La Liga: Catalans can keep Atletico in-check


MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) points us towards his favourite fancies from matchday 15 from La Liga.

One-minute wrap

  • This Sevilla team are a real force. Renowned in recent years as being flakey on the road, Julen Lopetegui has injected a steeliness and resilience into this Sevilla side. Their away form reads: W5-L2-D1 but these numbers should be even better given they were 2-0 up at half-time v Eibar and lost, and really should have beaten Valencia at Mestalla, conceding late. If they can find their shooting boots in attack, third-place or better could be a real possibility.
  • With four defeats already in Ipurua – the same amount as all of last season – Eibar have struggled to consistently reach the heights of campaigns gone by in terms of intense pressing. Moreover, key departures have had an adverse effect on the team’s attack and if you concede more goals than you score at home (GF8-GA14), life is always going to be difficult.
  • El Sadar has finally fallen and it was good while it lasted. Unbeaten in Pamplona since April 2018, Osasuna’s strength was its defence which in recent weeks was looking increasingly porous and this was inevitably going to put increasing, unsustainable pressure on the brilliantly unpredictable Chimy Avila & Co. to keep scoring. Athletic Bilbao, meanwhile, are on the way back up after a rough October – all the more impressive given their limited attacking options.
  • Real Betis kept up their trend of conceding first at home against Valencia but they played very well and thanks to late Sergio Canales goal, they got the win they deserved and needed. Rubi survives until the next “final”.
  • Mallorca have lost all six of their away games this season but there were plenty of positives at Levante last Friday where they really deserved at least a point. With four blanks in six games, Mallorca’s struggles are relatively easy to analyse; they rank third from bottom in xG on the road (0.82) and if they don’t improve their numbers, a rapid return to the Segunda is highly probable.

Atletico Madrid v Barcelona | Sunday 1st December 2019, 20:00 | Premier Sports

You have to go all the way back to February 2010 to find Barcelona’s last league defeat at Atletico Madrid, a 2-1 win for los colchoneros with goals from Diego Forlán and Simao – I’m pretty sure Diego Simeone wouldn’t mind having the Uruguayan at his peak or his partner Sergio Aguero in his squad this weekend.

When the ball rolls on Sunday night, there will be only one survivor from 2010 and he’s still going pretty well, having just celebrated his 700th appearance for Barca with a goal and two assists to brush aside Borussia Dortmund.

The eight league meetings since have generally been very tight affairs and this trend is unlikely to change as both teams arrive at this fixture surrounded by questions and doubts. Since moving to the Wanda Metropolitano, the locals have been left frustrated in this fixture – squandering leads on both occasions, Barca nabbing a point thanks to late goals from Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé.

Both teams’ struggles have been well-documented in recent weeks; Atletico Madrid continue to struggle to find the back of the net – especially away from home – while Ernesto Valverde continues to give off the impression of a man still trying to stumble upon a magic formula in midfield while figuring out how to get the best out of Antoine Griezmann alongside Messi and Suárez.

Diego Simeone has never beaten Barcelona in La Liga (W0-D5-L10) and Marca report how Barca account for 21.2% of Simeone’s total league defeats – an astonishing statistic.

There’s little doubt that Valverde’s men are still extremely vulnerable against mobile, robust teams with a high-press, as evidenced in Bilbao, Pamplona, Dortmund, Granada and Levante, but this Atlético side are simply incapable of such a performance.

Leganés took a deserved lead at Butarque last weekend but committed the cardinal sin of completely parking the bus for the remaining 75 minutes instead of maintaining the pressure on Barca when they were really on the ropes.

Of course, Atlético are still difficult to break down – most teams are when they set out with four central midfielders – but los rojiblancos look a long way from a team who is capable of being defensively solid while also posing a significant threat in attack through quick transitions.

In recent years, it feels like Simeone’s side have dropped deeper and deeper, regaining possession further and further away from the opposition goal –  a big problem for a team which lacks counter-attacking pace. With 16 goals in their 14 league games and XG from open-play of 1.26, Atletico’s shortcomings are glaring and the dependence on Álvaro Morata continues to grow.

Atleti have had success in cup ties where you don’t necessarily have to win games to progress but this is a key reason why a serious league challenge looks unlikely once again this season: an inability to win the really big games.

By my count, over the last year or so, Atleti have had 13 games which I would consider to be real acid test fixtures, winning one: 2-0 v Juventus in last season’s Champions League last 16 tie (which eventually counted for little). This squad right now simply lacks the leaders and quality of 5/6 years ago to turn hard-fought draws into narrow wins.

