Sunday, August 26, 2007

La Liga season preview

This season is unprecedented in terms of spending: 477 million euros in total, breaking the previous record of 2000 by quite some distance. And the transfer window's not even closed yet. Whether all that spending will produce good football and an exciting league remains to be seen. But hey, it's not my favourite league for nothing, and the season ahead looks insanely exciting.

I'm not going to do predictions, because I'm superstitious that way. What I will offer is a question for each of the 20 teams in this season's Primera Liga.

Club: Almería
Coach: Unai Emery
In: Ortiz (Pol. Ejido), Felipe Melo (Racing), López Rekarte (Real Sociedad), Natalio (Castellón), Corona (Zaragoza), Dimas (Barcelona), Negredo (Real Madrid Castilla), Pulido (Getafe), Cobeño (Sevilla), Juanito (Real Sociedad), Diego (Atletico Mineiro), Julio dos Santos (Bayern)
Out: Valerio, De Palmas, Rodri, Larrea, Mena
My question: can the new signings help them stay up? Almeria have been tipped by many to go straight back down, and it's hard to argue with that. The list of signings certainly doesn't inspire confidence.

Club: Athletic Bilbao
Coach: Joaquin Caparrós
In: David López (Osasuna), Muñoz (Osasuna), Aitor Ocio (Sevilla), David Cuéllar (Nàstic), Gorka (Espanyol)
Out: Urzáiz (Ajax), Javi González (Hércules), Iturriaga (Salamanca), Lafuente (Espanyol), Sarriegi (Panathinaikos)
One to watch: midfield wizard Yeste needs to have a good season to help the team stay out of trouble
My question: Will Caparros lift them out of the hole they've been in for the past few seasons? They've lost a few important players, and while the enforcements are useful, they're not going to solve all of Athletic's problems. I see there's been a couple of impressive performers from their youth system (one of the best in Spain) during pre-season, who can hopefully help the club avoid another relegation battle.

Club: Atlético Madrid
European commitments: UEFA Cup via Intertoto Cup
Coach: Javier Aguirre
In: Raúl García (Osasuna), Diego Costa (Sporting Braga), Christian Abbiati (Milan), Luis García (Liverpool), Diego Forlán (Villarreal), Cléber Santana (Santos), Simão (Benfica), Jose Antonio Reyes (Real Madrid)
Out: Fernando Torres (Liverpool), Gabi (Zaragoza), Galletti (Olympiakos), Molinero (Mallorca), Martin Petrov (Manchester City), Pichu (Éibar)
One to watch: after all the hype, this could be Sergio Aguero's time to come good
My question: as with every season when they spend big - is this their year to push on and get into the Champions League? Atletico are the masters of the false dawn, but having managed to keep their admirable coach and spent wisely, they might benefit from the having the spotlight shifted off one person (the dearly departed Torres). Still looks a bit fragile in defence, but a midfield of Raul Garcia, Maniche, Simao and Maxi Rodriguez and a strike force of Aguero and Forlan ought to keep things ticking over nicely.

Club: Barcelona
European commitments: Champions League
Coach: Frank Rijkaard
In: Thierry Henry (Arsenal), Yaya Touré (Monaco), Eric Abidal (Lyon), Gabi Milito (Zaragoza)
Out: Gio van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord), Javier Saviola (Real Madrid), Ludovic Giuly (Roma), Maxi López (FC Moscow), Juliano Belletti (Chelsea)
One to watch: it's hoped that talented canterano Gio Dos Santos will follow the path of Messi circa 04-05 and be gradually eased into the first team.
My question: will dressing room infighting or fitness issues stop us from playing the way we did 2 seasons ago? If not, then we can talk about winning things.

If you have a season in which you're top of the league for 24 of the 38 weeks, score the most, concede the least, lose the least, and finish equal on points with the champions but still fail to win the league, you can draw one of two conclusions. One, that nothing is fundamentally wrong with the team, it was just luck that meant you lost out, and therefore big changes are unnecessary. Alternatively, you can see it as a signal that change is needed if a team who are evidently pretty good still failed to bring the title home. Those in charge at Barca seems to have staked out the middle ground by buying some players to bolster the current system. It remains to be seen how well they'll bed in.

