Call me a wild-eyed optimist, but I have a sneaky feeling Betis might end their bad run tonight. My reasons for such foolishness are as follows: 1) Rubén Castro is back; 2) Betis always play better against good teams, especially at home; 3) As we've discovered in previous years, bad runs can't last forever; 4) It's been a simply gorgeous day here in Seville and no-one can stay gloomy for long when the sun's shining in this city. Not exactly scientific, is it?
Still, it's good to be positive - which I suspect is why Pepe Mel decided to break the normal routine and take his squad away for a mini-break this week. Hopefully, they'll come into the game full of fresh ideas and renewed vigour, in which case they might even cause the country's undisputed fourth-best team some problems. It's only two games ago that Betis looked perfectly fine (except for some dodgy finishing which let Valladolid off the hook) and Málaga certainly aren't invincible (as they showed by losing to Deportivo shortly after Christmas). There's no reason at all to be fearful.
The 18-man squad - Adrián, Casto, Ángel, Mario, Perquis, Pabón, Joel, Amaya, Molina, Rubén Castro, Sergio, Nono, Beñat, Cañas, Pozuelo, Chica, Juan Carlos, Nacho - is certainly interesting, including as it does both Rubén and Pozuelo, plus Betis B's extremely promising attacking midfielder Sergio Rodríguez, who would surely have made more first-team appearances this season if not for a prolonged industry. The word is that Pepe Mel is thinking of starting with a conventional 4-4-2, but whether Rubén will be fit enough to start is unknown. Paulao is suspended and both Rubén Pérez and Salva Sevilla are injured.
For Málaga, all eyes will be on the two ex-Béticos. Joaquín remains a verdiblanco idol and looks ever more likely to return to the club just as soon as Málaga have had enough of him, but Roque Santa Cruz is persona non grata round these parts and is assured of a hot reception if he takes the pitch (most likely as a sub). After a generally decent 2011/12 season on loan at Betis, he led club officials to believe he would return for this season, only to change his mind so late in the day that the club didn't have time to sign a replacement (or so the story goes). Betis's lack of a back-up target man has cost them dear all season - even more so given Jorge Molina's drastic loss of form - and Béticos hold RSC 100 per cent responsible. These things are rarely as simple as they appear to fans, but it did feel something of a betrayal at the time and Pepe Mel certainly seemed disappointed in the player. I for one will be booing him lustily.
Of course, Málaga are about more than two players, and they can also boast arguably the best goalkeeper in La Liga not called Iker Casillas in Willy Caballero, plus one of the most coveted under-21s in world football, attacking midfielder Isco. They're unbeaten in five league games, still have a good chance of making the Champions League quarter-finals after a narrow 1-0 defeat in Porto, and are guided by one of the best coaches around in Manuel Pellegrini. In short, they're good.
But we're going to stay upbeat, aren't we? If Betis can feed Juan Carlos and Joel Campbell on the wings, if Beñat can finally rediscover his mojo with the help of best mate Cañas, and if Rubén Castro can do what his colleagues have patently failed to do lately AND PUT THE BALL IN THE BACK OF THE DAMN NET...then we have a chance. C'mon, boys - time to stop messing around.