Friday, January 29, 2010

Friends Of Don Quixote: Pressure Point

Real Madrid must break its hex at the Riazor on Saturday to remain within striking distance of Barcelona in the standings.

Fernando Hierro, Michel and Emilio Butragueno. Those were the three goalscorers the last time Real Madrid won away to Deportivo, all the way back in November 1991. Since then, Madrid has even managed two victories at the Camp Nou, but none in La Corona.

Manuel Pellegrini's side would be well advised to put an end to this astonishing drought on Saturday. The Merengues head into the weekend five points behind Barcelona, which is a far cry from the 12-point gap at the halfway mark last year, but relying on another second-half surge to catch a Barcelona team that has yet to lose a game this season could be a recipe for disaster.

The Blaugrana face a tricky away fixture earlier in the day against Sporting Gijon, but the way Barca has been brushing aside opponents in the league the past three weeks, Madrid can expect to be eight points back when it takes to the field. And while Barcelona still has to visit the Bernabeu in April, Real made the embarrassing mistake of assuming those three points last season.

It is imperative Madrid wins on Saturday to keep the Catalan giants within sight. Unfortunately, Pellegrini will likely be without his two best attacking players. Cristiano Ronaldo remains suspended after having an appeal of his controversial red card against Malaga flatly rejected, and Gonzalo Higuain probably won't recover in time from a thigh injury.

Rafael van der Vaart is also a major doubt with a muscle problem, which could bring Raul back into the fold. The captain hasn't started a single match since the Champions League encounter in November against FC Zurich. Pellegrini's only other choice would be Marcelo, who struggled two weeks ago in Bilbao, but who has played the most minutes of anyone other than Iker Casillas this season.

One name guaranteed to be on the team sheet is Jose Guti. The veteran midfielder looked good against Malaga, providing the assist for Ronaldo's second goal. He remains the biggest enigma in European soccer, unable to hold down a starting spot, but the fulcrum of Madrid's play any time he steps on the field. Guti's performance will be a major key against Deportivo.

Another important factor could be the absence of Filipe Luis. The Brazilian was lost for the season with a broken right ankle suffered last week against Athletic Bilbao, a devastating blow for Miguel Angel Lotina, as his bursting runs down the left side had become Deportivo's most dependable source of offense. Lotina is already without probably his most gifted player in Andres Guardado.

Most of the onus in terms of creativity now falls on Pablo Alvarez and Adrian Lopez. Striker Ivan Riki should return to the squad after battling injuries for the past several weeks, but imposing central defender Alberto Lopo faces a race against time to recover from a badly bruised knee. Deportivo is looking for a win to possibly reclaim a Champions League position.

The Galician club was bounced out of the Copa Del Rey by Sevilla midweek after failing to overturn a 3-0 deficit from the first leg. Manolo Jimenez's side moves on to face Getafe in the semifinals, but not before playing host to Valencia in a crucial league clash on Sunday. Sevilla also has its eye on fourth place, which currently belongs to Mallorca.

Gregorio Manzano takes his team to Xerez this weekend for what should be an easy three points.

Elsewhere, Villarreal can continue working its way up the table with a victory over Osasuna in El Madrigal, while Real Zaragoza heads to Tenerife for what actually shapes up as a winnable road game.

First Quest: Deportivo vs. Real Madrid
Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EST, ESPN Deportes

Manuel Pellegrini has issues at the back as well with Ezequiel Garay questionable for Saturday. The absence of the Argentine would likely force Sergio Ramos into to the middle with Alvaro Arbeloa replacing him at right back, as he did earlier this month against Mallorca. Such a scenario also calls for Marcelo to assume Arbeloa's left-back position.

If the Brazilian does indeed form part of the Real back line, Miguel Angel Lotina might consider using talented winger Ivan Perez from the start to take advantage of Marcelo's defensive frailties. Another key aspect of this game will be the ability of Antonio Tomas and Juca to cut off Guti's supply line to the likes of Kaka and Karim Benzema.

Deportivo will certainly miss the presence of Alberto Lopo if he can't play, but Ze Castro is capable of filling in reasonably well. Goalkeeper Daniel Aranzubia should be ready to go after battling injuries early in the week. Miguel Angel Lotina's side has been difficult to break down at home in the league, but the question is whether his team has enough quality up front to trouble Madrid.

Second Quest: Sevilla vs. Valencia
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. EST, Gol TV

Just when it appeared Sevilla was ready to take off, Manolo Jimenez's side produced a limp display at home last Saturday, barely scraping out a 1-0 win over Almeria. The good news is the return to form of Alvaro Negredo, who scored the only goal of the match. Frederic Kanoute is also back from Angola, giving Jimenez his full complement of strikers for the first time in weeks.

Sevilla did lose Ivica Dragutinovic for up to two months with a hip injury suffered against Deportivo in the Copa Del Rey. The Serbian defender was already suspended for Sunday's match. Whatever back line Jimenez puts out must be prepared to deal with a Valencia attack out for redemption. Los Che created plenty of chances in last week's scoreless draw against Tenerife, but players like David Villa and David Silva were unusually wasteful in front of goal.

Valencia remains one of the top visiting teams in all of Europe, and a win over Sevilla would maintain some distance between itself and the rest of the Champions League hopefuls. For the Andalucian side, the Almeria victory was the first at home in more than two months. Sevilla could use another three points against Valencia to convince its fans this season is back on track.

Ladies-in-waiting: Sporting Gijon vs. Barcelona
Saturday, 2:00 p.m. EST, Gol TV

Pep Guardiola recovers his other African Cup of Nations participant for the trip to Gijon, as Yaya Toure rejoined the squad on Thursday. But Daniel Alves is a major doubt with a calf injury. The Brazilian enjoyed a great game last week against Valladolid, playing a part in all three Barcelona goals. Carlos Puyol would likely take his place, with Dmytro Chygrynskiy starting in the middle.

Lionel Messi capped off the 3-0 victory with his 15th goal of the season, moving into first place in the race for the Pichichi. Sporting strengthened its squad this week by picking up midfielder Lola on loan from Espanyol, but Manuel Preciado's hopes for an upset will largely rest on the shoulders of talented winger Diego Castro, who has a knack for playing well against the big sides.

Ladies-in-waiting: Getafe vs. Racing Santander
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. EST, ESPN Deportes

Getafe notched its fourth consecutive home win last Sunday against Atletico Madrid, and will be further boosted by reaching the semifinals of the Copa Del Rey. But this week the tornado known as Sergio Canales comes to town. The youngster, who is headed to Real Madrid after next season, continues to dazzle in almost every match.

He capped off a brilliant all-around performance with another stunning goal on Wednesday in the second leg of a Copa Del Rey tie against Osasuna, and his enthusiasm has infected his teammates. With five wins in seven league games, Racing Santander is now very much in the hunt for an Europa spot, but a trip to the Alfonso Perez Coliseum will be the toughest test yet of this improbable resurgence.


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