Club: Real Betis
Coach: Héctor Cúper
In: Mark González (Liverpool), Marko Babic (Bayer Leverkusen), Mariano Pavone (Estudiantes), Ricardo (Sporting Lisbon), Lima (Atletico Minerio), Leandro Somoza (Villarreal)
Out: Romero, Robert (PSV), Dani (Cádiz), Contreras (Cádiz), Maldonado (Nástic), Juanlu (Córdoba), Lembo (Danubio), Assuncao (Al Ahli)
One to watch: Young Argentine striker Mariano Pavone earned rave reviews when winning the title with Estudiantes. If he can adapt well, then Betis may have the marksman they need and haven't really had since the departure of Ricardo Oliveira.
My question: Can Cuper turn things around at an internally chaotic club? They've bought quite well, but I'm not sure the defensive problems have been fixed. Good to see that they've finally got a better 'keeper than Doblas though.

Club: Deportivo La Coruna
Coach: Miguel Ángel Lotina
In: Pablo Amo (Recreativo), Rubén Castro (Nàstic), Xisco (Vecindario), Antonio Tomás (Racing), Momo (Racing), Andres Guardado (Atlas), Manu (Sporting de Gijon), Lafita (Zaragoza), Aythami (Las Palmas), Filipe (Rentistas), Jairo (Sporting de Gijon)
Out: Capdevila (Villarreal), Duscher (Racing), Juanma (Tenerife), Arizmendi (Valencia), Estoyanoff (Valladolid), Jorge Andrade (Juventus)
One to watch: if talented Mexican midfielder Andres Guardado can adapt well to the league, then he could help solve Depor's problems going forward
My question: with the departure of the defensive bedrock that allowed them to stay out of trouble despite a dismal scoring record, can Depor maintain their solidarity? If not, they could be in trouble, since the club doesn't really have the funds to buy the attacking players they need to improve.

Club: Espanyol
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
In: Kiko Casilla (Real Madrid Castilla), Valdo (Osasuna), Clemente Rodriguez (Spartak Moscow), Lola (Partizan Belgrade), Lafuente (Athletic)
Out: Velasco, Robusté (Levante), Walter Pandiani (Osasuna), Costa (Gremio), Ito (Córdoba), Gorka (Athletic), Sergio Sánchez (Racing)
One to watch: as ever, moody but highly talented midfielder Ivan De La Pena is key to their success. Hopefully he'll be back from injury soon.
My question: do they have what it takes to push for an UEFA Cup place? As they showed last season, Espanyol under the admirable Valverde are a fine side in the league, and without the distraction of a (very good) UEFA Cup run, they could conceivably aim higher this time around.

Club: Getafe
European commitments: UEFA Cup via Copa Del Rey final
Coach: Michael Laudrup
In: Pallardó (Valencia), Uche (Recreativo), Mario (Recreativo), Pablo Hernández (Cádiz), Daniel "Cata" Díaz (Boca Juniors), Kepa (Sevilla), Oscar Ustari (Independiente), Signorino (Nantes)
Out: Alexis (Valencia), Paredes (Zaragoza), Verpakovskis (Dynamo Kiev), Pulido (Almería), Pachón (Rayo Vallecano), Vivar Dorado (Valladolid), Dani Güiza (Mallorca)
One to watch: they've gone out and bought Argentina's next big thing in terms of goalkeepers to go with the current no.1, so who's going to play? Ustari is truly promising, so hopefully he won't waste away on the bench.
My question: can Laudrup maintain the good work done by Schuster? As ever, the club have lost some key players but bought smartly to compensate. I think Laudrup will do fine, but Getafe will have trouble improving on their finish from last season given a distracting UEFA Cup run.

Club: Levante
Coach: Abel Resino
In: Savio (Real Sociedad), David (Sevilla), Geijo (Xerez), Viqueira (Recreativo), Kujovic (Roda), Cirillo (AEK), Arveladze (AZ Alkmaar), Robusté (Espanyol), Pedro León (Murcia), Javi Fuego (Sporting), Storari (AC Milan)
Out: Zé María, Déhu, Molina, Salva (Málaga), Kapo, N´Diaye (Tenerife), Diego Camacho (Valladolid), Reggi (Castellón), Carmelo (Numancia), Alexis (Valladolid)
One to watch: La Liga veteran Savio has still got the occasional magic, and Levante really do need some spark.
My question: after a season in which they stayed up based largely on defensive solidarity, can they do the same again? Many people are tipping them for relegation, and it's hard to argue that they look like they're going to be in trouble.

