FEB 26: LA LIGA SUNDAY, BARCA AND MADRID

REAL MADRID and Barcelona are both in action on a bumper super Sunday in La Liga as the race for the title and the Pichichi seems but one and the same.

Jose Mourinho’s league leaders have been rampaging through the domestic calender like a team possessed – if they already aren’t – with retaking the championship and ending the seemingly infallible streak of their greatest rivals. A series of frustrating results on the road has gifted Madrid the opportunity and the confidence to roar 10 points ahead with a sole Clasico left to narrow the gap.

They head to the working-class suburb of  Vallecas and the noisy home of Rayo Vallecano in today’s early kick-off (3pm) in what should be a feisty little affair. One of the perennial yo-yo clubs of Spanish football, they’ve solidified this season and currently sit in eighth, a point off Espanyol and Atletico Madrid for the last European spot – but only a mere eight points from relegation. This game means a lot to Madrid but it’s by no means an empty challenge from their little neighbours.

They’re leading Osasuna, Sevilla and Villarreal, winning their past three games and taking 10 points from 12 in their last four matches.

Real have won 18 out of their last 19 games – eight of those are on the road along with five clean sheets – and the money is on that thunder to keep rolling (2-5, Blue Square to win).

Madrid are also the top-scoring away side in the league this season with 30 goals and have picked up more points than any other side. Sportingbet offer 6-5 on over 3.5 goals which seems decent value but a free-scoring Real have made even four-goal games too common for the bookies’ liking.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo (11) and Fernando Llorente (7) have scored more away goals in the league this season than Gonzalo Higuain (6). “CR7″ is 23-10 to open the scoring (Blue Square), 8-15 anytime (Stan James) and, my tip, 9-4 (Boylesports) to score two or more.

Barcelona are back in action after a week-long break, determined to claw back the deficit as they travel to the Vicente Calderon – a place where they’ve struggled throughout the Pep Guardiola era, picking up just one win from three attempts last season.

Atleti have been slowly improving under new manager Diego Simone, knocking Lazio out of the Europa League in midweek to make the last 16, and are unbeaten under him in the league with three wins and four draws.

Traditionally, these games are highly entertaining with goals aplenty and possession is key with rapid counter attacks testing two creaking defences. One of the most interesting aspects of Madrid’s attacks is their well-worked corner kicks. They put Lazio under severe pressure from set-pieces, forcing 10 corners and scoring the decisive goal through Diego Godin from one. Over 10 corners pays 21-20 at bet365.

An interesting extension of this is over 2.5 goals and over 10 corners at 2-1 with Paddy Power.

Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are expected to return to the heart of the Barca defence, a definite boost with Dani Alves and Eric Abidal likely to complete the Catalans’ preferred backline.

Xavi is still struggling with injury and the politics over his omission from the Spain squad and, if he’s selected to start today, might not be worth the hassle for either Guardiola or Vicente del Bosque. This should lead to Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta strating in midfield along with Sergio Busquets.

Barca have lost twice at the Vicente Calderon under Pep and Atleti are 6-1 (Paddy Power, various) while I think the goals market is a good look at with both teams to score paying out 8-11 (bet365, Stan James, various others) especially seeing as there’s been 50 goals  (36 by Barca, 14 by Atletico) in the last 10 league meetings.

Madrid will welcome back Radamel Falcao to the starting line-up but he’s currently on his worst run at the club, failing to net in his last four La Liga appearances. He’s 5-2, Stan James to score anytime and end that streak today.

Lionel Messi is on fire, netting a glorious four goals against Valencia last Saturday and he has bagged a total of 14 goals against the men in red and white throughout his league career  – more than any other side in Primera.

He’s a tempting 13-5 to opening the scoring (bet365), 8-13 anytime (Stan James) or my pick for a hat-trick at 10-1 with Boylesports. Alexis Sanchez this week spoke about how he’s come on leaps and bounds while playing alongside the Argentine and the goal rush has rubbed off on his fellow South American with Sanchez hitting 11 in 25 matches, despite injury interrupting his debut season. He’s 11-10 to notch again today.

  • SUPER SUNDAY DOUBLE: Rayo v Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid v Barca to both be over 3.5 goals pays out at just over 5-1 at Betfred.
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