MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on Wednesday night’s Copa del Rey quarter-final contests.
Celta Vigo v Atletico Madrid | Wednesday 19.30
I never venture near the Copa del Rey until quarter-final time. It’s now when clubs begin to look at the competition more seriously as a means to enter Europe or claim silverware that’s often unreachable in the land of the giants.
Atletico Madrid have bigger fish to fry but Diego Simeone has the luxury of a big squad with cover across all positions and the Argentine has signalled his intentions by naming a strong party to travel to Vigo.
La Liga title rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid have scored over 100 goals between them already this season and 30 and 33 goals respectively across their most recent 10 – Atletico only have 15 but have picked up more points than both clubs and lead the standings.
Another polished and professional performance saw the Mattress Makers run out 3-0 winners at Las Palmas and slowly opinion appears to be changing in the media – Atleti are once again serious candidates and challengers to the top crowns at home and abroad.
The capital club have now W11-D1-L1 in their previous 13 La Liga fixtures with nine of those victories ‘to nil’. Their 13 clean sheets from 20 games and tally of just eight goals against is unrivalled across the continent and I’m happy putting my faith in a repeat at 12/5 with Paddy Power.
Celta were involved in a ding-dong battle with rock bottom Levante on Saturday night, winning 4-3. Nolito watched on from the stands as the Sky Blues pocketed just a second league success in 11 matches that he’s failed to start. And previous to the weekend, Eduardo Berrizo’s boys have netted just six goals in 10 games without their much-wanted talisman.
Indeed, Celta had lost ‘to nil’ in three successive games before dispatching Levante and although John Guidetti, Iago Aspas and Fabian Orellana all played starring roles, it was only 10 days ago that Atletico left Balaídos with a 2-0 win. So I’ll count on a repeat.
Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona | Wednesday 20.00
Athletic and Barcelona clash for the fifth time this season on Wednesday night and they’ll meet again in a week. Having kicked-off the campaign locking horns in the two-legged Spanish Super Cup and already facing-off in their two La Liga contests, the next two midweeks see the duo battle it out in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.
Those tuning in to Sunday evening’s league encounter saw the match ruined after only three minutes. Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz was red carded when giving away a penalty and the Catalans took advantage through Lionel Messi. The game finished 6-0 in Barca’s favour with Luis Suarez notching a hat-trick.
Suarez took his tally to 18 league goals, two ahead of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar but the Uruguayan will be suspended for the trip to the Basque Country following his misdemeanours in the previous round against city rivals Espanyol.
Messi is also a major doubt for the Bluagrana having been taken off at half-time on Sunday as a precaution over fears of a suspected hamstring strain whilst full-back Jordi Alba is also out for 10 days. Should Messi miss out, Athletic will feel they stand a fabulous chance of taking a first leg lead, if they don't already.
Barcelona are unbeaten since 3 October in all competitions (W17-D5-L0) and will be all too aware of what awaits them at San Mames. Athletic hammered the World Club Champions 5-1 on aggregate in the Super Cup back in August and although Luis Enrique’s all-stars ran out 1-0 league winners in Bilbao just a few days later, it wasn’t particularly comfortable.
And as an added teaspoon of fuel, Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez has been given the whistle for this fixture and the Catalans aren’t too happy about it.
This referee allowed Espanyol to run riot on the Barca players in their recent La Liga derby showdown, kicking players from pillar to post and using provocative tactics throughout.
He also officiated Real Sociedad’s trip to Real Madrid at the end of 2015 with the suits from Sociedad threatening to report him to the police over his diabolical decisions. Is there a Madrid bias there? Perhaps.
Barcelona will be keen to avoid the mistakes made in their Super Cup embarrassment but this Athletic side are highly motivated. The club claimed the Catalan media showed them a lack of respect in the aftermath of Sunday’s clash as Barcelona's papers suggested it was ‘like a training session’ for the Bluagrana.
Robust midfielder Raul Garcia is out, central defender Aymeric Laporte a doubt, but veteran marksman Aritz Arduriz is fit, fresh and available. Aduriz scored four of Bilbao’s five goals in those Super Cup contests, hitting 38 goals in total in 2015, and gives the Les Leones final third play more physicality, intent and balance.
Chuck in Inaki Williams, Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta returning to the fold and Athletic have the tools to do some damage to the defending champions.
Since Ernesto Valverde took charge of the Basques, they’ve scored in all bar one home league game against top-six opposition; I expect that excellent scoring record to continue here.
Bilbao have W2-D1-L3 when hosting the big-two during that sample and since 2009/10 they’ve welcomed Barcelona to San Mames on 10 occasions, returning W2-D4-L4 in all competitions, netting in nine. Three of those defeats were by two clear goals or more but Barca’s road record at La Liga’s elite isn’t as invincible as you might think.
Already this term the guests have W4-D2-L2 in La Liga action outside of the Camp Nou and under Luis Enrique they’ve W10-D2-L3 at top-half teams. Narrow it down to top-six opposition and they’ve W5-D1-L2 but also lost at Sevilla (currently seventh) this season too.
This bet is dependent on Messi’s fitness but I’ve been looking for ways to oppose Barcelona. There’s 4/6 (Winner) available on the hosts off a +1 Asian Handicap start, which appeals. But I’m going to take the 9/10 (Bet365) on Athletic +0.25 in the first-half Asian Handicap.
What this means is, should Athletic avoid going into half-time behind, we’ll make money. We’ll be in full profit should the Basques lead but we’ll also bag half of that potential full pay-out if the scores are all squad at the interval.
So far this season, Athletic hold a 7-2 goal advantage at the break in San Mames despite hosting both Barcelona and Real Madrid. Last season Les Leones leaked just five in the first 45 minutes of La Liga matches at home meaning they’ve conceded just seven first-half goals in 28 league matches as hosts (or seven in 2520 first-half minutes, if you prefer).
But most surprisingly, the Catalans have scored just three league goals before the break on the road, leaking two. Throw in last season’s results and that offensive record improves to 21 first-half goals in 27 away La Liga outings but even so, it’s not particularly impressive.
With the visitors slow starters and possibly missing two-thirds of their feared front-three, I reckon we stand a strong chance of landing a few quid.
Celta Vigo v Atletico Madrid – Atletico Madrid to win ‘to nil’ (12/5 Paddy Power)
Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona – Athletic Bilbao +0.25 first-half Asian Handicap (9/10 Bet365)
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