In this, the second part of my anachronistic La Liga previews, I will analyse the squads of Real Betis, Racing Santander, Recreativo de Huelva and Real Mallorca.
Since qualifying for the Champions League three years ago, it has all been downhill for Real Betis, having finished 14th and 16th respectively in the last two seasons, coming perilously close to relegation in the 2006-7 season. This decline is made all the more painful for the Betis fans due to the overwhelming success of their bitter rivals Sevilla.
This season sees the celebration of Real Betis’ centenary (they were formed on my birthday, might I add ïŠ), and as such, the club can ill afford to struggle. The summer transfer window has seen a complete renovation of the ailing squad, with eight signings and no fewer than fourteen departures! Their current manager is Hector Cúper, who has had successful stints at Valencia and Mallorca, taking the former to two Champions League finals and the latter to the Champions League, as well as to the Copa Del Rey final; it is worth adding however that in his most recent work with Mallorca, Cúper resigned with the club rooted to the bottom of the league, leaving behind a host of failed signings. Apart from this blip, though, Cuper’s record is superb, and one would hope that Betis will excel under his management.
The current Betis squad looks fairly good on paper, with players such as new signings Mark González (known to Liverpool fans for his fairly disappointing spell at the club, although he did score a few cracking goals); Argentinian striker Mariano Pavone (who has a reasonable record in the Argentinian league); fellow Argentinian international Leandro Somoza, on loan from Villareal; as well as other squad members such as Edu (scorer of vital goals, such as the goal which took the club to the Champions League group stages and, even more importantly, the two goals which kept the club up last season), who has yet to reproduce shown when partnering the departed Ricardo Oliveira in the Champions-league qualifying campaign of 2004-5, and the supremely talented yet inconsistent Rafael Sobis. Betis have also completed the signing of Branko Ilic, who played a crucial role in the club’s survival last time round.
However, in four games so far, Betis have yet to win, and the performances have been disappointing, with only the brilliance of Sobis ensuring any points for the club. The defence still looks shaky and the midfield lacks fluency, although this is perhaps a side-effect of the amount of movement in and out of the club during the off-season. I would not expect Betis to go down this season: there appears to be too much quality in the squad and I am backing Cúper to raise the team’s level. However, Betis surely cannot aim for much higher than a top ten finish, and I imagine the team will struggle in this their “transitional” season (to use a phrase favoured by Mr Wenger).
Real Mallorca are another side who have struggled in recent years, and yet seem always to escape (much to the delight of Sky Sports commentator Gerry Armstrong).
However, this season, Mallorca have made a decent start, with one win and two draws from four games. Crucial to their survival this season will be the commitment of Juan Arango, the Venezuelan having been one of the club’s top performers over the last few years. Mallorca’s squad looks in pretty good shape, key players being the exciting Argentinian Oscar Trejo, who scored on his debut for the Islanders, ex-Valencia defender David Navarro, who is an accomplished performer, the superb Jonás Gutierrez, linked with many English clubs over the summer, a hard-working, hard-tackling midfielder with a reasonable eye for goal, and forward Dani Guiza, who has yet to demonstrate his potential on the big stage. However, Guiza has three goals from four this season, and his form could well be crucial to keeping up a club with a formidable rearguard, marshaled by veteran Ballesteros. I would expect Mallorca to attain a mid-table finish at worst, and the club could well finish as high as seventh or eighth.
This season was always going to be a difficult one for perennial strugglers Racing Santander, as the club have lost their best player; giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic, scorer of thirteen goals last season. However, the club have brought in some great talents for the coming season, including the much-hyped Danny Szetela, the United States’ international, and a man deemed the “New Drogba”, 23 year old Congo striker Mohammed Tchité. In an experienced but not overly talented defense, the highlight is Argentinian Ezequiel Garay, who I fully expect to leave the club for greater heights in the next two years. The midfield is fairly strong, led by the combative yet creative Aldo Duscher, and up front Pedro Munitis continues to be a handful, although his output in terms of goals is still limited. The man charged with scoring the goals to keep Racing in the league will be the Pole Euzebiusz Smolarek, signed from Borussia Dortmund, with whom he had a reasonably good 1-in-3 goalscoring ratio. The club have made a decent start to the season, winning one and drawing two of the four games they have played, but they have scored just two goals in these four fixtures, a problem that will need to be resolved if the club are to stay up. The club are managed by Marcelino GarcÃa Toral, the man behind Recreativo’s promotion to and subsequent success in La Liga.
Recreativo de Huelva:
Recreativo de Huelva, one of the oldest clubs in the Peninsula (formed in 1889! by Dr Alexander McKay), outperformed all expectations last season, when finishing eighth and avoiding a relegation battle all through the season. On paper, the squad looks fairly limited, but Recreativo have an excellent team spirit and are very well organized — they are like the Reading of the Primera Liga, and much credit should go to former manager Marcelino GarcÃa Toral, now manager of Racing Santander. New manager Antonio Muñoz has quite a job on his hands if he is looking for a repeat performance, and the club will once again have the modest ambition of finishing outside the relegation spots.
Star players include centre-back MartÃn Cáceres, on loan from Villareal and a great hope for the future (he was excellent in this summer’s South American U-20 Championships), fellow defender Jesús Vázquez, ex-captain of Tenerife, captain Aitor Tornavaca (most notable for his experience rather than his ability), and, most importantly, strikers Florent Sinama-Pongolle, underrated during his time at Liverpool and a revelation at Recreativo last season, the experienced Javi Guerrero, whose double at the weekend took the club to victory against Espanyol and Camuñas, best known for his assists rather than for goals. Recreativo are one of nine teams on 5 points after 4 games, and should have enough firepower to survive.
As it would be unfair to sit on the fence after such a preview, I find myself consigned to choosing the three teams I find most likely to suffer relegation this season, even though some 8 or 9 clubs could realistically face the drop. I will place my money on AlmerÃa, who I believe will struggle to score goals, Racing Santander, who I feel will have the same problem, and Athletic Bilbao, whose squad I feel is just too limited to continue to compete, a problem which will be compounded if million-euro bids come in for Susaeta during the Christmas transfer window. However, do not rule out Murcia, Getafe or Recreativo — the rest of the teams mentioned here should be fairly safe.