Posted by: mdegeorge | August 29, 2011

Preseason Diagnosis: La Liga

It’s that time of year again: Soccer season is upon us. Now that the summer tournaments and international fundraising showcases are wearing off, it’s time for everyone to get back to business. With the major European leagues slowly springing to life one-by-one, I’ll be previewing each of the big leagues as they open their schedules throughout August. Up next is La Liga.

Armed with new weapons, Lionel Messi and Barcelona may repeat as Spanish champs. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

As they say, better late than never. That certainly applies to La Liga, which belatedly struck a deal between teams and players to get the season under way a week later than we all expected.

Perhaps waiting a week to experience the onset of one of the most beautiful brands of soccer in the world will make us appreciate the fluid, flowing, attacking virtuosity that the Spanish league brings even more. Maybe the strike will bring a temporary pause to the onslaught of spending by Malaga.

Either way, it’s time to look at what La Liga will have to offer this season. The top of the table, that’s pretty easy to predict. But we’ll see what the bottom has to offer.

It’s not great stretch to name Barcelona as the predicted pace-setter. The two-time fending champions and Champions League holders needed only to make small improvements this offseason. Instead, they ended their long-standing dance with Arsenal to acquire the future of their midfield in Cesc Fabregas and added a dangerous winger in Alexis Sanchez. The departures were minimal and included recouping significant value for Bojan Krkic, Jeffren Suarez, Oriol Romeu and Martin Caceres, all deemed surplus to requirements. Those makeweights netted €25 million, making the over €70 they spent on the two arrivals more palatable. As always, Barca is the best in the world at doing what they want to do, and in Fabregas and Sanchez they have more players able to do that. The only concern is over continuing rumors as the departure of David Villa, their only true center forward. A versatile forward like Villa is important in making their attack work, making it somewhat surprising that they didn’t try to replace Krkic in some capacity. Still with Lionel Messi in the picture, I’m sure the Blaugrana won’t be wanting for goal production in what likely will be a third straight title.

3. Villarreal4. Valencia5. Sevilla6. Atletico Madrid7. Malaga8. Athletic Bilbao9. Osasuna10. Getafe11. Espanyol12. Sporting Gijon13. Real Sociedad14. Mallorca15. Real Betis16. Racing Santander17. Levante18. Rayo Vallecano19. Real Zaragoza20. Granada

2011-12 La Liga Predictions
1. Barcelona
2. Real Madrid
3. Villarreal
4. Valencia
5. Sevilla
6. Atletico Madrid
7. Malaga
8. Athletic Bilbao
9. Osasuna
10. Getafe
11. Espanyol
12. Sporting Gijon
13. Real Sociedad
14. Mallorca
15. Real Betis
16. Racing Santander
17. Levante
18. Rayo Vallecano
19. Real Zaragoza
20. Granada

Was this actually a transfer window in which Barcelona outspent Real Madrid? It’s the case, though Madrid brought in more players, though not necessarily a better chance at a title. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo and his 40 goals are still there. To the capital club’s sizeable stable of Turkish-born, German-bred midfielders comes Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop, while the defense corps is wisely reinforced by young sensation Raphael Varane (just as former young sensation Ezequiel Garay leaves town) and big-ticket signing Fabio Coentrao. The problem for Jose Mourinho’s men is too many midfield options. With the arrivals and persistence in the squad of somewhat out-of-favor players like Kaka and Lassana Diarra, I count a dozen options for midfield selection when everyone’s healthy to occupy at most four spots. Barcelona relies on a tight nucleus that even last year lacked depth. A Rafael Benitez-like revolving door approach in the midfield isn’t going to foster the type of cohesion needed for Los Galacticos to shed their recent bridesmaid role.

The clear echelons will be present again this year, with the El Classico rivals a step ahead of the field. Perhaps the team in best position to capitalize is last year’s fourth-place finisher Villarreal. Udinese sensation Cristian Zapata is a younger replacement for Joan Capdevila, and while they don’t have a direct midfield replacement for Santi Cazorla (other than more production out of Borja Valero and Marcos Senna), they boast one of the league’s most potent attacks. We know what Guiseppe Rossi is capable of producing, but the unit has depth with newly-signed Javier Camunas, Nilmar and Marco Ruben. If they can improve on the 54 goals they scored last season – a major underachievement for this talented lot – they should put themselves firmly in Champions League position.