Club: Mallorca
Coach: Gregorio Manzano
In: Valero (Castilla), German Lux (River), Webo (Osasuna), Molinero (Atlético Madrid), David Navarro (Valencia), Dani Güiza (Getafe), Gonzalo Castro (Nacional)
Out: Prats, Diego Tristán (Livorno), Maxi López (Barcelona), Jankovic (Palermo), Jordi López (Racing), Delibasic (Real Sociedad)
One to watch: forwards Guiza and Webo will be looking to replace the goals scored by previous top scorer Jankovic.
My question: having lost the aftementioned goalscoring midfielder, will they cope? The early signs look good (and they've still got their other goalscoring midfielder Arango), and Manzano's an old hand at this midtable finish thing by now.

Club: Murcia
Coach: Lucas Alcaraz
In: Íñigo (Éibar), Arzo (Recreativo), De Lucas (Alavés), Goitom (Udinese), Regueiro (Valencia), Carini (Inter), Pablo García (Real Madrid), Mejía (Real Madrid), Curro Torres (Valencia), Fernando Baiano (Celta)
Out: Juanmi, Emerson, Capi, Lledó, Aranda, Carrera, Pablo Ruiz, Antoñito, Pedro León (Levante), Ramón González (Xerez)
One to watch: Fernando Baiano, the undoubtedly talented forward who scored 15 for relegated Celta last season. Having broken their club transfer record to get their man, Murcia will be looking to him for the goals they need to stay up.
My question: They've got some useful players in, and if they bed in well, Murcia could stay up. Will probably be a close call, though.

Club: Osasuna
Coach: Cuco Ziganda
In: Margairaz (Zúrich), Hugo Viana (Valencia), Javier Portillo (Gimnàstic), Walter Pandiani (Espanyol), Carlos Vela (Arsenal), Medina (U. Chile), Dady (Os Belenenses), Jaroslav Plasil (Monaco)
Out: Robert Soldado (Real Madrid), Raúl García (Atlético), Muñoz (Athletic), Valdo (Espanyol), Milosevic, David López (Athletic), Cuéllar (Glasgow Rangers), F. Moreno (Albacete), Webó ( Mallorca), Mikel Arruabarrena (Tenerife)
One to watch: Arsenal's tremendously talented young Mexican Carlos Vela, who's only on loan because he can't get a visa for England. Osasuna should enjoy his services while he's here.
My question: will the losses in midfield and defence hurt the traditionally solid team? Osasuna lost their entire strike force in the transfer window, but they've done very good work in replacing the likes of Milosevic and Soldado, in the case of the latter by swapping one Real Madrid Castilla product for another (Javier Portillo, who is a decent player). Pandiani proved last season that he's still useful, and Dady has done very well in the Portuguese league. But Raul Garcia was very important for them, and I'm not sure they've worked out how to replace him.

Club: Racing Santander
Coach: Marcelino García Toral
In: Jonatan Valle (Málaga), Ayoze (C. de Murcia), Samuel (Sporting), Trevi, Duscher (Deportivo), Jorge López (Valencia), Jordi López (Mallorca), Sergio Sánchez (Espanyol), Brian Sarmiento (Estudiantes de la Plata), 'Ebi' Smolarek (Borussia Dortmund)
Out: Matabuena, Alfaro (retired), Balboa (Real Madrid), Lionel Scaloni (Lazio), Felipe Melo (Almería), Antonio Tomás (Deportivo), Momo (Deportivo), Rubén (Celta), Zigic (Valencia), Vitolo (Celta)
One to watch: Polish forward Smolarek, who just arrived. Racing will be looking to him to replace the goals that the departing Zigic scored.
My question: can they stay out of trouble having sold their best player from last season? Goalscoring young Argentine centerback Ezequial Garay is still there, which is good news, but it's easy to see them struggling without Zigic.

