La Liga 2010-11 season preview (cont.)
It is hard to avoid the uneasy conclusion that the title might be virtually decided over that match and the return game in Madrid. Two matches in 38. Or maybe by the occasional unexpected draw. Certainly, the margins are likely to be fine. That is why Madrid, even if it is essentially not as good a side as Barcelona, has every chance of winning the title. Especially as things are not perfect for Barcelona, even if the signing of Villa is about as close to a sure thing as you can possibly get.
Barca has the shortest squad in Europe -- if Zlatan Ibrahimovic goes, it will be shorter yet; if he doesn't, after all that has been said over the last few days, things will be even worse -- and eight of its players were in the Spain squad for the World Cup. It has barely been training for two weeks. Xavi Hernandez, the ideologue, the metronome, is 30 and has not had a break for the last three summers. Although youth teamers are coming through, the Super Cup first leg against Sevilla, a 3-1 loss with four Barca B players in the side, urged caution. They can ill afford injuries. Worse, there is a hint of tension between Guardiola and Rosell.
Below Madrid and Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia are not equipped to compete with the big two. In fact, they might not even maintain their current best-of-the-rest position. The teams best positioned to challenge for Champions League places alongside or even ahead of them should be Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. And perhaps Athletic Bilbao or Getafe.
Atletico's ninth-place finish last season was well below where it should be. The club has kept faith in Quique Sanchez Flores; got the monkey off its back with the UEFA Cup win, its first trophy in 14 years; and bought well this summer, with Diego Godin, Tiago and especially Felipe Luis, who is only a left back like Dani Alves is only a right back. Above all they have, perhaps surprisingly, kept Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero.
Villarreal announced new, austere times as president Fernando Roig's ceramics industry gets hit hard by the crisis, but it has navigated cleverly. Carlos Marchena has replaced Godin, it won't unduly miss Joseba Llorente, Ivan Marcano or Ariel Ibagaza, and Borja Valero is an excellent acquisition.
And then there's Athletic. Eighth last season, they boast two World Cup winners -- both of whom, typically, have been pursued by Real Madrid; both of whom, rather less typically, have stayed put. Athletic won't be subtle, but it has genuinely good players. Javi Martinez, still only 21, and Fernando Llorente have benefited from South Africa, 17-year-old Iker Muniain will improve and few clubs can boast such support, continuity or clarity when it comes to a footballing identity.
That's an identity that could hardly be more different from Getafe's neat, tidy, occasionally delicate approach -- last year, its president moaned, "We're a bunch of mothers" -- but if the team from the south of Madrid, sixth last season, can get it right, it is wonderful to watch and effective too.
At the other end of the table, it's hard to see Malaga needing to wait until the final day to survive again. Sporting could use a striker but has signed well (Nacho Novo, Sebastian Eguren, Ayoze), held on to Diego Castro, has great fans and a hugely popular, brilliantly mustachioed coach, Manolo Preciado. But along the coast at Racing de Santander, where its best player went to Real Madrid (sound familiar?), it could be a very different story.
If you want an outside bet for a side to suddenly collapse and be unexpectedly dragged into it, how about Deportivo de La Coruna? It was fourth at the midway stage of last season and then won just three times in 17 matches without the injured Felipe Luis (who has departed). It has Rikki from Aranjuez up front. It might as well have Ricki Lake. She'd be less annoying, too.
Then there are the three promoted teams, always considered likely to go straight back down again. Real Sociedad -- packed with homegrown players, including the returning Joseba Llorente -- should survive. But a quick return to the second division for Hercules and Levante is a definite possibility.
Still, at least no one can accuse them of throwing away their money. Levante has not spent a cent, while suspicions linger that Hercules spent its cash on just getting into the first division after recorded conversations allegedly revealed its owner speaking to its captain about buying off opponents. Those conversations also implied that match-buying in the second division is frighteningly common as teams fight for the chance to reach the Primera promised land.
Because the judge refused to release the tapes and the Spanish football authorities decided that they were going to ignore it, there has not been an investigation. There will not be one, either. Just as there was not when similar accusations were made against Malaga two years ago.
On Saturday night, Hercules faces Athletic Bilbao in its first game in the top flight in 13 years. The stadium will packed. TV cameras will be in attendance. It will be a special night. The sad conclusion for teams looking to make the same journey is simple. Such is the impunity and such are the rewards. So passive is the response that even in times of crisis, it's worth it. Far from throwing away your cash, a spot of cheating might just be money well spent.
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