[Note: this preview was written on August 19. Isaiah has since gone on his honeymoon]
Apparently we’re embarking on another season. Can’t say I didn’t see that one coming, but there’s that little feeling of wonder at the new lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, just out of reach from conscious thought, that makes me think I actually didn’t see it coming. That I wasn’t expecting, despite my constant reading of the news and my regular pouring over the schedule as if it might possibly have changed since the last time I read it, suggests a very serious case of Post Cuatro Clásicos Emotional Withdrawal (PCCEW).
I know there are a lot of us that suffered through this clearly debilitating problem, but salvation is upon us in the form of yet more emotional distress and heart-pounding La Liga action.
Quickly, in case you forgot, here are all of the teams in La Liga this year:
We have some new teams, relative to last year at least: Segunda champions Real Betis, runners up Rayo Vallecano, and promotion playoff winners Granada. Oh but for the (for once) actually logical rules, Barça B might have earned a place in la Primera and we could have seen the first team travel to the Mini Estadi…such crazy dreams I have.
What these new teams bring to the table is, I think it is clear, not enough. Rayo were a success story last year, but have a significant economic hurdle to overcome that, on first take, looks insurmountable. I wish them the best, of course, but someone has to go down and I think it will be Rayo on the bottom and Granada in 19th. I would hope that this wouldn’t be the case, that the new teams would be able to hack it, but I just don’t see a way for that to be. I mean, seriously, without looking, name a player on Rayo Vallecano. One. For all but the most knowledgeable, that should prove an extremely difficult proposition. Now do that exercise for Granada.
Real Betis we know more about, of course, having encountered them in the league recently and the Copa del Rey just last season where they proved themselves ambitious and attack-minded. It was an enjoyable couple of matches (not least because Barça clobbered them 5-0 in the first leg) and even the 3-1 loss in Sevilla couldn’t dampen the thought that, damn, these Betis characters want to play. I hope they continue to do so despite the pressure to stay out of the relegation zone. At the very least we get the Andalucian derby* back, which is quite fun from the outside looking in—though the violence occasionally involved is, as with all football-related violence, disheartening and disgusting—and despite only paying out for 1 transfer (Javier Matilla, €1.2m, Villarreal) I think they’ll survive well enough. Jefferson Montero’s loan inclusion should pay dividends, especially if they can hold onto Achille Emana.
The middle of the pack, the teams we routinely think of as having shown up for games but not really competed for anything, has shrunk. Getafe is, arguably, making some noise about a European spot while the big story remains Málaga.
The nouveau riche of La Liga have come out with both barrels blazing this year. Last year there was a general consensus that they were “doing things.” This year the newest, shiniest pieces of the puzzle are (deep breath) Martin Demichelis (€3m, Bayern Munich), Ruud van Nistelrooy (free, Hamburg), Nacho Monreal (€6m, Osasuna), Joris Mathisjsen (€1m, Hamburg), Jérémy Toulalan (€10m, Lyon), Sergio Sánchez (€2.8m, Sevilla), Joaquín (€4.2m, Valencia), Diego Buonanotte (loan return, River Plate), Isco (€6m, Valencia), and Santi Cazorla (€19m, Villarreal).
Holy crap. That’s €52m in spending this year. Certainly there are holes in their lineup that could be corrected by massive investment, but this is the next step in the continuous building plan that started slowly and is building momentum now, heading towards higher and higher league finishes. Last year the team ended up in 11th and some felt that was underperforming, but they weren’t Hercules’s slipshod, scattershot approach (Trezeguet, Drenthe, and Valdez, as Exhibit A) and they didn’t end up being relegated, so they did something right.
Eliseu was a pleasant surprise and so was Quincy, but the latter is gone, replaced by veteran and household names. Pellegrini is solidly installed and he’s making moves that should turn Málaga into another Villarreal, but with money behind them. I think they’ll end up 5th, just out of Champions League and then make the leap into the great European unknown in 2012-13 with a 3rd or 4th placed finish.
The other moves that interest me to no end are Manzano’s move to Atleti and the reshuffling there, and Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Athletic Bilbao. The former isn’t a game changer, really, and I don’t see Manzano, my Coach of the Year 2 years ago at Mallorca, being able to overcome the problems at the Calderon. Especially without Sergio Aguero.
Interestingly enough, Bielsa leading Athletic to a place in Europe would be considered a success while Manzano failing to make (or at least compete for) the Champions League must be seen as somewhat of a failure. Different standards at different clubs, you see. But Bielsa makes me happy and I hope that he’s able to turn the Basque side into something not just typically fearsome, but also slapdashingly enjoyable. His Chile side was wonderful to watch in the 2010 World Cup and while he won’t have the ecstatic wing play that characterized that team available to him all the time, he’s got a solid group of players to run out with.
Los Leones haven’t made many moves, calling back a couple players from loan and signing Ander Herrera from Zaragoza for something around €8m (undisclosed, technically, but that’s roughly the rumor, for what it’s worth) and he should provide some much needed width and depth in midfield. Their outgoing list is even shorter: no one. Crazy, right?
