LA LIGA fanatic Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Wednesday night’s critical action from Spain.
Deportivo La Coruna v Barcelona | Wednesday 19.00 | Sky Sports 3
Football. Bloody hell.
On 2nd April Barcelona hosted Real Madrid in the Clasico and took a 56th minute lead – a lead that would have pushed the Catalans 13 points ahead of Real Madrid and nine clear of Atletico Madrid. Unbeaten in a Spanish record 39 games, the La Liga title race was done and dusted.
Fast forward just under three weeks later and the invincibles have quickly become vulnerable, fallible and conquerable.
Barca’s spectacular fall – they were as short as 1.01 to successfully defend their La Liga crown during the Clasico – has seen their lead slashed, leaving the Blaugrana to top the table only on a superior head-to-head difference. Yikes!
On Sunday night I was in the Nou Camp to witness Barcelona’s third successive league loss – their worst run of results in 13 years since Luis Van Gaal was in charge. Luis Enrique’s men have taken just one point from a possible 12 and have been taken over by paranoia, besieged by fatigue and riddled with errors.
Against Valencia, Barca played reasonably well in patches. They attacked in waves and created plenty of chances but nobody had brought their shooting boots – the Catalans could and should have scored at least seven goals on Sunday but Diego Alves was in superb form and Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique all wasted golden opportunities.
Valencia attacked twice in the first 45 minutes and led 2-0 at the interval. The Camp Nou was in disbelief – you could literally hear the city traffic rolling by a few blocks away in Les Corts.
Not since 1947 had the Blaugrana overturned a 2-0 deficit at home and although Messi’s 500th career goal rallied the troops, the hosts were unable to find an equaliser, let alone a winner. The players sunk to their knees – physically and emotionally drained.
It’s been a hectic campaign for the Catalans that featured games twice a week since October until the most recent international break. With star players involved in the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America, as well as the World Club Cup before Christmas, they’ve barely had a break.
Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Messi and Andres Iniesta appeared visibly fatigued on Sunday but there’s barely any back-up. Barcelona’s squad is so small that Luis Enrique’s substitutes bench was made up of four full-backs, a central defender, a goalkeeper and Muni – a rather uninspiring young forward. The Barca boss didn’t make a single change against Valencia.
Pique and Javier Mascherano were arguably Barca’s best players – which is hardly an encouraging review – but despite the negativity, the European champions did put in a much-improved performance. On another day, they would have taken Valencia to the cleaners. Shit happens, eh?
So I’m not prepared to write Luis Enrique’s side off. Not since 1999 have they suffered four successive La Liga losses and incredibly, only Getafe and Barca are pointless in April. But they simply must bite back sooner than later.
Thirteen of the last 15 bottom-half teams the Bluagrana have visited have been beaten and the squad will know the title is still in their own hands. A victory at the Riazor is most definitely achievable and I reckon they can squeeze out a three-pointer in a trappy affair.
However, it won’t be straightforward. Pique’s suspended meaning Marc Bartra will partner Mascherano at centre-back and Deportivo’s fast and skilful top scorer Lucas Perez has the potential to trouble a vulnerable Barca backline.
Perez has scored 16 goals and created eight assists for teammates – he’s been involved in 57% of La Coruna’s La Liga goals this season – and he’ll relish taking on a Barcelona defence that’s kept just three clean sheets in 16 matches. Indeed, the visitors have failed to silence their last seven opponents and five of their last six league hosts.
Victor Sanchez’s home side have recorded a solitary success in 17 (W1-D9-L7) – and that came against Levante – with the Galicians’ heavy draw bias stunting their progress. Depor have been held to stalemates on 17 occasions this term and managed just seven league wins.
The Branquiazuis are no pushovers and in eight fixtures against top-eight teams under Victor Sanchez’s watch, the hosts have W1-D5-L2. Interestingly, Depor scored in all eight and have also netted in all bar two of their 16 Riazor outings in 2015/16.
However, La Coruna are missing defenders Alberto Lopo and Alejandro Arribas to suspension and with Barcelona desperate for the points, I reckon the table-toppers can claim the victory they require to kick-start their title defence again.
Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score is offered at 6/4 (Betfair), which I’ll get stuck into. But I’m also going to have a very decent wager on Deportivo +2 in the Asian Handicap market (1/1 BetVictor).
The hosts have suffered just one home league defeat by more than a one-goal margin under Victor Sanchez whilst Barcelona have bagged just 8/35 (23%) away wins by three goals or more under Luis Enrique.
Taking the +2.25 Asian Handicap option sees our seal a half-stakes win should Depor lose by exactly two goals with a full-stakes win should the home side win, draw or lose by a solitary goal on Wednesday night. The only way in which we’ll lose our stake is if Barca run out winners by three or more goals.
Athletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid | Wednesday 19:45 | Sky Sports Interactive
With Barcelona falling over their own shoelaces, Atletico Madrid’s relentless win-at-all-costs aggression has seen Diego Simeone’s side draw level on points with the league leaders.
