27 December 2012

Spanish Inquest: Season to date

My column on Eircom SportsHub

Obafemi Martins' goals have been key to Levante's continued success

We’re almost at the turn of the season in Spain, as as La Liga’s footballers tuck in their festiveturrones during the Christmas break, another exciting year in Spanish football draws to a close.

After 17 games, matters are taking shape. Barcelona have obliterated the previous best start to a season and their coronation seems inevitable. While they speed away into the horizon, at the bottom last season’s Segunda champions Deportivo appear to be headed into oblivion.

Levante continue to defy the odds, and despite all the off the field upheaval and downsizing of their playing budget, Málaga are flying. Their attack is more fluid and mobile while at the back, only Juventus and Bayern have conceded fewer in the four major European leagues.

Mallorca’s excellent start is a distant memory, with their weekend win over Real Betis being their first in over three months. Betis themselves have arguably been the surprise package of the season, but last season’s double cup finalists Athletic Bilbao have struggled to get out of second gear.

Perhaps more so than Betis, the lack of managerial casualties has been this season’s most striking fact. With almost everyone struggling financially, there has been an outbreak of common sense and realism among club hierarchies

Only two coaches have departed their posts; the league’s longest serving incumbent, Mauricio Pochettino left strugglers Espanyol in November, with his compatriot and namesake Pellegrino getting the sack at Valencia, who have paid the price for failing to renew Unai Emery’s contract.

Despite the incredible numbers they’ve posted, it hasn’t been all plain sailing for Barcelona. With April’s clásico ending their title challenge last term, the Super Cup seemed to confirm that Real finally had their number. It’s hard recall a chasing of the order of that they endured in the second leg, where Real’s two goal lead after 20 minutes ought to have been four.

They got out of jail in week two against an Osasuna side who’ve been mired in the relegation spots. Unable to call upon several stalwarts at the back, they leaked goals from set pieces and open play in the Autumn. But if they’ve been strangely vulnerable, going forward they’ve been relentless and it’s made for a thrilling spectacle.

Guilty of tactical tinkering and over-elaboration at times last year, there’s been a subtle change in emphasis. We’ve seen the return of more orthodox wing play, and an urgency meaning they’ve been more direct than at any time since Guardiola’s first season.

They titilated us in nearly letting big leads slip, and produced a stunning comeback from two behind to Sevilla in October Real. That Jordi Alba has slotted in perfectly isn’t a huge surprise, but on the other flank Dani Alves has faced stiff competition from Marc Bartra and Adriano. Cesc Fábregas has been the greatest beneficiary of their stylistic shift, offering an element of verticality and unpredictability to their hypnotic passing rhythms.

And of course, there’s Lionel Messi, for whom there are no superlatives left.

Real by contrast have looked a shadow of themselves, labouring as those long-suspected divisions in the camp have been confirmed. Down in points, down in terms of position, down even in goals from Ronaldo; they’ve lost that manic intensity and teams have learned how to frustrate an increasingly blunt and predictable attack.

At this stage of the season gone by, Ángel Di Maria topped the assist charts with 13. This year, he’s only got one, with Karim Benzema leading the way on five.

It seems fitting that Málaga became the latest to put the hurt on them at the weekend. Not just because Pellegrini was torn to pieces as José Mourinho’s predecessor, but also because of his intelligent adjustment to new financial realities. Incredibly, they’ve looked a far better side this time round and coasted undefeated through their Champions League group- the first debutants to do so.

Whether they’ll be back next season is unclear, but they will contest Friday’s UEFA verdict in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Levante have also taken like a duck to water in their maiden Europa League campaign, and yet they’re still right up there domestically. Once again, they sold their top scorer- and again, they’ve found a replacement, this time Obafemi Martins. All of this with the division’s oldest squad and second smallest budget- at what point does this cease to be an aberration?

History counsels against making such statements, but Atlético look to be the real deal. With a weaker squad on paper, they’ve gotten better and better; much like Radamel Falcao, now indisputably the world’s best number 9.

They might have lost their manager, not to mention Michu, but Rayo Vallecano are far removed from the foot of the table with their swashbuckling style. Newly promoted Valladolid have brought a similar fearlessness to the party.

The other promoted pair, fierce rivals Celta and Depor have fared less well. The latter, the latest Jorge Mendes colony in the league, remain rooted to foot of the table and €98m in debt. Celta are three points better off and look better equipped to survive, though the potential move of their top scorer Iago Aspas to Swansea could hurt them far more than the mooted €12m fee would boost them financially.

But again, the league remains incredibly tight. Nobody is adrift, most side still harbour valid European hopes. Few remain safe either; only 11 points separate 6th from 16th, with 14th placed Sevilla a point ahead of Espanyol in 18th. This is nothing new, and if we’ve learned anything from recent years, it’s that the picture may look dramatically different come the season’s end.


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