La Liga Previewed - Part 1

August 22, 2012 in La Liga by Kevin Rendall

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This time last year, Spanish football appeared to be in crisis, with, amid no little rancour and much supposed regret, the season’s opening weekend of fixtures in the top two divisions lost to strike action. Fast forward twelve months and with the underlying reasons - unpaid players wages and grossly unfair TV rights distribution - no less of an issue but masked by a fragile peace, the 2012/13 season is all set to kick off against a worsening economic situation and the Spanish triumph at Euro 2012 largely forgotten. Money troubles abound, something the English Premier League has been quick to take advantage of, with more quality players leaving than arriving Spanish clubs are having to sell to survive. Real Madrid emerged champions last season, finishing nine points better off than Barcelona in second place and with a whopping great 39 points more than Valencia in third. Unless the teams bubbling under can summon a little more consistency, 2012/13 looks as though it will be a case of deja vu with the Clásico giants romping away. Make no mistake, Spain has some decent teams, but presently, too many of them are riding the crest of a trough, something that has to change if La Liga is to become as competitive as the Premier League. Malaga, for example, briefly threatened, but as the Qatari money dried up, so did their title credentials. Read on for the runners and riders.

Fans of Spanish football hoping for a change in the status quo are about to be sorely disappointed, as nothing has happened over the summer, that brilliant La Roja victory aside, to upset the existing dominance of Real Madrid, last year’s champions, and FC Barcelona, both of whom have had relatively quiet pre seasons transfer wise. Indeed, the biggest change at either club has been that of Tito Vilanova, best known thus far for being the recipient of Jose Mourinho’s right index finger, as replacement for Barcelona’s all-conquering coach Pep Guardiola. In terms of playing personnel, the imminent arrival at the Bernabeu of want-away Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric is about to hand Jose Mourinho a bigger dilemma than had he signed, for example, a new defender. At Barcelona, left sided defender-cum-midfielder Jordi Alba has already put pen to paper on a four year deal after his brilliant showing at Euro 2012. Defensive midfielder Alex Song, who can also play in the centre, has done likewise with his move from Arsenal.

With the guaranteed top two in La Primera taken care of, attention then turns to the race for third place - in recent years quite possibly the only point of interest at the top of the Spanish football tree. Valencia, who have won their last four opening day fixtures, travel to holders Real Madrid to begin their season, it’s a fixture in which they haven’t even scored in their previous four visits. The men from the Mestalla will, doubtless, be supremely grateful top scorer Roberto Soldado has chosen to pledge his future with his home town club following interest from Tottenham. Without a shadow of doubt, his goals will be vital, as they were last season, to Valencia’s attempt to qualify for the Champions League once more. Across the city, rivals Levante were the surprise package of last season, even topping the table at one point before eventually finishing sixth to qualify for the preliminary round of the UEFA Europa League. A lengthy European adventure will play havoc with their league form, particularly with Thursday evening games, so mid-table anonymity won’t be a bad result for them come the first week in June next year. The departure of Ivorian striker Arouna Kone, a recent addition to the Wigan Athletic payroll, will be a big loss to coach Juan Ignacio Martinez.

Tenth place for Athletic Bilbao last season was something of a surprise and a disappointment for all concerned with the club. A decent run in the Europa League saw Los Leones reach the all-Spanish final where they were seen off with ease by La Liga rivals Atlético Madrid. No stranger to controversy, Bilbao’s incendiary Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa was involved in a violent scuffle with the building contractor renovating the club’s Lezama training complex in July, culminating in his resignation for a perceived lack of support from the club. He was back at the club within a week as the squad continued their pre-season preparations. 2012/13, Bielsa’s second campaign in charge, looks like being a difficult one for Bilbao, as top scorer Fernando Llorente has refused to sign a contract extension and a move away from the San Mamés is looking increasingly likely, with Juventus favourites to land the man from Pamplona. To make matters worse, stylish defender Javi Martinez appears to be just days away from signing for Bayern Munich. Much then will depend on the form and fitness of left-sided attacking midfielder Iker Muniain, the one man who can make things happen for Bilbao.

Derby games proliferate in the Spanish top division and two more were added with the promotion as Segunda A champions and runners up respectively of Deportivo La Coruña and Celta Vigo. Incredibly, Deportivo were La Liga champions as recently as the 1999/2000 season and then failed to finish lower than third place in the following four campaigns, a purple patch that also saw the club reach a Champions League Semi-Final. Consistently in the top half of the table since those heady days, their relegation at the back end of the 2010-11 season came as a huge shock. This term, midfield play-maker Juan Carlos Valeron should provide sufficient ammunition for striker Riki to secure a lower mid-table finish for Depor. Keep an eye on Colombian international Abel Aguilar too, he’s a stylish midfielder who knows where the goal is. For Celta Vigo, who trailed their Galician rivals by six points at the business end of last season, things might be far harder in La Primera, their first time back in six years. Centre-forward Iago Aspas, who notched 25 goals in all competitions last year, will need to be in that kind of form again if Celta are to have any chance of avoiding an immediate return to Division Two.

Madrid will again provide four sides in the top division of Spanish football; Real Madrid need no introduction and, in my opinion, will add the Champions League to a second successive title. Of the others, Atlético will again be best of the rest from the capital behind Mourinho’s superstars. After less than a year in the job – he was appointed in December 2011 - former player Diego Simeone has done an impressive job at the Vicente Calderon, guiding his side to Uefa Europa League glory and fifth place behind Malaga. With the team from southern Andalucia struggling financially, more later, Los Colchoneros will chase Valencia all the way for third spot and a Champions League place. Rayo Vallecano, who punched well above their weight last season to finish fifteenth just two points above the drop zone, lost twenty one times last season, a statistic they need to drastically change to survive this term. The addition of Danish striker Nicki Bille, signed on a loan deal from Villarreal after a decent spell with Elche, will help as will the continued presence of Lass Bangoura. I’ll still tip them to be relegated though. No danger of that for Getafe, the fourth of the Madrid quartet, who don’t have the fire power to pose a threat to the established order, but should have enough about them to be a nuisance to quite a few sides, as both Barcelona and Valencia found out last season.

In part two; Malaga, Granada, Sevilla, Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Espanyol and Real’s Mallorca, Valladolid and Zaragoza.