Continuing the La Liga preview, part two will discuss the next seven teams in alphabetical order: Málaga, Mallorca, Osasuna, Racing Santander, Real Madrid, Sevilla, and Sporting Gijón.
Will Málaga stave off the second season syndrome? After a couple of seasons in La Liga Adelante, Málaga rose from the lower division with a vengeance as they finished eighth in La Liga and competed for a European place for the majority of the season. The man who led them down into Liga Adelante, Antonio Tapia, in 2006, returned in 2008 after the manager who led them back into La Liga, Juan Ramón López Muñiz, left to manage Racing Santander. Tapia made up for his previous mistakes and proved the faith that the Málaga board of directors afforded him.
After the season, Tapia left to manage relegated Real Betis, and Juan Muñiz returned after an unsuccessful season with Racing. Along with Tapia, some of the important players from the previous season also left. Duda and Lolo returned to Sevilla after their season-long loans, Nacho went back to Getafe after his loan, Eliseu transferred to Lazio for €1 million, and Javier Calleja moved to Osasuna on a free transfer. The most intriguing signings for Málaga include Barcelona youth product Xavi Torres, a defensive midfielder who shows the promise of effectively replacing Lolo in front of the defensive line, and Selim Benachour, a Tunisian international playmaker who has a point to prove to Tunisian national team manager Humberto Coelho about his recommitment to his fitness and work ethic. Despite these additions, Málaga will not fare as well as they did in the previous season, and a lower table finish is more likely.
Will Mallorca be the team that floundered in relegation form for the first half of last season or the club that finished with a flurry and fought their way into ninth place at the end of the campaign? The spark of their second half run was the vision and playmaking of Juan Arango. While scoring eight goals himself, his best attribute was his ability to set up his teammates into scoring opportunities. Aritz Aduriz and José Jurado were the main benefactors of Arango’s pinpoint accurate passes as they netted twenty goals between them. Jurado returned to Atlético Madrid because his loan spell ended, and Mallorca sold Arango to Borussia Mönchengladbach for €3.6 million.
Recent signing Sergio Tejera will try to fill the void as Mallorca’s number 10. A product of the Espanyol and Chelsea youth academies, Chelsea initially loaned him out to Mallorca in February 2009 as Mallorca struggled in La Liga. He impressed the Mallorca brass to the point where they signed Tejera to a permanent deal for four years. Pierre Webó and Alhassane Keita will fight to receive the starts that José Jurado had, and Aduriz will need another solid season to keep the continuity within the attacking third.
Another key for Mallorca to maintain their winning mentality is the stability of the goalkeeper position. Germán Lux, Miguel Ángel Moyá, and Dudu Aouate each spent about a third of the season as the starting goalkeeper, and this instability in an important position will negatively affect a mid-table team. While Moyá was the starting goalkeeper, he had constant nagging injuries in the past two years that limited his number of appearances. Lux became the starter due to these injuries but lost his job with the signing of Aouate from Deportivo La Coruña in the January transfer window. Aouate was the goalkeeper for the majority of the second half of the season, where Mallorca played their best football. Because of these performances, Mallorca eventually sold Moyá to Valencia for €6 million during the summer transfer window, securing Aouate as the first-choice goalkeeper. If Aouate keeps to the high level of performance he set last year, Mallorca should finish at another mid-table position.
Will Osasuna score enough goals to stay away from relegation? Osasuna had the third worst attack in La Liga, only netting more than relegated clubs Numancia and Recreativo Huelva. Los Rojillos were fortunate as their last two matches of the season came against Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively; by that point, Barcelona sewed up the league title and thus fielded a mostly reserve team, and Real Madrid had nothing for which to play because second place was guaranteed and also started a reserve team. Osasuna won these two games and was one point above the relegation point total.
Osasuna had the third best defense in La Liga, only allowing forty-seven goals, and with the defensive line intact from last season, the defense should be the solid unit they were a year ago. Aging Argentinean striker Walter Pandiani will lead the attack, with Masoud Shojaei and €1.2 million summer signing Carlos Aranda supporting. Absent from this year’s squad is Jaroslav Plašil, the Czech international who buoyed the attack from the left wing with his mazy runs on the flank and his slashing ability while cutting inside. He led Osasuna with seven assists while adding four goals to his account. Without Plašil, Masoud and fellow Iranian international Javad Nekounam will have to take more responsibility with passing distribution to the forwards so that the potency of the attack will increase to a higher proficiency.
Will new manager Juan Carlos Mandiá inspire a Racing Santander team that mired in mediocrity last year? Mandiá has had managerial success in the past, helping Hércules CF be promoted from the Segúnda División B to the Segúnda División in 2005, managing Real Madrid Castilla, Real Madrid’s reserve team, to within a point of promotion playoffs of Segúnda División B in 2007, and nearly promoting Hércules CF into La Liga in his second stint at the club last season.
The team Mandiá inherits has talent but seemed to have a lack of direction. Pedro Munitis’ creativity was as inspiring as ever, constructing goals for Nikola Zigic, Jonathan Pereira and Mohammed Tchité. Unfortunately, for Racing, Jonathan and Zigic were on loan and went back to their teams, Villarreal and Valencia respectively. With the development of nineteen-year-old Argentina future starlet Brian Sarmiento, Sarmiento will shine because of the partnership with Tchité up front and the ingenuity of Munitis. Mandiá’s experience managing young players will also aid in Sarmiento’s maturity.