Club: Real Madrid
European commitments: Champions League
Coach: Bernd Schuster
In: Robert Soldado (Osasuna), Balboa (Racing), Metzelder (B. Dortmund), Julio Baptista (Arsenal), Pepe (Porto), Jerzy Dudek (Liverpool), Javier Saviola (Barça), Schorch (Hertha Berlín), Royston Drenthe (Feyenoord), Wesley Sneijder (Ajax), Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United), Arjen Robben (Chelsea)
Out: Roberto Carlos (Fenerbahçe), Beckham (LA Galaxy), Diego López (Villarreal), Miñambres (Hércules), Pavón (Zaragoza), Raúl Bravo (Olympiakos), Pablo García (Murcia), Mejía (Murcia), Ivan Helguera (Valencia), Jose Antonio Reyes (Atlético Madrid), Antonio Cassano (Sampdoria), Emerson (Milan), Cicinho (Roma)
One to watch: is Wesley Sneijder the 'brain' Real have been looking for since Zizou left the building?
My question: will all that spending come together to make a good team? Real were the biggest spenders in Spain and indeed Europe yet again, and as El Pais wrote, 'the most expensive team in the world' and in the history of Spanish football. But having done their spending so late on, whoever is in charge of technical decisions at Real have given Schuster a very untenable situation. He's under a lot of pressure to win games, and win them well, but to be still bedding in new players in the first few games of the season is not the ideal preparation.

(By the way, the four most expensive players in the history of La Liga: Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and now Robben. All by Real, of course.)

Club: Recreativo
Coach: Victor Munoz
In: Varela (Sporting), Martins (Sporting), Camuñas (Xerez), Beto (Bordeaux), Sorrentino (AEK Athens), Quique Álvarez (Villarreal), Marcos (Villarreal), Cáceres (Villarreal), 'Pampa' Calvo (Boca Juniors), Mariano Barbosa (Villarreal)
Out: Pablo Amo (Deportivo), Uche (Getafe), Mario (Getafe), Viqueira (Levante), Arzo, Santi Cazorla (Villarreal), Guerrero, Merino, Cheli, Laquait
One to watch: Florent Sinama-Pongolle, who proved such a surprise success last season. His partners in attack have all left, though, so it's up to him alone now.
My question: with the amount of change at Recre, will they be afflicted by second-seasonitis? Early signs do not look good. They lost their manager and many of their best performing players, and while some of the replacements look okay, the rest are of dubious quality.

Club: Sevilla
European commitments: Champions League (from qualifiers)
Coach: Juande Ramos
In: Tom De Mul (Ajax), Khalid Boulahrouz (Chelsea), De Sanctis (Udinese), Keita (Lens), Mosquera (Pachuca)
Out: David (Levante), Kepa (Getafe), Aitor Ocio (Athletic), Cobeño (Almería)
One to watch: this may be Jesus Navas' breakthrough season if he can overcome his psychological problems. The dictionary definition of 'brilliant but brittle'.
My question: will last season's amazing feats go up in smoke because of that dreaded beast, internal unrest? The way things have gone in the last few weeks with the separate sagas involving Chevanton, Dani Alves and coach Ramos himself have not boded well, but hopefully they can put all that behind them and perform well again, both in the league and in the Champions League.

In the transfer window, the club have bought well and cheaply yet again. Here's an amazing statistic, courtesy of El Pais: the Sevilla first 11 that defeated Real in the Bernabeu to win the Spanish Super Cup cost 26 million euros in total. Now that's a great achievement.

Club: Valencia
European commitments: Champions League (from qualifiers)
Coach: Quique Sánchez Flores
In: Arizmendi (Deportivo), Mata (Real Madrid Castilla), Alexis (Getafe), Timo Hildebrand (Stuttgart), Sunny (Pol. Ejido), Ivan Helguera (Real Madrid), Zigic (Racing), Manuel Fernandez (Benfica)
Out: Pallardó (Getafe), Jorge López (Racing), Roberto Ayala (Zaragoza), Tavano (Livorno), Regueiro (Murcia), Hugo Viana (Osasuna), Butelle (Valladolid), David Navarro (Mallorca), Aarón (Xerez)
One to watch: Youngsters Mata and Sunny had pretty good tournaments at the U20 World Cup and will be looking to get some minutes this season.
My question: will this be their season? Valencia have a sensible coach, an enviably large squad which is to their credit filled with Spanish players and finally now seemingly no more potential for internal unrest. They are difficult to beat and can play some great stuff. So what's stopping them from challenging for the title and for the Champions League? If they can avoid injury problems and more internal unrest, the sky's the limit.