Los Colchoneros splattered Granada 3-0 at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday and with four wins from their last five (W4-D0-L1) games as guests in La Liga, know Wednesday night’s trip to the Basque Country is their toughest remaining assignment.
It’s a fixture Atletico have won in four of the last five head-to-heads (W4-D1-L0) and if there’s any Spanish side that can deal with Athletic Bilbao’s physicality, it’s the capital club.
Skipper Gabi is suspended so Saul should slot into the middle of the park and with Filipe Luis returning Simeone has an almost fully fit and available squad to choose from.
Since 2012/13 Atletico have W8-D4-L7 in road trips to top-six sides, winning two of their most recent three in San Mames whilst leaking a goal. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see this midweek’s match-up follow a familiar pattern and the 19/5 (Betfred) on Atletico to win and Both Teams To Score carries plenty of appeal.
Each of Atletico’s last seven La Liga games have seen three or more goals as Los Colchoneros have struck at least three times themselves in six of those contests. Looking at those 19 encounters with top-six sides, the visitors have conceding on 12 occasions whilst Over 2.5 Goals has proved profitable in each of the last five campaigns of this fixture.
Athletic Bilbao’s late Champions League charge has brought Les Leones to within six points of fourth-placed Villarreal and their W8-D4-L1 return from 13 La Liga matches at San Mames deserves respect.
But Ernesto Valverde’s men were fortunate to escape with maximum points at Malaga on Sunday with goalkeeper Iraizoz called into making seven saves. And since Simeone arrived at Atletico, the Basques have picked up a solitary point from a possible 21 in seven meetings.
This season the hosts have lost all five games against the top-three, including home and away defeats to Barcelona and Real Madrid and with top scorer and talisman Aritz Aduriz missing, as well as key defender Ayermic Laporte, I’m happy to oppose Les Leones.
However, I do still reckon they can grab a goal. Inaki Williams should lead the line with ex-Aleti man Raul Garcia in excellent form playing just off the lone striker.
In 14 outings at San Mames against top-six opposition, Bilbao have failed to score just twice. And so with eight of their last 10 home games in which they’ve failed to keep a clean sheet serving up Over 2.5 Goals, as well as Atletico’s need to record a win possibly leading to a more open encounter, I want goals onside too.
Real Madrid v Villarreal | Wednesday 21.00 | Sky Sports 3
Seven wins on the spin has brought Real Madrid unexpectedly back into the title race but Zinedine Zidane’s men face a tricky test on Wednesday night from Villarreal at the Bernabeu.
Long-term trends show Los Blancos have W11-D4-L0 when welcoming the Yellow Submarine to their capital base, only once failing to score. But in recent seasons, Real have found Villarreal awkward operators, winning just two of their past six head-to-heads.
Zidane’s without Gareth Bale, Dani Carvajal and Pepe this midweek with the former duo taking a slice of Madrid’s attacking verve away from the side. However, the hosts are averaging 3.85 goals-per-game across their seven recent league wins whilst notching at least three in 10 of their last 11 at the Bernebeu.
Under the French legend, Real have W9-D1-L0 on home soil and I do expect the hosts to continue their winning streak here although it might not be quite as one-sided as their most recent La Liga duels.
Los Blancos have fired in a league-high 626 shots and visitors Villarreal have attempted just 299 – that’s a divisional-low and 327 fewer than Real. The Yellow Submarine still play neat and attractive football but Marcelinho’s men now focus more on keeping things tight at the back.
The away side boast Spain’s second-best defence having kept 15 shutouts already this term and the Europa League semi-finalists will be looking to keep a solid base for as long as possible.
Roberto Soldado’s absence will give Leo Baptistao a chance up top with the pace and power of Cedric Bakambu and Villarreal will be more than capable of sneaking a goal on the counter-attack. However, the away side have failed to score in all four (W0-D3-L1) of their trips to the top-six this term so it’s worth avoiding a positive goals-based bet.
Bruno and Antonio Rukavina missed the weekend’s surprise defeat to Rayo Vallecano but are back from bans but it’s just one triumph in seven road trips (W1-D4-L2) for Villarreal and four defeats in five when travelling to the big-two, so there’s plenty of reason to believe Real can sneak a home success.
The stats suggest we’ll be in for a goal-filled game but I’d be very surprised if this fixture followed suit so I’ll chuck Under 3.5 Goals into the equation knowing it’s a goals-based bet that’s proven profitable in 15 of Villarreal’s last 18 and five of Madrid’s past eight.
Backing a home win alongside Under 3.5 Goals is 9/5 with Stan James.
Deportivo La Coruna v Barcelona – Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score (6/4 Betfair)
Deportivo La Coruna v Barcelona – Deportivo La Coruna +2.25 Asian Handicap (10/13 BetVictor)
Athletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid – Both Teams To Score (23/18 888)
Athletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid – Atletico Madrid to win and Both Teams To Score (19/5 Betfred)
Real Madrid v Villarreal – Real Madrid to win and Under 3.5 Goals (9/5 Stan James)
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