MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) points us towards his favourite fancies from Matchday 20 from La Liga.
So, a lot has happened recently.
Real Madrid were crowned Spanish Super Cup champions having overcome Atletico Madrid in Yedda, Saudi Arabia. Luis Rubiales will be happy with how his “Super Cup of Equality” turned out, as will Zinedine Zidane who picked up his 10th title as manager of Real Madrid in just 187 official games with the club.
Getafe fell to Segunda B side Badalona in the Copa del Rey and Barcelona will travel to Ibiza in the next round. The draw was made on Tuesday and the games take place next week – classic Spanish football planning!
And, of course, Ernesto Valverde was finally put out of his misery and it feels like a relief – for us all.
Ramon Besa wrote in Wednesday’s El Pais: “Ernesto Valverde has been Josep Maria Bartomeu’s hostage since his life was spared after the cruel defeat in Anfield…The president was hurting after seeing Barca struggle against Real Madrid in Camp Nou, he was worried after the draw in Cornellà (Espanyol) and he couldn’t put up with anymore after the Supercopa defeat to Atleti in Yedda.”
Valverde has been replaced by the only man capable of beating his Barca at Camp Nou in La Liga over the last 60 games, the same man who was previously sacked by Las Palmas and Real Betis when things turned sour after exciting starts: Quique Setién.
Bartomeu said that “Setién's way of coaching is what we like at Barcelona,” and that they needed a change of dynamic. Did Barca not like Setién’s style in the summer? Did they not clearly need a change of dynamic in the summer? One thing is for sure: Barca sure have done one hell of a job of making a mess of Messi's twilight years. He is surrounded by a jaded, thrown-together cast and the entire operation stinks of incompetence.
Valverde’s highs, and there were quite a few, were impressive in their own right but it was the sheer depth of the lows that was his downfall. Three wins and two draws in his five league Clásicos (agg 11-3) and two wins at the Bernabéu in the space of four days; the first leg v Liverpool; the first season double; the comebacks at Sevilla, Villarreal, Rayo, Real Sociedad, Getafe – the players’ commitment was there for all to see.
But the lows…my lord the lows!
Their season essentially ended when the final whistle blew at Anfield on May 7th; the players were mentally and physical dead for the Copa del Rey final v Valencia. They were done, Valverde was done and that was the moment he had to go.
They’ve been generally very poor this season by their standards and Valverde deserved his share of the blame but the board have been utterly incompetent in recent years, failing to address the glaring needs of the squad. Valverde has had to deal with a declining Suárez, Busquets and Rakitic; Gerard Piqué’s extracurricular activities; the whole Ousmane Dembélé situation; signings like Kevin Prince Boateng while accommodating an aging Messi (still a good problem to have, I know).
He will have lots of regrets but Valverde leaves Camp Nou as a back-to-back league winner and he has handled himself like a gentleman despite incredible pressure, media scrutiny and the shoddy behaviour of the Barca board.
Bartomeu has tried to wriggle and smile his way out of this latest mess – something he is particularly good at – but this saga has been particularly damaging to Barca as an institution. They have lost a lot of credibility, as a club, over the last 2-3 years thanks to the antics at boardroom level.
It’s all over; Ernesto the hostage has been set free.
Real Madrid v Sevilla | Saturday 18th January 2020, 15:00
Sevilla don’t usually fare well when they travel to the Santiago Bernabéu; they have lost their last ten league visits (an agg of 35-8) and the Andalucians frailties on the road against the big boys have been well-documented in recent times.
But Julen Lopetegui’s team are a different beast; they are now a well-drilled, resilient outfit and a shadow of the flaky Sevilla we have been accustomed to when playing away from the cauldron Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan.
They are unbeaten in their last five on the road, conceding three while they have kept a total of five clean sheets in their 10 away games this season. Lopetegui’s men have suffered two defeats away from the Sanchez Pizjuan: an extremely unfair 4-0 at Camp Nou and 3-2 at Eibar having taken a 2-0 lead. With six wins and two draws, Sevilla boast the best away record in Spain and they will pose a stern test to the newly-crowned Supercopa champions on Saturday afternoon.