The defense was solid, only conceding forty-eight goals, fifth in La Liga, but the two starting central defenders, Iván Marcano and Ezequiel Garay, are gone. Villarreal bought the young, talented Marcano for €6 million, and Garay returned to Real Madrid after his loan spell at Santander. Racing made a shrewd signing in Marc Torrejón, the twenty-three year old central defender from Espanyol. Losing his starting spot to Nicolás Pareja, Torrejón will have a point to prove and should pair well with either Sevilla loanee José Ángel Crespo or veteran Racinguista José Moratón. Mandiá will have a team that underachieved last season, and both parties will want to establish themselves as forces in La Liga.
Will the hundreds of millions of Euros spent on transfers equal a La Liga title? The second galácticos era with the return of Florentino Pérez has been well documented, but now that the campaign is going to commence within a week’s time, Real Madrid needs to produce results from the beginning. Most of the big money signings will most likely start, so expect Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Karim Benzema, Raúl Albiol, Álvaro Arbeloa, and Xabi Alonso to start immediately. Current Real Madrid and former Villarreal manager Manuel Pellegrini has the enviable task of piecing this puzzle together, and he knows a sub-par season (anything less than champions) based on lofty expectations will most likely lead to his sacking.
Previous history shows that this first season with all the new transfers will most likely be the best season to win trophies. When Pérez started his first reign, Real Madrid were very successful in his first couple of years, but after winning La Liga in 2002-2003, Madrid went trophyless for the next three campaigns. Many theories have been posited about why they could not win with all the world-class players they possessed, but the consensus agrees that a lack of attention to the defense led to their downfall.
Pérez did not make this same mistake in his second era with the signings of Albiol and Arbeloa in defense, the loan return of Ezequiel Garay from Racing Santander, and the signing of Xabi Alonso as the glue in the midfield with Lassana Diarra. There is no doubt that Real Madrid will be successful, and if there is no lull in play during their La Liga campaign, they will pose a bigger threat to Barcelona, but if there is a period where Madrid has a two or three game streak without a win, will the egos eventually clash inside the dressing room? If Pellegrini effectively manages the personalities and characters inside the club with aplomb, Los Merengues will have at least one trophy this year.
Can Sevilla break the glass ceiling and break the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly? In the past five seasons, only Villarreal in 2007-2008 broke into the top two. Sevilla finished fifth, third, fifth, and third in the last four seasons, and in that time, they developed a reputation for being hard to break down in defense. They allowed only thirty-nine goals last campaign, second to Barcelona, and there is an argument that Sevilla’s defensive four is better than Barcelona’s back four. The difference between Sevilla and Barcelona defensively is that Barcelona’s midfield and forward lines play a more highly pressing style to regain possession and play their possession football to keep the ball away from the opposition.
Of the defenders that featured on a regular basis, Aquivaldo Mosquera is the only one not with the team this year, as Sevilla sold him to Club América for €4.2 million. In response to Mosquera’s departure, Sevilla spent €4 million on Espanyol defender Sergio Sánchez, and he will most likely be the starting right back when the season starts.
Already a talented team from its starting eleven to the fringe bench players, Sevilla bolstered its midfield with the return of Duda, Lolo, and Alejandro Alfaro from loan, and signing of defensive midfielder Didier Zokora from Tottenham Hotspur for €10 million. Up front, the two best offseason moves only involved one signing. Sevilla won the battle against Hull City and Real Zaragoza to sign Álvaro Negredo for €14 million and should provide cover for Frédéric Kanouté and Luis Fabiano. The second move was keeping Luis Fabiano from transferring to AC Milan. Milan reportedly offered €14 million for Fabiano, but Sevilla sought after a figure closer to his €26 million buyout clause. Although he had an inconsistent season, he provides the speed and guile to pair with the physicality and height of both Kanoute and Negredo. Despite these improvements, the quality of Barcelona and the sheer bought talent of Real Madrid will most likely keep Los Sevillistas from the top two, but third place and another Champions League group stage place is imminent.
Will Sporting Gijón shore up the worst defense in La Liga to survive another top-flight season? The raw numbers are frightening. Gijón conceded seventy-nine goals, ten more then relegated Numancia, and in seven matches, Gijón lost by three or more goals. Many pundits and fans alike admired their gung ho attitude, and their motto throughout the season seemed to be one of “Beat or get beaten.” Because of this attitude, they only had one drawn result, 1-1 against Athletic Bilbao, and a league high twenty-three losses, seven more than relegated Real Betis.
To bolster the defense, three of Gijón’s transactions involved defenders. Joni López returned on loan from FC Barcelona Atlètic, Barcelona’s reserve team, with valuable experience playing with future Barcelona defensive stars Marc Muniesa and Andre Fontàs; Grégory Arnolin arrived from Vitória Guimarães on a free transfer, providing a solid defender who proved himself in the Portuguese Liga; and Alberto Botía, a young defender on loan from Barcelona.
The midfield and the forwards keep their continuity from the previous season with Mate Bilic and David Barral scoring twenty-two goals combined up front and Diego Castro, Diego Camacho, and Carmelo patrolling the midfield. Gijón scored enough goals to compete at the top level, but the midfield would sometimes leave their defensive duties and leave their back four isolated against some of the most potent offenses in the world. Expect Los Rojiblancos to allow fewer goals than last year but still be near the bottom of the league in goals allowed. For their sake, Gijón needs to be more conservative to stay in La Liga for another year, but their insistence to win a match is refreshing when compared to teams that flood their own defensive third in order to maintain a draw.