No Zlatan, but still worth a watch

Four derbies mark Liga week 14 as Barça and Real patch up injury-hit squads

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo takes part in a training session on Friday.
Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo takes part in a training session on Friday.GERARD JULIEN (AFP)

A battered and bruised La Liga returns to domestic action after an exhilarating international break that served to confirm Cristiano Ronaldo’s state of grace at the expense of Sweden in the World Cup playoffs. The Real Madrid forward hit a hat-trick in Stockholm on Tuesday to guide Portugal to Brazil 2014, prompting the ever-demure Zlatan Ibrahimovic to declare that a World Cup without his presence wasn’t “worth watching.”

“Ibracadabra” doesn’t just talk a good game: few players in the world can dust the field with quite the magic the big Swede possesses in his boots, and he certainly has the skills to shoot down any suggestion that he is too big for his Nikes.

A different type of boot was delivered to Lionel Messi this week: the golden variety. The Barcelona star picked up his third top European league scorer award and it is his absence with a hamstring injury that Gerardo Martino must find a formula to negate in what remains of the year. Visiting Camp Nou this weekend is the very cosmopolitan Granada, which has only lost once on the road this season and sits comfortably in eighth in the division. Barcelona is hardly short of cover for the diminutive goal machine and Neymar, Cesc Fàbregas and red-hot Chile side-stepper Alexis Sánchez, who bagged both goals in his country’s 2-0 victory over England at Wembley, should prove sufficient to maintain Barcelona’s advantage at the top of the table.

However, with Víctor Valdés also sidelined for the rest of the year, Granada will certainly try to warm the hands of occasional stopper José Manuel Pinto as often as possible.

Ronaldo has bagged 24 goals in 17 games so far this season as he bears down on his second Ballon d’Or

Four derbies are on the card this week. Sevilla versus Betis is one of the spiciest on the world game’s menu and the home side will be aiming to heap more opprobrium on Pepe Mel’s struggling verdiblancos, currently rock bottom of the division. Unai Emery’s Sevilla has had an up-and-down campaign thus far, but the return of striker Rubén Castro from injury, Ivan Rakitic’s exceptional form and the giddy memory of hammering Betis 5-1 in the same fixture last season all point to another hefty serving of derby misery for the visiting side.

Out to erase the relative setback of a tie at Villarreal in its last Liga fixture, Atlético hosts Getafe in a Madrid derby, while Elche and Valencia vie for regional bragging rights alongside fourth-placed Villarreal and Levante, who square off in the latter’s Ciutat de Valencia stadium.

Real Madrid was on the receiving end of the worst that the so-called “Fifa virus” dished out over the international fixtures, losing Sami Khedira for the season to a cruciate ligament tear, as well as Fábio Coentrão, who joins fellow left back Marcelo on the Bernabéu treatment table. Álvaro Arbeloa almost wound up in goal during Spain’s insipid 1-0 loss to the Bafana Bafana in South Africa, and the versatile defender may be drafted in to fill the gap. In any case, with Ronaldo in imperious form and 17th-placed Almería — which has won more games away than in its own stadium — the opponent, there will not be a huge run on betting for a home win. Ronaldo has bagged 24 goals in 17 games so far this season and is bearing down on his second Ballon d’Or award with gusto. It promises to be a trying Saturday afternoon for Almería’s rearguard.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS