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2011-12 La Liga Preview- More Than Just FC Barcelona & Real Madrid

First the NBA, now La Liga. What the hell, sports?!?!

I’ve all but had it with labor strife in sports. I understand it, but I can’t stand it.

On the heels of its most compelling season since Michael Jordan was a Chicago Bull, my beloved National Basketball Association has indefinitely shuttered operations, its owners, spendthrift and tight-fisted alike, revolting against a collective bargaining agreement that they themselves fought tooth-and-nail to secure. While the already massive ideological chasm between the NBA’s players and owners seems to grow by the day and appears destined to cost the league at least a small portion of the coming season, it has not done so yet. The NBA lockout is certainly a reality, but it’s not yet real.

This is not the case in Spain. In response to endemic and deep-seeded economic issues that have led to more than 200 players missing out on more than 50 million in paychecks over the last two years, last week the Spanish players' union made good on past threats by ordering a two-week strike. As a result, the start of the 2011-12 La Liga campaign, originally scheduled for August 20 and 21, has been postponed, with contests slated for the coming weekend (and maybe beyond) in jeopardy as well.

If you are familiar with any of my previous work, you know that this is the deepest I have delved into either of these matters. This is not a function of willful ignorance or a lack of understanding, but rather a lack of interest. The foundation of my relationship with sports was built on fields of play, not in oak-lined boardrooms, and nothing short of a fat paycheck is going to change this. So let’s move on.

While neither of the aforementioned scenarios is exactly teeming with optimism, in both cases the show will undoubtedly go on. Looking ahead to that day, I submit to you a look at the 20 participants in the La Liga season that will ultimately be:

The Top Tier

FC Barcelona- Not a particularly complicated story here. Winners of (among other hardware) three of the last six Champions League trophies and five of the past seven La Liga titles, FC Barcelona is clearly in the midst of one of the great runs in the history of Spanish football. Barring a catastrophic wave of injuries, it’s difficult to envision the 2011-12 side failing to pen its own chapter of the dynasty. Every significant contributor from last season returns, joined by a pair of gifted newcomers. Most importantly, Lionel Messi is still, well, Lionel Messi. Forecasting a fourth league-Champions League double in seven seasons does not leave much room for upside surprises, but when Thiago Alcântara is your seventh best player (with David Villa, Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas at #’s 4, 5 and 6), heady expectations are par for the course.

Real Madrid- With Jorge Valdano, gone, Jose Mourinho is now in control of all footballing matters at Real Madrid- be they related to assembling a squad, or the deployment of the talent at hand. Perhaps because of this, or maybe just out of coincidence, the summer of 2011 was Real Madrid’s quietest in recent memory. With that said, this is still Real Madrid- famous, expensive, supremely gifted… and a notch below Barcelona.

This is not to say that Mourinho’s men cannot prevail in La Liga- to make such a claim of a squad that boasts the likes of (among many others) Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Özil, Gonzalo Higuaín and a reenergized Karim Benzema, a squad in which Kaká is not even an afterthought, would be idiotic. For all of their talent, however, Real Madrid lacks a certain cohesion and unity of purpose that defines their rivals’ approach to the game. Provided he is able to maintain his marbles, perhaps Jose’s second season in Spain will yield the winning combination that has been missing the past three years. It’s worth noting, however, that the story here is more about what FC Barcelona is than what Real Madrid is not.

And the 18 participants in the race for third?

Athletic Bilbao- No shortage of new faces at the top. After Fernando Macua lost his bid to remain club president, manager Joaquín Caparrós was ushered to the exit by incoming boss Josu Urrutia. His replacement, ex-Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa, takes over a talented and rapidly improving team (44 points in 2008-09; 54 in 2009-10; 58 in 2010-11) looking to build on last season’s sixth place finish. Led by Fernando Llorente (team-high 19 goals last season) and Iker Muniaín in attack, with new arrival (from Zaragoza) Ander Herrera joining Javi Martínez in midfield, and U-19 champion Jon Aurtenetxe joining the first team at left back. a return to top third is a safe bet, with an assault on the top five possibly in the cards.

