28 September 2011

La Liga: five talking points from the season so far

This article originally appeared on STV's Sports Blog

 The title race is underway and already the season's main narratives are beginning to take shape. What's being talked about at the grounds and in the bars? Here's our briefing on the main stories:

Atleti: a lot done, more to do 

In recent weeks, much attention has been fixed upon Atlético Madrid. New arrivals Diego, Anda Turan and Radamel Falcão García had settled in quickly- very quickly in the case of the Colombian forward.

An industrious display in his first outing against Valencia was quickly followed by goals galore in wins over Celtic, Racing Santander, and Sporting; the latter including a hat-trick, with another chalked off as an own goal following a deflection against Racing. In short, Atlético looked in good shape going into Saturday night’s showdown at the Camp Nou.

Sadly, it was a contest for all of two minutes. Once Thiago smacked the bar, you could smell blood. Within a quarter of an hour they were two down; by full-time it was five.

Lessons can be learned from this defeat. With hindsight, it was suicidal to sit to so deep, leaving Falcão isolated up top. He is more than just a physical presence, and needs players to link up with to be a threat. Instead, Barcelona were allowed to do as they pleased in midfield and Gregorio Manzano never sought to have his team test the home side’s three man backline as Valencia had done so boldly in midweek.

Atleti’s fans have seen too much in the past to get ahead of themselves, but this bruising defeat could help to focus minds and allow the team to make good of their promising opening to the season.

Betis fall but remain on top 

It had to happen some time; in the end it came away to Getafe on Monday night. After falling behind to Diego Castro’s strike half an hour in, Betis had no answer. Yet there is much to be positive about for the newly promoted pace-setters.

Incredibly, they remain top of the league with four wins from five. They have been anything but negative, and positively thrilled at times in getting past Bilbao on matchday three. It would be ridiculous at this early stage to start talking of grander ambitions, but the biggest imperative for this season would have been survival; a return of 12 points gives the Béticos an excellent chance now of retaining their top flight status.

We’ve seen evidence that they can continue to impress, with Jonathan Pereira up front looking a willing and intelligent player. Time will tell.

Bilbao improving but need to start picking up points 

Athletic played out a 1-1 draw with La Liga’s other “crisis” club, Villarreal. Both remain firmly rooted in the lower reaches of the table, with Bilbao just a point off bottom-placed Sporting.

If they need to start picking up wins, a good way to begin might be by keeping eleven on the field; here Borja Ekiza’s two yellows followed on from Venezuela international Fernando Amorebieta’s straight red the week before against Betis. As with the visitors, another side struggling to find their feet, there are signs of improvement.

That defeat the weekend before had been a riot of a game, with Bilbao certainly playing their part. In going down 1-0 to Málaga on Wednesday, they looked a lot more compact and secure in their shape; many sides will travel south and do worse this season.

For now, Marcelo Bielsa retains the trust and patience of the club and its supporters. But this needs to be backed up with some wins, and fast; a reverse in the Basque derby away to Real Sociedad this Sunday lunchtime could leave the emperor undressed.

Let’s talk about Cesc 

It seems like it could hardly have been any other way now. Yet many prophesised that it would be; some scratched their heads. Why would Arsenal’s captain and mainstay be so hell-bent on becoming an expense benchwarmer at Barça? Others still, clinging to a myopic moral high-ground and unwilling to remember just how he’d ended up at Arsenal in the first place seemed to be actively willing his failure.

Cesc Fabregas has shut them all up now; not that many in Spain had ever really doubted him, or his move. It’s not just the critics he’s been shutting up either; last week, he was awarded damages after Sport ran with quotes from an interview which apparently never took place, one in which he trash-talked about his former club. Cesc has far too much class to display such a lack of gratitude and self-awareness.

Whether at the base of the midfield, on the right- even as a withdrawn forward- he’s exuded class on the field. And not just on it. Because if his formative years at La Masia ensured that he would slot into this side with ease, he’s been at pains to remind everyone else of just why he’s excelled to the degree that he has- this he attributes to his years at Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger; his footballing father who gave him his first team debut at 17, and had him running the midfield on their road to the Champions League final at just 19 years of age.

Project Malaga is up and running 

There was moaning, accompanied by moral hand-wringing. There was genuine excitement too. There was even a grudging sense of respect, as real football men like Fernando Hierro and Antonio Fernández, erstwhile Sevilla sporting director, were installed to oversee matters. And who- other than certain odious elements at Marca- has a bad word to say about Manuel Pellegrini?

Then came the inevitable laughter as Málaga’s expensively assembled side came a cropper away to Sevilla on the opening day. But since then, they’ve gone about their business in an impressive, understated manner. This is still a side finding its identity, a collective looking to gel. And now after five rounds of games, they lie in sixth; level on points with Real Madrid, and ahead of Valencia and Atlético. Sunday’s draw against Zaragoza marked another bump in the road, but now attention switches the weekend when we’ll see if they succeed where Madrid failed; away at third-placed Levante.

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