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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

2008-2009 Spanish La Liga Preview by Miguel Aviles and Martin Cutler

2008-2009 Spanish La Liga Preview

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.

  • Martin Cutler is the Spanish football analyst on the European Football Show heard Mondays at 2.00 p.m. ET, 11.00 a.m. PT at http://www.csrnusa.com. For a direct link to his podcast, please click here.
  • For weekly fixtures of La Liga, please click here.
  • For a detailed interactive map of all Spanish professional teams, including La Liga, that also lists official team web sites, please click here.
Please enjoy another excellent commentary by these two European and Spanish football experts.

Steve Amoia, Editor, World Football Commentaries.

Real Madrid

It has only been two months since Spain's victory at Euro 2008 but with this weekend's start of the new league season the country is still in an euphoric mood as many of the heroes of Euro 2008 will be in action across the country. Real Madrid are coming off their second consecutive league title and in coach Bernd Schuster's second season in charge the club will be expected to continue that domestic success and add to it by doing well in the Champions League. In the final 3 months of the 2007-8 season Real Madrid played as well as any team in Europe and they will look to continue that fine run with the start of the new season. The summer soap opera of attempting to sign Cristiano Ronaldo not only ended unsuccessfully but also helped lead to the expected departure of Robinho to Chelsea as he became fed up with Madrid's attempts to sell him to finance the acquisition of Ronaldo and the club's refusal to let him play as an overage player with Brazil's U-23 team in the Beijing Olympics. Robinho, however, was the only major departure from Real Madrid's title winning team. New to the squad this year are Dutch attacking midfielder Rafael van der Vaart from Hamburg, Spanish international midfielder Ruben de la Red returned from his loan with Getafe and Argentinian centerback and recent Beijing gold medalist Ezequiel Garay who arrived from Racing. Wesley Sneijder will miss the first three months of the season with injury but his absence will be mitigated by the arrival of his compatriot van der Vaart. Add these newcomers to the solid base of players like Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, Gago, Guti, Raul, Robben and van Nistelrooy and Real Madrid look well equipped to challenge for domestic and European honors.


Real Madrid's recent successes led to a mini revolution at rivals Barcelona. Out are coach Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho, Deco and Gianluca Zambrotta. In are new coach Josep "Pep" Guardiola, a former star midfielder with the club who only had one year of previous coaching experience directing Barcelona's B team. But Guardiola has already installed more discipline to the club and they have been playing very well in the preseason. Also new to the club are dynamic right back Daniel Alves and defensive midfielder Seydou Keita both from Sevilla who both have blended into the starting lineup flawlessly. Attacking midfielder/winger Alexander Hleb has brought his refined technical play over from Arsenal and defensively Barcelona signed a pair of talented young defenders in Martin Caceres, a Uruguayan who last season was one of the Spanish league's revelations with Recreativo, and Gerard Pique, a Barcelona youth product who was with Manchester United. But Barcelona's best addition to the new season may be Samuel Eto'o, their forward who they wanted to sell this past summer but could not find a buyer willing to pay the club's asking price. Eto'o returned to preseason training healthy for the first time in two years and with something to prove and he convinced the club that they could not do any better in the transfer market than having a healthy and contented Eto'o. Two other attackers to watch this year will be Lionel Messi, the 21 year old Argentinian attacker fresh off winning Olympic gold and ready to show he is the world's best and Thierry Henry the veteran forward anxious to put his first year at Barcelona behind him. Add to them the midfield promptings of Xavi and Andres Iniesta who both showed at Euro 2008 that they are among the world's elite midfielders and Barcelona will have an attack which will strike fear in their opponents. Their biggest question marks heading into the new season are can they play well defensively and will they have sufficient depth to handle the demands placed upon them?


Villarreal's 2nd place finish last year was the club's best ever season and they've strengthened their team for the dual fights they'll have on hand this season at home and in Europe. Forwards Joseba Llorente and US teenager Jozy Altidore and playmaker Ariel Ibagaza have arrived and will help out a team who play well collectively and usually make astute purchases. Turkish forward Nihat Kahveci will miss the first few months of the season with injury but Villarreal have adequate depth to cover his absence. Watch out for Italian-American forward Giuseppe Rossi who followed his fine debut season with the club with a good Olympic tournament with Italy. Another player to watch will be defensive midfielder Marcos Senna, one of Spain's stars at Euro 2008 who turned down lucrative offers to move to other clubs so he could remain with Villarreal. Coach Manuel Pellegrini has built a team which will be worth watching.

Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid finished fourth last season and just advanced to the group stage of the Champions League after defeating Schalke of Germany in the preliminary round. This will be the club's first appearance in the Champions League since 1997 and despite the increased burden of competing in that competition Atletico will be another team to watch this season in the league as they combine one of the best attacking duos in all of Europe in forwards Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan with two of the best outside midfielders in Simao Sabrosa and Maxi Rodriguez. French forward Florent Sinama Pongolle has arrived this summer to provide depth while Portuguese central midfielder Maniche has patched up his differences with the club's Mexican coach Javier Aguirre and will remain with the club after spending the last half of last season out on loan at Inter Milan. Brazilian midfielder Paulo Assuncao is another summer arrival while the club's defense has been strengthened with the signings of Dutch centerback Johnny Heitinga, Czech centerback Tomas Ujfalusi and French goalkeeper Gregory Coupet.


Last season Sevilla were expected to challenge for the league championship but the club never recovered from the early blow of the sudden death of left fullback Antonio Puerta which was followed by the departure of coach Juande Ramos to Tottenham. Manolo Jimenez took some time adjusting to his new position of coach but by the end of the season Sevilla were back to playing well and finished 5th. This off season the club lost Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita to Barcelona, Christian Poulsen to Juventus and forward Arouna Kone to a serious knee injury. But the club, one of the most astute purchasers in all of Europe have made good signings to replace them and have maintained their attacking combination of Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano with young wingers Diego Capel and Jesus Navas ensuring Sevilla will once again be a difficult team to defend.


Last season is one every Valencia fan will want to forget. The club used 3 coaches and with a few months to go in the season were in danger of relegation. They rebounded and ended up finishing mid-table but this summer has brought renewed optimism to one of Spain's biggest clubs. They have a new majority shareholder who seems intent on not repeating the mistakes of the past, a bright new coach has arrived in Unai Emery, one of the rising stars of Spanish coaching who led unfashionable Almeria to a midtable finish last year while playing attractive attacking futbol. And perhaps most importantly the club have resisted the temptation to sell it's two stars David Villa and David Silva, two of the key performers in Spain's European title win last June. David Albelda and Miguel Angel Angulo who were both ostracized by the polemical Ronaldo Koeman last season are also back while midfielders Pablo Hernandez (Getafe) and Manuel Fernandes (Everton) and left back Asier Del Horno (Athletic Bilbao) have returned from their loans. Valencia have the talent and the depth to return this year to the top four in the league.


Deportivo were another once great club who struggled for part of last season but they turned it all around in the second half of the year where they finished with one of the best records in the league. Depor lost centerback Fabricio Coloccini over the summer to Newcastle but they retained the rest of their team most notably Brazilian left back Felipe Luis, attacking midfielder/winger Lafita, Canadian midfielder Julian DeGuzman and Mexican left midfielder Andres Guardado. Added to boost the club's attack were forwards Mista and Omar Bravo, the latter arriving from Guadalajara of Mexico.


Espanyol, the "2nd club" from Barcelona were the opposite of Deportivo. The first half of last year saw them among the best teams in the league with their effective counter attacking style. Then injuries and poor form set in and Espanyol slumped badly. Often injured playmaker Ivan de la Peña and striker Raul Tamudo remain their chief threats but left wing Albert Riera and forward Luis Garcia two other key players may be leaving before the summer transfer window closes.

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao have ended one of the longest traditions in Spain, no they have not abolished their Basque only policy on players, but the club will for the first time ever have a shirt sponsorship! On the field Athletic remain essentially the same, they'll be well organized and full of fight but limited in talent.


Almeria shocked all of Spain last season with stylish play and a midtable finish when most expected them to be relegation candidates. The architect of that success, however, Unai Emery has left to coach Valencia and new coach Gonzalo Arconada, the brother of former Spain goalkeeper Luis Arconada may have his hands full keeping this team out of the relegation fight.