That slight drop in energy, aggression, experience and streetwise-ness across the team makes all the difference – the success of the mid-2010’s was based upon fine margins, the little wins throughout the 90 minutes.

Right now, Atlético Madrid are a decent team, but that’s all they are; they will beat the bad teams at home and trip up every few weeks on the road, and Simeone is surely realistic enough to realise that third place is their ceiling this season and by no means a gimme if we take into account Sevilla’s resurgence.

There will be a cracking atmosphere and Antoine Griezmann will receive a ferocious welcome back but I don’t believe Atleti can win this game and, without a league win over the Catalans in almost a decade, it would only be natural if the players and management themselves had similar doubts.

Since that Atleti victory in 2010, this fixture in the Spanish Capital has failed to produce over three goals and that is the angle I’m going here: Barcelona in the Double Chance market alongside Under 3.5 Goals (4/5 Bet365).

Valencia v Villarreal | Saturday 30th November 2019, 20:00 | Premier Sports

It is going to be tough for Valencia to lift themselves for this one after their thrilling 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Mestalla on Wednesday night. It was a brilliantly mad game of football which had a bit of everything: great attacking play, some absolutely unbelievable misses, a stunning penalty save, a freak goal and chances right until the end.

Both sets of players were absolutely shattered at the final whistle, many of whom sprawled across the Mestalla surface as the fans applauded their efforts. José Gayá actually required medical attention for exhaustion as others trudged towards the dressing room and it’s going to take more mental than physical work by Albert Celades to get his players ready for a huge game as neighbours Villarreal come to town.

In recent years, Valencia v Villarreal has been generally a disappointing fixture with zero of the last four meetings rewarding Both Teams To Score backers, but this year feels different. Valencia games are enjoyable again and have been become renowned for frantic, grandstand finishes and we could very well see this trend continuing come Saturday night.

It’s zero wins in four for the Yellow Submarine and the uneasiness of last season is beginning to creep back in. The visit of Celta Vigo was always going to be a potential banana skin (for reasons highlighted in last week’s piece) and so it proved, with Villarreal looking gassed in the final quarter.

The team is still largely dependent on Santi Cazorla and his involvement with the national team could prove to be detrimental to Javi Calleja’s men – he simply cannot play every minute of every game. “It’s the worst moment of the season but there’s still a long way to go and we have to pick ourselves up,” said Cazorla.

It almost feels like a role reversal this week as Villarreal will have had a whole week to prepare for this one while Valencia, still plagued by injuries, really have the look of a side who are thrown together but, to their credit, they are getting on with things. Mestalla has celebrated at least one goal in all seven home league games this season but there have also been plenty of groans at the other end, having kept only two clean sheets.

Javi Calleja’s men have been one of the most entertaining teams in Spain this season and have scored in all seven away games and they will be confident of exposing a mentally and physically fatigued Valencia team.

Both teams have scored close to one-third of their goals in the final quarter of games and I’m expecting another exciting finish here where the impact off the bench could sway the tie either way. Past meetings suggest this will be a low-scoring affair but I suggest otherwise and am looking to the goals markets as a way to get involved with this one.

As they say here in Spain, opposition teams “arrive” too easily to Valencia’s area and this can be seen in the number of shots they have allowed in their last four games: 16, 25, 13, and 15. Villarreal top the league in expected goals on the road with an XG of 1.97, while Valencia rank in the top six in terms of expected goals conceded in their own stadium with an xGA of 1.65.

Similar to last week, this might take a while to get going but when it comes to Valencia and Villarreal, late entertainment is guaranteed and I’ll be having a small nibble on correct scores 2-2 and 3-3 for a bit of extra excitement.

Best Bets

Atletico Madrid v Barcelona – Barcelona double chance and Under 3.5 Goals (4/5 Bet365)

Valencia v Villarreal – Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score (1/1 Bet365)

Valencia v Villarreal – Over 1.5 Second-Half Goals (1/1 Paddy Power)

Valencia v Villarreal – 2-2 correct score (12/1 William Hill)

Valencia v Villarreal – 3-3 correct score (55/1 BetVictor)

Week 15 Predictions:

Celta Vigo v Valladolid X

Alavés v Real Madrid 2

Real Sociedad v Eibar 1

Mallorca v Real Betis 2

Valencia v Villarreal X

Sevilla v Leganés 1

Athletic Bilbao v Granada 1

Espanyol v Osasuna 1

Getafe v Levante 1

Atletico Madrid v Barcelona X

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.

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