Atlético Madrid- Arda Turan, an excellent talent on the wing and the most expensive Turkish player ever (acquired from Galatasaray for 12 million) will help, as will Falcao (74 goals in 87 games with FC Porto), but the exodus from the Estadio Vicente Calderón will not be easily overcome. Gone is one of the world’s great attacking threats and scorer of 74 goals in five seasons, Sergio Agüero, along with last season’s top netminder, David de Gea. Both now ply their respective trades on opposite ends of Manchester. Meanwhile, World Cup hero Diego Forlán (96 goals in 195 games) is likely to begin the season with the club, but speculation is rife that he’ll end it elsewhere. For Madrid’s "other club," things are likely to get worse before they get better. While not destined for the cellar, a top-ten finish in 2011-12 would be a success.

Espanyol- Like Atlético Madrid, Espanyol is a top-flight fixture in line for a disappointing 2011-12 in light of numerous departures. In fairness, the caliber of talent lost by Barcelona’s Catalan rivals doesn’t compare to that of Atlético, though it’s worth noting that they had less to lose in the first place. On the bright side, while Dídac Vilà and Pablo Osvaldo have respectively been sold to Milan and Bologna, both remain on the team's 2011-12 roster on loan deals. Even so, with some of the mid-table competition making considerable improvements, and in the absence of any high-impact newcomers, it’s tough to see these guys replicating last season’s mid-40s point total and eighth place finish, A trip to the bottom half of the table is a likely result.

Getafe- The latest financially troubled Spanish club to have visions of "Man City-ing" its woes away. Getafe was acquired for €70-90 million in April 2011 by Dubai-based Royal Emirates, with promises of a €30 million annual budget and regular contention for Champions/Europa League football. Strangely, in the intervening months, Getafe fans have seen (arguably) as much talent go out (Manu de Moral, Parejo, Derek Boateng, Víctor Sánchez, Juan Albín, Marcano) as they’ve seen come in. With that said, there doesn’t appear to be any risk of a Racing-esque fiasco. There is some talent on this squad, and the additions of Daniel Güiza, Diego Castro and Real Madrid youngster Pablo Sarabia are sure to bolster the attack. European football may be a bridge too far in 2011-12, but it should surprise no one if Getafe winds up in the top half of the table.

Granada- Thanks to a 2009 partnership agreement with Serie A’s Udinese (born of financial difficulties that threatened the club’s very existence), Andalucia will be even better represented in the upcoming La Liga season. Just two years removed from Spain’s third division, Granada will take part in top-flight football for the first time in 35 years. Under the aforementioned agreement, Granada is granted access to players under contract to Udinese (via loan deals), as well as youth players and reserves. In 2010–11, with 12 Udinese players on board, Granada finished fifth in the Segunda División and went on to become the first winner of the promotion playoffs.

Granada’s fate in 2011-12 is largely dependent on the continued presence of the Serie A talent that got them here, most of which (for the time being) appears to be staying put. This, along with the additions of Yohan Mollo (on loan from Caen), Fran Rico (bought from Real Madrid B) and on-loan Benfica veteran Carlos Martins ought to be enough to keep Granada safe in the top half of the bottom third.

Levante- It’s a wonder Levante has made it this far. The club generates little in the way of revenue (television income fell from €12 million to €2 million last year, and their home ground has a capacity of 25,534) and is burdened with €88 million in debt- on which they must pay €3 million annually to creditors. The annual budget is a miniscule €17 million- a figure that pales in comparison to that of most Segunda division clubs- and the club has not spent a penny in transfer fees (opting for either free transfers or loans) in three years. After spending five of the last eight seasons in the top flight, crippling financial issues have Levante ripe for a trip back down the ladder.

Málaga- Acquired in June 2010 for a reported €36 million by Sheikh Abdullah bin Naser al Thani of the Qatari Royal Family, this is the freest-spending of La Liga’s nouveau riche. While the club’s initial spending spree ensured survival in the top flight, Málaga’s new owner is clearly targeting a Man City-esque climb up the league table in 2011-12. Joining 2010 arrivals Julio Baptista, Martín Demichelis and manager Manuel Pellegrini are Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Osasuna left back Monreal, Jérémy Toulalan (formerly of Lyon), Joaquín, teenage winger Isco (from Valencia), Joris Mathijsen (from Hamburger SV) and Santi Cazorla of Villareal. Málaga's budget has since skyrocketed to €150 million (third in La Liga, behind… take your best guess), an approximately eightfold increase from the season prior to Sheikh al Thani’s arrival.

