Barcelona face acid test against Real Betis as Real Madrid make tricky-looking trip to Real Sociedad

This article was produced in partnership with LigaFever.

Do you remember the 2014/15 season? If you root for Barcelona, it’s an unforgettable one – the club conquered the treble under Luis Enrique, with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez firing on all cylinders.

But if you’re a Real Madrid fan, it’s a huge “what if” season – what if Luka Modric hadn’t missed half of the season through injury? What if Carlo Ancelotti had rotated the team during the magical months of October and November, when Madrid were flying?

More about that in a second. But let’s start, we have a huge Saturday coming up. Shall we? Remember, it’s “1” for a home win, “X” for a draw and “2” for an away win.

1. Granada (16th) vs Alavés (15th): X

Every two or three matches, Granada get a surprising result, like that point last weekend in Bilbao. That’s what keeps their coach on the bench, obviously. But Alaves have improved a lot during the last month and they should get a point on Friday. 

2. Sevilla (4th) vs Villarreal (12th): 2

Huge match. And yes, even though everything points at an easy home win, this is the classic match of awakening by Villarreal, in which they show all their potential and shine. Their scheme fits well with Sevilla’s, they will keep possession – something that will leave Sevilla uneasy – and it’s about time that their forwards find the net. This is the upset of the weekend, you read it here first.

3. Barcelona (7th) vs Real Betis (5th): X

Real Betis famously won at the Camp Nou during Quique Setien’s tenure, with a fantastic performance which many Beticos still remember. This season’s Betis looks at least as accomplished as that side, and even though Nabil Fekir won’t be able to play, the visitors still have enough dynamite to surprise Barcelona. “This will be a great Barcelona, but I’m glad Messi is not there anymore”, said an upbeat Manuel Pellegrini in the pre-match presser. It makes a lot of sense indeed.

That said, Xavi has finally had one full week to work with his squad, so we should start to see what he wants to do with the formation other than using Eric Garcia to track the opposition’s best player. Rumours about winter signings aside – I don’t think they’ll be able to do much unless they sell some of the real talent they have – it’s time that the team shows a proper reaction on top of the improvement in results that his magical presence has brought. Is the unsettled and injury-prone Ousmane Dembele Xavi’s secret? We’ll see on Saturday, but something tells me this match will end up in a tie.

4. Atlético Madrid (2nd) vs Mallorca (14th): 1

I guess it’s already clear that Atletico will go for the domestic title this season. With their Champions League run close to the end, they’ve performed rather more competitively in La Liga, and they of course have the chance to repeat, which would be a feat comparable to those of the Basque clubs in the early 1980’s. No one other than Barcelona and Madrid have won two Ligas in a row since then, so another title would be humongous. 

Mallorca’s coach said what most of us think: “Atletico have the best squad in terms of depth”, and that should be more and more relevant as the season progresses. I haven’t seen anything from Mallorca this season that tells me they can win at the Wanda Metropolitano. In fact, they’ve only defeated Levante, Alavés and Espanyol so far. Easy home win and João Félix on the scoresheet, while Diego Simeone prepares for their final Champions League match next week.

5. Real Sociedad (3rd) vs Real Madrid (1st): 1

In the last month, every time I read Carletto’s line-ups I suffer another “déjà vu” – they bring me back to the 2014/15 season. Back then, the team won 22 consecutive matches from September to December.

However, Ancelotti kept playing the same 11 cabrones every three days and ended up running the team into the ground. Modric, Dani Carvajal, James Rodriguez, Sergio Ramos and others suffered various injuries and dips in form, and the team reached the final months of the season lacking that freshness they had shown earlier on.

During March they lost twice (to Barcelona and Athletic) and drew once (with Villarreal), thus wasting the advantage they had built during the first half of the tournament. And in early May they were eliminated by Juventus in the Champions League semi-final, to which they arrived almost exhausted.

How Carletto did not rotate against Athletic, the most physical team in La Liga, escapes me. It was the moment to get Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde some quality minutes, and perhaps use Modric and Toni Kroos off the bench if things didn’t go as planned. But the Italian decided to use the same old midfield, and here we are again with Casemiro, Kroos, Modric in every match.

