¡Hay Liga! La Liga – Season Preview

by Aarony Zade

So here we are and the first jornada of the new La Liga season is upon is; or is it? Well, as you all know, the season was delayed by the strike organised by AFE, the Spanish players’ union, and this leaves us starting with the second matchday’s fixtures. Which makes it fortunate for the league that the matter was resolved in time for this weeks fixtures. The LFP might be a travelling fan’s worst nightmare with their inability to confirm the exact time, or even day, that matches start in any given weekend, but boy!

They will not break-up a matchday and leave teams with games in hand; not even when Barcelona were in action in the European Supercup, nor when they take part in this year’s World Club Championships to win the title they snatched in dramatic style from Argentina’s Estudiantes two years ago. The former matchday 1 will be shoehorned in somewhere; shoeing-in two whole jornadas would probably have meant no winter break, and no turrones for the footballers of La Liga.

We won’t dwell too much on the strike, other than to go through some of the main points. Eventually on the Thursday, the league (LFP) acquiesced to the players demands. This had nothing to do with the conditions of superstar players, but they showed solidarity with those further down the chain. Given the unequal TV deal that sees Madrid and Barcelona take a huge majority of the league’s TV income for themselves alone (Third-placed Valencia, a big club in their own right made something akin to West Ham- bottom-placed West Ham- last season. Go lower down the league and many of the smaller teams are lucky to pocket €12m a season. And as for the second division…. forget about parachute payments.

There is no sporting penalty in Spain for clubs which enter into administration; for many, it’s a handy way of washing the club’s hands of debts brought on by their own hideous mismanagement. And who suffers from this primarily? The players. Players who have given their all even when going unpaid for months are then told, sorry, but your contracts are worthless; and then paid far less than they were owed. If they get paid at all. And bearing in mind that this hits the smaller teams more often, whose players are on very small money and might have trouble paying their mortgages, this was a farce that had to be ended. Finally, the league agreed to increase the pot held to pay players’ salaries in the event of clubs messing them about, knowingly signing players to deals they can’t afford. It’s a small stepping stone to introducing financial prudence in La Liga; a lot more needs to be done. This will be a point we’ll return to, no doubt, later on this season.

And what a mouth-watering prospect this season is. Ever since the spell where clubs like Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal could make serious assaults on the title (Villarreal coming second in 2008 saw the end of that era), this is arguably the most anticipated season in many. Not because the Madrid/Barcelona duopoly will be broken- but that contest at the top could be very interesting indeed- but because the field below them, arguably even including Valencia, is as wide open as its been in years. The competition for Champions League football and the Europa League spots is going to intense, and hard to predict.

Yes, Málaga’s continued investment is a big part of it. But it’s not the only part; and, potentially, maybe not even the most exciting part either. But it’s impossible to ignore.

When Málaga were rescued from administration just over a year ago, their new owners’ vision was to build something. They didn’t splash silly money before the summer window ended, but brought in 5 players, some young and with potential, to supplement their squad. The problem was that under former Porto coach, Jesualdo Ferreira, and with several injuries they were floundering. So they ditched Ferreira, and brought in the ex-Villarreal and Real Madrid boss, Manuel Pellegrini. And some more players. Injuries were still an issue, and relegation still looking likely when they extended Pellegrini’s contract. Then Julio Baptista, signed over the winter, recovered fitness and started banging them in. Young Venezuelan striker Salomón Rondón was a revelation. Given the tight nature of the league, they finished eleventh in the end, and looking like a pretty good team to boot with their new additions bedded down and first team fit.

The amount of money they’ve spent this summer has caught the eye. No club in Spain outside the big two could make a netspend like that. But this looks to be something bigger than just money. Off the field, they have been equally impressive. With an excellent coach at the helm, they brought in former Sevilla sporting director, Antonio Fernández, This is the same Fernández who brought Sevilla to a level where they could realistically compete with the big boys for the title, to two Europa League titles, all this not long after they’d come up from the second division. It was Fernández who discovered Julio Baptista and one Daniel Alves, as well as Seydou Keita and Adriano, now also at Barcelona. He was the man who brought in the likes of Fredi Kanouté when Tottenham wanted shot, and Luis Fabiano when few in Europe would have touched him. This is a man who knows a thing or two about managing a project. Not only that- they also recruited Fernando Hierro from his post as technical director at the Spanish Football Federation. Hierro, Pellegrini, Fernández… these are all football men, with impeccable track records.

