, Mehdi Lacen, back from Copa Africa, adding to his regular groovy performances against Sevilla and a 1-0 win.

Graham Hunter’s Bet: 0-0 draw at 13/2

Espanyol v Valencia – Sunday 6pm

So, will this match tell the story of Espanyol’s or Valencia’s season?

That’s crucial.

On Matchday 3 Los Che romped it. 3-0 up until a 90th minute penalty which Sergio Garcia converted
Valencia pushed them about, played on the break, ignored any of Espanyol’s nice passing patterns and just got the knuckle-duster out.

Bish, bash bosh.

That day Lucas Vázquez and Felipe Caicedo were only subs for the visitors. Coach Sergio González had other priorities.

From then till now a great deal has changed.

For example, Valencia are Charles Atlas at home, eight stone weaklings away.

Espanyol now feel very differently about Lucas and Felipe.

Caicedo’s on a blistering scoring run – eight in his last eleven to equal his best-ever goal form which was 2010/11 with Levante. Lucas, on loan from Madrid, looks smart and technically elegant.

Now a regular starter and full of creative threat he, plus Caicedo, Duarte, Moreno, Sergio Garcia and Casilla have transformed Espanyol’s season.

Such that they knocked Valencia out of the Cup, 3-2, with the Ecuadorian striker notching twice.

Estadi Cornellà-El Prat

A result which added to the unsettling fact that although Nuno Espirito Santo is patently a firm part of a powerful and still very new project at the Mestalla there’s growing concern at his team’s apathetic away form and the concept that he’s a tactical tinkerer – too often fiddling with the formation and the starting XI.

Last week they let us down at Málaga – barely showing up.

Play like that again and, although they are a better XI and better squad than Espanyol, they’ll lose.

This week, having already suffered 7 red cards this season, they are without both Otamendi and full back Cancela – suspended.

Home wins in January over Celta, Almería, Valencia and Sevilla [10 scored 1 conceded] tell you that Espanyol aren’t to be sneered at, a home loss to Eibar before that tells you that they ain’t the Bank of England either.

Caicedo, Sergio G and Stuani worth a look for the home side, Piatti, Negredo and Paco Alcacer for the visitors.

Graham’s Bet: Espanyol win at 7/4

Athletic v Barcelona Sunday 8pm

This is one for the superstitious – those who see patterns in numbers and statistical trends which mustn’t be ignored.

The last time Luis Enrique’s mob were ‘oop north’ in the Basque country it was the first match of the year, at the Anoeta, and it was grim.

An own-goal, a defeat – both ridicule and a mini-mutiny for having left not only Neymar, Piqué, Rakitic and Alves out – but Messi too.

The defeat came just after a mini holiday.

Now they are back in the Pays Vasco – after a mini holiday.

Another mini revolt, too. The players, and to be fair the coach, didn’t want to play a scheduled friendly in Qatar this week so it was cancelled.

Everyone bar Piqué and Neymar had two and a half days off.

San Mames stadium

So, what chances of the result or the performance at San Mames repeating that of the Anoeta and leaving the title chasers with egg on their faces again?

Do you sense a pattern emerging?

It’s a thorny place, traditionally. Since 2004 Barcelona have three wins, six draws …but only two defeats in league and cup at the San Mames.

The key fact, however, is that given their four point deficit to Madrid at the top Barcelona can’t afford either of the latter two results. Not even a draw.

It’s February, so to pretend that this is an all-or-nothing weekend would be immature.

But it paints as an opportunity. Barcelona cure their travel-ills and get a bit Jack Kerouac. Memorable on the road. [Geddit?]

Away from the Camp Nou they’ve dropped thirteen points and consistently looked vulnerable.

Luis Enrique

But IF they’ve shed that personality, IF the form at the Calderón and Riazor is the real Barça then here’s the script.

They pick up three points and Madrid draw in the derbi.
Gap down to two points with a Camp Nou Clásico still to play.

That’s got to be how Luis Enrique is figuring this weekend.

What makes this particularly juicy for the neutral is that Athletic have stemmed the hemorrhage of bad results recently.

Wins and draws against Málaga and Levante in Cup and League have brought three goals for Aduriz and a sixth of the season from man-mountain defender Miki San-Jose.

Susaeta has set up three of the last four Athletic goals and they DO like to notch with a header.

Something Barcelona notoriously struggle to cope with.

Summary? Barcelona too improved, too many options, too much quality. 2-1 to the visitors.

