Monday, 13 August 2012

2012/13 La Liga preview - part 1

(Last season: 2nd)

“Four years is an eternity at Barcelona,” Pep Guardiola said in April at the press conference called to announce his departure from the club at the end of the season. He wasn’t exaggerating either. A record of 14 major league and cup successes between 2008 and 2012, achieved with a football ideology adhered to so intensely that it bordered on fanaticism at times, means the Guardiola era will never be forgotten. Most observers commented on how much the coach had aged during those four years; he seemed to have a lifetime’s anxiety lines etched across his face.

Guardiola would have been an incredibly difficult act to follow for any coach. The man charged with doing so is his long-time assistant, Tito Vilanova.

A former Barcelona B player, 42-year-old Vilanova worked alongside Guardiola for five years and club director Andoni Zubizarreta described his appointment as the new coach as “a logical decision” because “he represents the same style of play and the same philosophy.” With such a firmly entrenched tactical ethos at Barcelona, from the first team to junior levels, and a squad whose nucleus is still the envy of any other club in the world, continuity was the most important factor in the recruitment process.

Vilanova comes across as a quiet man who was content to remain in the shadows while Guardiola took the spotlight, yet still working the same phenomenally long hours behind the scenes. There have been a couple of incidents in the last 12 months, though, to indicate his inner steel. He received a one-game ban for his reaction to Real Madrid coach José Mourinho’s attempted eye gouge in last year’s Super Cup, a suspension that was recently lifted in time for the upcoming meeting between the sides in the season curtain-raiser. More seriously, Vilanova underwent surgery to remove a tumour from his parotid gland last winter, but was back on the Barcelona bench with remarkable speed.

The new coach will have almost the same set of players to work with as Guardiola had last season, with the transfer of left back Jordi Alba from Valencia for €14m the only incoming move so far. Alba was a revelation for Spain at Euro 2012. Having started only one competitive game for the national team prior to the tournament, his command of the left flank grew with every match and his goal in the final confirmed his international class. With David Villa edging closer to fitness after his leg break at the Club World Cup, he too will feel like a new signing. The loss of defensive midfielder Seydou Keita, though, should not be underestimated. A clause in his contract allowed him to leave for free at the end of last season, and he joined Chinese side Dalian Aerbin. With his understudy gone, it is imperative that Sergio Busquets stays free of injury.

Busquets isn’t the only player that Vilanova needs to stay fit, of course. Barcelona were beset by muscular injuries last season that affected Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, and Alexis Sánchez throughout the campaign, while captain and club idol Carles Puyol has had another knee operation this summer. And, of course, there’s Lionel Messi. He rewrote history with a final tally of 73 goals in all club competitions during 2011/12. How can he possibly top it though?

The suggestion last season was that Barcelona’s players were as tired mentally as they were physically from their years at the top. It took every ounce of resolve for their Spanish contingent to help the national team win the European Championships, and Vilanova will be hoping the squad as a whole still has something left in the tank for another assault on the league.

La Liga prediction: Runners-up
Key player (aside from the obvious three): Sergio Busquets

(Last season: 3rd)

If finishing second is considered a failure in Spain by the top two, then only third place will do for their nearest challengers. And even then it might not be enough – just ask Unai Emery.

Given the extreme financial problems that Valencia have suffered over the last few years, and with Emery habitually seeing the club’s most saleable assets depart every summer, some would reasonably argue that a record of three consecutive third-place finishes represented the very best that the team could hope to achieve. The majority of the fans, though, would point to constant team rotation, a disappointing record against the top two in the league and the cup, two underwhelming Champions League campaigns, and a series of turgid displays against La Liga’s lesser sides as four reasons why Valencia weren’t maximising their potential under their Basque coach. A desperate run of results saw Valencia win once in the league between the turn of the year and the start of March, and it became an open secret that the coach would be leaving in June.

Mauricio Pellegrino – a double league-winner with Valencia as a player who started both of their Champions League final defeats a decade ago – has taken over the reins at the Mestalla. He arrives with only two coaching jobs on his CV, as an assistant to Rafa Benítez at Liverpool and Internazionale.

The squad has undergone something of an overhaul this summer. A number of players were allowed to leave at the end of their contracts but the most significant loss is that of Alba, especially as it breaks up his partnership with Jérémy Mathieu on the left-hand side that was usually the most potent element of Valencia’s play. The left back has yet to be adequately replaced after approaches for José Ángel and Dídac Vilà foundered. Right back was a problem position for Valencia last season, to which João Pereira is hopefully the answer after his €3.6m move from Sporting Lisbon. His performances for Portugal at Euro 2012 bode well. Jonathan Viera and Andrés Guardado are two exciting signings who impressed in the Segunda with, respectively, Las Palmas and Deportivo La Coruña. Rounding off Valencia’s business so far, Fernando Gago has arrived from Real Madrid via Roma to provide competition in midfield with Mehmet Topal and Hedwiges Maduro gone.

Perhaps the most significant signature that Valencia secured over the summer, though, was that of Roberto Soldado. The striker has committed himself to the club for a further five years and his goals – 27 in all competitions last season – will be crucial if Pellegrino is to fare any better than Emery.

