The end of a year makes most people look back at what has happened over the last 12 months. I usually prefer to wait until May or early June to round up a full season rather than tackle two separate, completely distinct half seasons. It is, however, the season of indulgence and it’s high time we talked about La Liga as a whole for the first time in a while. With 3 matches to go until the actual halfway point, most of this will change, but here it is anyway, Part 1 of your State of the Liga for the end of 2011.
Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano, and Granada all made the leap up into the first division, the last through the promotion playoff. It’d been 2 years for Betis since their last top flight season, 8 years for Rayo, and 35 long ones for Granada. After 16 matches (that’s 160 in total across the league), none of the promoted teams are in the relegation zone. The closest is Rayo, just a single point above Sporting Gijon in 18th and Villarreal in 17th. Betis and Granada sit in 11th and 13th, respectively, tied on 19 points (along with Atleti in 10th and Getafe in 12th).
Betis, though, spent 2 jornadas in 1st while Madrid sat in 7th and Barça in 4th. The 2-horse race then reasserted itself and poor Betis has sunk quickly down the table thanks to losing 9 of 10 between September 26 and December 4. They’re now on a 2-match winning streak, having defeated both Valencia and Atletico Madrid. That they were bounced from the Copa del Rey by Segunda strugglers Córdoba (on away goals) will not sit well with their fans, but surviving this year in the top flight will always remain the most important objective.
Rayo and Granada are both out of the CDR as well, but they lost to fellow La Liga members Racing and Real Sociedad respectively, so that’s not so bad. Rayo, though, has never made it above 7th and are currently in the midst of a 4 match losing streak. They face Sevilla next, which fortunately is at home where they earn quite a few more points (13 as compared to 6 away). Granada has bounced back and forth between good and bad results, never accumulating more than 2 wins or losses in a row, but also never moving above 12th. Their first match back from the break is at the Bernabeu, though, so their current winning streak (1 match), is probably over.
But what of the strugglers? The bottom of half is always interesting in La Liga; perhaps even more interesting than the top half given the obvious 1-2 finish that will occur once again. At least Valencia is within conceivable striking distance of 2nd, though 4 points up there may be too much to overcome. Whatever, there’s a relegation battle brewing!
Oddly, only 1 of the 4 coaching changes was in that bottom 3: Héctor Cúper left Racing and was replaced by Juanjo González on November 30. Since, the club has climbed from 20th all the way to 19th (with a stopover at 18th for a week). Zaragoza has been tanking, losing 8 of 9 since an October 16 win over Real Sociedad. That Javier Aguirre still has a job is a testament to either his ability to not ruffle feathers (sarcasm!) and, I suppose, Zaragoza’s board’s reluctance to fire anyone. Zaragoza are simply terrible.
With 2 wins and just 13 goals, they’re at or near the bottom of the table in every conceivable category. If they keep this rate up, by the end of 38 matches, they’ll have earned a grand total of 24 points. That’s a far cry from the record low of 13 that Sporting Gijon earned in the 1997-98 season, but it’d still be pretty dismal. Their 13 goals is also just 2 shy of the 15 Logroñés scored in 1994-95 so they won’t break that record either, but they’re on pace to get just 31 goals. To put that into perspective, that is exactly how many goals they have allowed so far. And no, they’ll never get to Lleida’s concession record of 134. What’s more, Lleida did that in a 30 game season. So Zaragoza isn’t epically terrible, it’s just that they’re really bad. Perspective, people, perspective. Whatever, they’re going down.
But it’s Racing that are one of the more interesting stories. Sid Lowe covered it here before, so there’s no need to go too in-depth on it. Basically: they’re screwed, even if they’re not relegated somehow, they’re debt-ridden and owned by, um, someone. I don’t have the wherewithal to figure it out. How their season pans out will probably go hand-in-hand with how their ownership, debt, and salary crises go. They’re second only to Granada in fewest goals scored (11), but they’re mid table in goals allowed (21). The best news for Racing fans is that they’re still just 2 points from safety and a small winning streak could keep them up. That would be crazy.
