Malaga v Real Madrid | Sunday 15.00 | Sky Sports 3
Those who believe La Liga is boring and uncompetitive – you’re wrong. And if you don’t believe me, tune into Sunday afternoon’s contest between Malaga and Real Madrid. Los Blancos are going to be in for one hell of an arm-wrestle.
I talked up Malaga and head coach Javi Gracia last weekend and the Anchovies slid to a disappointing away defeat at Villarreal. But back at their Costa del Sol base, they’ll be pumped and ready to impress a feisty and hostile home support.
The Andalusians have given La Liga's biggest sides some tough games over recent years and deserved at least a point when hammering Barcelona in their late January meeting at La Roselada. Atletico Madrid were beaten here and last season they avoided defeat to both Barca and Atlei whilst going down to a solitary goal to Real.
Malaga have already been to the Bernabeu this season and picked up a point and, including last season, they’ve either drawn or lost by a single-goal margin in each of their past four outings against Madrid on home soil.
Gracia's side have really found their range since late November (W6-D3-L3) and they’ve shipped fewer goals than Real this season. They play a relatively simple 4-4-2 but every player works exceptionally hard and sticks to the game-plan – keep things tight, press high and hit teams fast when possession is turned over.
Zinedine Zidane’s yet to lose since taking the reigns at Real but Los Blancos haven’t been anywhere near their best when playing away. They were made to work very hard for their 2-0 success at Roma on Wednesday whilst a 1-1 draw at Betis was uncomfortable. Their most recent La Liga road trip required a late Luka Modric goal against struggling Granada.
The visitors have notched at least twice in nine of their last 10 but there are valid concerns about their defensive stability with Raphael Varane suspended and Pepe injured. Nacho will come in alongside Sergio Ramos but I really fancy Charles and Juanpi to cause them plenty of problems.
Real Madrid have managed just three away wins by a margin of two goals or more in domestic action this season. Malaga have only twice been beaten by two goals or more in their 24 La Liga fixtures, as well as just once at La Roselada since the start of last season.
I’m continuing my love affair with Los Boquerones and backing Malaga +1 on the Asian Handicap is 5/7 with BetVictor – that’s a smidgen over 7/10. It looks a rock-solid selection at generous odds.
Atletico Madrid v Villarreal | Sunday 19.30 | Sky Sports 3
Barcelona’s midweek win at Sporting Gijon stretched the Catalans’ advantage at the top of the La Liga table to six points but with a superior head-to-head record against Atletico Madrid, the lead is essentially seven.
It would take a brave punter to oppose the defending champions now but Atletico will continue to push the Bluagrana until the season’s end. And Diego Simeone’s side have two huge league fixtures on their plate across the next seven days that could make-or-break their pursuit.
On Saturday the Mattress Makers entertain Villarreal before visiting the Bernabeu next weekend to face their fierce city rivals Real Madrid. Sandwiched between those two contests is a trip to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League so it’s important Los Rojiblancos pick up a positive result at Vicente Calderon on Sunday evening.
I’d expect Atletico to edge out Villarreal. Barcelona are the only side in the last 22 La Liga games to be played at the Calderon to depart with maximum points. And since Simeone arrived, the Mattress Makers have W16-D6-L2 when welcoming top-half clubs that aren’t Barca or Real.
However, with restrictive odds on offer and a couple of question marks requiring answering, I’m not willing to put my faith in the home side.
Atleti’s normally solid, stable and resilient defence has creaked in recent weeks, returning just two shutouts from five and this weekend they’re missing stalwart centre-half Jose Gimenez through suspension. Stefan Savic is an able replacement but he’s not close to the absent Uruguayans level.
Going forward, hitman Antoine Griezmann is four games without a goal and with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco now out long-term and Thomas Partey a doubt, Atletico need to address their forward options. It’s obviously a concern if Fernando Torres with two goals in two is your most in-form striker.
Visitors Villarreal delighted their fans with a hard-earned 1-0 Europa League win against Napoli at El Madrigal on Thursday night. Denis Suarez’s stunning free-kick gave Macelinho’s men the first leg lead and in La Liga form the Yellow Submarine are enjoying their best ever campaign at this stage of a season.
The guests are unbeaten in 11 (W8-D3-L0) league fixtures – their best run since 2008 – but I still need convincing Villarreal can continue churning out regular results. Nine of their 14 domestic triumphs have come by a one-goal margin with Marcelinho counting on his side’s stubborn defence for success.
The Yellow Submarine actually rank bottom in the shots-per-game standings whilst only Getafe and Sporting Gijon have fired in fewer on-target attempts on their travels. And it’s not like Villarreal are dominating possession either – their average 48% figure means only five clubs have enjoyed a lesser share of the football.
Both clubs and head coaches share similar outlooks and the duo have been successful in implementing their approaches. So we shouldn’t expect either side to deviate away from their tried-and-trusted plans on Sunday night.
The two teams are likely to start with a tight and compact defensive strategy designed to limit the amount of goalscoring opportunities they give away. Between Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak and Villarreal stopper Alphonse Aréola they’ve kept 24 clean sheets in 48 games – a staggering 50%.