Betis made a couple of interesting off season moves most notably signing Turkish midfielder Mehmet Aurelio and Portuguese right back Nelson and at the time of writing they are close to signing Mexican forward Nery Castillo but every year Betis look good on paper but fail to deliver. Their numerous and loyal fans will be hoping this year can be something different.


Getafe are coming off a season where they made the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup and were runner up for the 2nd consecutive year in the Copa del Rey but their play in those competitions took their focus off of league play. Coach Michael Laudrup has left and Victor Muñoz, formerly of Recreativo, has been brought in to continue to the success the club have experienced in recent seasons where the small club from a Madrid suburb continues to defy the odds and play intelligent and entertaining football. Ruben de la Red's loan ended and he returned to Real Madrid but Esteban Granero and Jaime Gavilan were retained by the club and new signings Roberto Soldado (Real Madrid), Joffre Guerron (Liga de Quito), Eugen Polanski (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Ibrahim Kas (Besiktas) are all expected to contribute. If Getafe can get consistent goalscoring they will once more be a team who will surprise.


Mallorca were an effective and entertaining team last season but lost a lot of players who were key to their success, Dani Guiza (Fenerbahce), Ariel Ibagaza (Atletico Madrid), Jonas Gutierrez (Newcastle) and Fernando Navarro (Sevilla). But Venezuelan attacking midfielder Juan Arango remained as did successful coach Gregorio Manzano. The club signed a lot of young, hungry players to replace their departed ones and they should be enough to keep Mallorca midtable.


Osasuna are traditionally one of the toughest teams to beat at home with their enthusiastic fans but when they travel away from Pamplona they struggle. New signings Santiago Ezquerro (Barcelona) and Sunny Sunday (Valencia) road the bench at their respective clubs last season but will need to step up and contribute this year if Osasuna is to avoid a relegation battle. Also watch for Czech midfielder Jaroslav Plasil and Iranian midfielder Javad Nekounam two of the more underrated players in the league.


Racing Santander had a wonderful season last year qualifying for Europe for the first time ever but head coach Marcelino left to try and help Zaragoza win promotion and Ezequiel Garay (Real Madrid) and Aldo Duscher (Sevilla) two of the leaders of Racing's stingy defense left over the summer. With pint sized Pedro Munitis leading the attack, Racing will still be a pesky opponent but it is asking a lot of them to repeat last season's success.


Recreativo, Spain's oldest professional club, also lost some key contributors from last season in Martin Caceres (Barcelona), Florent Sinama Pongolle (Atletico Madrid) and Carlos Martins (Benfica) but outside midfielder Sisi, one of Spain's rising young stars, has arrived from Valladolid to help the club avoid relegation.


Valladolid fought off relegation last season but lost it's two best players over the summer in Sisi and Joseba Llorente. This year will be a success if the club can avoid the drop.


Numancia are a newly promoted club this year and won the Second Division title last year.Gonzalo Arconada left the team to take over at Almeria this summer and new boss Sergio Kresic will have to rely on what worked last season, teamwork and defensive solidity to stay up this season.


Malaga are one of Spain's yo yo teams bouncing back and forth between the first and second divisions. Usually they stay up for a year before getting relegated again and this season they do look like they've been the best of the newly promoted clubs in reinforcing themselves for life in the first division.

Sporting Gijon

Sporting Gijon are back in the first division after a decade's absence and the well supported club didn't make many acquisitions as they're sticking with the players who won them promotion. Half of Asturias (i.e. those who aren't Real Oviedo fans) will be hoping they remain in the top flight but it won't be an easy task.

Spain's league has often seen teams outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona challenge for the title but the nation's two giants have won the last four league titles. It is difficult to see that streak ending this year as Real Madrid and Barcelona will once more fight it out for the league title. If any club can break their string this season it might be Sevilla who won't have the extra burden of playing in the Champions League.

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 the Soccer Futbol Forum.
Martin is also the Spanish football analyst on the European Football Show heard Mondays at 2.00 pm ET, 11.00 am PT at http://www.csrnusa.com.

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