The final member of relegation zone is Sporting Gijon, a team that started off the year so badly they were in 20th with 1 point and 3 goals after 8 weeks. Manolo Preciado must have let his magical mustache grow because since then they’ve gone 4W-2D-3L, scoring 13 goals in the process. They’re tied on points with Villarreal, a team they’ll face on January 22 (and again on the last matchday of the season). They’re on the rise, but face Betis, Malaga, Villarreal, and Real Sociedad in January. They’re out of the Copa del Rey, having lost to Mallorca, so perhaps they can concentrate on the league. They also have visits to Madrid, Barça, and Valencia lined up for the second half of the season. Ouch.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season has been Villarreal decline into a mediocre-cum-awful team. Just 3 wins overall and none against teams in the top half coupled with getting bounced from the Copa by Segunda B side Mirandés was enough to earn manager Juan Carlos Garrido a one-way ticket out of town. They lost Santi Cazorla to Málaga in the summer for measly €19m euros, a sum that in retrospect looks like a terrible sum. Joan Capdevila’s move to Benfica on a free was also probably not helpful despite his age. Jefferson Montero’s loan move to Betis further reduced their squad size. Mostly, though, it’s been Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi’s injuries that have left the squad facing problems. Opening day’s 5-0 loss at Barça was a tell-tale sign of problems to come, but is still by far their worst defeat. They’ve lost by more than 1 goal just twice since then and both times to top for teams (vs Levante and at Real Madrid), but they’re often playing from behind, having conceded 7 of their 21 goals in the last 15 minutes of the first half.
They still have quality in the squad and now a new manager in youth coach Jose Molina (who you may remember as Depor’s keeper in the early 2000s. He managed Villarreal C and then B, but is still relatively untested and young at 41, so he’s certainly a risk. Barça fans will scoff at such a “risk” of course, but not everyone is Pep Guardiola. Still, I wager Villarreal stays up.
Rayo Vallecano looks far more likely to go down at the moment. They’re on a 4 game losing streak, having conceded 12 and scored just 3 over that span. Yes, they’ve faced Valencia, Barça, and Atleti in that span, but they were also hammered 1-3 at home by Sporting Gijon in their last match and were lucky to score a late consolation. The only thing they’ve got going for them is that they’ve scored 17 goals so far, which puts them tied for 10th in the table in that category. But they’re also 5th worst in goals allowed with 25.
By the end of January, Rayo’s season should either be on track or pretty much fully in free-fall. They face Sevilla, @Granada, Mallorca, and @Athletic Bilbao. If they continue their current trend, they’re probably doomed, but they could provide themselves a decent enough cushion if they’re able to steal 6 points in there somewhere.
Real Sociedad and Mallorca fall into the “we’re kind of just here” crowd that could go either way. Sociedad has the talent to make a top half finish, but went through a 1 point in 7 matches streak that accounts for all of their 6 losses. They were a little unlucky to lose to Levante in the last minute through an amazing goal, but have since recouped that point and then some by putting two beyond Malaga late with a chilena and then a lovely finish. The bicycle kick was by none other than Carlos Vela, which is just absurd given that he is a member of the Overhyped Team of the Decade. Perhaps he’s just reaffirming his membership to that illustrious club.
And Mallorca, well, they’re Mallorca so they come and they go, form-wise and never seem to leave mid-table. They were 6th after a week 1 victory over Espanyol, but then ran up 3 losses in a row to sink to 15th. Since they’ve bounced between there and 10th, never capable of beating serious opposition, but pretty much always good for getting points off those below them. Both Sporting and Villarreal have beaten them, but for whatever reason, they’re simply able to amass enough points to always come out on top. They’ll survive. That’s the magic of Caparros.
The club of 19 points is interesting enough: Getafe, Real Betis, Granada, and Atleti. And yet they’re so midtable it’s hard to write much about them that I haven’t already said. Getafe got 3 points off of Barça, but have otherwise dropped all but 2 points against opposition ahead of them in the table. Their other 4 wins are against the other club of 19 points members and Mallorca. They have yet to face either Racing or Zaragoza, which bodes well for them, but probably puts them in the forgettable, mediocre portion of the table for good. See you next year, Geta.
I’d discuss Atleti, but then I’d have a stomach ache from all the hilarity and underachieving and I don’t want that. They’ve got a new coach and we’ll see what they’re capable of, but I’d be surprised if they make any kind of a meaningful surge towards a Champions League spot. Europa League, sure, that’s possible since they’re only down 5 points on that group.
More tomorrow on the top half, but for now, some fun stats:
The most attended match of the season to date: Barça-Villarreal (95,000)
Most Getafe-ish attendance of the season: Getafe-Betis and Getafe-Osasuna (8,000)
Most wins: Real Madrid (13)
Fewest wins: Zaragoza and Racing (2)
Most draws: Racing (8)
Fewest draws: Real Madrid and Real Betis (1)
Most losses: Zaragoza (10)
Fewest losses: Barcelona (1)
Most goals for: Real Madrid (56)
Fewest goals for: Granada (10)
Most goals against: Zaragoza (31)
Fewest goals against: Barcelona (8)