The January transfer window is made for the top teams to reinforce their squads for a title run. As a whole, the window flew by with little fanfare. Real Zaragoza was one of the few teams in Europe to make sweeping changes to their roster. While their moves would hardly gather any front or back page headlines, the Zaragoza board realized that they needed to effect change in order to avoid relegation.
Even before January, they let go of manager Marcelino García Toral, the same man that guided the Aragonese club to promotion last season. While the move was not popular with some of the players and the fans, the Zaragoza brass believed in the reserve team coach, José Aurelio Gay, to run the senior team for the rest of the season.
A capable midfielder for Espanyol and Real Zaragoza in the late 1980s through the 1990s, Gay’s subsequent managerial career garnered mediocre results with multiple teams in the lower divisions of Spain. With his latest stop with the Real Zaragoza B team, he led the group of academy players to the top of Group XVII, the Aragon region of Spain, with a positive, attacking style that rarely occurs in the rough and tumble of the Tercera División, the fourth level in the Spanish football pyramid.
If Xavi Hernández complains of the man-marking and the lack of space he sometimes receives in La Liga and in the UEFA Champions League, he would dread playing in the Tercera División because a vast majority of the players at that level do not have the technical skill to compete for roster spots at the top level but have the heart and desire to chase the ball and commit fully to challenges. Some of them are part-time players, and others are young cantera kids who are trying to impress their superiors, so a tireless work ethic is necessary to survive in this division.
A coaching change, however, appeared to be only window dressing as the poor results continued into January. President Agapito Iglesias gave his consent to several signings as well as releasing a couple of their important players. With the worst defense in La Liga, defenders were at the top of the list of improvements needed. Jirí Jarošík, former CSKA Moskva and Chelsea defender, arrived on a free transfer, and they loaned veteran Italian defender Matteo Contini from Napoli until the end of the season, with an option to buy him outright. They even brought former FC Barcelona and Villarreal defender Edmilson back from the dead.
Besides the holes in the back line, Zaragoza needed finishers. Abel Aguilar was Los Blanquillos‘ top scorer with only four goals, so reinforcements in attack became important to keep up with the opposition if the defense could not hold. Lazio loaned speedy winger Eliseu Pereira, who played with Málaga for two seasons, and Recreativo Huelva standout Adrián Colunga was loaned to Zaragoza. These two pale in comparison to Zaragoza’s third forward signing, Chilean striker Humberto “Chupete” Suazo. A prolific goal-scorer with Chilean club powerhouse Colo-Colo and 2009 Mexican Apertura champions Monterrey, Monterrey loaned him to Zaragoza until the end of the season, with Zaragoza having the option to make the loan permanent for €10 million.
The one significant player to leave Real Zaragoza in January was 36-year-old captain Roberto Ayala. Signed by Zaragoza from Villarreal before Ayala had played a single match for Villarreal, the Argentinean defender’s career path slowly turned downward from that point forward. While the former Valencia legend played admirably and adequately for the Aragonese club, the heights to which he played for Valencia and the Argentinean national team never materialized at Zaragoza. Ayala and Zaragoza came to terms with the mutual termination of his contract, and he returned home to Argentina, where he currently plays for Racing Club de Avellaneda.
With all of these alterations within the team, they needed time to work out the chemistry among themselves. Unfortunately, with only half of the season remaining and relegation a looming possibility, they needed to generate positive results quickly to avoid falling to the Segunda División for the second time in three seasons.
Although they lost 4-2 to Villarreal two weeks ago, they fought back from a 3-0 deficit to make the last ten minutes of the match nail biting. Goals from Eliseu and Ángel Lafita made a stroll for Villarreal turn into a strenuous run.
Through seventy-six minutes at Tenerife last Sunday, Tenerife outclassed Zaragoza, but poor finishing yielded only one goal for Los Chicharreros. In the span of six minutes, an unnecessary penalty conceded by Tenerife central defender Ezequiel Luna that was converted by Humberto Suazo, a beautifully lofted shot by Adrián Colunga over Tenerife goalkeeper Sergio Aragoneses, and an Ángel Lafita blast from over thirty yards that was the “Golazo de la Semana” led to José Aurelio Gay’s first win as manager of the senior team and Zaragoza’s first win away from La Romareda.