La Liga prediction: Champions League qualification
Key player: Roberto Soldado

(Last season: 6th)

Sid Lowe called it a slow bicycle race, and Levante very nearly won it. Despite failing to win in the league for 11 weeks either side of Christmas, the expert counter attackers remained the most unlikely candidates imaginable for fourth place until the final weeks of the season before finally settling for sixth and the Europa League. Despite missing out on the unimaginable riches of the Champions League, qualifying for Europe for the first time in their history was a staggering achievement for a team whose back four often had a combined age of over 130.

After losing Felipe Caicedo last summer, coach Juan Ignacio Martínez’s master stroke was to bring in unwanted Sevilla forward Arouna Koné on loan, who then struck 15 times in La Liga. Koné has been signed permanently but may yet be sold on for a profit, like Caicedo was, with Levante’s budget remaining extremely tight and their first priority still simply to stay in the top division. Fiscal reasons seem to have been behind a similar deal that has seen midfielder Xavi Torres moved on to Getafe after Levante first exercised their purchase option from Malaga.

Challenging the top four again seems extremely unlikely regardless of whether Koné stays or goes, but even without him the indomitable spirit of veteran players such as barrel-chested centre back Sergio Ballesteros should keep Levante safe from relegation.

La Liga prediction: Lower midtable
Key player: Arouna Koné (if he leaves, José Barkero)

(Last season: 7th)

Osasuna’s push for a European place last season might have been overshadowed by Levante’s but was no less unlikely. They often weren’t pretty to watch but they were hard to beat, and only Real Madrid and Barcelona lost fewer games at home as José Luis Mendilibar’s team just fell short of a top six finish. They will struggle to repeat the feat this season though.

The summer began with the disappointing departures of a number of important players – classy midfielder Javad Nekounam returned to Iran, Senegalese forward Ibrahima Baldé left for Kuban Krasnodar and Raúl Garcia went back to Atlético Madrid after a hugely successful loan spell that reaped 11 goals and eight assists – but Osasuna have still remained unbeaten during pre-season.

Garcia scored a quarter of Osasuna’s goals last season and without him the midfield could look stodgy. The signing of striker Joseba Llorente on loan from Real Sociedad is timely, then, considering the worries over firepower. Mendilibar had a constant headache at left back last season and has picked up Nano from Numancia in the hope he will succeed where so many others failed, while the arrivals of Emiliano Armenteros and Sisi from Sevilla and Real Valladolid give added competition on the flanks.

La Liga prediction: Lower midtable
Key player: Álvaro Cejudo

(Last season: 8th)

A run of five wins in six games saw Mallorca make a late surge for Europe in May, only for them to draw the short straw of a visit to the Bernabéu on the final day and go down 4-1. To go into the last game of the season occupying a Europa League spot, though, was a credit to the job done by Joaquin Caparrós after taking over from Michael Laudrup as coach the previous October. With shareholders squabbling over the ownership of the club in court and Mallorca officially in a state of bankruptcy until June, it was a very difficult task to take on.

Caparros claimed bullishly that he had “the best team in La Liga” after the triple signing of Antonio López, Javi Márquez, and Javier Arizmendi. They are all useful additions, respectively bolstering defensive, midfield and attacking areas, but a quick look at the players to have left the club paints a less promising picture. Centre backs Iván Ramis and Chico Flores, last season’s regular pairing, have both moved to the Premier League, leaving Mallorca in dire need of reinforcement in the middle of defence with only fit-again 35-year-old José Nunes remaining. Winger Chori Castro – usually the most dangerous name on the team sheet – ran down his contract and switched to Real Sociedad.

With Caparrós’ tactical organisation in place there is little danger of Mallorca being sucked into the relegation places, but the lower reaches of the top ten would seem to be the limit of their ambitions.

La Liga prediction: Upper midtable
Key player: José Nunes

(Last season: 9th)

If Villarreal took the gold medal for underperformance in Spain last season, Sevilla were perhaps the standout candidate for silver. Losing a Europa League qualifier against Hannover meant they were absent from the group stage of European competition for the first time since 2003, while their final league position was their lowest for nine years and they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey in the last sixteen. Former Real Madrid player and Getafe coach Michel replaced the sacked Marcelino in February and, though he was unable to reach Europe, he has been given another chance this year.

Sevilla’s main weaknesses last season were at right back, with Jorge Coke out of his depth after the sale of Martin Cáceres, and in midfield, with Gary Medel often doing the work of at least two men. The Brazilian Cicinho has arrived to help solve the first problem, while Michel has been stockpiling central midfielders – most notably Hedwiges Maduro and Javi Hervás – to increase competition. Meanwhile, Diego López has moved from Villarreal to compete with Andrés Palop in goal, with Javi Varas sent out on loan to Celta Vigo.

Michel will need Jesús Navas (12 assists in La Liga) and Álvaro Negredo (14 goals) to be on top form if Sevilla are to rejoin the top six. His wildcard could be Chilean teenager Bryan Rabello, who is already a full international and has been snapped up from under the noses of Manchester City and Chelsea.

