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La Liga Preview – Barcelona Derby

The Barcelona Derby highlights a crucial La Liga weekend.

 

El Derbi Barceloni

This Saturday, the 162nd Barcelona derby will be played between Espanyol and Barcelona. The reverse fixture this season saw Barca emerge 5-2 winners thanks to a Lionel Messi hat-trick.

An Espanyol victory against Barcelona is rare. Actually, it’s been six years since it happened. Six years since the Blanquiazules’ 2-1 victory over their Catalan rivals, which just so happened to take place at Camp Nou and also happened to be Pep Guardiola’s debut season as Barca manager. In fact, if you were just looking at the derbies played at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat (or their previous ground until 2009, the Estadi Olimpic de Montjuic) since 07/08, you’d find a total aggregate of 4-12 in favor of Barca. Yes, that sounds bad, because it is. Perhaps surprisingly, however, only one true mauling took place in that timeframe: a 1-5 Barcelona victory in 10/11. Usually this is at least a competitive duel from the scoreline’s perspective.

SOCCER: APR 21 Champions League - Paris Saint-Germain at Barcelona

All of this is to say that Barca should roll over Espanyol quite seamlessly on Saturday. History indicates such. In the 161 Barcelona derbies played, the Blaugrana have won 92 times to the Parakeet’s 34; there’ve been 35 draws (but you knew that, because you can do math), while the total goal tally reads 301-174. Looking at all of these previous derby results, the one type of scoreline we scarcely ever see is the one where Espanyol highly outscores Barca. Apart from a 3-1 win in 06/07, you’d have to go all the way back to 85/86 to find a relatively staggering 5-3 Espanyol triumph, although even then they allowed three goals. (There was a 6-0 in 50/51, but c’mon; Brazil hadn’t even won a World Cup at that point.)

But honestly, a history lesson isn’t entirely necessary here to work out the prospect. Barcelona are soaring right now. A memorable Clasico win over Madrid last month, a grinding suck-out against Valencia at the weekend, and an inspiring two-leg Champions League washing of PSG — all behind the in-form excellence of their emphatic “MSN” attacking trident — almost guarantees an eternal Saturday evening for hosts Espanyol.

No Place Like Home

Sixth-place Sevilla welcomes 11th-place Rayo Vallecano to the Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday.

This match presents itself as a collision of two undeniable truths. On one side here, we have a Sevilla team that hasn’t lost a game at the Sanchez Pizjuan since the Dodo was flying around Mauritius (well, 13 months, to be exact). On the other side, a Paco Jemez-led Rayo team that intends on winning every single time they take the pitch. In this kind of convergence, stalemates become essentially damned at the doorstep. Goals are a certainty. And though Sevilla hold the trump cards of form and quality, the Vallecanos may just possess enough crazy to startle a fortress.

Then again, this Sevilla team is stupendous. Which is to say that they aren’t all that special, really — in Sevilla terms, that is. As the Rojiblancos defeated Zenit St. Petersburg on Thursday to advance to the Europa League semis — moving one step closer to UEFA just YOLOing it and renaming the contest “El Coupe del Sevilla” — the Andalusians are simply fulfilling their yearly quota of reminding the world who actually rules the sub-elite levels of this here soccer world. They’ve won three EL (formerly the UEFA Cup) titles in the last nine years: a tally worthy of reverence even if the competition is seen as a notch below the tippy top.

The point is that they’re always there, always challenging, and always doing so with world-class talent. Just take a gander at some of the names that have adorned their teamsheets in each of their last three EL triumphs: Dani Alves, Jesus Navas, Freddie Kanoute, Luis Fabiano, and Ivan Rakitic. In five years, a backwards gander at their 14/15 squad will read similarly: Carlos Bacca, Coke, Vitlo, Aleix Vidal, Ever Banega, and Denis Suarez. Sevilla consistently assemble high quality sides behind high quality managers (Unai Emery is well on his way to worldwide recognition) year after year. Their Liga form could very likely lead them to the heralded lands of the Champions League if they can overtake Valencia for fourth. If not, I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to take home another EL trophy for their evergrowing cabinet at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Rayo won’t be easy, but Sevilla won’t be flustered.

Bruised Merengues Still Standing

Like Barcelona, Real Madrid are fresh off Champions League glory after (finally) beating Atletico Madrid midweek to advance to the semifinals. While it wasn’t a pretty win, it was plenty glorious. Such irregularities as Carlo Ancelotti deploying Sergio Ramos in midfield and Chicharito Hernandez atop the frontline of attack proved safe, and even quite ingenious, in the end. Though the Madrilenian waves of timidness have only begun to swell.

SOCCER: MAR 22 La Liga - Real Madrid at Barcelona

The reason Ancelotti had to make such alarming changes to his squad was obviously to compensate for a few untimely suspensions and injuries. The crucial midweek suspension of Marcelo was one that could’ve been a deathblow, although Fabio Coentrao deputized sufficiently. The injuries, on the other hand, of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, and Karim Benzema will likely extend through the weekend, though nothing has been officially announced yet. The burden looks to fall again on Hernandez, and possibly Jese Rodriguez, which should worry Madridistas. Despite Chicharito’s memorable Wednesday night, he’s no Benzema, and he’s no ticket to a league title.

As if the in-house turmoil wasn’t enough to create stomach knots, Madrid’s opponents on Sunday will be an ever-dynamic Celta Vigo. Coming off two rousing Liga victories, including a 6-1 drubbing of Rayo Vallecano, Eduardo Berizzo’s men are looking to cement their top-ten finish as the season winds down. They’ve been nothing short of a revelation in recent years behind the explosive attacking forces of Nolito, Joaquin Larrivey, and Fabio Orellana.

In many ways, Celta will have a set of strangers before them this weekend. They’ll look and talk and act like Real Madrid, but under the blanco will lie a wounded animal, gassed and ready to be hunted.

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