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Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007-2008 Spanish La Liga Preview by Miguel Aviles and Martin Cutler



2007-2008 Spanish La Liga Preview


by Miguel Aviles and Martin Cutler for World Football Commentaries.
  • If you would like to intelligently discuss Spanish and other international football, please visit the excellent Soccer Futbol Forum, which is moderated by these two gentlemen.
  • To view some La Liga games live by streaming video, please take a look at the CCTV-5 link. The commentary is in Chinese, and sometimes the video quality is not perfect.
  • For fixtures of La Liga, please click here.
  • For an interactive map of La Liga that lists all of the team web sites, please click here.
Please enjoy this excellent commentary. (Steve Amoia, Editor, World Football Commentaries).

After a busy off-season the Spanish league season begins this weekend and it promises to be another exciting campaign. Remember last year the title was not decided until the final day of the 38 round season when Real Madrid ended their 4 year dry spell of any honors by winning their record 30th league title. So how did Madrid celebrate that title? By doing what they did when they last won the championship in 2003 and fired their coach! Then it was Vicente Del Bosque, now it was Fabio Capello. The new coach is Bernd Schuster a former player for the club and most recently the coach of Getafe and he should know by now that simply winning the title isn't enough for Madrid's demanding front office. Schuster has always been a charismatic figure as evidenced by the fact he is still admired by fans of the three Spanish clubs he played for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, three teams and sets of fans who all hate one another and usually despise their players who've gone to one of their rivals (see Luis Figo and Luis Enrique for two examples from the past decade.)

For this year champions Real Madrid and Barcelona have qualified directly for the Champions League while 3rd place Sevilla and 4th place Valencia are currently playing a preliminary round of games to see if they too can qualify for the group stages of the Champions League and they each hold 2-0 and 3-0 leads respectively going into the away legs of their qualifying games. Zaragoza and Villarreal qualified for the UEFA Cup while Atletico Madrid joined them through the Intertoto Cup and Getafe by way of being runners up to Champions League bound Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, Spain's knockout Cup competition. This will be Getafe's first time playing in a European competition. Relegated were Real Sociedad and Celta, each of whom played in the 2004 Champions League, and Nastic. Those three have been replaced in the current season by Valladolid, Murcia and Almeria. Let's take a look at each of the clubs in Spain's First Division.

Barcelona

Barcelona are the favorites heading into the new season primarily because they have kept all of their key players from last season, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Carles Puyol, Xavi plus have added Thierry Henry, Yaya Toure, Eric Abidal and Gabriel Milito to strengthen each line of their team, attack, midfield and defense. There doesn't look to be any weaknesses at all in this Barcleona team and they have the talent and depth to repeat their 2006 accomplishments of winning the Spanish and European championships. The biggest question surrounding them may be whether head coach Frank Rijkaard can keep all of his stars happy? How will he accommodate his "Fantastic Four" as it is being called of Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Messi and Henry? In addition can Ronaldinho duplicate his 2006 form and is this the year Messi makes the leap forward as one of the sport's truly great players? Or is Barcelona copying Real Madrid's ill fated "galactico" policy of signing too many star players?

Real Madrid

Bernd Schuster does have his hands full this season with the defending champions who have seen a large turnover in personnel over the summer. Gone are Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Ivan Helguera, Emerson and Jose Antonio Reyes from last season's regulars. Coming into the club are high priced imports like central defenders Pepe and Christoph Metzelder, fullback Gabriel Heinze, midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Royston Drenthe and winger Arjen Robben. Add to them established players like last year's league top scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy, club captain Raul, midfielders Guti and Mahamadou Diarra, defender Sergio Ramos and star goalkeeper Iker Casillas and the talent is definitely there but it may take awhile to get all of these new players and their new coach working on the same page.

Sevilla

Sevilla are going through the most successful period in the club's history and last year they not only won the Copa del Rey but also for the 2nd year running were UEFA Cup champions, all the while remaining in the league title race until the penultimate day. This season they've also qualified for the first time ever for the Champions League so it remains to be seen how they'll be able to compete both domestically and in Europe although last season showed they were capable of doing both and the team have improved themselves in the offseason by increasing their depth. But the question mark hanging over one of Europe's most entertaining teams to watch is whether they will keep Daniel Alves their star Brazilian right back? Chelsea are offering to double his salary and to buy him for 36 million euros but Sevilla have turned that down. Is that because they are trying to extract more money out of Roman Abramovich's club or is it because they want to keep their fullback who dominates his side of the field much like Roberto Carlos once did on his side during his prime with Real Madrid? We'll find out by August 31 when the transfer window closes. Apart from Alves, Sevilla has a very good team who are quick, play well collectively, have a deep bench and in Frederic Kanoute have a goal scorer par excellence. Kanoute, Alves and right winger Jesus Navas are the three biggest names on the team but coach Juande Ramos and football director Monchi Rodriguez are excellent judges of talent and have used Spain's most productive youth system and some astute purchases to build up one of the truly exciting teams in Europe now.

Valencia

Valencia are the most Spanish of the top teams in the league. The base of their team are Spanish internationals like David Villa, Fernando Morientes, David Silva, Joaquin, David Albelda and Carlos Marchena. Like Sevilla, Valencia have built up a productive youth system and last season they were in title contention until the final few weeks of the season despite a devastating series of injuries which deprived them of many of their best players including talented winger Vicente. With some better health Valencia can expect to again be fighting for the top spots in the league and in David Silva they have one of the real rising stars of Spanish and European football.

Zaragoza

Zaragoza played some of the most entertaining football in Spain last year led by their Argentinian attacking trio of Diego Milito, Pablo Aimar and Andres D'Allessandro. While the leader of their defense Gabriel Milito left for Barcelona he's been replaced by veteran defender Roberto Ayala. Brazilian Ricardo Oliveira has joined from AC Milan to help out the attack while his countryman Matuzalem has also arrived and will team up with young Spanish midfielder Alberto Zapater. Zaragoza will be a team worth watching.

Villarreal

The 2006 Champions League semifinalists started off last season poorly but they rallied late in the season to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Diego Forlan has left and the saga over Juan Roman Riquelme continues but American born Italian U-21 forward Guiseppe Rossi has arrived to try and fill Forlan's shoes and Turkish forward Nihat has recovered from the knee injury which kept him out for most of last season. French midfielder Rio Mavuba is another newcomer and along with Robert Pires, Cani and Marcos Senna they could form one of the best midfields in the league.

Atletico Madrid

Mexican coach Javier Aguirre worked wonders with little talent at Osasuna. Last season, his first with Atletico, was marked with plenty of injuries to the team and the adjustment to European football of Argentina's Sergio Aguero, the Golden Shoe winner at the recent U-20 World Cup. But Atletico have been one of the most active teams in this summer's transfer market. Club icon Fernando Torres was sold to Liverpool and with those proceeds Atletico went out and bought forward Diego Forlan, attacker Luis Garcia, wingers Simao Sabrosa and Jose Antonio Reyes and central midfielder Raul Garcia. With Maxi Rodriguez returning to health, Aguero more mature, a midfield led by Maniche and a pretty solid defense Atletico Madrid should have their best team since they won the "double" in 1996.

Recreativo

Spain's oldest club Recreativo Huelva was expected to be in a relegation fight last season instead they ended up being one of the pleasant surprises of 2006-7 with a compact team who were deadly on the counter attack. But the mastermind of their success head coach Marcelino has left for Racing, Nigerian forward Ike Uche and defender Mario went to Getafe and top midfielders Santi Cazorla and Viqueira went to Villarreal and Levante respectively. On paper their replacements don't look to be the same so new coach Victor Munoz,a former Spanish international and forward Florent Sinama Pongolle will have to really produce if Recreativo are to avoid a relegation fight this year.

Getafe

The unfashionable team from outside Madrid once again were one of the most difficult opponents in the league. But coach Bernd Schuster has left replaced by another former star with both Real Madrid and Barcelona in Michael Laudrup. Can Laudrup repeat Schuster's success? Top scorer Guiza left for Mallorca and the best defender Alexis went to Valencia but Uche was bought to help the attack and defenders Mario and Argentinian international Daniel Diaz also should solidify the backline. In the pre-season Laudrup's Getafe have looked good but now they get to prove they can win when the games count.

Racing

The small club from Spain's north coast was another team who shocked the pundits last season with their awkward to defend attack of mini forward Pedro Munitis and 2.00 meter tall Serbian Nikola Zigic along with the free kicks of defender Ezequiel Garay. Zigic left for Valencia and was replaced by Polish forward Ebi Smolarek. But maybe their best signing was coach Marcelino the brains behind Recreativo's surprising season last year. Racing doesn't have the money to reinforce their team but they should still be a tricky opponent especially at their home stadium El Sardinero.

Espanyol

Traditionally an excellent Cup team as witnessed by their appearances in the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup Finals in the last two seasons, Barcelona's 2nd club Espanyol is one of those teams opponents won't look forward to playing. Attacking midfielder Ivan de la Pena, lightning quick forward Raul Tamudo and tricky left winger Albert Riera make this a difficult team to defend. Just ask neighbors Barcelona who conceded a late goal to Tamudo in the penultimate game of last season for a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp a result which ultimately cost Barcelona the league championship. If Espanyol could only achieve more consistency they'd finish higher in the table.

Mallorca

The team from one of the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean is usually a tough foe at home but they don't travel well. But new forwards Dani Guiza (Getafe) and Pierre Webo (Osasuna) should give them their best attack since Samuel Eto'o played for the club.

