MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) points us towards his favourite fancies from matchday four from La Liga
La Liga Matchday 4: Back to reality with a bang
The new year in Spain begins in September, especially here in Madrid. The traffic is back, the streets begin to brim with locals again, and the shopkeepers and bank managers have returned after their month on the beach in Cádiz or Denia or wherever, and life goes back to normal.
As always, there’s that settling back in period where everyone just wants to ease back into their routine as the days become shorter and the heat a lot less suffocating – everyone just wants an easy life right now.
The same applies in La Liga for the first round of fixtures after the first international break of the season. No one really wants a must win or must-not-lose game after a two-week break but, alas, we live in the real world and domestic action returns this weekend with a bang.
We may be only entering week four but this already feels like one of those pivotal jornadas for many teams in La Liga.
Eibar v Espanyol | Sunday 15th September 2019, 11:00 | Premier Sports
There will be an air of considerable unease in the Basque Country on Sunday morning as Ipurua hosts Eibar v Espanyol, a battle of two winless teams who are both coming to terms with the loss of essentially their best players from the season before.
The Basque overachievers have lost Rubén Peña, Joan Jordán and Marc Cucurella, while new Espanyol coach David Gallego – in his first job at this level – has had to face the start of the new season and juggle Europa League qualification commitments without the departed Borja Iglesias and Mario Hermoso, while also missing defensive leader David López to a serious injury.
Zero wins and zero goals scored means there are already doubts creeping in about the decision to appoint Rubi’s replacement from within and given the fact that Espanyol now face five games in a fortnight, a failure to drastically improve their league form could easily see a swift decision being made about Gallego’s future.
Eibar gonna Eibar
Mendilibar will have his team locked and loaded for this one, and we can expect one of Eibar’s trademark aggressive, high-press performances right from the very beginning in what will be their first home game of the season.
Espanyol have been allowing an average 12 shots per game and they will face a similar volume of defensive work this weekend as the hosts will look to get the ball into the opposition danger area as often as possible. In their last outing, Eibar impressively scored twice at the Wanda Metropolitano and will be confident of similar success against a significantly weaker defence.
Eibar are unbeaten in their past six meetings against the Catalans in the league (home and away), and have won the past two meetings at Ipurua (3-0 and 3-1), leading at half time in both.
The home team will have the greater urgency here which must just be enough to get them over the line. Either way, it should be entertaining. When it’s Eibar, it usually is. The only caveat here is the early kick-off time on the back of an international break.
These two teams should be fine in the long-run but if we do have a loser come Sunday lunchtime, one manager’s collar button is suddenly going to start feeling that bit tighter.
Verdict: Eibar to win (1/1 Blacktype), Eibar-Eibar double result (23/10 Coral)
Real Sociedad v Atletico Madrid | Saturday 14th September 2019, 17:30 | Premier Sports
Diego Simeone is one of the very few people I know who almost certainly dislikes visiting San Sebastián. Barring an impressive 2-0 win at Anoeta last season thanks to an Alvaro Morata three-minute brace, Atlético Madrid have struggled here badly in recent years.
Prior to last season’s success in the one of Spain’s most beautiful cities, los rojiblancos lost three of their previous four visits and, given the fact that La Real will be hurting badly after an uninspiring showing in the Basque Derby, it doesn’t look like things are going to be much more pleasant this time around for Cholo’s men.
In recent times, Real Sociedad have been a bad match-up for Atleti. With their counter-attacking pace and movement in the areas between the centre-halves and full-backs, they have been able to drag a notoriously formidable defence out of shape and out of its comfort zone, exposing space inside for runners from deep. When their attack is humming and they find their rhythm, La Real are one of the most entertaining teams in La Liga to watch and are extremely difficult to stop.
A Sterner Challenge
The injury to Asier Illarramendi is a really big loss and this will mean a greater responsibility for the brilliant Martin Odegaard, undoubtedly one of the standout players of the season so far. If they can get enough quality supply to the likes of Oyarzabal, Januzaj, Willian José and Isak, Imanol Alguacil’s men have the tools to really trouble this new-look Atlético defence and are likely to pose more problems than Getafe, Leganés and Eibar combined this weekend.
It looks like last season’s goal hero, Morata, will miss out once again this week and his loss was sorely felt against Eibar in terms of movement, retaining possession and link-up play. It will be interesting to see whether Vitolo has banked enough credit to get the nod and we may see changes after the international break – don’t be surprised if João Félix appears off the bench if Simeone elects for more control in midfield.
This will be La Real’s first game of the season at Anoeta and the locals will be relishing the visit of one of the big guns. We can expect the home side to fly out of the blocks and attack Atleti, a team which is still finding its feet as a unit and, come Saturday night, we will have a better idea about where exactly they are right now.