It’s easy to dismiss such campaigns launched by ambitious new ownership, but Málaga has the look of a side that can make good on its promise in relatively short order. Not merely an assemblage of talented-but-ill-fitting pieces, this crew makes a great deal of sense (on paper, at least) as an actual competitive side. Give the lack of a clear-cut #3 team in the league, if Pellegrini is successful in melding together the talented pieces at his disposal, Málaga will be top-four-bound in 2011-12.

Mallorca- After coming within a single goal of a Champions League spot in 2010, cash-strapped Mallorca (with more than €50million in debt, declared bankruptcy and entered administration; also denied permission by UEFA to take part in the Europa League) plummeted to 17th in the league table, escaping relegation by just one point. While the squad’s attacking corps is comprised of serviceable players, top shelf talent is lacking. Assuming Ivan Ramis is not shipped out, the side’s strength will lie on the back line and in net. Mallorca is moving in the right direction, and should benefit from stable ownership (that includes tennis great Rafael Nadal) and the sideline leadership of Michael Laudrup. Another bottom half finish is a near certainty, though Mallorca should manage to ensure another season in the first division.

Osasuna- A La Liga fixture for the last dozen years. More often than not, however, Osasuna spends its seasons’ dying weeks mired in a relegation battle- though the team’s Houdini-like talent for avoiding the drop has been nothing short of remarkable. Despite managing a ninth-place finish, Osasuna had to win two of its last three to wind up just four points clear of relegation in 2010-11. The narrative in 2011-12 is likely to be similar. On the plus side, the club signed striker Nino (60 goals in 119 games with Tenerife) to boost one of the league’s least potent attacks. Sadly, however, his impact addition will be muted by the decimation that’s taken place on the back line. One of La Liga’s best non-Barça-Real Madrid defenses last season, Osasuna will move forward without center back, Pamplona native and 15-year club veteran (save for a 1999-2000 loan spell) Josetxo, as well as highly-rated left back Monreal and right back Nélson. As in years past, expect Osasuna to flirt with the drop- and probably somehow escape by the skin of its teeth.

Racing Santander- Another club that looked poised to ride the riches of a foreign (presumed) billionaire to glory. Like many clubs in Spain, Racing entered 2011 in the midst of a financial quagmire. However, they were seemingly saved in late January, when Indian mogul Ahsan Ali Syed, a man about whom little has ever been known, purchased the club. He immediately replaced coach Miguel Ángel Portugal him with former boss Marcelino, who had just guided Zargoza to the top flight. He also secured the services of (among others) former FC Barcelona prospect Giovani Dos Santos, on a loan deal from Tottenham. Behind these moves, as well as a massive injection of optimism and enthusiasm, Racing immediately rattled off 10 quick points, and added another nine in the season’s final month to finish 12th in the league.

Ah, the halcyon days of May! In three months since season’s end, it’s been rumored that Ali's company had defrauded Australian businessmen of millions of dollars, the on-loan talent has returned to its rightful homes and Ali has been unable (or unwilling) to pay players, former owners and the local government money he owes them. This had led the Cantabrian government to place the team in administration while a new owner is found. Suffice it to say, for Racing in 2011-12, there’s not a great distinction between survival and victory.

Rayo Vallecano- Another Madrid-based team, and- stop me if you’ve heard this before- one with financial issues. However, last season, despite winding up in administration, the players going on strike and the club’s owners of two decades getting the boot, "Rayo" managed to qualify for the top flight for the first time in eight years. I’d advise against getting too attached. Much of the 2010-11 team is gone, and more departures are likely if a rumored 70% pay cut is enacted by ownership. It will be a major surprise if this is anything more than a one-and-done La Liga run.

Real Betis- After two years away, Betis is back! Former president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera- author of the club’s financial woes- is no longer in the picture. In July 2010, a week before he was due to face fraud charges, he sold a 51% stake in the club for what is likely to be remembered as a rock-bottom price of €16 million. Sadly, this did not go down before Betis was driven to administration. However, unlike some of its counterparts, the club has done an excellent job of building positive momentum and goodwill.

Lopera’s shares were put in the hands of three court-appointed administrators, including ex-player Rafael Gordillo; ex-Betis player and Rayo Vallecano coach Pepe Mel was brought in as coach; and the club was purged of overpriced, fading stars in favor of lower-profile professionals. Despite nearly squandering a huge lead in the Segunda table in 2010-11, Betis secured promotion by four points. Thankfully, due to ongoing financial constraints, big-money temptations of the past were not even an option. Counterintuitive though it may seem, this squad, short on household names and La Liga experience, led by the likes of striker Jorge Molina and midfielders Salva Sevilla and Beñat, along with newcomers like Villareal’s Javier Matilla and Jefferson Montero, has the feel of a side poised to keep the feel-good story chugging along.