Eden Hazard once again misses out through injury while both teams’ star South Americans – Fede Valverde and Lucas Ocampos – are unfortunately suspended.
Valverde’s mobility and energy will be a big loss against a durable Sevilla midfield and defence. His ability to break the lines and pull the opposition out of shape has been key to Madrid’s revival. Without the Uruguayan, Madrid lack that dynamism and mobility and they may struggle to break down the visitors.
You would have to fancy Madrid at home but, unlike previous seasons, this is far from a gimme. Two of Madrid’s last four games in front of their own fans have ended 0-0 and upon his return to the Bernabéu, Lopetegui will be looking to frustrate Zidane’s men. At the other end, Madrid themselves have been excellent defensively, conceding once in their last five league games.
Ocampos is a huge loss for the visitors and it will be interesting to see if new-signing Youssef En-Nesyri will be thrown into the deep end so soon. The Moroccan is a very exciting acquisition and he really could transform Sevilla’s season into something special.
He’s everything Luuk De Jong isn’t: aggressive, mobile, absolutely unbelievable in the air and he brings that raw energy which Sevilla badly lack up front. Consistency and mentality are the two big question marks which hang over the 22-year old, but with the likes of Banega, Ocampos, Navas, Jordan, Reguilón behind him in attack he should make the jump to the next level.
Curiously, despite both teams renowned attacking styles, only one of the last five meetings have seen both teams scoring. The prices suggest we should see goals but I’m not so sure. A low-scoring draw or Madrid to scrape home feels the way to go.
Given the dependence on Karim Benzema, Zidane will be looking to his midfield generals to lend a hand in attack and we should see Toni Kroos and Casemiro pop up at some stage. They are worth a nibble each-way at the prices.
Real Betis v Real Sociedad | Sunday 19th January 2019, 13:00 | La Liga TV
I’m not a fan of the new Sunday 1pm (local) slot in La Liga but I’ll make an exception for this one.
The travails of both Betis and Real Sociedad have been covered extensively in these pages since August and there’s no reason to suggest we won’t see anything other than a belter in the Estadio Benito Villamarin this weekend.
Betis have scored in their last 24 home games while, incredibly, their last SEVENTEEN at the Villamarin have seen BTTS land.
La Real, on the other hand, have scored in eight of their 10 away games, their last away day was pretty entertaining: a 4-3 win at Osasuna.
The play is goals here and the prices on BTTS & over 2.5 goals looks extremely generous while there is tremendous value to be had with nibbles on the correct score market.
Don’t miss it!
Real Madrid v Sevilla – Real Madrid Double Chance and Under 3.5 Goals (4/5 Bet365)
Real Madrid v Sevilla – Toni Kroos to score first (20/1 each-way Bet365)
Real Madrid v Sevilla – Casemiro to score first (33/1 each-way Betway)
Real Betis v Real Sociedad – Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score (4/5 Bet365)
Real Betis v Real Sociedad – 2-2 correct score (11/1 William Hill)
Real Betis v Real Sociedad – 3-3 correct score (45/1 BetVictor)
Week 20 Predictions:
Leganés v Getafe 2
Levante v Alavés 1
Real Madrid v Sevilla 1
Osasuna v Valladolid 1
Eibar v Atlético Madrid X
Mallorca v Valencia 2
Real Betis v Real Sociedad X
Villarreal v Espanyol 1
Athletic Club v Celta Vigo 1
Barcelona v Granada 1
1 = home win, 2 = away win, x = draw
Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) is an Irish journalist living and working in Madrid. A season ticket holder at Atletico Madrid and Rayo Majadahonda, he covers all things football in the Spanish capital, from Estadio Butarque to the Wanda Metropolitano.