Up to you, but if both San Jose and Piqué start I’m gonna take a wild punt on both to score. But that’s how I roll.

The sane will look to Messi, Neymar, Suárez [who’s increasingly vital for this attack] and Aduriz for scorers.

Graham’s Bet: Barcelona to win 2-1 at 7/1

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Graham Hunter: Ronaldo-less Real to kick up a 9/1 winner, Barca to sneak by at 8/1and the best of the rest

Real Madrid v Real Sociedad, Saturday 3pm

You’d be hard-pressed to find any Real Sociedad supporters who call this their ‘lucky’ season, or regard the last few months with much affection at all.

However the Guinness Book of Records stat that they’ve beaten Real Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona using three different coaches can show up a wee four-leaved clover effect if you look a little closer.

In the second game of the Liga season La Real went 2-0 down at home to Madrid before winning 4-2 – in a match where Cristiano Ronaldo was missing, injured.

By the time Asier Santana succeeded Jagoba Arrasate it was Spanish champions Atlético who were beaten – 2-1 having been behind by a goal.

Further examination is that La Real beat a ten-man team thanks to Guilherme Siquiera’s red card five minutes after half time.

Then, finally, Barcelona are put to the sword. The 1-0 win is David Moyes “happiest day” in football.

David Moyes

But, again, fate intervenes. Luis Enrique drops Leo Messi, Neymar, Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Piqué all of whom you’d call automatic first team certainties.

Now it’s Madrid away and Ronaldo gets himself sent off so he’ll be missing the return fixture at the Santiago Bernabéu.

A wee hint that La Real are fated to pull off another almighty shock? Compared to all the other wins this would be the earth-shaker.

The Basques haven’t won at the Bernabéu since 2004 and the only player or sub on either of the team sheets from that day who’s even still at his club is Xabi Prieto. In fact the man who won last week’s Basque derbi against Eibar with that bizarre looping header also scored that day.

I suggest backing the 31 year old now if for no other reason than one of the more remarkable statistical scoring anomalies I’ve ever seen. Not prolific, Prieto has nevertheless scored at least three times as many goals against Madrid as against any other team in his long career. A maximum of three against anyone else, nine [in 14 games] against what is theoretically his most difficult opponent in Spain. Ronaldo has tended to be the missing element in Madrid’s defeats this season. Absent for the loss to La Real, benched for two defeats against Atlético. Whether him being out is sufficient to make a slightly tired-looking Madrid lose at home to a side which isn’t capable of many goals needs to be treated with skepticism. Geronimo Rulli has been an absolute diamond for David Moyes since he promoted the young Argentinian keeper but he’ll need to be superb if La Real are to pinch a draw. As will Iñigo Martínez who I suspect is playing for a move to Madrid at the end of the season. Odds against it but football’s a funny old game. 3-1 the European Champions. Benzema [4 in 7 and every one of them at the Bernabéu] loves a goal against the Txuri-Urdin.

  • Graham’s Bet: Real Madrid to win 3-1 at 9/1

Eibar v Atlético Madrid, Saturday 5pm

I’d say that Diego Simeone likes a moan … but he knows where I live.

Still, perhaps he has a case. This trip to the hostile Basque country will be Atlético’s ninth game in January having played eight, won five, lost three [to Barcelona], scored 11 and conceded nine. But I reckon there are other stats which are of equal concern to that narrow +goals tally.

Last season Atleti only saw two reds and 100 yellows in 46 League and Copa matches.

This season, in only 26 League and Copa matches they’ve seen five reds and 89 yellows. Vastly worse discipline.

Gabi [sent off in midweek] is already suspended this weekend for his fifth booking. Diego Godín, suspended for the last two games, returns against Eibar. But, here’s the rub.

At half time against Barcelona Diego Simeone opted not to chase the tie, not to chase the three goals they required in order to save his team’s legs, lungs and potentially save them more disciplinary problems. [The last bit didn’t work].

Why? Because he had to now give priority to the upcoming chances of retaining the league and reaching the Champions League final once again. He knows his players are flagging – mentally and physically. So, what will he do here selection-wise? Next weekend is the Madrid derbi our sixth of the season [Atleti winning 3 so far]. It’s at the Calderón and it’s imperative they win to close the gap at the top. But he has several players one booking away from a suspension against Madrid – Arda, Juanfran, Miranda and Raúl Garcia. It must worry Atleti fans and Atleti backers that their discipline has gone to pot.

Ipurua Municipal Stadium

So, back to his moans. The defeat to Barcelona finished at about 11pm on Wednesday this match kicks off 6pm Saturday. The Argentinian genuinely thought that if it were played on Sunday the extra recuperation for his players could be vital. So, to put faith in them or to back them to drop points?

Mandzukic didn’t play midweek so he must start. Griezmann was withdrawn at half time so ditto. Back either one for a goal. Both teams to score I reckon but Eibar …

This is virgin territory for them. There’s never been a Primera Division meeting between Eibar and Atlético at Ipurua. Two second division meetings yielded a win each – the first for Eibar robbing Atleti of a chance to get back to the top division, the second a 3-0 win starring Luis Aragonés as Atleti coach, Mono Burgos in goal and a very young Fernando Torres up front. Gaizka Garitano, now their coach, played for the Basques that day. Eibar don’t bend down for anyone and even made it tough for Atleti at the Calderón earlier in the season. Manu Del Moral has found the net easily in recent weeks. Worth a look. Okay, the champions might well win this, but it’s a banana-skin fixture.

  • Graham’s Bet: Both teams to score at 6/5

Barcelona v Villarreal,Sunday 8pm

Memories, memories. This has become one of Spain’s great fixtures. Overflowing with football. And the threat that the fluorescent boys will outshine the Blaugrana boys. From spring 2003 to spring 2005 across five matches Villarreal won three times and Barça managed two points out of fifteen. From April 2007 until January 2010, across six meetings, Villarreal won three and Barça only managed five points out of a possible eighteen. However not since mid 2008 when Jon Dahl Tomasson scored the winner have Villarreal taken three points at the Camp Nou. Those are all the stone-cold facts. Now for the coulda-woulda-shoulda.

Camp Nou

At the start of the season the Yellow Submarine did everything but torpedo Barcelona. They made more, better quality chances and Luis Enrique’s fledgling team got off the hook – particularly when Messi made the late winner for young Sandro.

Lumps were kicked out of some Barcelona players in midweek so you’d expect Xavi to start [might well be worth an anytime goal], perhaps Pedro too. Villarreal play such quick, attacking football that them scoring should be no shock – perm from Cheyshev, Musacchio and Vietto. But Barcelona to win … just. 2-1

  • Graham’s Bet: Barcelona to win 2-1 at 8/1

Málaga v Valencia, Monday 7.45pm

The seaside team against the see-saw team. Following their barnstorming win over Sevilla last week [as predicted] the emphasis is on Valencia to rid themselves of their biggest current flaw. Particularly away from home a step forward always seems to be followed by two backwards. For example, Valencia dismantle Spanish champions Atlético then lose, heavily, to Deportivo La Coruña who’ve recently shipped in eight goals at home to Madrid.

They give the the excellent Villarreal a bit of a doing but then take one point out of nine against Athletic, Levante and Barcelona. Even before crashing out of the Cup, Valencia win at Rayo but then concede four at home to the same team and only just manage to claw their way back into the tie having trailed 5-3 at home. Is it their mentality? Is it the fact that this is an almost wholly new team constructed at high speed this summer? They, unlike Cup quarter finalists Málaga, have had a free week to prepare and should be firing on all cylinders. As for other business, things could barely be better.

Getafe have stumped up the €600k they owed Los Che, Antonio Barragán and Pablo Piatti are both nearly fit again and Paco Alcácer just signed a new deal until 2020. This is a tie they simply must win and they have fourteen Liga scorers to choose from. But look to Parejo in the best scoring form of his career, Alcácer and Negredo to assure that.

Javi Gracia

As for Málaga their elimination at Athletic in the Cup leaves a clear stat emerging. Having scored in every single match since September Javi Gracia’s team have now failed to score in three of their last four matches. In La Liga Samuel Garcia and Amrabat are joint top scorers with just four. Gracia’s team look skilled, as if they have an ‘identity’ but they also look flat and short on gas.

This is a match which won’t be easy for Los Che, particularly given their weak away record, but it’s also one they MUST win if they are to remain credible challengers to quality for the Champions League next seasons. I take them to do that. 0-2

  • Graham’s Bet: Valencia to win 2-0 at 12/1 
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Graham Hunter: Get Real with his 10/1 correct score punt on Madrid plus an 8/1 treble involving Barca, Valencia and Fernando Torres

Córdoba-Real Madrid Saturday 3pm

The kind of match to watch out for. Córdoba spent months looking like they weren’t cut out for la Primera and their cowardly President sacked Albert Ferrer by emissary, and then text, rather than be brave enough to tell him to his face.

