Still impressed by the beautiful Copa del Rey derby, a delightful match from beginning to end, I couldn't help but reflect on the week leading up to the match and on the one day after it was played. Derbies are huge news generators, not all of them relevant, but in recent times a concerning trend seems determined to stay: football itself has become a second priority, as the media keep focusing on off-the-pitch nonsense that ranges from what some player's girlfriend said about the relationship between the squad and their coach to whatever name certain player called another after the match ended. And the reason of it all, ninety wonderful minutes full of intensity, desire, strength and skill, is quickly sidelined. Are we sure this is the right approach?
Let's start. Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win.
1. Valladolid (10th) - Athletic de Bilbao (13th): 1.
Did we actually see glimpses of last season's Athletic in their 3-0 win over Atletico last weekend? High pace, frantic movement, constant pressure on the ball and physical exuberance all over the pitch. It does look as though the Bilbainos are slowly getting their act together. Apparently, all they needed was to sort out Fernando Llorente's exit, and everyone felt a bit better.
On Friday, they could take advantage of a tough loss for Valladolid, as German midfielder Patrick Ebert will sit out for six weeks with a thigh injury. Here comes the 'but': chemistry is key, and thus far the home side have shown an impressive degree of collective spirit, whereas Athletic have had more downs than ups in that department... Valladolid's happy family gets the nod.
2. Osasuna (18th) - Celta (16th): X.
(Trying to supress a yawn) Two of the bottom three attacking sides in La Liga meet at the Reyno de Navarra. They also defend quite well, as both clubs are tied in the fifth position in the conceded goals category. A 0-0 draw won't surprise anyone, but won't keep us awake either.
3. Getafe (12th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (20th): 1.
Domingos Paciencia's champagne effect lasted exactly two matches, during which the Deportivistas got four points and only conceded once. After that came two losses with five goals suffered, back to what was the norm before the Portuguese manager moved to La Coruña.
Injuries and suspensions mean that Depor will have to play with a make-do back four in Getafe, and given that their starters are responsible for the worst defence of La Liga, you can imagine how their subs play. Not even their last-minute signing, a Brazilian centre-back named Kaka (nope!), will be able to prevent an easy win for the reinforced Getafenses, who welcome back their creative midfielder Abdel Barrada from the African Nations Cup, and Pedro Leon from an ankle injury.
4. Espanyol (15th) - Levante (8th): 1.
Since Javier Aguirre took over, Espanyol have won their last three at home, something unthinkable in the first half of the season. They now play to their strengths, an organised, disciplined squad that seeks for a chance to get Joan Verdu and Sergio Garcia involved offensively.
Their rivals on Saturday just signed a much-needed forward, Polish-Italian Robert Aquafresca, to improve their below-average scoring figures for the remainder of the season and who, by his looks, will enjoy what Valencia's nightlife has to offer - which believe me, is quite a lot. However, they'll feel the absence of skipper Sergio Ballesteros, the main pillar of their defence, who last weekend came off injured for the first time in his 19-season career. Espanyol will take advantage of that.
5. Granada (17th) - Real Madrid (3rd): 2.
Just when many of us thought that Granada's management were asleep, they reacted. First, they axed Jose Antonio Anquela after a sobering 3-0 loss in Sevilla. In no time they signed a new boss in Lucas Alcaraz, lured out of his post at Aris Salonica to coach Granada again after only six weeks in the job. Alcaraz already coached the Granadinos 18 years ago, in his first managerial appointment. And if the lightning-fast coach change wasn't enough, Granada then proceeded to sign striker Diego Buonanotte from Malaga, a key move in the bid to solve their scoring woes.
Unluckily for Alcaraz, he will make his debut against back-to-form Real Madrid, who have scored nine and conceded none in their last two La Liga matches, and who regained quite a bit of their self-esteem after their pulsating Copa draw with leaders Barcelona.
With no midweek distractions next week, Jose Mourinho can use this match to plan the following week's encounter against Manchester United. Expect a fully committed Real Madrid playing the best of their best, which means Antonio Adan in goal and any other ten (sorry, I had to). Easy Madridista win.
6. Málaga (4th) - Zaragoza (14th): 1.
If there's been an interesting team to closely watch during the otherwise dull transfer deadline, it's Malaga. In ten days they've got centre back Diego Lugano on loan, extended Isco's contract (including a €35 million buyout clause), sold Buonanotte to Granada and sent Nacho Monreal to Arsenal, a puzzling move by the Gunners, who already have Andre Santos - just kidding.
