Best La Liga matches for upcoming season

July, 22, 2011

Spain is not a country with a penchant for embracing change. Although the wide-held stereotype of the siesta is sadly not reflected in reality, it is possible to order lunch and dinner in any hostelry in the land simply by memorizing the first menu you happen to pick up. It is also quite easy to induce spluttering outrage by suggesting those two meals be taken at any time other than 2 and 10 p.m.

Jose MourinhoVictor Carretero/Real Madrid/Getty ImagesJose Mourinho's spells at Porto, Chelsea and Inter show that his second season at a club is his most successful, which makes the upcoming La Liga season all the more intriguing.

Recent protests across the country that found their way into international media were sparked by outrage at the perceived collusion between banks and the political parties to maintain the status quo at all costs. The ruling Socialists and the main opposition Popular Party roundly ignored the masses, with the latter set to replace the former in power after next year's general elections following a crushing victory in regional and local ballots in May. The crux of the so-called May 15 Movement's all-too-legitimate gripe is that it genuinely won't make a jot of difference to anyone but the politicians themselves. Vita procedit, and all that.

Which brings us to the Professional Football League's fixture computer. For a machine that should supposedly decide fixtures at random, there are few surprises when the calendar is released each summer. The first fixture on which the nation's collective eye alights is, of course, El Clasico, which invariably falls at the end of November or the beginning of December, with the return match normally in April -- and thus an annual title-decider, at least in theory.

Fans of Atletico and Barcelona look immediately to fixtures between Match Days 3 and 6 to see when the Azulgrana will be visiting the Calderon in one of the league's most eagerly awaited clashes. Real and Barca are invariably away on the final day of the season and Real Sociedad -- when in the top division -- seems to play one of the two, or Atletico/Athletic Bilbao, every opening round.

But the fixture fixer can throw up the occasional surprise, such as in the 2007-08 season when the Madrid derby was on Match Day 1.

Another concern is the consummate failure of the league's Monday night fixture last season to catch on. After two consecutive weeks in the slot, Atletico president Enrique Cerezo informed the powers that be that his side would refuse to play a third Monday. His statement was caused in no small part by adding an extra 24 hours to the wait for players of the national pools and by the inconvenience of attending a 9 p.m. kickoff on a working day. Unperturbed, La Liga is mulling a Friday night fixture this year. For an organization that is incapable of deciding kickoff times and even the days on which it will take place until 48 hours before the event -- a primary cause of the absence of away fans in La Liga -- it is an impressively optimistic undertaking.

Here are a few key fixtures of the season ahead.

Week 1: The only people who didn't smile broadly when the computer cranked out Sevilla versus Betis on the opening weekend were the members of the Seville police force and whoever is charged with clearing up after the match. Betis has been in Segunda for two seasons -- much to Sevilla fans' delight -- and it will relish the chance to regain local bragging rights. For its part, Sevilla will be only too happy to remind its city foe that when it last won this fixture, in 2008-09, Betis was relegated and Sevilla qualified for the Champions League. Barcelona's trip to superbly reinforced Malaga is the opening weekend's other standout match.

Week 6: Barcelona broke its Calderon hoodoo last season and completed a double over Atletico Madrid. The previous year, Atletico inflicted the champion's sole defeat of the season on the banks of the Manzanares. In 2008-09, Diego Forlan and Kun Aguero played the match of their lives to earn Atletico a dramatic 4-3 victory. The Calderon fixture (Feb. 25-26) is a nightmare for pools-playing sages. When the scene is Camp Nou, Atletico usually gets thrashed. Rayo fans also have the chance to watch their team in the Bernabeu on this weekend.

Week 14: Another year, another finger required to count back to the last time Atletico beat Real in the Madrid derby. It was in the 1999-00 season, as any Real fan will happily tell you.

Week 16: Proof at least that the computer is indeed random, as not even La Liga could have conspired to schedule the first Clasico of the season for Dec. 9-11, when Barcelona will be in Japan at the FIFA Club World Cup. It will have to be shifted, giving schedulers a headache before a ball has been kicked.

Week 18: The first round of matches after the winter break brings us the Catalan derby and a Valencia derby between Villarreal and Valencia.

Week 23: The "other" Madrid derby may not be quite as glamorous as its more celebrated counterpart, but it will be probably more fun to watch from the stands as Rayo hosts Getafe in a southern suburban dust-up.

Week 25: That Calderon clash with Barcelona beckons for Atletico. Who knows what state Gregorio Manzano will have whipped the Rojiblancos into by this stage? The veteran schemer saved Sevilla's season and more last year, but it will be a miracle if Atletico is within touching distance of Barca at the end of February. Valencia at home to Sevilla is the other must-watch fixture of the week.

Week 28: The start of a tricky run for Athletic, which should be in the top four around this stage of the season. One of the youngest and most exciting squads in the league -- record signing Ander Herrera was impressive at the European under-21 tournament in Denmark this summer -- and new coach Marcelo Bielsa's love of attacking football, coupled with Valencia's need to sell its best players over the summer and Sevilla's state of flux, makes this season the best chance Athletic has had in some time of making a return to the Champions League. The visit of Valencia is followed swiftly by games against Atletico, Barcelona and Sevilla.

Week 35: Barcelona won the league title by four points last year and by three points in 2009-10. The second Clasico of the season, at Camp Nou, will be preceded by more hype and fanfare than usual, as there is every suspicion that the two-horse race will be tighter still this time around. Jose Mourinho's spells at Porto, Chelsea and Inter show that his second season at a club has been his most successful. This could be the decider.

Week 38: The newly promoted sides -- Rayo, Granada and Betis -- will hope their fates have been resolved by this stage. The first two meet each other in Madrid, while Betis hosts Barcelona. That might not be a bad thing for the Verdiblancos, however, as Barcelona has fielded its under-16s in the final fixture of the season for the past three years.



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