A pox on him I say.

When the Andaluz side lost heavily at the Camp Nou in December, the players got the mother and father and next door neighbour of all rollickings from their flint-hard aggressive coach, Miroslav Djukic who then told the world in general that his lads lacked ‘cojones’ and had simply turned up to swap shirts with the Barcelona stars.

At that stage they’d won just once and were in free-fall. Since the tongue-lashing they’ve picked up seven of the available nine points.

The European champions have had a week of dedicated training and preparation thanks to being out of la Copa – but these games, I guess, are the kind of David v Goliath moments when a small side desperate to stave off relegation sometimes somehow catches the big-guy complacent and dozy.

El Blackoutico! Money-Back if there's a goal inside 15 minutes of Real Madrid v Barcelona

If, and I stress IF, that’s your considered view on this test for Carlo Ancelotti’s mob then try this.

Nabil Ghilas is the striker Algeria left behind when they went to the Cup of Nations and he’s got a bee in his bonnet about it.

I’d have loved to have defend my country’s colours but since I moved to Spain they’ve ignored me and now I’m set on scoring against Madrid and winning to show them what I can do. I’ve shed six kilos since the start of the season and right now I’d not say that it’s a dream to score against Iker Casillas because when I’m on the pitch and in form I always believe I can beat anyone.

He’s top scorer with five – one of which won Córdoba their first victory away at Athletic Bilbao for 42 years.

But the two who stand out, quality-wise, are the pair who combined for last week’s 10-second goal against Eibar. Fede Cartabia, a flamboyant Argentinian winger on loan from Valencia, made it for Florin Andone – a 21 year old Romanian brought up near Barcelona. Ferrer loved the kid’s attitude and emerging ability but injury hampered his development.

Now he’s got three goals in five games and although the impoverished club charges him €50 he can barely afford [he’s on youth team wages] for each match shirt he keeps – he’s going to swap this one with a Madrid star come hell or high water. Preferably having beaten them.

Ronaldo, (above) despite knee pain, should start, Pepe is still injured so Rafa Varane plays and you’d imagine that Sami Khedira should deputise for Isco, also injured [and a loss].

Usually you can stand on Honest Carlo’s words and the Italian reckons his team benefitted from a dedicated week, are ready to perform and, thus, it’s probably time to back Goliath to duck the slingshot. 1-3. NB, a promising 24 year old Portuguese striker, name of Bebé is in the Córdoba squad. They say United are interested….

Graham’s bet: Real Madrid to win 1-3 @ 10/1 

Luis-Enrique 840

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Elche-Barcelona Saturday 5pm

Keith Moon dies, Charlie Chaplin’s coffin is stolen and then recovered, Jamie Carragher, Gigi Buffon and Emile Heskey are all born, Dallas [JR, Sue Ellen and the Poison Dwarf] airs its first episode and Garfield is created.

  1. The last time Elche scored against Barcelona.

Nine games across those Buffon-Carragher-Heskey years, an aggregate of 30-0 in favour of the Blaugrana during those 810 minutes.

Three of those matches have come this season with a 3-0 league win on the opening day complemented by an aggregate 9-0 thumping in the Cup where Fran Escribá’s side was clinically dismantled.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if, again I stress that word really heavily, you see something to set your little gambler’s heart going pitter patter in the way Elche play then it must be because of Jonathas.

The Brazilian striker is reminiscent of Diego Costa, albeit in 2009/10 with Valladolid, when he’d remorselessly harass defenders when he didn’t have the ball and wage war on them when he did.

Jonathas, already 25, won’t turn into a world class finisher like Costa did but he has power, height, aggression and reasonable technique.

As for Barcelona – will they be the group which drew 0-0 at Getafe and Málaga and surrendered 1-0 at Real Sociedad? Or will they repeat the urgency, unity and dazzling skill of last week’s 4-0 win at Deportivo la Coruña?

Lionel Messi 2013

Despite a monumental challenge in Madrid this Wednesday against Atlético in the second leg of the Cup quarter final, Luis Enrique’s named a strong squad, not resting a single key player.

So, for those who like to bet in-play the things to look for would be a) does Luis Enrique’s team press and mob the opposition … or give off a ‘can’t be bothered’ Kevin the Teenager approach to that blue collar work? The other thing, which for purely alphabetical reasons we’ll call b) is: how fast is the ball moving between players.

Recently Messi (above) and Co. have made the football fizz and zip between them and opposition [Elche, Atlético and Depor] simply haven’t been able to cope.

It’s not a time to back against Messi, he’s hotter than Johnny Torch, but there’s value in looking at Alba and Pedro. Alba simply knows where the goal is and pops up every so often at longer odds while Pedro might get more game time than normal in order to assure one of the ‘big’ three up front is particularly fresh for the midweek tie at Atleti.

Maybe we’ll get memories of ’78 – ticker-tape, the Argentinian World Cup, the debuts of 3-2-1 and Grange Hill plus that last Elche goal against Barcelona [though this lot have only put two shots on target against the Blaugrana in 180 minutes this season].

But even though Escribá and gang organized a 0-0 nil in this fixture against a knackered Barça last May it’s tough to see them doing anything other than shipping two or more goals this time.

Graham’s bet: Barcelona (-2 on the handicap) @7/5

Fernando Torres 800

Atlético-Rayo Vallecano, Saturday 7pm

This, for the uninitiated, is a Madrid derby. For the initiated, it’s a game without the crackle of excitement it would usually merit because Rayo’s boisterous, noisy, loyal and generally admirable fans are boycotting the game.

Pity. Paco Jémez’s team made life objectionably difficult for the Spanish champions on the first match weekend of the season

But it’d be remiss of me not to remind you that the last time Rayo beat their neighbours they were coached by Juande Ramos, Kasey Keller was in goal and Jimmy ‘Pichichi’ Hasselbaink was up front for Los Colchoneros.

In fact let’s stick with Jémez for a minute. Utterly dedicated to the Pep Guardiola school of football his team are more ‘front-foot’ than the forward half of a pantomime horse.

There are hints that a) he’s well enough thought of at Atleti that he might be next in the door whenever Cholo Simeone leaves but also b) that whether or not the Atleti job is on offer this summer Jémez, who’s asking for a bigger contract raise in order to renew than Rayo want to pay, may hit the road anyway.

Suffice to say that he’ll ensure his team try to put on a show today. Future employers may be watching. [A nice little vignette is that Jesus Muñoz, Jémez’s assistant, was room-mate to Atleti legend Fernando Torres when El Niño first broke into the Atleti team. Wouldn’t you just bet on Torres repaying the friendship with a goal to break Rayo hearts?]

Anyway, not to repeat an earlier point, Simeone’s champions have a testing mid-week match with Barcelona and you’d bet he’ll shuffle the pack in terms of a starting XI.

Raul Garcia should start, might score, both Koke and Arda need to prove fitness. Diego Godín is suspended so Manucho might just get a chance to add to his headed goal at Real Sociedad last week.

But Rayo really want to get Leo Baptistao fit enough to play, and score, against his former team.

Graham’s bet: Fernando Torres to score anytime @ 5/6

Nuno Espirito Santo 840

Valencia v Sevilla, Sunday 8pm

A downright corker.

Two sides, both economically challenged, locked in mortal battle for the fourth place in La Liga which can win you anywhere from €10m to €50m of Champions League revenue.

You want more!

Two sides who fought to a standstill in the semi final of the Europa League last season, until Stéphane Mbia popped up with one of those ‘where the hell did that come from?’ second-leg-94th-minute-away-goal winners.

More? Mas? As they say here in Spain.

Both sides have recently been thumped by Espanyol in the Cup – Valencia 2-0, Sevilla 3-1.

And, finally, you still want even more? Okay. Unai Emery, currently the coach of Sevilla, Europa League holder and sitting cosily in fourth position, did terrific work in charge of Valencia, helped them make huge profits on footballers who thrived under him and kept on getting Los Che champions league qualification. But he was perpetually undervalued – by the club, by the media, by the fans. He’ll be given a sometimes frosty, sometimes hostile welcome back at the Mestalla on Sunday night.

Two wins apiece in the last four of this Liga fixture in Valencia and Mbia’s on international duty so not able to repeat his feat.

Bacca often repays a backer, Gameiro’s form is on the rise and Valencia have been conceding headed goals of late so you may like to look at Pareja or Carriço.

As for the home side, Negredo played for Sevilla long enough to know their weaknesses and score against them, Álcacer is long overdue reward for his good movement and Andre ‘I shoot on sight’ Gomes deserves to hit the net more often for his quality of movement and work rate. Draw looks good, but Sevilla look a tad tired. Valencia to win by one goal.

Graham’s bet: Valencia to win @ 6/5 or Valencia to win by exactly one goal @ 11/4

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