For the past few weeks I have combed the paella and sangria filled landscape that is Spain to come up with a definitive La Liga preview. For the most part, La Liga coverage in English is a bit difficult to find, so I have had to do lots of digging to figure out what is going on with the teams that have ascended into La Liga from the Segunda Division last season. However, there is no shortage of talk about La Liga in Spanish, thus I do a good deal of time trolling the Spanish dailies and team forums to get all the goods. It was so much easier when I lived there.
In all of the previews, I’ll give you the team, stadium, nicknames, who’s out, who’s in and what is going on. I don’t give starting 11’s because I’m shockingly bad at that.
Your teams today are the bottom of the barrel last year, Levante, Real Betis and Athletic Bilbao
____________________________________________________________________________________Levante UD (15th in La Liga in 2006)
Stadium: Ciutat de Valencia
Interesting Fact: Levante is the oldest club in Valencia, founded in 1909 under the name Levante FC. They changed their name to Levante U.D in 1942 after a merger with Gimnástico FC.
In: Savio (Real Sociedad) David (Sevilla) Geijo (Xerez) Viqueira (Recreativo) Kujovic (Roda) Cirillo (AEK) Arveladze (AZ Aalkmar) Robusté (Espanyol) Pedro León (Murcia) Javi Fuego (Sporting) Storari (Milan) Reganó (FC Messina)
Out: Zé María, Déhu, Molina, Salva (Málaga) , Kapo, N´Diaye (Tenerife) Diego Camacho (Valladolid) Reggi (Castellón)
Coming into the league a bit lacking
One could argue that the newly promoted teams to La Liga haven’t played a terribly tough pre-season schedule, thus their mostly unbeaten records. Levante could very well be lumped right into that category, except mention that they are 2-3-2 this pre-season (one of those wins was a 16-0 trouncing of Navaleno, which is the equivalent of Real Madrid playing you’re local club team). They have had a lot of trouble playing organized this pre-season, and have suffered greatly because of this. I stand by my opinion that bringing in 11 new players to a team is never easy, but one has to wonder when they will gel. They have also broken off talks with Newcastle striker Albert Luque, which would have been their 12th addition this summer.
What will Levante need to do?
First off, Levante will need to find a goalscorer, considering that their leading scorer, Riga, only had 9 goals last season, and he was a midfielder. They are definitely lacking a quality finisher, but look to have that covered bringing on Regano from FC Messina, who has shown ability to find the back of the net. Levante only return one forward from last season, Meyong Zé who scored one goal in 11 games. So to say they are lacking some power up front might be an understatement.
Riga will anchor their midfield, and Levante look to him to continue with his scoring touch this season. He also has great pace and plays as a third attacker most of the time. Javi Fuego who came from Sporting de Gijón, is a solid center midfielder who can defend well. Luis Manuel Rubiales begins his fifth season at left back at Levante and will be joined in the back four by Alexis and Alvaro who both saw loads of time last season and Descarga, the right back who is in his 6th year with Levante.
After being in the relegation zone for a good majority of last season, I think that Levante will go down after this season. The fact that they lack a proven goal scorer upfront will hurt them in La Liga. They have an experienced defense, but without anyone to put the ball in the back of the net, it could be a long year for the Granotes.
Real Betis (16th in La Liga in 2006)
Stadium: Manuel Ruiz de Lopera
Nickname: Béticos, Verdiblancos
Interesting Fact: Juande Ramos, current coach of FC Sevilla, was once manager of Real Betis. Which is the equivalent of someone coaching at Ohio State and then coaching at Michigan.
In: Mark González (Liverpool) Marko Babic (Bayer Leverkusen) Pavone (Estudiantes) Ricardo (Sp. Lisboa) Lima (Atlético Mineiro) Somoza (Villarreal)
Out: Romero, Robert (PSV), Dani (Cádiz), Contreras (Cádiz), Maldonado (Nástic) Juanlu (Córdoba)
A year to forget
Last season was one to forget even for the most diehard Béticos out there. Betis was fighting all season just to remain in La Liga this year, and this battle took it’s toll on the managers and the fans.
Betis wen’t through two managers last season, Javier Irureta left in December after 6 months at the helm, and Luis Fernandez was fired after a 5-0 trouncing at home by Osasuna in which fans rioted and called for Manuel Lopez de Rivera to be ousted as the team’s owner. Fans were generally in a state of unrest last season, even launching a bottle at Sevilla’s coach Juande Ramos, knocking him unconscious and the game was suspended. Lest to say, there were some serious problems with Betis last season.
