MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) talks us through his favourite fancies from Saturday’s La Liga card.
Espanyol v Barcelona | Saturday 15.00
It’s 24 years since gansta rapper Ice Cube’s ‘It Was A Good Day’ hit the airwaves. Curiously underwhelming in the UK charts (peaking at 27), the NWA star narrated a 24 hours that involved playing basketball, having sex, smoking marijuana, getting drunk, playing craps, eating fast food and cruising the streets of South Central undisturbed.
It may not have been perfect but to Ice Cube, it was good. The same could probably be said of Barcelona’s 2015 – it was good – even great – but it wasn’t quite perfection personified.
After a year in which the potent combination of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar inspired the Blaugrana to five trophies and a new Spanish record of scoring 180 goals in a calendar year, the Catalans are hungry for more success.
A stunningly convincing defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup was the only blotch on the copybook and boss Luis Enrique confirmed to the press this week that his squad of superstars are doubly determined to create even more history over the next 12 months. That sounds ominous.
Barcelona begin the new calendar year with a visit to city neighbours Espanyol knowing victory can potentially leave them three points clear at the peak by the weekend's conclusion.
It’s arguably one of the most one-sided derbies in world football and it’s hard to envisage the Barca dominance ending on Saturday. Last season’s two meetings ended in favour of the treble winners 7-1 on aggregate and they’ve not lost away to their rivals since January 2007.
The star-studded cast have scored at least twice in all bar one of their last nine in La Liga and recovered from two disappointing draws before Christmas to out-class Real Betis 4-0 at the Camp Nou in midweek. They’re coming along nicely and it would take a brave punter to oppose the planet’s best.
Espanyol were beaten 2-0 at Sevilla in their last 2015 encounter and will be without injured duo Victor Sanchez and Jose Canas here. However, the Parakeets have avoided defeat at the Power8 Stadium since early October and taken eight points from a possible four since then.
Despite the one-sided nature of this fixture, when Espanyol host their old foes they’re rarely embarrassed. Since the 1994/95 campaign, Barca have only won by more than a two-goal margin at the Power8 once.
The Parakeets have been beaten just twice in nine on home soil this season and can continue the trend of closely-fought contests against their flashy friends from down the road on Saturday. We can back Espanyol at 13/16 (888 Sport) with a +2.25 start and that holds plenty of appeal – essentially, we’ll make money should the hosts avoid defeat by three goals or more.
For starters, Barca have won just 6/26 (23%) of their road trips under Luis Enrique by a three-goal margin and only twice since February 2015. Of course this team could turn up and tear the Parakeets apart but history suggests it’s unlikely.
And along the same theme, I’m keen to invest in a low-scoring away success. Only six of the last 21 head-to-heads hosted by Espanyol have featured more than three goals, the hosts have seen four or more goals in just 3/27 (11%) of Power8 Stadium outings and the Bluagrana have failed to break the three-goal barrier in 16/26 (62%) of their away La Liga matches.
A Barcelona victory and Under 3.5 Goals can be snapped up at 13/10 with Boylesports – I like that a lot.
Atletico Madrid v Levante | Saturday 19.30 | Sky Sports 5
Better late than never, eh? Atletico Madrid concluded their 2015 with a precious 2-0 victory at Rayo Vallecano thanks to two goals in the final two minutes from Angel Correa and Antoine Griezmann.
Profligate finishing looked to be costing Diego Simeone’s side dear at their city rivals but it was job done at Vallecas. Now the Mattress Makers can look forward to what should be a routine three points against lowly Levante at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday.
Second-placed Atletico are 19 spots and 27 points better off than Levante and the Rojiblancos will be expected to come away with a comfortable win to keep the pressure up on La Liga leaders Barcelona.
Atletico, who are second to Barca only on goal difference, have won nine of 10 home La Liga fixtures against Levante, dropping points only once in a 0-0 draw in 2005, while Levante have not won in their past 10 La Liga games.