Valencia is one of the teams hardest hit by departures, but what else is new for the perpetually cash-strapped club? The big loss is Juan Mata and his eight goals and 12 assists to Chelsea. Also leaving is playmaker Joaquin (four goals, seven assists). They’ll hope to replace those contributions by finally giving Sergio Canales, he of Real Madrid bench fame, a chance to show his stuff in the top flight, along with new winger Daniel Parejo and returning midfielders Mehmet Topal and Ever Banega. They’re very excited about Pablo Piatti and are hoping for big things from the Argentine, while Diego Alves adds stability after a goalkeeping house-cleaning. It may be a bit much to depend on Roberto Soldado (18) and Aritz Aduriz (10) to increase their goal production from a year ago. Even if the number fall off a bit, Europe is likely for Los Che.

Sevilla could experience a return to Champions League this season thanks to some small moves. They retain Martin Caceres after a loan spell from Barcelona. The defense is strengthened by Coke and former Arsenal target Emir Spahic, while Manu del Moral and Piotr Trochowski bolster the attack. This is in addition to the ageless Fredi Kanoute and Alvaro Negredo, though they do have to replace the services of Luis Fabiano, who left for Sao Paolo for much less than the €30 million he was priced at a few seasons ago (oops!).

Atletico Madrid is high on the list of deeply impacted teams, waving goodbye to the dynamic Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and David De Gea, the only goalkeeper to face a shot in league play a season ago. The goalkeeping situation will be a trial-by-fire for Thibaut Courtois. At least in Falcao Atletico has a replacement in terms of production and fan admiration on the forward line. Arda Turan and Gabriel Fernandez provide attacking impetus, while Adrian Lopez will assume some of the responsibility that comes with replacing a 20-goal man. The key, though, could be the arrival of Miranda, who’ll likely step in to replace the contributions of Tomas Ujfalusi in the center of defense.

Spending has almost been elevated to an art form by Malaga. The Andalusians’ Qatari owners’ spending spree that started slowly with wantaway Julio Baptista and manager Manuel Pellegrini hit overdrive this summer. In are defenders Martin Demichelis, Nacho Monreal, Sergio Sanchez and Joris Mathijsen, midfielders Joaquin, Santi Cazorla and Jeremy Toulalan, and forward Ruud van Nistelrooy. Those arrivals complement Baptista, who managed nine goals and fewer disruptions in 11 matches in his debut season, and 14-goal scorer Rondon. It’s an intriguing list of players; whether or not it sweeps the Anchovies into Europe remains to be seen. Expect some growing pains not just this season but into the future as the free-spending owners seek to find the right pieces.

While change is the name of the game just about everywhere else, it’s all about stability in the Basque country as per usual. And who can blame Athletic Bilbao for standing pat with a squad that was sixth in the league last year and is looking at Europa League play. Everyone is back, including leading-scorer Fernando Llorente, playmaker Andoni Iraola, goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. Though a lack of changes may doom them to an early exit from Europe and a lower finish this season in the league, Los Leones have plenty of in-house talent to build on.

Osasuna and the fifth-best defense in the league will take a hit with the departure of Nacho Monreal and Fernando Soriano, though the hope is that Ruben Gonzalez and Marc Bertran can fill in. They also need to replace the contributions of Javier Camunas as an attacking midfielder, and they bring on a few forwards they hope can accomplish that. It’ll be interesting to see if Kike Sola’s survival-ensuring performance in the spring (seven goals from 16 matches) can extend to a full season.

A 16th-place finish triggered a predictable house-cleaning at Getafe. New manager Luis Garcia oversees a rebuilt midfield; Pablo Sarabia is in as an attacker while Mehdi Lacen and Juan Rodriguez anchor the defensive side of things. The upshot is the departure of Daniel Parejo and Derek Boateng. The forward corps is almost entirely swapped out. Last year’s leading scorer Manu del Moral is gone, as are Javier Arizmendi and Juan Angel Albin. The big capture is the return of the prolific Dani Guiza from Turkey. We’ll see what improvement the changes yield, but I doubt Getafe will be fighting for survival on the season’s last day.