La Liga prediction: Europa League candidates
Key player: Álvaro Negredo

Athletic Bilbao
(Last season: 10th)

As headlines go, “Bielsa hits builder” takes some beating. When Athletic returned for pre-season training in the first week of July, just days after Spain’s Euro 2012 success, the man they call El Loco lived up to his name when he took exception to the state of the pitch at Lezama and sought out a man overseeing the redevelopment work. It reportedly got physical, and for a day or so it looked like the incident would see Bielsa, who only signed a one-year contract extension in June after leading Athletic to the finals of the Europa League and Copa del Rey, and Athletic part ways. An easy truce was called, but not before the club had discredited the coach’s argument that the pitch was not fit for purpose and rather witheringly referred to him as “an employee”.

There has also been a hangover from last season’s punishing schedule, which saw Athletic play over 60 competitive matches with almost no squad rotation until the final stages, and several players’ fitness has been compromised. Jon Aurtenetxe and Ander Herrera both have groin problems; Fernando Amorebieta has already had his operated on. Andoni Iraola missed Euro 2012 after playing through a minor injury at the end of last season, while Fernando Llorente did not make it onto the pitch during the tournament with the consensus being that he was completely exhausted. To make matters worse, Llorente has rejected a new contract and, with his current deal set to expire next summer, looks set to leave. It is not ruled out that Javi Martinez, perhaps the most complete player in the squad, could yet follow him.

The arrival of striker Aritz Aduriz from Valencia, then, looks like a pre-emptive measure with Llorente’s future so uncertain. Athletic’s other new arrival is Isma López from Lugo, the left winger having helped them to promotion from Segunda B with 7 goals in 40 games. He then scored twice on his competitive debut for Athletic against Slaven Belupo in the Europa League.

At the moment, a repeat of the European odyssey that took in two exhilarating wins against Manchester United looks unlikely, while their aspirations to break into the top four in Spain may also be on hold.

La Liga prediction: Europa League qualification
Key player: Iker Muniain

(Last season: 17th)

Life is never dull in this Italian-owned corner of Andalusia. Granada, who are backed by the Pozzo family that controls Udinese and now Watford too, returned to the top division for the first time in 35 years last August after successive promotions and stayed up on the final day despite a last-minute defeat to Rayo Vallecano. Now, following a fresh arrival of talent on loan from their parent club in Serie A, new coach Juan Antonio Anquela – who took little Alcorcón to the Segunda play-off final last season – will be looking to consolidate his new club’s La Liga status.

Over 20 players have been brought in, released, or recalled following loan spells so far since May. Udinese striker Antonio Floro Flores and winger Gabriel Torje might be the most attention-grabbing arrivals, but Venezuelan teenager Darwín Machis has caught the eye in friendlies and midfielder Iriney Santos is a very shrewd acquisition from Betis. Significantly, gifted left back Guilherme Siqueira – who was on Valencia’s radar – has yet to seal a move away from the club.

Preparations this summer are markedly better organised than they were 12 months ago, and confidence is high that this group of players could gel into a team to watch this season.

La Liga prediction: Europa League candidates
Key player: Mikel Rico

Celta Vigo
(Last season: 2nd in the Segunda)

With local rivals Deportivo La Coruña the side to have beaten them to the second division title, the Galician derby makes a welcome return to La Liga after a five-year gap. Just eight years ago, Celta made it to the last 16 of the Champions League before being eliminated by Arsenal. Since then there have been two relegations, two promotions and years of financial hardship.

Celta were the Segunda’s top scorers with 83 goals last season, Iago Aspas grabbing 23 of them, and they also had the joint best defensive record. Coach Paco Herrera, another former assistant to Rafa Benítez, is also a bit of a tinkerer but he has been relatively quiet in the transfer market so far. Gustavo Cabral impressed at Levante in the second half of last season, while goalkeeper Javi Varas could be one of the signings of the year if he repeats his heroics of last autumn for Sevilla on loan. The full backs Roberto Lago and Hugo Mallo are also worth looking out for. However, it is a huge disappointment to Celta’s chances of really making an impact this season to have failed to sign Granada winger Fabián Orellana on a permanent basis.

La Liga prediction: Upper midtable
Key player: Iago Aspas

Real Valladolid
(Last season: 3rd in the Segunda, promoted via play-offs)

After not sealing promotion until mid-June, Valladolid’s squad reconvened just six weeks later to begin preparations for the start of their La Liga campaign. The settled eleven that Miroslav Ðukić relied upon last season remains largely intact, apart from departed wingers Sisi and Nauzet Alemán, with the retention of striker Javi Guerra vitally important. After scoring 49 goals over the past two seasons with Valladolid, the club’s hopes of avoiding the drop largely rest on him, although the interest Tottenham recently showed in goalkeeper Jaime Jiménez is an indication that there is quality at both ends of the pitch.

La Liga prediction: Relegation
Key player: Javi Guerra

This post makes up one half of the Football Radar preview of the new La Liga season, which can be read in full here including the other half contributed by my colleague @FRfutbolZahir.

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