Atleti, since we mentioned them, have done such: Silvio (€8m, Sporting Braga), Gabi (€6m, Zaragoza), Miranda (free, São Paulo), Adrian (free, Depor), Arda Turan (€12m, Galatasaray), and Falcao (€40m, Porto)**. Their notable losses were Ujfalusi going the opposite way as Turan for €2m, Tiago returning to Juventus after his long loan spell, and the twin sales of David De Gea (€21m, Manchester United) and Sergio Aguero (~€45m, Manchester City). Youth player Ibrahima was also sent to Osasuna on a free.
That’s simply not enough firepower replacing the departed known quantities. They’ll end up 7th again, though, because they’re in between the wheat and the chaff, but are really neither. They’ll also lose both of their matches against their intercity rivals. Big limb I’m going out on there.
The now perennial third and fourth spot holders, Valencia and Villarreal, have seen their ranks somewhat diminished by incursions from the aforementioned Málaga and foreign outfits—the latest rumor, one that could change the balance of power in La Liga, is that Roma is going to sign Nilmar—but they are still formidable opponents for the “upstarts.” Every year it seems about time to discount Valencia, but despite losing Silva and Villa, they ended up third. They’ve sold Juan Mata but they still have Pablo and have added in Canales and Parejo from Real Madrid and Getafe respectively. Villarreal appears set for a dive down into the table, but the weakness I see in other teams is the ballast that will keep them up at periscope depth.
Certainly there are other teams worth discussing (such as all of the others), but what you’re really interested in is the champion. Sure, it’s a two-horse race, but we’ve known that since before the end of the 2008-09 season. No, it’s not fair, and no, we shouldn’t support a TV rights system that effectively relegates 18 of the teams to second class status, but it is what we have at the moment, unfortunately.
The capitaleño side of this equation has reinforced in bulk, signing Hamit Altintop (free, Bayern Munich), Nuri Sahin (€10m, Borussia Dortmund), Raphael Varane (€10m, Lens), Jose Callejon (€5m, Espanyol) and Fabio Coentrão (€30m, Benfica). This investment has meant that they’re relegating several players to the bench or selling them off at cut rate prices. Unless, of course, their backroom staff proves to be resourceful enough to get the rumored €20m for Lassana Diarra. That would be a coup of epic proportions, in my estimation and worthy of a standing clap for those professionals. And a shake of the head for whoever paid that much.
Coentrão is probably the best signing they made, but once fit, Altintop could prove to be extraordinarily useful in some of the grind-it-out matches that RM ultimately lost late in the season thanks to squad fatigue. Of course, there are rumors of him being shipped off to Turkey instead of being kept around, which would be understandable if there was the slightest inclination on Mourinho’s part to actually play Pedro Leon. But there isn’t.
With Sergio Canales on loan at Valencia, Callejon steps in to fill the role of “guy who will get occasional minutes because he has potential” but no matter that he played a lot in preseason, it seems unlikely that he’ll start often. Maybe he’ll become a super sub. And then what of Kaka? What of Sami Khedira? Mesut Ozil must surely command a regular starting spot and with Benzema firing on all cylinders (finally), there is little room for the new signings, assuming Xabi Alonso retains his regular spot. It’s a formidable squad, but lack of playing time could cause internal rifts that make the second half of the season hard. If all of that can be figured out, if Varane can be trained to replace the departed Garay (sent to Benfica as part of the Coentrão deal), if the team can figure out their forward line in a way that doesn’t leave their midfield completely overwhelmed by teams who start a couple of midgets with footskills there and drop another into the area whenever needed, then they’ll challenge all the way through to the end.
Barça, then, finally. Well, there’s nothing to report, really, since you already know it (or you wouldn’t be here, I imagine). Alexis Sánchez is here. Thiago and Andreu Fontas have been promoted. Kiko Femenía has been signed for the youth team, but could make the occasional Copa appearance. Oh and there’s some guy named Cesc Fabregas. Never heard of him. Luke, of course, has covered all of this, so no need to go too in-depth there. Suffice to say that Barça has a magnificent lineup with some added depth (super subs galore!) and despite what Madrid has done, will be able to figure out a system to beat the world, (low blow alert, madridistas!) or at least Sporting Gijon when it counts.
Simply put, I think Barça’s lineup is better than Madrid’s. Call me crazy, but despite the immense pressure to retain their title for a 4th straight time, I believe they will. Champions: Barça, by a hair.
Copa del Rey champions: Sevilla after they defeat surprise finalist Málaga.
Standings at the end of the season:
Champion: Barça (89 points)
Relegated: Levante, Granada, Rayo Vallecano
Top scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (32)
Best keeper: Victor Valdes (24 goals allowed in 36 games)
Best offense: Barça (94 goals scored)
Best defense: Barça (27 goals allowed)
Most awesome thing to happen: Sergio Canales sits in the stands while Valencia play Real Madrid and his replacement scores 2 golazos to beat them.
Most awkward thing to happen: Hleb shows up to a Barça practice and no one remembers him.
Most disturbing thing to happen: PCCEW is listed in the Journal of Psychiatric Illnesses and I’m taken away forever.
*Note: Malaga vs Granada is also considered to be an Andalusian Derby.
**Note: signed after time of writing.