All this trading activity only confirms the sheikh's attitude towards his ownership of the Andalusian club: purely a financial investment, and as such he buys and sells whenever it makes financial sense, rather than footballing sense. Those who expected him to keep pouring cash to get top-level players can forget about it. He will bring talent, but will also sell it whenever a good offer appears.
The calendar helps the Malacitanos, as a depressed Zaragoza - three losses and one draw in January, no goals scored - arrives in La Rosaleda. The Maños have lost their midfield bite due to an injury plague. Their signings, mostly youngsters from Barcelona's youth teams plus Henri Bienvenu - from Fenerbahce, described by boss Manolo Jimenez with the already classic line - "He's no Benzema, but should help" - won't solve this injury crisis.
7. Sevilla (11th) - Rayo Vallecano (6th): 2.
Not quite a Quiniela Buster, although many of you may be thinking that this scribe has gone a bit too far in his appreciation of Rayo's offensive football. Isn't Sevilla a new side after boss Unai Emery took the reins at the Sanchez Pizjuan?
And that is exactly the point. Like a praying mantis, this Sevilla squad know how to seduce their new coaches only to then quit on them phenomenally; the beguilement phase is already over. And not only they will play without Spahic and Fernando Navarro, sent off at the Calderon on Thursday, but also Leo Baptistao is back to the Vallecano starting XI after his injury, as is Jose Carlos, a former Sevilla player who will indeed enjoy his comeback to Hispalis.
Surprisingly enough, the visitors just signed 35-year-old Raul Tamudo, the hero of last year's successful relegation battle, until the end of the season. Not sure how he'll fit in this new Rayo.
8. Valencia (7th) - Barcelona (1st): 1.
How to behave in the second of two consecutive tense away matches when you play not to lose the title? Barcelona are perfectly entitled to take a day off and rest some starters in the process. The Catalans have also spent a good day and a half trying to digest their draw at the Bernabeu, and do not seem very focused on what could happen on Sunday at the Mestalla.
Valencia reacted well to their three consecutive matches against Real Madrid. Their win in La Coruña got them back on track, and now they will rely on their usual strength at the Mestalla to get back into Europa League positions. Roberto Soldado, returning to the starting XI after injury, could prove instrumental against the Azulgranas.
9. Real Sociedad (9th) - Mallorca (19th): 1.
"I only think of winning," the heartless Chory Castro stated days before facing his former team Mallorca for the first time since he left the island. The visitors, so impoverished that can't even afford to fire their coach Joaquin Caparros, managed to get no less than a bench player from the depressing Aston Villa on loan - Alan Hutton, a Scotland international who knows when to leave a sinking ship - as well as a Sampdoria midfielder Tissone, who had already played for Mallorca, also on loan. Not much to turn around the situation, especially against a Real Sociedad side who have only lost once in their last ten, led by a bunch of youngsters that have finally started to deliver.
10. Atlético de Madrid (2nd) - Betis (5th): X.
Atletico's painful display at San Mames made me feel somewhat vindicated: they couldn't possibly behave that perfectly for such a long period of time. Their hard-fought midweek win over Sevilla probably took some of their energy away, and here come Betis, visitors extraordinaire who were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by the Rojiblancos not too long ago. Revenge? This column lacks the required guts to go fully against Atletico, especially taking into account their perfect home record. However, I wouldn't be surprised if a rested Betis get a result at the Calderon and help La Liga to get a bit closer to the natural state of things in the table: Barcelona and Real Madrid in the top two positions.
Use this easy 'Copy and Paste' summary to write your own Quiniela and share it with us in the 'Comments' section. Some day someone will guess all ten correctly, we hope.
1. Valladolid (10th) - Athletic de Bilbao (13th):
2. Osasuna (18th) - Celta (16th):
3. Getafe (12th) - Deportivo de La Coruña (20th):
4. Espanyol (15th) - Levante (8th):
5. Granada (17th) - Real Madrid (3rd):
6. Málaga (4th) - Zaragoza (14th):
7. Sevilla (11th) - Rayo Vallecano (6th):
8. Valencia (7th) - Barcelona (1st):
9. Real Sociedad (9th) - Mallorca (19th):
10. Atlético de Madrid (2nd) - Betis (5th):
Last week: 6/10 (60%)
Season: 91/210 (42%)