La Liga Previewed – Part 2
August 23, 2012 in La Liga
Things couldn’t have looked rosier at La Rosaleda (pardon the pun) after the arrival in the summer of 2010 of Qatari billionaire Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser as Málaga’s new owner. High profile signings followed, as did experienced, former Villarreal and Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini. The arrival of influential midfielder Santi Cazorla from Villarreal a year ago, the final piece in the Málaga jigsaw, saw the side soar – excuse my choice of words – to fourth place in Spain’s Primera División and earn themselves a Champions League berth for 2012. Before the celebrations had even subsided, it became clear all was not well money-wise at Málaga, with at least four players complaining about unpaid wages. One of them, the brilliant Cazorla – just as he had been at Villarreal – was sold to Arsenal to balance the books. Victory over Greek side Panathinaikos in a tricky Champions League qualifier would see them move directly into the group stages, thereby giving the club a massive boost. Quite what the effect on their Primera campaign would be, though, remains to be seen. Keep an eye on Francisco Alarcón, aka “Isco” – he’s top quality.
No such drama with local(ish) rivals Granada CF, who arrived in the first division via an acrimonious 2010-11 play-off victory over Elche. A steady, if unspectacular, season then followed, and the same is expected this season with a relegation battle highly likely. Their saving grace may well be a year’s experience in the top flight and a couple of marginally worse teams keeping them company at the foot of the table. A better disciplinary record, considering that last year nine of their players left early, would certainly help matters.
As a city, Sevilla is one of Spain’s finest, a statement in stark contrast to the fortunes of its two fantastically well-supported football clubs. With more than 40,000 season ticket holders, Real Betis, traditionally Sevilla’s working class football club, have spent just two of the previous eleven seasons in the Segunda División, without ever really troubling the history books. Lengthy runs in the top flight are invariably followed by relegation and an immediate return. Thirteenth place in the classification last season followed a nondescript, stop start campaign; their first back amongst the big boys after winning the Second Division the previous year. Rubén Castro, a centre-forward from Las Palmas, will be their main man as they try to engineer a top ten finish. Barely five kilometres across the city, things aren’t a lot happier at fierce rivals Sevilla FC, where the resident hooligans, the Biris Norte – Biris Naughty would be just as appropriate – intend to boycott one or more home fixtures in a protest against club president Jose Maria del Nido. On the pitch, Sevilla really should be challenging for third or fourth place and not the dismal ninth of last season. Spanish internationals Jesús Navas and Álvaro Negredo have the quality to propel Sevilla far higher – for them, consistency is the key.
It’s quite easy to feel a little sorry for Espanyol and Real Sociedad, big clubs in their own right but forever in the shadows of better known rivals. Espanyol is the second team in the city of Barcelona and are generally accepted as being on the right of the Spanish political spectrum. Famous for not a lot more than the longest run in Spain’s top division without ever winning it, they’re managed by the likeable Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, who has been at the helm since 2009, his first coaching role. 2012/13 looks like being another so-so season for Espanyol, for whom Sergio Garcia will be the main man, and keep an eye out for Ghanaian midfielder Wakaso Mubarak too.
Real Sociedad’s best years came in the 80′s, with back-to-back title wins, though as recently as 2003, they were runners up to Real Madrid. Successive mid-table finishes since then have been punctuated by three years in the Second Division for this sleeping giant, for whom rivals Athletic Bilbao capture most of the Basque country headlines. Even with the undoubted talents of striker Carlos Vela, veteran Xabi Prieto and highly rated winger Antoine Griezmann, the new season looks like being more of the same for Sociedad, who could only manage a comfortable twelfth place last year.
As a rule of thumb, the top of the Primera División tends to look after itself, with the basement being where most of the fun and games are to be had. Real Valladolid, with their fabulous purple and white striped shirts, arrived at the top table courtesy of a play-off win over Alcorcon. In what is sure to be a disappointing season, promotion season top scorer Javi Guerra will be their star man. Another team sure to be lurking around the drop zone towards the end of the coming campaign will be Real Zaragoza. They survived on the last day of the season, finishing two points above an unlucky Villarreal, the third team through the relegation trapdoor. Helder Postiga, well known to Tottenham fans for being quite crap, will be their main hope for survival.
Osasuna surprised quite a few people last year with a very respectable 7th place finish and will do incredibly well to repeat the feat. Unfortunately for them, their home town, Pamplona, is better known not for football but the eight-day bull fighting festival in July, the highlight of which is the running of the bulls through the city’s streets. On-loan top scorer Raul Garcia has returned to Atletico Madrid and his absence is surely to be keenly felt by coach Jose Luis Mendilibar. Joaquín Caparrós has one of the longest CVs of all the managers presently active in Spanish football, and starts his second season in the managerial hot seat at Real Mallorca hoping to emulate, or better, last season’s eighth place in the classification. This season, just like last, the organisational skills of rugged Portuguese defender and club captain José Nunes will again be key for the men from Palma.
I alluded earlier to the fragile peace which appears to have broken out in order simply to get the season under way on time last weekend, which, to the relief of everyone it did. Below the surface, though, things are far from rosy with competing broadcasters Gol-TV and Canal+, or rather, their parent organisations, MediaPro and Prisa, squabbling over television rights. Given that between them, Barcelona and Real Madrid each help themselves to approaching 40% of the available TV income, it’s no surprise, therefore, that thirteen of the other clubs in the division have grouped together in the hope of forcing a new, collective deal, the kind which exists everywhere else in Europe. Somehow, a full set of ten fixtures was completed over the first weekend of the championship, albeit with three games kicking-off at the ridiculous time of 11pm, collateral damage in the unpleasant off-field skirmishing between the aforementioned warring parties.
The results for Jornada 1 were as follows:- Celta Vigo 0 – 1 Málaga; Sevilla 2 – 1 Getafe; Mallorca 2 – 1 Espanyol; Athletic Club 3 – 5 Real Betis; Real Madrid 1 – 1 Valencia; Barcelona 5 – 1 Real Sociedad; Levante 1 – 1 Atletico Madrid; Deportivo 2 – 0 Osasuna; Rayo Vallecano 1 – 0 Granada; Real Zaragoza 0 – 1 Real Valladolid. Ominously, for everyone else, Lionel Messi was on target twice in the first half at the Camp Nou. What at first glance was a routine home win for Real Mallorca was notable for two goals on different days by Israeli striker Tomer Hemed. In the first of those three late kick-offs, his opener came on Friday evening with the second of his pair five minutes before the end in the early hours of Saturday. It’s going to be a fun season.
Top three – 1/Real Madrid, 2/ Barcelona, 3/ Atletico Madrid
Relegated – 18/ Celta Vigo, 19/ Rayo Vallecano 20/ Real Valladolid