Real Sociedad- In terms of results, don’t expect a great deal to change from last season. Coach Martín Lasarte is out, with Philippe Montanier, noted for his ability to work with young players (15 members of the squad are 25 years of age or younger) taking his place. Meanwhile, the club’s on-field talent has seen little in the way of turnover. The Basque club was a part of the mid-table logjam, finishing 15th (on goal differential), their 45 points just two points clear of the drop zone, but just four shy of eighth place. The coming season should shake out similarly, both in terms of point tally, as well as final table position (expect something in the 12-16 range).

Real Zaragoza- Seriously? Another cash-strapped club? Like so many others, Zaragoza is drowning in debt, €110 million of it to be exact, broke and in voluntary administration. Fortunately for the club, in the Spanish rule book- unlike the one in England- this does not bring with it any on-field penalties, like point deductions. As a matter of fact, despite losing several front line players, the club managed to add Benfica keeper Roberto (more on this in a second), along with a considerable crop of outfield talent- former Porto midfielder Rúben Micael (acquired with Falcao by Atlético Madrid and immediately loaned to Zaragoza), Portuguese center back Fernando Meira (free), 20 year-old Argentina international Franco Zuculini (loan), Barcelona B’s Edu Oriol and Abraham Minero (both free) and Real Madrid’s David Mateos and Juan Carlos Pérez (loan and €2.5 million)- that should help it avert relegation for another year.

And what of Roberto? Well… in a deal that cost the club just 86,000, Zaragoza acquired the 8.6 million keeper from Benfica. How, you might ask, is this possible? Think of it as a loan deal with an intermediary. It turns out that Roberto’s rights were actually purchased by an investment fund in which Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes and ex-Chelsea and Man United CEO Peter Kenyon are involved, and subsequently conveyed to Zaragoza for just 1% of market value.

Sevilla FC- Not a whole to say here. Despite making some potentially solid additions to the roster, Sevilla’s place on the food chain is unlikely to change dramatically. Marcelino is in as manager, and Fredi Kanouté- in the twilight of his career, but still talented and productive- remains as the spearhead of the attack. Manu de Moral and Piotr Trochowski will add depth and quality to the midfield, with Emir Spahić (who’d agreed last summer on a move to Arsenal before Montpellier demanded £25 million for the veteran defender) helping on the back line. This is a top-third side that is decidedly better than the tier below, but lacks the quality to challenge the league’s elite. A replay of last season’s results- 58 points and a Europa League berth- is not farfetched.

Sporting Gijon- On the heels of an impressive top half finish in 2010-11, the Asturians look as though they could be locked in a season-long relegation struggle. Last season, only relegated Deportivo La Coruña found the net less frequently than defensive-minded Gijon. This summer, Gijon has suffered at both ends of the pitch, losing its best attacker in Diego Castro (scorer of 19 of the team’s 70 goals the last two seasons) while also suffering a pair of major blows to the back line with the departures of José Ángel (to AS Roma) and Javi Poves, who is no longer playing professional football.

Valencia- While Málaga garners the lion’s share of attention as a potential challenger to Spain’s top two, La Liga’s third place finisher in each of the last two seasons (with 71 points each time) remains a force to be reckoned with. A year after losing Davids Villa and Silva, Valencia waved goodbye to Joaquín. Once personal terms with Chelsea are agreed upon, they will do the same with Juan Mata. These departures will certainly affect the upcoming campaign, though the additions of Dani Parejo and Sergío Canales in the midfield, Pablo Piatti on the wing and Adil Rami on the back line will mitigate the pain. There will almost certainly be an adjustment period for Valencia, but look for the club to remain in the top third and once again challenge for a spot in Europe.

Villareal- If Spain is in line for a new Champions League representative in 2012, Villareal may be the odd club out. Sure, Giuseppe Rossi is still in the fold, but financial concerns forced the club to be a net seller in the transfer window. The summer of 2011 brought with it several departures, including those of two of the club’s top players, Joan Capdevila (to Benfica) and playmaker Santi Cazorla (Málaga), with Cristian Zapata (acquired from Udinese) representing the most significant addition of the summer. This is hardly a club in distress, but Villareal may find themselves in the second half of La Liga’s top ten in 2011-12.

Until next time…

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