Tim Stannard previews the weekend in Spain's top flight...
Will Simeone be Atlético’s Sir Alex?
Neck and neck with Barça, like two geese chasing an slippery sardine, Diego Simeone can no longer maintain the ‘we’re not worthy’ front and has admitted that the mighty Rojiblancos could be kings of Spain at the end of the season. “It would be stupid not to think about it, especially when looking at the league table,” admitted the Argentinean to Italian paper Il Gionale.
Simeone also spoke about his future at the club and how it might even be a very, very, very long one indeed. “I see myself a long time here. Some say I could be the Ferguson of Atlético: this man was football.” Simeone has boosted the squad by bringing in attacking midfielder José Sosa, who played for him at Estudiantes and joins on loan for six months.
Málaga vs Atlético Madrid, Sat 16.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Will Valladolid be playing last game with their super striker?
Of the two teams staring relegation directly in the face and having a bit of a gulp, Betis are the most likely to survive as reinforcements may well arrive in the winter window. One of those might be striker Leo Baptistao, who has struggled with injuries since joining Atlético Madrid from Rayo last summer.
Whilst Betis are set to have players come in, Valladolid might find them departing. Top scorer Javi Guerra will be on a few shopping lists, what with the big strapping centre-forward having knocked in 11 league goals in 17 games this season, a pretty impressive tally at a modest club. And it's not like Alberto Marcos is playing hardball: “The whole squad is up for sale,” admitted the Pucela sporting director.
Real Valladolid vs Real Betis, Sat 18.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Can Valencia start yet another new era?
What can possibly go wrong? A local derby on Saturday, a new manager (again), a new start (again) and new promises from the Goldilocks-style dressing room that new boss Juan Antonio Pizzi is just right, unlike the other 15 over the past six months or so. Again.
Ricardo Costa - a defender who seems to do nothing but whine and let strikers breeze past him - put the boot into Miroslav Djukic, complaining that the Serbian was too open and engaging with the squad. “We are here to train, not tell the coach what needs to be done,” warned the Portuguese stopper. “If we have to run for an hour, then we run for an hour.” Let’s see how long Valencia’s latest coach lasts with that tough-guy attitude.
Valencia vs Levante, Sat 20.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Will Granada maintain their Champions League away form?
Considering the club’s home is plonked in the middle of such a hospitable, friendly, fun place Granada are having all sorts of trouble winning there. The Andalusian side are in the relegation zone in terms of form in Los Cármenes but fourth best on the road having won four from seven. This makes them handy favourites against Almería on Saturday, betting fans.
Almería vs Granada, Sat 22.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Can Sevilla continue their pre-break form?
Like a wee kiddie riding a bike without stabilisers for the first time, Sevilla seem to have gotten over their wobbles and gone “weeeeeeing” down the road. The southern side have now picked up 13 points from the past 15 to give themselves a chance of qualifying for the Europa League properly, and not through Rayo and Málaga being too broke, like last summer. “We didn’t start well, but we have improved a lot,” admits goalkeeper Beto.
Meanwhile, Getafe have been trying to get more people into the Coliseum - an unending and completely pointless task - with the numbers of season ticket holders having fallen from 10,000 a decade ago, when the Madrid side was promoted, to the current level of 6,000. The way the club has gone about this is typically odd though - by making tickets more expensive. Last season, a voucher for the second half of the campaign cost just €50. That price has now gone up to €260, the same value as in June. Cunning.
Sevilla vs Getafe, Sun 12.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Will Barça cheer up in time for Elche?
With Leo Messi back in the Catalan capital and Víctor Valdés set to be back in action, there should be smiles all over in the barmy world of Barcelona. Instead, it's moans aplenty with the Camp Nou club starting the year as the old one was finished - by complaining.
Gerard “Judge Dredd” Piqué is unhappy with how Leo Messi is being treated in the media and thinks that something should be done. “Someone should bring some justice for all the s**t they throw at Messi,” stormed the defender. Carles Puyol is all with Judas, with a perky end-of-year message on Twitter: “I was able to find out who my true friends were,” complained the Permed Powerhouse.
Last but not least, Cesc Fabregas was left rueing why the local fans in Camp Nou still haven’t taken to him. “It’s not good when your own supporters are not happy with you,” noted the midfielder on being booed by some during the recent Villarreal win.
Barcelona vs Elche, Sun 16.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Will it rain red cards in Pamplona?
This is going to be pleasingly grim affair in Pamplona with Javier Aguirre, the inventor of the rugged, nasty incarnation of Osasuna going back to his old club with the rugged, nasty Espanyol.
The Pericos are ready for a fight it seems, not that this may be necessary with defender, Diego Colotto, warning that “it’s not easy to pick up points there.” In actual fact, it’s quite easy with six out of eight visiting teams stopping Osasuna this season.
Osasuna vs Espanyol, Sun 18.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Can Real Sociedad gain ground on fellow Basque battlers?
Sound the horns of excitement! It’s a Basque derby with both teams in fine form. Indeed, it is currently fourth against fifth with the visitors on Sunday holding a four-point lead over la Real. This will have no bearing on the game, says San Sebastian striker Imanol Agirretxe, who trots out the traditional prediction that “these are special games, but clearly we are both better than ever.”
Athletic Bilbao are hoping that the team’s striking situation improves in the new year. The tri-monthy Iker Muniain “smile has returned” stories were in the papers over Christmas, with the winger have played reasonably well of late. Meanwhile, a forward that everyone had forgotten Athletic had signed over the summer, Kike Sola, is set to return after a long spell out with injury having made just one start for his new club since arriving from Osasuna.
Real Sociedad vs Athletic Bilbao, Sun 20.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Will Madrid suffer from an extra midweek match?
Not wanting to give up the chance for another big chunk of money, Real Madrid headed to Qatar on Thursday to take on PSG in a friendly – and another chance for a Ronaldo vs. Zlatan face-off, albeit at a lot slower pace than the World Cup qualifier. However, neither player got on the scoresheet in Doha, Jesé popping up with the winner in a 1-0 victory.
Aside from that, the Madrid press have been in perky mood over Christmas despite the fact that the club lies five points behind Barça and Atlético at the top of the table and have a defence that seems to concede at any kind of aerial ball.
Real Madrid vs Celta Vigo, Mon 19.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone
Can Villarreal rediscover their form?
Both teams went into the winter break in iffy form although the situation for Rayo is veeeeeery bad indeed with relegation currently looking likely. Straws are being grasped by forward Alberto Bueno though, with the former Derby County man seeing 2014 as a chance for a new start and all that. “The break came at a good time,” opined the Rayo man, who asked the supporters to keep the faith.
After a flying start to the season, Villarreal had faded in December which is unsurprising considering the madcap, flying playing style of the team and an injury to Cani. This left the east coast club without a win in three and defender Mario Gaspar warning that “if you don’t pick up points for a couple of matches then you start going downwards.”
Rayo Vallecano vs Villarreal, Mon 22.00 CET: Live on Stats Zone