Then of course there are the players. I said that they already had a pretty decent team in the offing. But not with depth. Now they have potentially a very good team at hand. More importantly, they have a squad, and it’s a strong one. All of their purchases look sensible too. They’ve bought youth, one a full Spain international already. They bought experienced old heads. They’ve players at their peak, none more so than Santi Cazorla from Villarreal. Once, a player of his calibre would have ended up at two places- either at Madrid or Barça, or in England. Young Isco of Valencia arrives fresh from underage success with Spain this summer, and Macho Monreal a promising left-back with 5 senior caps came from Osasuna. Argentine Diego Buonanotte is a talented attacker who arrives at a good age, 21, for his first crack at European football. Then of course there are the likes Jérémy Toulalan and Joris Mathijsen, at the peak of their careers; along with one Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the twilight of his, but a player who continues to score goals wherever he plays. Pellegrini has form from his Villarreal days of managing comings and goings of players, and finding the perfect blend of youth and experience. This can only bode well.

Valencia made some shrewd moves in the market, and if at one point it looked likely that Juan Mata was going to stay, his purchases will lessen this defection. Dani Parejo from Getafe was a smart signing, and Pablo Piatti excelled at times for an Almería side who were little other than awful on their way to relegation. They’ve strengthened their goalkeeping options and, crucially, central defence with Adil Rami of French Champions, Lille. Then of course there is the loan signing of Sergio Canales after his year in the wilderness at Real Madrid. This kid has real talent, so it will be interesting to see him getting game time in a good side (even if he can’t play against Real).

Villarreal were definitely weakened by the loss of Cazorla and Joan Capdevila, who departed for Benfica. But, despite serious interest at times from both Barcelona and Juventus, they’ve kept hold of Giuseppe Rossi, along with his strike partner Nilmar, and Borja Valero. Coach Garrido will have to rely again this year on an intake of youngsters from the cantera, but with Villarreal’s B team the only playing in the second division (along with Barcelona), there is much promise to be mined there. Their only two money signings of the summer were Javier Camuñas from Osasuna and they pacey Colombia central defender-cum-right back Cristian Zapata of Udinese. Despite enduring a nightmare competitive debut where he gave away a winning goal at Odense in the Champions League qualifiers, his pace, power and technique should be a boon in La Liga after impressing for several seasons in Serie A.

But, outside of the top two and Málaga, the arrival that has generated most excitement isn’t a player. No; it’s the arrival of former Chile and Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. It looked like he might have taken the Internazionale job earlier this summer, and despite the intrigue of seeing what he might achieve at a club with big resources, this could prove to be a much better fit for El Loco.

He arrives at a good moment for Bilbao. Long famed for their direct style which their last boss Juan Caporrós was happy to abide by, they are also blessed with a generation of young technical players to support the excellent Fernando Llorente up front, including the wonder Iker Munain. Ander Herrera, another promising underage international arrived from Zaragoza. There are pros and cons to this job for Bielsa. The biggest pro is that, in many ways, his rigorous style is far better suited to club management; something which makes his international achievements more impressive. The one black mark on his CV was the failure of 2002 with Argentina which can largely be attributed to the poor physical condition of many of his key players, which mitigated against his high-energy style in a big way. Going down 1-0 against an England rearguard action following a penalty won through a blatant Michael Owen dive didn’t help either. Blessed with the players at his disposal day in day out, and young talented minds to mould, he can realistically achieve a level of cohesion that would take a year- or even a couple of years- with a national side.

The downside, of course is that Bilbao’s policy makes bringing in new players a challenge, and fatigue and injuries could take a toll as they compete on two fronts. As for his much beloved 3-3-1-3 formation, Bielsa remains a pragmatist. Three at the back is very useful against the twin-striker formations common in South America, but he has shifted to playing a back four when faced with more European-style 4-2-3-1s, and has used four at the back for the most part in their preparation matches and in training. With his emphasis on playing a high-tempo pressing game camped in the opposing half, there could even be echoes of Sevilla at their peak if they manage to hit the ground running.

But there was, of course, one big name and very exciting signing made late this week. Atlético Madrid finally invested some of their windfall from Kun Aguero and David De Gea to bring in Radamel Falcão García and the promising attacking midfielder Rúben Micael for a combined €46m from FC Porto. Earlier moves saw them bring in the highly rated Arda Turan from Galatasaray and Sílvio of Braga, alongside Gabi of Zaragoza. Finally, former underage starlet Dani Pacheco was drafted in on loan from Liverpool, although they missed out on Espanyol’s Pablo Osvaldo, who joins Luís Enrique’s BarçaRoma revolution in Italy.

