Round 23 of 38 might be a little too early to mention relegation six-pointers, but with teams twelfth to twentieth a within a slender five points of each other and the gap widening between these teams and the first eleven of La Liga, a three-point win should not be underestimated as time snowballs downward to the end of the campaign.
Two of these meetings occur this weekend as Hércules hosts Real Zaragoza at the Estadio José Rico Pérez, and Almería travels to Valencia to face Levante.
After Hércules became the darling of Spain in the first half of the season with wins over Barcelona, Sevilla, and Atlético Madrid and a draw against Villarreal that prevented the Yellow Submarine from topping the table for the first time in their history, the Alicante-based team has lost four consecutive matches by multi-goal margins without scoring a single goal in the process. In their defense, three of those four losses came against clubs that currently sit on the top five, but the perennial second and third-tier team has more problems than their poor play on the pitch.
The whole Royston Drenthe pay-for-play saga has splintered the team into two different factions, some supporting him while others despise his stance, David Trézéguet has more than hinted that he wants out to return to his native France, and Nelson Haedo Valdez’s form has fallen precipitously as Hércules continues to struggle.
For Real Zaragoza, their trend is going completely opposite of Hércules. Before the winter break, Zaragoza did well to snatch a point at the Estadion Reyno de Navarra against Osasuna, but the bore 0-0 draw kept los maños as the cellar-dweller in La Liga with a paltry ten point through sixteen matches. The new year, however, brought a new revitalization to the Aragonese club, winning four of their six games in the league with their only loss understandably coming at the hands of Espanyol at the Cornellà – El Prat.
Zaragoza has risen to a lofty twelfth place on the back of this exceptional run, but they are only two points above the relegation zone, and the meat of their second-half schedule starts in a couple of weeks when they encounter Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Valencia, Mallorca, Sevilla, Getafe, and Villarreal in consecutive weeks. Of all the clubs fighting the drop, Zaragoza has done the best in terms of earning points against the other relegation rivals, so they will feel confident heading to Alicante on Sunday, even though they have recorded only one away victory this season.
After looking dead in the water for most of the campaign, Levante has suddenly won two straight matches against in-form sides Getafe and Villarreal and climbed within a point of rising out of the bottom three. Earlier in the season, Levante attempted to play an attractive style of football, but with the Segunda División looming with the losses piling up, they have opted to become much more physical, relying on more long-ball tactics and counter-attack opportunities to provide the goals, and Luis García Plaza’s team is finally starting to achieve the positivity in the negativity, per se.
Levante welcomes an Almería team that has won two of their last three games in the league, including a 3-2 stunner over Espanyol that saw the Andalucians build a three-goal lead within the first nineteen minutes of that match. The difference in Almería uptick in form has been the incorporation of José Leonardo Ulloa into the starting eleven. Used mostly as a super-sub throughout the majority of the season, José Luis Oltra has recently put him up front with Kalu Uche, and with Pablo Piatti and Albert Crusat flying down the wings, Almería’s attack has grown into a fearsome foursome. They will face a stiff, obstinate Levante resistance in Valencia on Sunday, and whoever wins the flank battle between Piatti and Crusat against the wily fullback veterans Javi Venta and Asier del Horno will be the overriding factor in the determination of this match.
The times listed are Eastern Standard Time (EST) and include the pregame pleasantries, although sometimes the matches on the DirecTV La Liga specific channels may not go to match coverage until right before kickoff.
Atlético Madrid vs. Valencia – 11:55 AM on Gol TV HD
Sporting Gijón vs. FC Barcelona – 1:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3
Racing de Santander vs. Sevilla – 3:55 PM on Gol TV HD
Real Sociedad vs. Osasuna – 10:45 AM on DirecTV channel 477 (477-1 for HD)
Málaga vs. Getafe – 10:45 AM on DirecTV channel 478 (478-1 for HD)
Hércules vs. Real Zaragoza – 10:55 AM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3
Deportivo La Coruña vs. Villarreal – 12:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3
Espanyol vs. Real Madrid – 2:55 PM on Gol TV HD
Mallorca vs. Athletic Bilbao – 2:45 PM on DirecTV channel 477 (477-1 for HD)
Unfortunately, the Levante – Almería match at the Estadi Ciutat de València will not be shown on US TV.