Can Pinto win over his critics? Who's going to step up in Madrid's midfield? Does anyone have the cajones for Valencia? Who's the next boss facing the chop? Tim Stannard has them covered...
Admittedly the international break was good fun this time around. Nevertheless, La Liga is still a disco-dancing, jive-talking barn owl with games like Real Valladolid against Osasuna coming up making Sweden's clash against Portugal looking like a docile dove in comparison. Here's just a few of the questions that may be answered over four days' worth of Spanish action...
What on earth are Barcelona going to do without Victor Valdes?
Saturday: Barcelona vs Granada - 16.00 CET
While many sceptical Barcelona fans may disagree in the strongest of terms, backup goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto isn't that bad. However, the Spaniard certainly isn't the standard of Victor Valdes, who routinely clears up clangers from Gerard Pique to keep a respectable defensive record for the league leaders this season. Still, culés are going to have to suck it up as Pinto is in charge at the back for the next six weeks at least, after Valdes messed up his calf muscle for Spain against South Africa.
“The supporters have six weeks to spend appreciating a post-Valdes Barcelona,” noted a sombre Joan Vehils in Sport. The absence of the team’s man at the back coincides with the absence of the one up front, Leo Messi, as well as the men on the flanks, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. Good job Barcelona are only playing Granada, who will still be completely creamed.
Can Celta Vigo get it together? Again...
Saturday: Real Sociedad vs Celta Vigo - 18.00 CET
A few weeks ago it seemed Celta Vigo had found their groove. The dismantling of Málaga, a sparkly performance against Barcelona and then victory at Sevilla gave the appearance that the Galicians were finally following the mini tiki-taka path set by Luis Enrique. But then Rayo came along to beat a Celta team that was booed from the field, having failed yet again to win at home this season. “I think the break has done us good,” promised young goalkeeper Yoel.
Who will be the new Sami Khedira?
Saturday: Almeria vs. Real Madrid - 20.00 CET
Carlo Ancelotti was yet another top, top manager who was forced to fearfully watch the recent international matches from behind a plush Italian sofa. The Real Madrid boss has ended up losing Sami Khedira for six months and nearly had Xabi Alonso out of action for the next decade after some rough, ankle-smashing treatment by Equatorial Guinea. Fortunately the Spanish midfielder escaped unscathed, but there's still a gaping German-shaped void ready to be filled this weekend.
“We can put in a player with the same characteristics, or change the system,” either-orred Ancelotti, who spoke while promoting his new book My Christmas Tree - festive decoration is apparently the in-thing in football management. Polls in AS and Marca see Isco as the preferred option for readers, which would infer the latter of the Italian’s two choices considering the wee Spaniard is hardly a defence-protecting Teutonic titan. However, stranger things have happened at a club that straight-facedly fielded Julien Faubert.
Is it possible to go through an entire weekend preview without mentioning Cristiano Ronaldo?
Will Atlético Madrid get back to business against Getafe?
Saturday: Atlético Madrid vs Getafe - 22.00 CET
The swift answer to this is ‘yes’. Atlético have only dropped points in two league games this season. The latest of these was in the draw with Villarreal - a perfectly respectable result in El Madrigal. Although the Rojiblancos looked a little tired, visiting Getafe will be the perfect fodder for a rousing win in the Vicente Calderon.
Are Espanyol the next club in crisis?
Sunday: Rayo Vallecano vs Espanyol - 17.00 CET
Overshadowed by Barcelona, Espanyol tend to go unnoticed for much of the year unless the Pericos are doing particularly badly. This is why the Catalan club is in the news in La Liga this week, having picked up just the single point from 12, and four from the last 24 available. “We took our foot off the accelerator for a while,” admits defender Joan Capdevila, “but there is no need for everyone to be so dramatic.” That foot will need to be reapplied sharpish on Sunday in Vallecas as Espanyol take on one la Primera’s struggling sides.
Who's got the stones to play for Valencia?
Sunday: Elche vs Valencia - 19.00 CET
In the last exciting installment of the Valencia soap opera, the wacky men from Mestalla had drawn 2-2 at home to Valladolid, much to the frustrations of home supporters. That ire was shared by manager Miroslav Djukic, who ranted to the press that big goolies are needed to play for or coach Valencia. “We have them and we will show this,” came the response from defender Victor Ruíz.
An away trip to Elche at the weekend will be a considerably more pleasant affair for the players than a clash in Mestalla, says club ambassador Mario Kempes. “At home the players feel nervous early on and this affects their football,” he grumbled. So no excuses for another footballing flop from the east coast entertainers.
Two managers in, one out in the Seville derby?
Sunday: Sevilla vs Betis - 21.00 CET
Oh, this is going to be good. The first Seville derby of the season to be held in the Sánchez Pizjuán is between a Sevilla side utterly limp and disappointing for yet another year and a Betis team that finds itself plonked at the bottom of the table. This leads to the inevitable dramatic conclusion that one coach could be a goner after Sunday’s sizzler. Unai Emery still has a tiny bit of credit left, though, with reluctance within the club to chop and change yet another coach.
However, poor Pepe Mel is under pressure having had some disagreements with his Betis bosses. A repeat of last season’s 5-1 thrashing by Sevilla would not go down well at all. “I know how this city is and they still remember what happened last year,” recalls the Betis coach.
Who will lead the line for Athletic Bilbao?
Monday: Málaga vs Athletic Bilbao - 22.00 CET
The Achilles heel for Athletic Bilbao this season has been getting goals out of strikers. That’s mainly because only Aritz Aduriz is left knocking about the club after Fernando Llorente’s departure. The problem has been magnified this weekend, however, with Aduriz suspended for a ludicrous red card, having being cheated by a face-clutching disgrace in the previous win against Levante. The forward then made matters worse by telling the referee precisely what he thought of the decision.
This leaves Ernesto Valverde with the option of Iker Muniain, scorer of about one goal in three years, Giazka Toquero (enough said) and maybe even Oscar de Marcos leading the line. “I have a lot of positions on the field,” said the midfielder. “I’ve only played half a half as a striker, though.” That may be the best option in a sticky situation for Athletic.
Should we getting worried about Malaga?
LLL is getting a bit concerned, despite its best hopes for a team which is still without much of an identity after big movement over the summer. Málaga went into the international break on the back of a horrible 3-1 defeat to Granada that brought with it plenty of criticism. However, defender Jesus Gámez claims that the two-week break did the club no end of good ahead of the tough test that is Athletic Bilbao. “The break came at a very good time to recharge our batteries and for each of us to think about our mistakes,” claimed the Málaga man.