Although it might seem a bit early to be offering up predictions as to possible relegation material, you should all remember that I missed the pre-season slot — i.e. preview-land — and so I’m trying to make up for lost time.
So here goes — in this two-part article, I’ll outline all of the major relegation candidates, listing their pros and cons, players to watch and at the end give my prognostication as to which of the teams will suffer relegation come June 2008.
By the way, I have a genuine inquiry for all Spanish La Liga fans. Does anyone know if there exists in Spain anything akin to the “parachute payments” received by the teams relegated from the Premier League to the Championship? I know that the drop in TV revenue is not as large (what with the ridiculously huge TV deal signed by the Premier League clubs this season and the dispute over TV coverage in Spain), but is there any mechanism to help clubs who have over-spent in order to ensure La Liga safety only to end up dropping down a division?
I will start with the three promoted teams:
Valladolid have, out of the three promoted sides, the most impressive La Liga credentials, with a vast amount of experience in the top-flight and coming into the season as champions of the Liga BBVA, having mathematically gained promotion with a full eight games of the season remaining, a second division record!
Valladolid’s squad is full of La Liga (and international) experience, including several ex-Real Madrid players, such as GarcÃa Calvo (3 international caps) and Borja, a decent midfield player. In midfield they also have the flair and flamboyance of Estoyanoff, an exciting player whose talent does not always translate into productivity. At the height of his game, Estoyanoff was tipped for great things, but he did not shine at Deportivo La Coruña last season and he will see his time at Valladolid as an opportunity to prove he’s still got it. Up front, Valladolid will rely primarily on the goals of VÃctor, who, at the age of 33 and after scoring 18 goals in the Liga BBVA last season, will take a lot from his positive experiences at Villareal, where he was out-scored only by Diego Forlán.
Having won one of their three opening games, UD AlmerÃa have got the monkey off their back in terms of belief in their own ability to compete at this level, a concept evidenced furthermore by the team’s extremely competent performances against Valencia and Real Madrid. Against the latter, moreover, many feel that AlmerÃa were the better team and were unfortunate to find themselves up against a referee whose bizarre decisions verged on the surreal.
The team itself does not contain much Primera Liga experience beyond that of Aitor López-Rekarte, an extremely capable full-back who played for ten years for Real Sociedad. López-Rekarte’s fellow defender Wilmer Santiago Acasiete (better known as “Santi”, thankfully), has a wealth of experience with the Peruvian national side and has looked assured in the top division. Midfield creativity will come from the Brazilian Melo and the Paraguayan Julio Dos Santos, once tipped as Michael Ballack’s long-term replacement at Bayern Munich. However, where the team will struggle is in front of goal, as they have no recognized regular goalscorers and, despite having scored 5 goals in their opening 3 games, this lack of a front-man could well come back to haunt the team (indeed, these 5 goals have been spread out hugely amongst the team). Perhaps youngster Alvaro Negredo will step up to the plate, but this remains to be seen.
Real Murcia have assembled an excellent squad of players, brimming with top division experience and combining youth and enthusiasm with age and experience.
In goal Murcia have Fabián Carini, who has talent and European experience by the bucketful. At the back, the highlights are the experienced Curro Torres (5 caps for Spain), the Swede Henrik Goitom, wanted by other La Liga clubs, and César Arzo, an extremely mature and proficient 21-year old defender from Villareal who has played for Spain at all youth levels. Arzo in particular offers pace down the wing. In midfield, the team is immensely experienced; the Uruguyans Pablo GarcÃa and Mario Regueiro having played for Real Madrid and Valencia respectively, with Regueiro at times linked with some of the biggest clubs in Spain and Italy and scorer of some scorching goals. In addition, the club contains ex-Real Madrid youngster Alberto MejÃa, a player Mark Hughes is rumoured to much admire, and ex-Espanyol players Enrique De Lucas (also a former Paris St Germain and — somehow — an ex-Chelsea player!) and Jofre, the latter himself an ex-Barcelona player and a key member of Espanyol’s Copa del Rey winning team of 2005. Up front, Murcia will rely on the perennially underrated Fernando Baiano, another scorer of breathtaking goals, as well as the consistent goalscorer Iván Alonso, who has had many injury problems over the last few years.
Murcia are unbeaten in their first three games, having scored just three goals and conceded only two.
The historical Basque club, formed by British miners and shipyard workers in the early twentieth century, nearly dropped into the Segunda División for the first time in their history last season, only to be saved on the last day, with their Basque neighbours, Real Sociedad, relegated in their stead. Athletic are famous for their Basque-only policy, which severely limits the number of players available to the club. As a result, the squad can stagnate as players age, which is what appears to have happened to this Athletic group over the last few years. The squad is fairly weak but will be able to call on the returning Joseba ExteberrÃa and Asier Del Horno to guide them through the season, as well as the exciting talents of Markel Susaeta, who has scored twice already this season, including an excellent strike against Real Zaragoza last week. Susaeta will surely go on to greater things, but Bilbao may well find themselves in trouble come the end of the season.
Getafe and Levante:
I have grouped together these two sides as both came up to La Liga last season and both exceeded all expectations. Although Getafe’s squad, like Levante’s, is infused with talent, both teams have struggled at the beginning of this season, finding themselves 19th and 20th respectively. Getafe in particular will be suffering due to the loss of manager Berndt Schuster to Real Madrid, but the squad probably has too much to go down, with goalkeepers Ustari and Abbondanzieri and ex-Real Madrid midfielders De La Red and Granero (the latter especially is a great talent, and many Real fans were sad to see him go) just a few of the talents on show. However, with an unsettled pre-season and several signings, as well as the departure of the excellent Paredes, Getafe will certainly find it difficult to reproduce the form that won the side a UEFA cup spot last year. Getafe is another club who will struggle to score goals.
Levante’s poor start has surprised pretty much everyone in the league, considering how many good players are at the club, including ex-Italian international Damiano Tommasi, former Newcastle “star” Laurent Robert (always a risky player to have at a club), prolific goalscorer Shota Arveladze, ex-Real Madrid midfielder Sávio, and brilliant Ivorian midfielder Félix Ettien (unfortunately more well known to English fans for his comments on racism in the Spanish league). Levante performed far better after the sacking of López Caro, and manager Abel Resino should be commended for his work at the club.
Other other candidates:
I don’t have time to do an analysis of Racing (who have lost Zigic), Betis and Mallorca, so come back tomorrow for that! All three have started okay, but such a start could be deceptive.