Deportivo

The club from rainy Galicia on Spain's northwest coast was a traditional Champions League participant until a few years ago, then the money ran out and star midfielder Juan Carlos Valeron suffered a series of serious knee injuries. Now Deportivo are rebuilding with young players and they made a noteworthy offseason signing in Mexico's exciting left side midfielder Andres Guardado. It is hard to prognosticate how this team will do. They could be very exciting to watch and play with the reckless abandon of youth or be too green.

Osasuna

The team from Pamplona had a big turnover in the summer but typically are a compact team hard to break down and who play well in front of enthusiastic home support. New forwards Walter Pandiani, one of the best headers anywhere, and Javier Portillo will have to score goals if Osasuna are to avoid being in a relegation battle.

Levante

Valencia's unfashionable 2nd club looked headed to relegation last season until Ghanaian forward Mustapha Riga went on a late season goal scoring run and saved the club. They are trying to sign attacker Cristiano Rigano from Messina in Italy to help him out but odds are Levante will again be fighting for survival this year.

Betis

One of Spain's most fanatically supported teams is also one of it's biggest underachievers and last season was no different for the team from the green and white side of Sevilla. Not only were they in a fight for survival but their hated rivals Sevilla went on to have one of their best seasons ever. But this is a team who look to have made some serious upgrades for the new season. First and foremost is Hector Cuper is the new coach. The man who guided Valencia to consecutive Champions League Finals at the turn of this century then had some limited success at Inter Milan is back in Spain and he should make Betis a difficult team to breakdown defensively. Portugal's excellent goalkeeper Ricardo was signed from Sporting Lisbon, Argentinian forward Mariano Pavone from Estudiantes, his countryman midfielder Leandro Somoza from Villarreal, Chilean left winger Mark Gonzalez (Liverpool) and Croatian left back Marko Babic (Bayer leverkusen) have all arrived to strengthen Betis. With some luck this could be one of the surprise teams of the season and fight for a European place.

Athletic Bilbao

The Bilbao Lions, the pride of Basque country are now the only Basque club in the first division after rivals Real Sociedad were relegated last year. And Athletic nearly joined them in the drop. The club's all Basque policy has been lessened in recent years so that French Basques and players from the neighboring regions of La Rioja and Navarre can also play for the team. This has enabled Athletic to sign a few good players this summer most notably Osasuna's excellent left midfielder David Lopez. The veteran Joseba Exteberria still causes danger down the right and Athletic's bustling style always ensures they'll have some rough and tough center forwards. Playmaker Yeste on his day is a very good midfielder but also is reckless and a hothead who is prone to picking up cards. This team has probably made enough improvements so they won't be in a relegation fight this year but a mid-table finish should be the best they could hope for.

Valladolid

The runaway champions of the 2nd Division last year clinched promotion with a month to spare in the season. Obviously they won't find it so easy in the top division but of all the newly promoted teams this would appear to be the one best situated to make some waves this year. Uruguayan winger Fabian Estoyanoff from Deportivo was their most notable off-season signing.

Murcia

The team from the south of Spain made a lot of acquisitions in a bid to avoid a return to the 2nd Division. Brazilian forward Baiano came over from Celta and three Uruguayans, goalie Fabian Carini (Inter Milan), winger Mario Regueiro (Valencia) and defensive midfielder Pablo Garcia (Celta) plus veteran right back Curro Torres (Valencia) all give this team some experienced
players which may be enough to save them from the drop.

Almeria

Union Deportivo Almeria was formed in 1989 and is making it's first ever appearance in the first division. A predecessor club from the city spent a couple of seasons in the top flight in the late 70's. Almeria is a city on the Mediterranean in southeastern Spain and the region surrounding it was the setting for many of the "spaghetti westerns" of the late 60's. The club signed a couple of veterans like defender Lopez Rekarte and David Cobeno, Sevilla backup goalie last year, plus acquired some young players on loan like Matias Vidangossy (Villarreal) and Julio Dos Santos (Bayern Munich) but it will take some inspired play if Almeria is to prevent relegation this year. Coach Unai has this team playing an aggressive style which could make them an awkward opponent. At the very least the city's fans are looking forward to the visit of the country's big clubs for the first time in a quarter of a century.
So there you have a preview of each of the clubs in Spain's First Division. Logic would say Barcelona are the favorites this season and few could argue against them but they'll have plenty of strong rivals and this looks like a very intriguing and entertaining year ahead. Enjoy the games!

About the Authors

Miguel Aviles and Martin Cutler are Spanish futbol aficionados and experienced commentators of world football. They are lifetime supporters of Real Madrid. Please visit their excellent discussion board, which is called Soccer Futbol Forum.

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