The picture suddenly looks a lot brighter for new boss Gregorio Manzano. As a man who believes in building team unity, the departure of one superstar in Aguero and likely move of another (Diego Forlán looking set for Inter), he has a great opportunity to construct anew here. Much will be expected of Falcão, and fortunately here there is much more to the forward’s game than we saw at Porto; where he was asked to play a limited game, holding his position up front to showcase his finishing and sublime heading ability while the rest of the team harried and pressed. With the excellent José Antonio Reyes approaching something close to his Sevilla and early Arsenal form in recent years, they have potential.

Of the others, we expect that bottom half of the table to be just as tigh t- if not tighter! – than last year. The promoted sides all look set to struggle, although Granada continue to benefit from being a dumping ground of promising, young Udinese talent farmed out on loan for development. Sevilla made a smart move in buying Martin Cáceres outright from Barcelona and also good (and decent signings) like Emir Saphic (Montpellier); Piotr Trochowski (Hamburg); Manu de Moral (Getafe); and Coke (Rayo). Under new coach Marcelino, and with last season’s revelation in the run-in, Ivan Rakitic here for his first full season, they can benefit from their early exit in the Europa League.

And that leaves us with the big two. Most of you will already know the comings and goings here, and many more will have caught the enthralling Supercopa clashes between the two over the past fortnight. Several simple things we can say, some of them rather obvious; Real are looking to be a far more coherent unit as José Mourinho enters the second year he always asked to be judged upon. Poor finishing let them down against an understrength Barcelona side they absolutely battered into the first leg, but against a full-strength side they were scarcely less impressive with their aggressive pressing and willingness to attack. That the starting line-up in the first leg (and, bar one change, the second) was the side which were torn apart at the Camp Nou last Autumn tells you a lot about how they are progressing. And Karim Benzema is fit, lean, and looking like the stellar prospect we knew at Lyon.

They have bought little but bought smartly; adding depth to an already impressive squad. Fabio Coentrão came in for big money from Benfica and had an excellent preseason, but not in the roles where most expected him to be tried; instead, he found his home largely on the left of a three man midfield. Raphael Varrane of Lens, stolen from under the nose of Manchester United, is one for the future but physically built for now if called upon. Nuri Sahin of Dortmund is a fantastic passer of the ball from deep, and will make up for the amount of points dropped against lesser sides anytime Xabi Alonso was missing last season, but can also be expected to play alongside Alonso at times. Hamit Altintop and José Callejon, excellent at Espanyol last season add endeavour, purpose and yet more depth.

Depth too has been the watchword at Barcelona, and an acknowledgement of the extreme good fortune they’ve enjoyed with injuries having had such a light squad under Pep Guardiola. It’s no coincidence that their one European failure under Guardiola came when Andrés Iniesta was absent against Inter in 2010. Some observers, mostly in the British isles, have scoffed at the idea of Cesc Fábregas warming the bench. Don’t expect him to; the same was said of Javier Mascherano last year too, yet he played a key role in midfield, centre half, and even at left back as Barcelona claimed a double. Cesc is likely to play a similar amount of games, 35-40, in a season where we can expect Barcelona to exceed the 60 game mark once again. The emergence of Thiago Alcantara makes what was the lightest area of their squad look frighteningly well-stocked. Alexis Sánchez will be bedded in more slowly, and has already show signs that he’s a perfect fit for the Guardiola style. He too will get plenty of action, and his ability to play right across (and indeed, behind) the front three means that Lionel Messi can be rested too.

The gap has narrowed and it’s going to be an epic encounter between these two sides. Don’t bet against them going all the way in the Champions League either.

Jornada 1

Saturday:
Sporting Gijon 1-2 Real Sociedad
Valencia 4-3 Racing Santander
Granada 0-1 Real Betis

Sunday:
Atlético Madrid v Osasuna (13:00 GMT)
Athletic Bilbao v Rayo Vallecano (15:00 GMT)
Getafe v Levante (17:00 GMT)
Mallorca v Espanyol (17:00 GMT)
Zaragoza v Real Madrid (19:00 GMT)
Sevilla v Málaga (21:00 GMT)

Monday:
Barcelona v Villarreal (20:00 GMT)

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