The Frogs are in dreadful condition – just two league triumphs in 21 – and boss Rubi will be forced to shuffle his pack. Tono and Zouhair Feddal return from bans but trio Simao Mate, Pedro Lopez and Deyverson are all now suspended for the trip to the capital due to an accumulation of bookings.
In contrast, Atletico can recall captain Gabi and Filipe Luis as they bid to keep pace with table-topping Barcelona.
Victory should be recorded with ease – the hosts hold a stunning W32-D2-L0 record when hosting bottom-half teams since 2012/13 and in 26/34 (76%) Simeone’s side have enjoyed W-W double results. They’ve kept 25/34 (74%) during the same sample.
Levante have W3-D6-L24 of their away days at top-10 teams during the same span, failing to even score in 20/33 (61%). The visitors have notched just twice in their last five and been beaten in seven of their most recent 10 in the league.
So the stakes are certainly against the Frogs but the layers are well aware and the home win ‘to nil’ is no bigger than 8/15 and the W-W double result just 4/6. Pfft.
So instead, follow the same theme as earlier and back Atletico to win and Under 3.5 Goals at a more than fair 4/6 (Boylesports). Seven of the Mattress Makers’ last eight in domestic action have featured fewer than three goals and in only eight of the aforementioned 34 matches have they notched more than three goals in a game – only once since November 2013.
Bolder punters can opt for the correct score market – Atletico to win 2-0 is 22/5 with 888 Sport, a bet that’s won in 5/17 (29%) of their La Liga games – but I’m playing it a wee bit safer and covering the possible 3-0 – the terrible travellers have leaked at least three goals in 10/17 trips to clubs in the top-12 since the start of last season.
Malaga v Celta Vigo | Saturday 21.05 | Sky Sports 5
Big credit to Malaga and manager Javi Gracia for the patience and perseverance that’s seen the Anchovies stride clear of relegation danger in the past two months.
The Costa del Sol side were marooned in the bottom-three for the majority of the first-half of the season, struggling to score goals and with only two La Liga victories to their name. But three wins on the spin and W3-D2-L0 since defeat at Espanyol in November has galvanised the group.
At La Roselada, Malaga have kept their sheets clean in four of their eight fixtures (W3-D2-L2) and five of those matches have produced fewer than two goals. Looking further back, when welcoming top-half clubs that aren’t Barcelona or Real Madrid, nine of 11 games have seen Under 2.5 Goals.
The return from injury of Ignacio Camacho to the middle of midfield has provided the side with more steel and leadership alongside Recio and Nordin Amrabat’s final third quality has also aided their newfound confidence.
Celta suffered a rate defeat last time out, going down 1-0 at home to Athletic Bilbao. Previously, Eduardo Berizzo's men had racked up three consecutive wins in all competitions and with only one loss in 13 road trips they’ll be tricky opponents.
However, Nolito’s absence against Athletic blunted their attacking edge and it’s telling that, of the eight matches he’s failed to start since the start of last season, Celta have won just once. Seven of those eight fell below the 2.5 line and four have ended in 1-0 losses.
Under Berizzo, the Galicians have delivered 18/27 (67%) of Under 2.5 Goals winners, including all eight of the Sky Blues’ trips to middle-third teams. So with five of the last six head-to-heads also featuring similarly low-scoring encounters, having a strong play on Under 2.25 Goals at 9/10 with BetVictor appeals.
Taking Under 2.25 Goals means we’ll pocket full profit should the contest feature one or no goals whilst exactly two goals will still see us collect half of that potential full pay-out with the second half of our stake returned. The only way in which we’ll finish penniless is if three or more goals are plundered.
Espanyol v Barcelona – Barcelona to win and Under 3.5 Goals (13/10 Boylesports)
Espanyol v Barcelona – Espanyol +2.25 Asian Handicap (13/16 888 Sport)
Atletico Madrid v Levante – Atletico Madrid to win and Under 3.5 Goals (4/6)
Malaga v Celta Vigo – Under 2.25 Goals (9/10 BetVictor)
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