Mark O’Haire’s European Football Tips – Sunday
The tightest title race in the world promises to go down to the wire with La Liga’s big-three all within a point of each other coming into the penultimate round of fixtures on the Iberian Peninsula.
Barcelona v Espanyol, Sunday 8 May 16.00, Sky Sports 2
There’s no margin for error and all three – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid – emerged unscathed last weekend, taking turns to top the table on Saturday before the Catalans reaffirmed their position as league leaders with victory at Betis.
Head coach Luis Enrique insisted his team had “not suffered at all” but the Blaugrana’s tepid first-half performance didn’t exactly hurt Betis either. Rumours from the Barcelona media suggested the boss ripped into his players at the interval and the defending champions did show up for the final 45 minutes.
But the opening period was uneventful with Barca passive and unimaginative on the ball. The Catalans looked jaded and uninspired by the occasion, despite playing against 10 men following Heiko Westermann’s dismissal for a second booking midway through the first-half.
The league title should have been sewn up comfortably by now and whilst advantage is still in the Blaugrana’s court, this weekend’s encounter with city rivals Espanyol has the potential to be a banana-skin, should the Parakeets rise to the challenge.
Espanyol ensured La Liga safety by seeing off terrible travellers Sevilla last weekend. Players dropped to their knees in tears when the full-time whistle sounded, overcome by emotion after another rollercoaster season as Barcelona’s second side toiled against relegation.
Constantin Galca was appointed 10 days before Christmas and after initially taking just five points from a possible 27, rallied the troops with the Parakeets picking up W5-D3-L4 in their most recent 12 games to climb clear of the bottom-three.
Espanyol tend to do their best business on home soil and since the start of last season, the visitors have collected 66% of their total points tally as hosts.
On their travels, the Budgies have suffered 23/37 (62%) league defeats in that time.
In 2015/16, Galca’s group have earned just a solitary point from games as guests at top-half La Liga teams – last term Espanyol returned W2-D0-L7 at the top-10 – it paints a rather bleak picture for underdog backers this weekend.
Since 2009/10, Barcelona have taken derby day honours in the Camp Nou in all six league contests, only once conceding a goal. Interestingly, the hosts have claimed victories by one or two goals in three of those fixtures, as well as running out triumphant by four or more goals in exactly half of those encounters too – it tends to be a feast or famine exercise.
Quite understandably, the Blaugrana are available at miniscule prices to take maximum points here with bookmakers expecting a four-goal success in the handicap markets. The Catalans have dispatched seven of their last 12 La Liga visitors by at least a four-goal margin so it seems a fair enough proposal.
However, Luis Enrique’s men have a tendency to start slow – as mentioned already. Since the current head coach arrived at the Camp Nou, Barcelona have led at the interval by two goals or more in just 9/37 (24%) of matches, including only five this season.
Espanyol may well be taken to the cleaners on Sunday but the Parakeets have trailed by two or more goals away on just five occasions (14%) during the same sample since the start of last season and should at least provide a dollop of resistance during the first-half against their most hated rivals.
Considering the lay of the land, I’ll take Espanyol with a +2 handicap start in the first-half at 5/6.
Espanyol +2 first-half handicap @ 5/6
Real Madrid v Valencia, Sunday 8 May 16.00, Sky Sports Red Button
Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final second leg between Real Madrid and Manchester City was a curious occasion.
Real Madrid were clearly the dominant team and deservedly booked their place in the Milan final but Los Blancos failed to really fire. Perhaps it was due to City’s timid and directionless approach? After all, the Citizens failed to land a shot-on-target at the Bernabeu – an unforgiveable statistic for a game of such importance.
Nevertheless, Zinedine Zidane will have asked his squad to gather themselves and switch focus back to their La Liga duties on Sunday, knowing Madrid are still in with a small chance of lifting the domestic title should neighbours Atletico and Barcelona slip-up in the next week.
Real required a Gareth Bale intervention to rescue maximum points for the second week running when winning 1-0 away at Real Sociedad last Saturday. It’s now 10 triumphs on the spin for Los Blancos but that statistic does flatter the capital club ever so slightly.