Atleti have netted just 35 goals and Villarreal only 30 – the latter notching the fewest goals in the top-half. In fact, put the two clubs’ goal tallies together and they’ve still scored fewer than the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona.
And so with that in mind, venturing into the goals markets look the best option here. Five of the last six head-to-heads have failed to break the Over 2.5 Goals mark with 32/48 (67%) of both clubs’ league fixtures featuring fewer than three goals this term.
Four of Atletico's last six home games have finished with Under 1.5 Goals and so have 4/9 Villarreal away games.
A further 19/48 (40%) have fallen below the two-goal line including four of Atletico's last six home games and 4 of Villarreal's last nine so backing Under 2 Goals at 68/67 (Netbet) looks worth a wee wager on Sunday night. We’ll get our stake back if exactly two goals are scored with one or fewer proving profit.
Las Palmas v Barcelona | Saturday 15.00
Barcelona travel to Arsenal on Tuesday night and the expectation is for Luis Enrique to rotate his squad for Saturday’s trip to the Canary Islands.
This will be the Catalans’ 15th game of 2016 already and we’ve started to see the Bluagrana coast in games as they attempt to conserve energy for the final hectic third of the season.
The visitors have W25-D6-L0 and should certainly enhance their club record unbeaten streak here with another victory but there’s little value to be had in backing Barca in the Match Odds. Instead, add Both Teams To Score into the mix for a healthy 8/5 (William Hill) as this trip could be tougher than they’d hoped for.
For starters, Sergio Busquets is suspended. Bar the ridiculous front three – it remains to be seen if all/any of them are rested here – Busquets is Barcelona’s most important player. He makes them tick. He sets the pace of the game, breaks up play and orchestrates the all-singing and all-dancing band in attack.
Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves should be back in the XI but Gerard Pique may also be given the night off and if Thomas Vermaelen trots out at centre-half and Pique isn’t alongside him, the European champions could be in a bit of bother.
But you know the drill by now. Barcelona will pocket the points with their unstoppable forwardline finding a way to hurt the relegation-haunted hosts. In 25 of their unbeaten 31 matches, Luis Enrique’s side have scored at least twice so it’s difficult to assume Las Palmas are capable of matching them.
But the Catalans have shipped goals in four of their last five and kept only five clean sheets in 11 away games. Struggling Levante and Sporting Gijon – despite their nine changes – caused Barca plenty of defensive headaches and so suddenly the 8/5 comes into serious focus, eh?
Quique Setien’s side battled to a 2-1 victory in their last home game, earning a much-needed three points against Celta Vigo. They’ve W3-D1-L1 in their last five on the island and picked up 18 of their 21 points (W5-D3-L4) in the Canaries.
The Yellows have lost four of their last five and won just one in seven but they’ve netted in the Camp Nou, Bernabeu and San Mames this season so they should be able to strike here on Saturday.
Espanyol v Deportivo La Coruna | Saturday 17.15 | Sky Sports Interactive
Espanyol are sitting just a point above the La Liga relegation zone and head coach Constantin Galca is under serious pressure to turn the sinking ship around.
The Parakeets boss saw his side spurn a host of quality opportunities in last weekend’s six-pointer against Valencia and having taken the lead, the Barcelona-based club fell to a hugely deflating 2-1 defeat.
Espanyol players were forced to plead with club officials not to sack Galca and so the Romanian remains in charge for this weekend’s encounter with Deportivo. The Parakeets dare not lose or their coach will almost certainly be axed this time.
So can they secure an overdue victory? Since mid-October Espanyol have returned horrendous W2-D4-L10 figures and their tally of 10 goals at their Cornellà-El Prat home is the second lowest in the league.
The hosts have leaked at least twice in each of their last six and shipped 22 goals in their most recent eight. They’ve taken just five points with Galca in charge and rank joint-third in terms of most shots conceded. I wouldn’t want to be with them.
Visitors Depor certainly aren’t pushovers. Under the astute stewardship of former player Victor Sanchez, the Brancoazuis have established themselves in the top-half of Spain’s top league this season.
The side from Galicia survived relegation on the final day of 2014/2015 and have been moulded into a tough-to-beat, well-organised side that specialises in draws. Under Victor Sanchez they’ve W7-D19-L6 and on the road that record reads W3-D11-L3.
So Deportivo don’t tend to lose often at all. As hosts Real Madrid are the only team to beat the La Coruna lads since October, getting the Brancoazuis onside this weekend makes perfect sense.
We can back Depor with a +0.25 start on the Asian Handicap line at 5/6 with BetVictor. It means we’ll make money should the visitors avoid defeat – a full pay-out if they win and a half of that potential full profit should the match end all square.
Las Palmas v Barcelona – Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score (8/5 William Hill)
Espanyol v Deportivo La Coruna – Deportivo La Coruna +0.25 Asian Handicap (5/6 BetVictor)
Malaga v Real Madrid – Malaga +1 Asian Handicap (5/7 BetVictor)
Atletico Madrid v Villarreal – Under 2 Goals (68/67 Netbet)
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