FFT's Spanish expert Tim Stannard looks ahead to the last round of action before the winter break...
Can Málaga show some ambition against Elche?
Friday, December 20: Elche vs. Málaga - 20.30 CET
A narrow win against a hopeless Getafe last week and a draw at Osasuna in the Copa del Rey – albeit, not enough to stay in the competition – has seen a tiny peak of light glimmering through Málaga’s curtains of destiny. “I am happy with my team, we are making good progress” announced Bernd Schuster post-Pamplona.
However, slow progress is not enough for increasingly outspoken Málaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero, who wants more from his team-mates before leaving them in January for Manchester City. “To be ambitious, you can’t be content about being three or four points above the drop zone. If we think that way we will be mediocre.”
Proof will be in the pudding in terms of mediocrity on Friday evening against an Elche side that has lost its last two league games, but put in a plucky cup performance against Villarreal despite being knocked out over two legs.
Will Villarreal end the year on another high?
Saturday, December 21: Villarreal vs Sevilla – 16.00 CET
And so La Liga Loca’s mighty predictive powers strike again. Having tipped the normally-solid-in-the-cup Sevilla as potential winners, Unai Emery’s side contrived to lose against Racing Santander – a team that made the huge journey to the south coast by coach. “We knew it was a trap but we fell into it,” huffed Emery, who won’t be too fussed deep down with Sevilla already quite busy in La Liga and the Europa League.
The domestic campaign continues on Saturday against a Villarreal team that has sagged in its past few games - but that shouldn't take anything away from a mighty 2013 that witnessed the Yellow Submarine's promotion and a flying start to the Primera year. These are all good reasons for the 780 inhabitants of the town where Villarreal ply their trade to come on down to El Madrigal. “We want to see the stadium full with a good atmosphere against a tough team,” announced boss Marcelino. “The players and the fans themselves deserve it.”
Are Real Betis about to hit rock bottom?
Saturday, December 21: Real Betis vs Almería – 18.00 CET
Betis may have snuck through in the Copa del Rey, but there was yet another poor performance in their 2-2 draw against visiting lower-league Lleida Esportiu. What is needed now, says the Betis club president, is a win against relegation battle rivals Almería. “A total and absolute final,” confirmed Miguel Guillén, who apologised to the fans in a speech on Thursday for failing to “achieve everything we dreamed of.”
Can Atlético lead by scoring a load?
Saturday, December 21: Atlético Madrid vs Levante – 20.00
Strap yourselves in, as this weekend’s race to lead La Liga is going to be a giant net-busting festival of joy. Atlético and Barcelona find themselves tied at the top on points and goal difference. However, the Catalan club have scored one more than Atlético, despite frantic attempts to score one more in last week's 3-0 win over Valencia.
This will see the Rojiblancos firing at will against a Levante side who can be obstinate on a good day, but are in iffy form at the moment with just one win from their last five games. “It’s going to be difficult, especially at home” admitted Levante midfielder Jordi Xumetra, “but Levante are capable of anything.” Quite - as long as that ‘anything’ consists of boring opponents into submission, perhaps the only way to stop a rampant Atlético at the moment.
Will the real Granada please stand up?
Saturday, December 21: Granada vs Real Sociedad – 22.00 CET
LLL still can’t get a bearing on Granada, a situation not dissimilar to last year when the blog never worked the team out. It is more certain about Real Sociedad, though, a team that has regained its swagger from last season and looks like it has goals aplenty. Indeed, eight were scored this week in clashes against Betis and Algeciras respectively, making La Real once again one of the most watchable teams in La Liga.
Will Espanyol grind out another win?
Sunday, December 22: Espanyol vs Real Valladolid – 12.00 CET
With Sevilla knocked out of the cup despite being LLL’s other, other favourite (after Barcelona and Real Madrid), a new contender is needed to be the blog’s quirkish outsiders. That burden has fallen on Espanyol, who came through their clash against Jaen on Thursday to set up a meeting with Alcorcón in the next round - a very winnable tie indeed. This is pretty much the only bright light in a campaign which is set to end in an 11th-placed finish for the Pericos, the league’s ultimate gritty grinders under Javier Aguirre.
Will anyone be in the ground to watch Getafe?
Sunday, December 22: Getafe vs Barcelona – 17.00 CET
Can Barcelona knock a load past Getafe to finish 2013 at the top of the table? Will Getafe pull out one of those mad results that the Coliseum club does from time to time to cause a chilly winter break for Sunday’s visitors? Will anyone be at the game?
Getafe president Angel Torres pondered all three questions this week and joshed that their best hope of beating Barcelona will be that the “Catalans will be distracted by independence”. And as for the longstanding joke about the lack of human presence at Getafe’s home games, Torres got a little prickly, aiming a poke in the blog’s direction in the process. “It is routine, a lack of respect, but something we are used to,” said Getafe's chief on the idea that there are more rodents than people in the stands for his club’s home games. LLL has been warned.
Will Iker Muniain sober up by Sunday?
Sunday, December 22: Athletic Bilbao vs Rayo Vallecano - 19.00 CET
Actually, scrap Espanyol as possible outside favourites for the cup as LLL is now plumping for Athletic, a side that beat Celta Vigo 4-0 on Thursday to progress to the next round. The match included a brace from forgotten man Iker ‘Bart’ Muniain, who was also celebrating his 21st birthday. “He’s in good form,” noted Ernesto Valverde after the match. "He seems to be feeling good, we are happy with him and he is with us.” Attentions now turn to La Liga, where a simple win against a simple side will see Athletic holding fourth spot going into the winter break. How much of Muniain’s hangover would have cleared up by then remains to be seen.
Do Celta actually want to win this week?
Sunday, December 22: Celta Vigo vs Osasuna - 21.00 CET
Luis Enrique would have been a happy man on Thursday night despite his side's defeat to Athletic Bilbao. The Celta Vigo boss was consistent in not wanting to spend another minute in the Copa del Rey, and that wish came true with a 4-0 defeat to Athletic, to reverse their accidental 1-0 lead.
There was perkiness in Pamplona, though, after Osasuna overcame Málaga on away goals over two legs, in a match that brought up midfielder Patxi Puñal's 500th. The 38-year-old made his debut for the club back in 1997 against Eibar and admitted that he didn’t enjoy a second of it due to nerves. Patxi even got a surprise present - a video of congratulations from figures such as Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Javier Aguirre and the hard man of hard men in Spanish football, Pablo García.
Will anything go right for Valencia?
Sunday, December 22: Valencia vs Real Madrid – 21.00 CET
Poor Nico Estevez. The stand-in Valencia coach is likely to be on the end of a special Mestalla boo-fest on Sunday, and it won't even be the temporary manager’s fault. While the disorganised and demoralised club search for another boss to replace Miroslav Djukic, their former youth team coach is at the helm of the good ship Valencia and his first, and probably only league challenge, will be Real Madrid.
“This is a responsibility,” said Estevez, “I don’t believe in opportunities or undesirable jobs. I am an employee at the club and the decision has been taken that I am in charge of the first team.”
That job will be a little bit tougher on Sunday, however, after the league’s competition committee ruled that Sergio Ramos will be able to play, having had last weekend's first yellow card revoked on the grounds that he didn’t actually do anything wrong. This means that the world is robbed of watching Alvaro Arbeloa and Nacho as a centre-back pairing. Which is a bit of a shame, really.