A new beginning
Real Betis are looking to put last year behind them and start anew. Betis has already chalked up wins against AC Milan in their Centenario game, and against Real Madrid less than a week ago.
Under new Argentinian coach Héctor Cúper, Betis appear to be heading in the right direction. Cuper said after the Madrid victory, ‘The team last year didn’t play good football. I only know that the Betis players here now want to form a team and the Betis that exists now is one’
Upon the departure of Robert, who was Betis top scorer last season, forwards Edú and Rafael Sóbis will need to pick up the slack. Edu wasn’t far behind Robert last season, netting 8 goals, while Sobis had 4.
Mark Gonzales has already made a good impression at his new club, netting the Penality to give Betis the win against AC Milan and should start in the Midfield this season. Assunção will continue his dominance in dead ball situations for Betis as he has since 2002.
This year, Betis will have to tighten up defensively if they hope to improve. The back four is comprised of two veteran Béticos, Juanito, who is the team captain, and Melli, who has been with the club since 14 years of age. Toni Doblas will be the number one keeper, already having 74 caps for Betis.
Real Betis should improve markedly this season now that they are under new direction. Don’t forget that in 2005 Betis won the Copa del Rey and finished 4th in La Liga. Somoza will stake a claim in the midfield, and Betis will be a mid-table team.
Athletic Bilbao (finished 17th in La Liga in 2006)
Stadium: San Mamés
Nicknames: Rojiblancos, Los Leones
Interesting Fact: The nickname Los Leones comes from Saint Mammes, who was thrown to the Lions and they refused to eat him. There was a church near the stadium named San Mamés and thus the stadium was named after him as well.
In: David López (Osasuna) Muñoz (Osasuna) Aitor Ocio (Sevilla) David Cuéllar (Nàstic) Gorka (Espanyol)
Out: Urzáiz (Ajax) Javi González (Hércules) Iturriaga (Salamanca) Lafuente (Espanyol) Sarriegi (Panathinaikos)
Canteras and Basque Nationalism
In order to discuss Athletic Bilbao it is necessary to discuss the ‘cantera‘ policy. Cantera is a spanish word that literally means ‘quarry’ but instead refers to youth teams organized by sports clubs. Athletic Bilbao is famous for having the best cantera in Spain.
Canteras can be a good source of players, but in this region, it often comes under scrutiny. The Basque region is infamous for having an insane fight for Nationalism, and a radical group called ETA that has killed and bombed places throughout Spain for a number of years. In no way am I saying that has anything to do with Athletic Bilbao, but the high sense of nationalism makes the cantera system extremely popular in Bilbao. Basques don’t see it as a no-foreigner policy, but as a Pro-Basque policy and have a few players that are not not Basque.
To show the fan’s support, according to an El Mundo survey in the 90’s, 76% of Athletic fans would rather see the team relegated than to give up the cantera policy. (thanks to Wikipedia)
New coach, new attitude
Athletic Bilbao are lucky to be in the top flight this season after staving off relegation in the final week of the season last year. Only a final week win against Levante saw them gain the necessary three points to keep their spot in La Liga this season. Athletic Bilbao have a new coach in Joaquín Caparros, who looks to revitalize Athletic the same way that he did for Sevilla in 2005.
Caparros has done a good job this pre-season, going undefeated in 7 games, but winning 3 games in their first tour by a total of 23-0, not what I would call a good warm-up for La Liga.
Something old, something new
Caparros pretty much has his starting 11 decided thanks to his pre-season matches. The attack will be spearheaded by Aduriz and Llorente who combined had 13 goals last season.
The midfield will be captained by Etxeberria, who in his 14th season at Athletic, looks to improve on his 3 goals scored last season. He will be joined by Murillo and Javi Martinez, who both have great pace and can make overlaping runs to assist the forwards.
Aitor Ocio, fresh off of a great season at Sevilla, makes his return to Athletic alongside David Lopez, who will start in the inside of the backline. Iraizoz will start as keeper for Caparros’ squad and needs to have a great season to help along the struggling Basque side.
Any team coached by Caparros can be dangerous, but I think this season will spell doom for the Basque side. They haven’t made many chances from last season’s team and seem to be banking on the fact that you can change a coach and that will change the entire team. Look for the Basque side to put up a fight, but then to become relegated at the end of the season.
The next La Liga preview will be Osasuna, Deportivo and Mallorca
Filed under: Athletic Bilbao, La Liga, Levante, Real Betis | 1 Comment »