Yesterday I covered the bottom half of La Liga, so today we’ll talk about part of the top half. Not all of the storylines have to be about the trophy, right? For my sake, I hope not since I have to write this thing anyway. Technically we’re going to start in 9th and not 10th because I covered the 4 club group of 19 yesterday that extended up into the top half. You’ll deal with it, I’m sure.
In the summer, Athletic Bilbao had presidential elections and the new man in charge, Josu Urrutia, a former player, got rid of manager Joaquin Caparros in favor of Argentine tactician Marcelo Bielsa. A lot of us remember him mainly from Chile’s 2010 World Cup campaign, but he’s been a manager since the early 90s and was Argentina’s coach from 1998 until 2004 during which he took the squad to the 2002 World Cup (where they bombed out), the Copa America final (where they lost to Brazil on penalties after a 93rd minute equalizer by Adriano), and victory at the 2004 Summer Olympics when a certain rising superstar, Carlos Tevez, made a real name for himself, scoring 8 times.
Athletic was a bit slow to take to Bielsa’s vision, earning just 2 points from their first 5 matches and falling to 19th. Since, they have only lost once, but they have drawn 5 times. Their 2-2 thriller against Barça has been considered by many to be the best match to date in the league and they were a little unlucky not to escape with all 3 points. Athletic has qualified for the next round in the Copa del Rey, where they face Albacete; they’ve also qualified for the knockout stage of the Europa League, having won their group. They were drawn against Lokomotiv Moscow, who they’ll play in mid and late February.
Athletic is doing well enough statistically, having scored 23 goals and failed to score just twice. They have, however, allowed 19 and have only recorded 1 clean sheet. They still feel like a project, a team in the making, but they’re slowly getting their act together. An 87th minute winner from personal favorite Gaizka Toquero earned them 3 points against Zaragoza in their last league match before the break, a fact that’s a bit crazy given Zaragoza’s impressively bad season and Athletic’s prior draw with Barça. Bielsa has his work cut out for him in the second half of the season, but a European finish is far from impossible: they’re only 2 points out of 7th and 3 points out of 6th.
Above them sit Espanyol, that strange team that never seems to score goals, yet sits near the European spots anyway. They’re doing it again this year, people, with 17 goals scored and 20 allowed. They’re basically proof that the axiom of losing 1 instead of drawing 2 gets you more points. They’ve only draw twice, having won 7 and lost 7. They’re on a 2-match winning streak, but host Barça on January 8 at Cornella-El-Prat and then travel to Sevilla. That could mean a quick drop in their table ranking or a reinforcement of their position as “probably going to miss Europe by a single point” contenders. They’re also boring to watch, though they’re good defensively (6 clean sheets) and have failed to score just 4 times. They haven’t gotten a point off of anyone above them in the table, but have only dropped 10 points to those below them. Yet they also lost to Real Zaragoza in week 3. What a strange team.
And then Malaga. The big spenders this summer, they brought in a host of big talent for a total of €52m in spending. Their biggest expenditure was €19m on Santi Cazorla, a player who could very well end up being the center of their push towards legitimate title contenders in the years to come. For now, though, they’re relying on aging veterans to get them through: Demichelis, van Nistelrooy, Mathijsen, Joaquin, and even Toulalan (who is only 27 but looks 47). Manuel Pelligrini knows how to build a squad and should get the time and financing to do so, but for now they’re very hit or miss. At home they’re 5W-1D-1L, but on the road they’re 2W-2D-5L. They didn’t win a league match in December, but then again, like Espanyol, they don’t earn many points when they play anyone above them in the table. They drew against Osasuna, but that’s it.
For having spent so much, they haven’t put together a truly winning side. They’ve got some of the pieces, but haven’t been able to find the rhythm or the goals to go along with their ambition. They’ve scored 20 goals, enough to put them 8th in that category, but they’re 12th in goals allowed (22). They’re simply not good enough right now to make a major push for a top 3 finish and they’re currently sitting 5 points from the 4th spot occupied by Levante. Sevilla and Osasuna also sit above them in the Europa League spots, but finishing there seems extremely likely given the lack of faith I have in Levante and Osasuna being able to sustain their current form. I also have a pretty serious bet with a friend over whether Malaga will make it to the CL or not. I say no, but I’ve been wrong before about this sort of thing.
And that’s the non-European places right now. Things will change rapidly and continuously in this group, but have no fear, it won’t affect Barça, who are well above this fray already. That’s a sad statement on the league, perhaps, but few leagues in the world don’t have this dynamic.
Much more next week when I return from vacation, rested and recharged. Have a wonderful New Year’s celebration and don’t overindulge too much in other leagues.