Zidane’s team haven’t been as domineering and as clear-cut as previous regimes and at Anoeta, the game appeared to be running away from Madrid, who were without Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo returned in midweek but Benzema again missed out and Jese or Lucas Vasquez have yet to really flourish in the role of understudy in the offensive three.
As for Valencia, after giving the side the big build-up ahead of their contest with Villarreal last Sunday, Pako Ayestaran’s men deservedly fell to defeat at the Mestalla despite the fact their opponents made 10 changes after their Europa League victory against Liverpool.
Los Che still reside in the top-half of the table but that loss ended their recent resurgent form and, whilst the visitors remain keen to see out the campaign in style, there are still clearly teething problems at the club that will need addressing over the summer.
For what it’s worth, Valencia do tend to raise their game when taking on the league’s elite.
Although their triumph at Barcelona recently was a little fortunate, they have picked up draws in each of their last four visits to the Bernabeu.
And since 2010/11, Los Che have W2-D4-L5 when travelling to either Barcelona or Real Madrid – an excellent return for avoiding defeat. However, with little but pride left to play for, I’m not convinced they’ll be strong enough to extend that run of results on Sunday afternoon.
As the odds suggest, a home success is the most likely outcome and although this fixture tends to produce goals (and plenty of them), it might be wise to go against the grain and oppose goals in a home victory.
Real Madrid to win and Under 4.5 Goals is available to back at 11/10 and holds plenty of appeal considering just two of Valencia’s last 11 trips to the big-two have broken the Over 4.5 Goals barrier, and only three of Real’s 21 encounters with clubs in 12th and above this season have followed suit.
Real Madrid to win & Under 4.5 Goals @ 11/10
Torino v Napoli, Sunday 8 May 19.45, BT Sport Europe
Serie A’s race to finish next past the post following Juventus’ title triumph resumes on Sunday, with both Napoli and Roma desperate to clinch second and automatic qualification into next season’s Champions League group-phase.
Roma kick off proceedings in the early game when welcoming Chievo to the Stadio Olimpico and you can be sure Napoli players, coaches and supporters will be tuning in ahead of their own contest at Torino on Sunday night.
The Partenopei have stuttered since early February, giving their table-topping position away and allowing the Giallorossi to close to within two points of their position in second. Only a fortnight ago, an 89th-minute Roma winner sank Napoli when the two went head-to-head.
That loss has meant Maurizio Sarri’s men have W6-D2-L4 in their last 12 league outings although Monday night’s 2-1 home triumph over Atalanta was considerably more comfortable than the final scoreline suggested.
But it’s Napoli’s road record that’s begun to be questioned. Only one point has been picked up at the top-six (W0-D1-L4) and, when excluding sides in 14th and below, the Partenopei have managed just W3-D3-L5. So 1.40 quotes on an away success here make little appeal.
For large parts of the campaign, Torino have unimpressed. Veteran head coach Giampiero Ventura has faced harsh calls to resign as the Granata plodded their way through their inconsistent season with little direction or strategy.
Between December and March, the Bulls bagged just W2-D6-L8 culminating in their Turin derby defeat to Juventus. But Torino put in a composed display during that reverse before collecting W4-D0-L2 from their last six to safely assume their position in mid-table.
The Granata’s biggest problem has been taking points off teams in the top-half. The hosts have W2-D4-L11 across 17 matches and at their Stadio Olimpico base their record against the top-10 reads a rather uninspiring W1-D3-L4.
With little left to play for bar pride, the bookmakers are expecting Torino to rollover here but I’m not convinced the Bulls will be easily swatted aside.
Since the start of last season, Ventura’s charges have lost just 3/37 (8%) of their home fixtures by more than a one-goal margin.
During the same sample, Napoli have seen off their opponents by two goals or more on 8/37 (22%) occasions when on the road but more recently their away day blues (W1-D1-L4) have suggested they’re far from formidable visitors.
The Partenopei should be taking maximum points here but I just can’t find reason to justify their short-priced odds and therefore I’m more than happy to oppose a comfortable away success by backing Torino with 2+ handicap at 7/10 on Sunday night.
Torino v Napoli – Torino +2 handicap @ 7/10
*Prices correct at time of publication.