EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) unearths the value in Wednesday evening’s La Liga action.
Barcelona v Sporting Gijon | Wednesday 18:30 | Sky Sports 2
Barcelona kept their La Liga title hopes alive thanks to a late Lionel Messi goal at Atletico Madrid on Sunday and the way in which the Blaugrana celebrated that strike (and victory) answered many critics in the Catalan press.
Following their 4-0 thumping by PSG in the Champions League and a dour display when welcoming Leganes to the Camp Nou 10 days ago, the local media were questioning the players motivation and stomach for the fight. Head coach Luis Enrique came under uncomfortable levels of scrutiny.
Barca certainly weren’t at their best at the Vicente Calderon – goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was arguably their best player – but the result and way in which the game was won should give the group the boost they need to continue their title defence during the final stages of the season.
Atletico left the surface long and dry at the weekend – a cunning ploy to hamper Barcelona’s passing style. But the Camp Nou pitch should be in immaculate condition as Luis Enrique prepares to take on his hometown club, Sporting Gijon here.
Despite the Blaugrana failing to hit top gear in recent months, the hosts remain unbeaten in 17 league outings (W12-D5-L0), scoring at least three goals in six of their most recent 10 La Liga fixtures. At home, Barca have notched 14 goals across their most recent four encounters.
Barcelona will revert back to a flat back-four here with Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique remaining at centre-back but Jeremy Mathieu is out. Lucas Digne and Jordi Alba are solid replacements to bring in and you have to fancy the Catalans to cruise to another three points.
It might sound odd but coaches in Spain often get their knickers in a twist over midweek football. They often panic, fielding widespread changes to their team with an eye on a more important weekend contest and that could be the case with Sporting here.
Gijon face relegation rivals Deportivo at home on Sunday and boss Rubi – a Catalan – is likely to switch his focus to the more winnable weekend match. It means Los Rojiblancos could be facing a damage limitation exercise.
In fairness to the Asturians, Rubi’s troops were unfortunate not to have beaten Celta Vigo on Sunday; Sporting twice hit the woodwork and were only undone by a moment of brilliance from Iago Aspas. The visitors also gave Atletico Madrid a stern examination 10 days ago, holding the capital club until the 80th minute.
However, two wins from 21 La Liga games certainly doesn’t inspire confidence and a suspension to centre-half Jorge Mere doesn’t help a faltering defence that’s kept only four clean sheets this season and leaked at least twice in seven of 12 away encounters.
Barcelona have W22-D3-L2 when welcoming bottom-half teams to the Camp Nou under Luis Enrique with clean sheets kept in 16/27 (59%) of that sample. Having won ‘to nil’ in five of their last eight La Liga duels on home soil, I’m happy to back a repeat at 5/6 (Paddy Power) quotes with the same bet as short as 4/7 elsewhere.
Sporting have won once on the road in 14 months, failed to pick up a single point at top-half teams (W0-D0-L5) this term and recorded W0-D0-L8 when travelling to top-six clubs since returning to the Spanish top-flight – six of those eight losses arrived ‘to nil’.
No side is averaging fewer shots on-target in the league with Gijon landing just 2.33 on-goal when playing away. The visitors are posting just 0.91 expected goals per-game and my La Liga ratings make Sporting comfortably entrenched in the bottom-three of the league.
Real Madrid v Las Palmas | Wednesday 20:30 | Sky Sports 2
Real Madrid have already lost more games in 2017 (3) than they did in the whole of 2016 (2) but Los Blancos staged a stunning comeback at Villarreal on Sunday night to avoid sinking to a fourth defeat in 14 this calendar year (W8-D3-L3).
Zinedine Zidane’s charges were trailing with 25 minutes to play; Isco’s introduction changed the dynamics of the contest but a hugely contentious penalty decision when Madrid trailed 2-1 really turned the tide in their favour.
Real rode their luck at Villarreal so they’ll welcome a return to the Bernabeu where they’ve won their last eight and defend La Liga’s only unbeaten home record.
It’ll be Madrid’s sixth game in 20 days so we should expect a degree of rotation – James Rodriguez, Isco, Mateo Kovacic and Alvaro Morata should all get given game-time but it hardly weakens Los Blancos. Having survived Sunday, the hosts should be ready to fire on all cylinders once more.
Visitors Las Palmas arrive on the back of a four-match losing streak and Quique Setien’s team haven’t claimed a win on the road since the opening day of the season (W0-D2-L8). Ideal opposition then for a Madrid side keen to regain their compose.
The Canary Islanders haven’t been overawed in those losses, mind. The Yellows dominated proceedings against Real Sociedad for example, only going down via a goalkeeping howler, whilst defeats at Sevilla and Atletico Madrid arrived by a single-goal margin.
However, their inability to turn possession into goals has caused Las Palmas plenty of strife. Setien’s troops have fired blanks in three of their last four, as well as four of their last six games as guests. The visitors have notched just two goals in nine hours worth of action away from home in La Liga.
The loan move of hometown boy Jese hasn’t worked and in January Setien was forced to admit that he’s probably allowed his players get away with too much for too long at a time in which Sergio Araujo failed another breathalyser test and fellow first-teamer Jonathan Vieira was disciplined by the club.
Setien – Las Palmas’ architect for turning a budding and heavily locally-sourced squad from relegation candidates into thrilling outside shots for European competition over the past 12 months – said he regretted his role in giving the group an easier ride, suggesting a tighter leash was now required.
The Canaries began their campaign in superb style, racing towards the top of the La Liga table but gradually performances have dropped off and Wednesday’s guests have bagged only four league triumphs since mid-September (W4-D7-L9). In only three of their past 17 have they scored more a solitary goal.
In five trips to the top-six this term, the Yellows have lost by an aggregate 14-3 and having failed to keep their sheets clean in league football since March, the Islanders won’t be capable of stopping Real continue their record-breaking goalscoring run.
Madrid have recorded clean sheets in three of their four La Liga wins at the Bernabeu since the turn of the year whilst no side averages fewer shots against than the league leaders so again I’m happy to get involved with the win ‘to nil’ market and the 6/5 offering from SkyBet.
My expected goals data from this season has Las Palmas in for just 0.74 goals for this fixture and it’s worth noting only seven sides have posted worse shots on-target ratio returns on their travels than the Yellows.
Barcelona v Sporting Gijon – Barcelona to win ‘to nil’ (5/6 Paddy Power)
Real Madrid v Las Palmas – Real Madrid to win ‘to nil’ (6/5 SkyBet)