Club: Valladolid
Coach: José Luis Mendilíbar
In: Sisi (Valencia), Butelle (Valencia), Alberto, Vivar Dorado (Getafe), Estoyanoff (Deportivo), Diego Camacho (Levante), Ogbeche (Alavés), Sesma (Cádiz), Cifuentes (Real Sociedad), Alexis (Levante)
Out: Chema, De la Cuesta, Gonzalo Vicente, Mario Suárez, Toché, Manchev
My question: will their imperious procession to the Segunda division title translate into the kind of form that will ensure them survival? I think they'll do well enough to stay up, but it is early days yet.

Club: Villarreal
European commitments: UEFA Cup
Coach: Manuel Pellegrini
In: Vidangossy (Unión), Cáceres, Capdevila (Deportivo), Diego López (Real Madrid), Rio Mavuba (Bordeaux), Santi Cazorla (Recreativo), Tomane (Sporting), JD Tomasson (Stuttgart), Giuseppi Rossi (Manchester United), Angel Lopez (Celta)
Out: Alessandro Tacchinardi, Quique Álvarez (Recreativo), Arruabarrena (AEK Athens), Arzo (Murcia), Diego Forlán (Atlético), Peña (Celta), Marcos (Recreativo), Cáceres (Recreativo), López Vallejo (Zaragoza), José Enrique (Newcastle), Leandro Somoza (Betis), Mariano Barbosa (Recreativo)
One to watch: American-Italian Rossi has the potential to be a great striker in La Liga, and if he settles well Villarreal will look very smart indeed having made so much money off Forlan and bought Rossi for what will then look like a very small sum (around 10 million euros).
My question: can they continue their great form from the end of last season given all the personnel changes? (And will the presence of a sulking Juan Roman Riquelme at training disrupt team spirit?) What seemed like the spine of the team left, and despite reinforcing well in some respects I still worry that they're short of a few defenders, especially given the serious injury suffered by Gonzalo Rodriguez yet again. I'm sure Pellegrini will mold the newcomers into a unit soon enough, but with an UEFA Cup run injuries at the back could be a problem.

Club: Zaragoza
European commitments: UEFA Cup
Coach: Víctor Fernández
In: Gabi (Atlético), Paredes (Getafe), Ricardo Oliveira (Milan), Generelo (Nàstic), Roberto Ayala (Villarreal), Pavón (Real Madrid), Matuzalem (Shakhtar Donetsk), López Vallejo (Villarreal)
Out: Gerard Piqué (Manchester United), César Jiménez (retired), Corona (Zaragoza), Aranzábal, Ewerthon (Stuttgart), Gabi Milito (Barcelona), Lafita (Deportivo), Longás (Tenerife)
One to watch: Matuzalem is a tremendous talent and will add even more South American flair into a team already packed with it.
My question: will an UEFA Cup run affect their league form? Zaragoza have enforced very well indeed, especially on the somewhat murky and yet ingenious move that bought Roberto Ayala as a more than adequate replacement for Gabi Milito. Losing Gerard Pique is a shame, but one can understand him wanting to play for Manchester United. Bringing Ricardo Oliveira in on loan now looks very smart indeed given the dubious state of fitness of last season's top scorer Diego Milito. Oliveira may have been useless in Serie A, but he's a goal machine in La Liga.

Here's Sid Lowe's (always entertaining) season preview, and here's Tim of La Liga Loca's for his blog and for Football365. Phew. It's certainly good to have proper football back in La Liga again.


Gonzalo said...

Real Madrid have a lot of the necessary ingredients to build a good team, but the preseason planning, in terms of transfers has been appalling. Stretching the food analogy, the chef (Schuster) hasn't had enough time to blend all the ingredients properly, there may be one or two missing, and he's never cooked in a Michelin star restaurant before ;)

Linda said...

The first signs look alright, though, don't they? 3 points and some entertaining football isn't a bad return from the first day, given the preseason. It is early days...