I thought Carletto would rotate on Wednesday because there’s not many opportunities to do so in the next 10 days: La Real on Saturday, Inter on Tuesday, Atlético next Sunday. Not an easy stretch indeed. But no, it’s the good old Carlo striking again. The team played decently for 20 minutes and then succumbed to Athletic, the team who runs the most in LaLiga. It’s a miracle they didn’t score. 

So what’s going to be the decision against La Real? They’re a lot more dangerous than their Basque neighbours, so why rest anyone on Saturday? And how long will that tired midfield will last? I can’t see Madrid prevailing here, especially against a rested home side who will want to get back to winning ways after their defeat in Cornella.

6. Rayo Vallecano (6th) vs Espanyol (9th): 1

I have to write this almost every week so that I can convince myself it’s true: Rayo are good. They are especially impressive offensively, as they have no famous talent up front other than the Tigre Falcao – and he’s not even playing that much. The fact is that their net goal balance (scored minus conceded) is seven, same as Barcelona’s and higher than Sevilla’s. Only Madrid, Atletico and La Real have better numbers in that stat, which is quite telling with 15 matches played.

So yes, I’m taking Rayo over Espanyol. The visitors haven’t won yet away from home, while Rayo have been impressive at the narrow Vallecas (six wins and one draw in seven matches). If you watch this early kick off on Sunday, pay attention to Rayo’s young midfield. No big names, just hard workers, lead by leftie Isi Palazón. 

7. Elche (17th) vs Cádiz (18th): 1

In an extremely tough duel to fight relegation, I’m picking Elche because of their talent, even if their project raises more and more questions every week. They’ve just hired former Huesca coach Francisco Rodriguez, which I’m not sure is what they need given the squad they have.

And the fact that Elche’s forward Dario Benedetto is one of the owners of the club makes the whole thing even more puzzling, but the man is (was?) a baller and at some point should show some of his talent. At least his motivation can’t be doubted.  If Cadiz remain in La Liga next season, I’ll be surprised. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong so far. 

8. Levante (20th) vs Osasuna (10th): 1

Mark my words: this is the match that will initiate Levante’s comeback from the bottom of the table to the middle. Osasuna are on the way down (six matches without a win) and Levante looked slightly more motivated during the debut of new coach Alessio Lisci in their midweek thrashing of Huracan Melilla (they won 8-0 in this Copa del Rey tie). Jose Luis Morales will score.

9. Celta Vigo (13th) vs Valencia (11th): 1

I hate Celta because every time I give up on them they win (see last weekend). But if they win two in a row, I want to be there with them, so this is a “1”. And for all the shithousery that Jose Bordalás has indeed brought to Valencia – a club that hardly needed more – the results aren’t quite coming along. This column will always support the flair – and that’s Celta in this tie.

10. Getafe (19th) vs Athletic Club (8th): X

How disappointed must Marcelino be after that wasted chance to win at the Santiago Bernabeu. We saw in fact what Athletic are this season – and were for long stretches of the last too – a very competent team in 80% of the game’s components, but a terrible one finishing plays.

I may be wrong, but I think that Iñaki William’s performance may change the view that many Athletic supporters have about him – his time as a promising youngster is over, and now it’s clear he’ll never make The Gap. His best scoring season (13 goals in 38 matches) happened three seasons ago. He hasn’t developed at all after that. In fact, one could say he’s less threatening than he once was. And without him, no one can really score for Athletic.

Can’t see them winning in Getafe, but they can still get a point against the Azulones. Mind you, this does not look like a great choice for your Monday night, unless you enjoy stalemates: these are two of the worst offensive sides in La Liga.

Join us! Copy the list of the weekend matches included below and add your own predictions in the comments’ section.

  • 1. Granada (16th) vs Alavés (15th):
  • 2. Sevilla (4th) vs Villarreal (12th):
  • 3. Barcelona (7th) vs Real Betis (5th): 
  • 4. Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Mallorca (14th):
  • 5. Real Sociedad (3rd) vs Real Madrid (1st): 
  • 6. Rayo Vallecano (6th) vs Espanyol (9th):
  • 7. Elche (17th) vs Cádiz (18th): 
  • 8. Levante (20th) vs Osasuna (10th):
  • 9. Celta (13th) vs Valencia (11th): 
  • 10. Getafe (19th) vs Athletic Club (8th): 
Tags Barcelona Carlo Ancelotti La Liga Real Madrid Xavi