MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the weekend’s best bets from Spain.
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid | Saturday 15.00
It’s first v second. It’s the unstoppable force against the immovable barrier. It’s the title decider. It’s Barcelona v Atletico Madrid and it’s the game of the weekend.
This fixture has decided the fate of the La Liga title race in each of the past two campaigns and Saturday’s contest looks as pivotal as ever. The duo hold a four-point advantage over Real Madrid and know victory here would give them a comfortable cushion as we begin the final four months of 2015/16.
If Atletico have realistic aims to claim another unlikely championship, they’re going to have to avoid defeat in the Camp Nou. Barca hold the head-to-head advantage having already triumphed at the Vicente Calderon this season and also have a game in hand at Sporting Gijon to tackle.
Los Rojiblancos are winless in league football on this ground since 2006 and head coach Diego Simeone will be all too aware of the repercussions of losing. So I fully expect the Mattress Makers to adopt an ultra-defensive approach designed to soak up pressure and frustrate their tika-taka hosts.
Atleti love playing the role of underdog. They also love to sit deep, defend for their lives before pouncing at pace on the counter-attack. They won’t force the issue and they won’t dare step out of their detailed and structured tactical plans. Simeone’s side will be patient, compact, feisty and highly-motivated.
In midweek they were stunned 3-2 at home to Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey (a first reverse in 24) and Simeone will be determined to put those wrongs right here. And I reckon there are grounds to support the Mattress Makers grinding out a half-time stalemate.
Atletico have been level at the break in eight of their most recent 11 games across all competitions with five of their last six games being scoreless after 45 minutes. A repeat 0-0 first-half is on offer at 2/1 (Bet365) and that just looks too big to ignore.
I’m sure you’re all well aware the capital club boast Europe’s best backline, being breached just eight times in 21 fixtures. The guests have ground out nine clean sheets in their last 11 league encounters and Barca are the only side in Spain to score more than once against them in La Liga.
And although Barcelona extended their unbeaten streak to 25 games in midweek, easing into the Copa del Rey semi-finals with a 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao, Luis Enrique’s charges have been far from electric in their last outings, especially in the first-halves.
Last weekend an atrocious first 45 minutes saw the Catalans side lucky to be level with Malaga at the interval. Lionel Messi’s smart volleyed finish after the break secured the points but the Bluagrana were far from impressive.
So with three games against the Basques, two cup ties against city rivals Espanyol plus a trip to bogey team Malaga already this calendar year, are Barcelona looking jaded? Quite possibly.
Barca are unbeaten in 18 La Liga matches at the Camp Nou (W16-D2-L0), scoring an average of 3.44 goals-per-game. But interestingly, this season they’ve scored only 13 of their 38 goals on home soil before the interval – in total the figure stands at just 17 of their 52 goals.
Ultimately, the extra class in the home ranks should pay dividends and with the hosts winning the second-half in 16 of their previous 20 La Liga fixtures at the Camp Nou, plus Atletico losing by at least two goals in seven of their previous 10 trips to the big-two, backing Draw-Barcelona at 17/5 (888 Sport) is also worthy of a wee wager.
Real Madrid v Espanyol | Sunday 19.30 | Sky Sports 3
Real Madrid missed a fantastic chance to close in on city neighbours Atletico last weekend. With the league leaders dropping points at home to Sevilla, allowing Barcelona to take up the pace at the top of the table, Los Blancos couldn’t get past Real Betis on Sunday night.
It means Real have taken just two points from a possible nine on the road lately so they’ll be pleased to return to the Bernebeu this weekend. And with the top-two facing off in the Catalan capital, Zinedine Zidane’s star-studded squad have a second chance to close the gap.
The Spanish giants have improved under the Frenchman but the margin for more error this season is getting slimmer by the week. Madrid have already dropped 17 points this season and although they’ve struggled to grind out victories on their travels of late, they remain the ultimate flat-track bullies when hosting bottom-half clubs in La Liga.
Dating back to 2010/11, Los Blancos have returned astonishingly strong figures of W55-D2-L1 – a huge 36/58 (62%) of those triumphs were achieved by a margin of three goals or more. So the 13/16 from 888 Sport on offer for Real to beat a -2.5 Asian Handicap against Espanyol looks just the ticket on Sunday.
The capital club boast a fierce W13-D3-L0 head-to-head record with the visitors and have won their last five on home soil, scoring an average of 5.40 goals-per-game. The hosts have fired in more shots than any side on the continent and their average of 19.90 per-game should certainly aid our selection.
Espanyol arrive on the back of a W1-D3-L5 run and their seven successive away league losses is their worst return since 2002. Looking at their return from big-two trips since 2010/11, the Parakeets have lost on nine occasions, six of which were by a margin of three goals or more.
Cast your mind back to September, the visitors were stuffed 6-0 in front of their home supporters by Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo grabbing a hat-trick in the opening 19 minutes as he helped himself to five goals in the game.
And the guests have lost all eight visits to top-half teams this term, leaking at least twice in eight of their 11 away days already. What's more, Constantin Gâlcă could be without up to five key players with top goalscorer Felipe Caicedo injured, leading assist-maker Marco Asensio and Burgui unavailable due to the terms of his loan deals plus the suspensions of Victor Alvarez and Gerard Moreno.
I’d be stunned if Espanyol stopped rampant Real from running up another big win.
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid – 0-0 half-time correct score (2/1 Bet365)
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid – Draw-Barcelona (17/5 888 Sport)
Real Madrid v Espanyol – Real Madrid -2.5 Asian Handicap (13/16 888 Sport)
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