Returning from the warm temperatures of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands to the cold Cierza winds in Zaragoza, they hosted Sevilla FC on Sunday, who was fighting their way back into the Champions League spots with two straight wins in La Liga over Almería and Valencia and a midweek win in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal over Getafe. Ángel Lafita was suspended for this game due to an accumulation of five yellow cards, and Adrián Colunga filled in to pair with Chupete Suazo in attack. Five of the January signings started in this match for Real Zaragoza, and the team performed as though they had been there since summer training.
Sevilla fielded a relatively weakened side, as manager Manolo Jiménez decided to rest the likes of Luís Fabiano, Renato, Jesús Navas, Didier Zokora, and Diego Perotti because they played midweek in the Copa del Rey semifinal and will likely play them in the second leg this Wednesday.
For the first half-hour, the teams were fairly even, as both teams had decent chances on goal but failed to capitalize on them. Then from a corner kick in the 31st minute, Sevilla failed to clear the ball, and the ensuing scramble in the penalty box led to the ball popping out for Matteo Contini, who shot it across goal to the right far post, and passed Sevilla goalkeeper Andrés Palop for the opening score.
An egregious goalkeeping error by Juan Pablo Carrizo gave the Andalucians the equalizing goal less than three minutes after they fell behind. From the left flank, Diego Capel floated a cross just beyond the right post. Carrizo made the decision to venture off his line to punch the cross away. He flailed and failed miserably to make contact with the ball, and Juan Cala’s header hit the crossbar. Frédéric Kanouté slotted the rebound from five yards out, and Carrizo appealed and remonstrated to referee César Muñiz Fernández that he was obstructed. Clearly, there was no foul, but Carrizo needed someone to blame for his mistake, and for his efforts, Muñiz Fernández rewarded him with a yellow card for dissent.
Equality would not last long, as Álvaro Negredo headed the ball into his own net from an Eliseu whipped cross in the 41st minute. Zaragoza held a 2-1 lead into halftime, and they deserved the lead in spite of the go-ahead goal being an own goal. The club from Aragon created more quality chances than Sevilla, and their commitment and spirit shone through the whole squad. Even Chupete Suazo harried and hurried the Sevilla defenders and midfielders as they crossed the halfway line. Suazo acknowledged that he has had attitude problems in the past, when he played for Universidad Católica in Chile and in Monterrey. If José Aurelio Gay can get Suazo to work outside of his striker role, he must be doing something right.
Predictably, the second half transpired with Sevilla imposing their game onto Real Zaragoza, as Jiménez sent in Perotti, Renato, and Navas in to overturn the one goal deficit. Sevilla could not break down the Zaragoza defense (who knew?), and frustrations became tangible when both Álvaro Negredo and Marius Stankevicius received straight red cards late in the match for vicious tackles on Matteo Contini and Ander Herrera respectively. Sevilla never mounted a serious challenge to Carrizo in the second half, and Real Zaragoza elevated out of the relegation places with a 2-1 victory, two points clear of 18th place Real Valladolid.
Last season, Mallorca and Espanyol were in the last two places in the table at this point of the campaign. Like phoenix, they rose from the dead and finished ninth and tenth respectively at the end of the year. Real Zaragoza is a strong candidate to fulfill that role this season because of the renewed sense of hope instilled by José Aurelio Gay and brought by the new players that arrived in January.
The next five matches look promising for Real Zaragoza as they only face one opponent in the top half of La Liga, the ever-inconsistent Getafe. If they are to remain in La Liga for next year, this stretch of matches is crucial for their survival.
Zaragoza President Agapito Iglesias wrote an open letter on the club’s website at the beginning of the New Year to apologize to the fans. In part of his post, he said:
“The first thing I want to do, having taken on the role (of president) is ask sincere forgiveness for all our mistakes. We have 23 league games left, a lot of months of football which we are facing with a slight disadvantage but in which everything is still possible.”
His vision and foresight are becoming to blend with reality, and with continued good play, they control their own destiny instead of relying on others to fail.
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