Having to replace the two main cogs in your attack isn’t the way to celebrate a top-half finish. But that’s the reality Espanyol faces. The Barcelona club bids farewell to Pablo Daniel Osvaldo (13 goals) and Jose Callejon (six goals, seven assists) in high-profile moves to Roma and Real Madrid, respectively. A lot will be asked from new arrival Juan Angel Albin as well as Luis Garcia. Vladimir Weiss, on loan from Manchester City, is an interesting addition to the midfield.

Sporting Gijon produced their share of shocking results last season; survival this term might be more of a surprise. The lowest-scoring surviving Primera club (a mere 35 goals in 38 matches) has to cope with the loss of leading scorer Diego Castro, while a stout defense loses decade-long stalwart Rafel Sastre and has the talented Jose Angel snapped up by Roma. A lot of pressure will be put on Miguel de las Cuevas, whose highlights a season ago include the game-winner in the shocking defeat of Real Madrid, and new face Oscar Trejo.

If nothing else, Real Sociedad should be entertaining this season. They lose goal production from the evergreen Raul Tamudo but hold onto the talismanic Xabi Prieto, whose haul of seven goals and 13 assists a year ago was one of the more impressive in the league. They add Arsenal’s Caros Vela to the attack, while McDonald Mariga brings extensive experience in Italy to add bit to the midfield. Defense was a struggle a year ago, a department in which Mariga should help, but survival will continue to be a battle.

Pierre Webo’s 11 goals and six assists depart Mallorca, but new arrival Tomer Hemed hopes to fill the goal-scoring void. They also strengthen the backline, replacing Ayoze Diaz with Pablo Caceres and adding a veteran attacking presence in Gianni Zuiverloon on the other side. The growing pains of the attack could mean the Balearic team may be fighting for survival again.

Real Betis waltzed into the top division last year behind three 10-goal scorers. Two of those return, with Ruben Castro and Jorge Molina ready to test themselves in the top division. Achille Emana departs, but Roque Santa Cruz arrives on loan to fill the void. They add Javier Matilla and Jefferson Montero as attack-minded midfielders, while Antonio Amaya and Javier Chico bolster the back line. It could be a recipe for prosperity in the top division.

The changes are few in number for Racing Santander but major in scope. They lose a key player at every level, with center back Henrique ending his two-year loan stint, defensive midfielder Mehdi Lacen departing and leading-scorer Markus Rosenberg headed back to Werder Bremen. The only area they remedy fully is the forward line, with Lautaro Acosta and Cristian Stauni arriving. The holes in defense will be difficult to fill for Santander.

Levante struggled for goals a season ago and faces the prospect of replacing over half of its goal production. In Felipe Caicedo and the on-loan Cristian Stuani, the Valencia club loses 21 of the 41 goals it scored a season ago. They’ve procured replacements – Arouna Kone on loan from Sevilla, Nabil El Zhar from Liverpool, Wellington Silva on loan from Arsenal, and perpetual journeyman Carlos Aranda. They’ll have a rebuilt midfield to play in front of with Jose Javier Bakero and Javier Farinos leading the attack. We’ll see if it’s enough for survival.

Top flight newcomers Rayo Vallecano boast several changes that bode well for their survival. They lose leading scorer Emiliano Armenteros back to Sevilla but pick up talented youngster Dani Pacheco and La Liga veteran Raul Tamudo. They also lose defender Coke to Sevilla but fill the void with Mikel Labaka, Sueliton and Jordi. Add midfield support from Roberto Trashorras and Michu, and survival could be possible.

Change is the theme at Real Zaragoza, which loses its top three scorers. Gabriel Fernandez’s 10 goals are off to Atletico, while the loans of Nicolas Bertolo and Florent Sinama-Pongolle were not renewed. They also bid farewell to midfield cogs Jiri Jarosik and Jorge Lopez Montana. In their stead are Barcelona B cast-offs Edu Oriol and Abraham Minero, aging Fernando Meira after stints in Turkey and Russia and Celtic’s Efrain Juarez. The offensive challenges for the second-lowest scoring of La Primera’s 17 holdovers from last season may be too much to surmount.

The fact that Granada is back in the top flight after a 35-year absence, including over two decades out of the second division and near dissolution, should soften the blow of a quick return to La Segunda. They retain last year’s top scorer Alex Geijo, but most of the squad is rebuild through acquisitions and loan deals. It’s likely they’ll find it tough sledding

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