This feels like Atletico’s first real acid-test on the road, against a team with ambitions of European football. Curiously, November 1997 was the last time this fixture in Anoeta produced a draw, a result which neither team would be too upset about this time around. However, an away win would feel really significant, even at this early juncture.
Verdict: Real Sociedad double chance (4/5 Marathon)
Leganes v Villarreal | Saturday 14th September 2019, 15:00
There is a feasible scenario whereby, come Sunday night, Leganés find themselves at best six points behind the newly promoted teams, those who Mauricio Pellegrino would consider as direct rivals in terms of avoiding relegation. The Argentine would argue, and rightly so, that his team should be on at least four points.
If their opening game against Osasuna was a boxing match, the cucumbers would have coolly strolled to a points victory, but despite their aerial bombardment of the visitors penalty area and three disallowed goals, they were eventually chinned by Chimy and were left scratching their heads at the final whistle.
The following week, Lega again felt hard done by after falling to a late Atletico Madrid winner, where a draw would have been a fair result. Despite the fact they rank in the top five in terms of average shots per game (14), the reality is that they sit bottom of the league on zero points and they need to get things in order quickly before they find themselves cut adrift.
This is not a new situation at Butarque; last season they had one point after five games before beating Barcelona, but it just feels like the competition is a little more competent this season and one cannot just assume that everything will be alright in the end.
This really is a must-not-lose game for Leganés and, lucky for them, they will be hosting a team whose main weakness fits nicely with los pepineros’ main strength: crosses into the box (and defending in general if we’re being honest).
Given the Yellow Submarine’s potency in attack, especially away from home where the likes of Toko Ekambi and Samu Chukwueze have more room to exploit opposition defences, Leganés need to be extremely wary of forcing the game early on and have to find a state of controlled urgency.
Javi Calleja’s men tore the Levante defence to shreds in their last away outing but had a solitary goal to show for their efforts before the comedy act that is the Villarreal defence took centre-stage.
I attended this fixture last year – a pretty miraculous 1-0 away win – and I envisage events playing out differently this Saturday afternoon. Pellegrino now has far more quality in attack and has created a very robust, physical, direct unit which will pose this defensively fragile Villarreal defence – which has conceded a whopping average of 15.7 shots per game – a lot of problems. They are quite predictable in attack given a lack of creativity in the centre of midfield but are very hard to stop once they build up a head of steam.
We can expect a very aggressive Leganés on Saturday but Villarreal will be waiting to punish any mistake. Pellegrino knows this is a massive chance to pick up their first win of the season and they just might get it, but perhaps a draw is the most likely result here.
Best of the rest – the weekend ahead in La Liga
Mallorca v Athletic Club
La Liga action returns on Friday night and the opening fixture may not be the easiest on the eye. This will be a tight, physical battle at San Moix with lots of fouls and we should not expect too many goals.
One for the purists.
Barcelona v Valencia
This is not a fixture Barca will be looking forward to, even less so without Lionel Messi and possibly Luis Suárez. The outcome will be largely be dictated by Valencia’s approach: if they show the same energy, belief and courage as in their meetings with Ernesto Valverde’s men last season, they will cause Barca a lot of problems once again.
Then again, this now appears highly unlikely given the fact that Peter Lim has decided to fire the manager who brought them their first trophy since 2008 and secured Champions League football two seasons in a row. Back to square one at Mestalla.
Celta Vigo v Granada
Celta Vigo have had a very romantic, nostalgic summer which has seen a number of Galician sons return to their roots. This all makes for nice stories and the resurfacing of childhood photos but football is a game which has little room for sentiment – a string of bad results and people quickly forget where you come from. We saw this at Real Betis last season where a section of the Benito Villamarín whistled Francis Guerrero, one of their own homegrown players, in a game against Athletic Bilbao.
Celta are strongly expected to beat Granada this weekend but despite an impressive string of new signings to bolster their attack, questions still remain about the defensive side of their game. All the pressure is on Fran Escribá’s men – let’s see how they deal with it.
Real Betis v Getafe
Betis’ comeback win over Leganés felt big and, judging by the first two games at the Benito Villamarín, they have their fans back onside – something incredibly important at Real Betis.
Getafe have not started as well as they would have hoped. Before the season began, they would have forecasted and expected at least four points after three games but a draw at home to Alaves was a big disappointment. Jose Bordalás will have his troops well drilled as always for this one, a game which will showcase a fascinating clash of styles.
Getafe won this fixture last season but would gladly return home with a point this time around.
Eibar v Espanyol – Eibar to win (1/1 Blacktype)
Eibar v Espanyol – Eibar-Eibar (23/10 Coral)
Real Sociedad v Atletico Madrid – Real Sociedad double chance (4/5 Marathon)
Leganes v Villarreal – Draw (23/10 Marathon)
Leganes v Villarreal – 1-1 correct score (11/2 BetVictor)
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.