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La Liga Preview 2018/19 - Celta, Athletic, Girona and the mid-table teams

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Celta de Vigo v Barcelona - Copa Del Rey Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Mid-Table Fixtures

The Supercopa de España is in the books. All that stands between us and meaningful La Liga action is a Madrid Derby in the European Supercup. Immersion in meaningful La Liga action will occur before the end of work week! We’re almost there!

We’re taking a look at each team that will take part in the 2018-19 season – thus far we’ve covered the league’s three newcomers, as well as a foursome who grind through a frustrating 2017-18 season, and may just need to do it again. Today, we turn our focus to a group of clubs looking to build on recent successes, further raise the floor of expectation, and consolidate their status as La Liga mainstays (and Bilbao – hoo boy, has it been a weird year for Bilbao):

Celta de Vigo

Established: 1923

City: Vigo, Galicia (1,153 km / 716 miles west of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio Municipal de Balaídos (as known as Abanca- Balaídos) (29,000)

Coach: Antonio Mohamed

Celta de Vigo v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: After a five-year odyssey in the Segunda at the end of the last decade, followed by a brush with relegation in their first season post-promotion, 2012-13, Celta have since cemented their status as a La Liga fixture, managing three top-half finishes and a pair of Copa del Rey semifinals. Their league form slipped moderately the past two seasons, each of which has concluded with Os Celestes sitting thirteenth.

2017-18 Celta turned in one of the league’s more eventful seasons, netting an impressive 59 goals, while conceding 60 – second-most for a non-relegated side (Real Betis allowed 61) – on the way to 49 points. Only Barcelona and three Reals (Betis, Madrid and Sociedad) had goalier league campaigns. Celta spent virtually the entire season sniffing around the top ten, climbing as high as seventh around the halfway point, before some late stumbles dropped them to thirteenth. Unsurprisingly, Iago Aspas was the leading goal scorer with 22, with Maxi Gómez contributing an additional 17. Pione Sisto and the since-departed Daniel Wass led the team in assists, with nine apiece.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Fran Beltrán, CM (€8.0 mm, from Rayo Vallecano); Néstor Araujo, CB (€7.0 mm, from Santos Laguna, in Mexico); Okay Yokuslu, DM (€6.0 mm, from Trabzonspor, in Turkey); Mathias Jensen, CM (€5.0 mm, from FC Nordsjaelland, in Denmark); David Juncà, LB (free transfer, from Eibar); Sofiane Boufal, AM (on loan from Southampton); Brais Méndez, AM, and Kevin Vázquez, RB (promoted from Celta Vigo B); Claudio Beauvue, CF (end of loan – returns from Leganés)

Departures: Borja Iglesias, CF (€10.0 mm, to Espanyol); Jonny Castro, LB (€7.0 mm, to Atlético Madrid); Daniel Wass, CM (€6.0 mm, to Valencia); Sergi Gómez, CB (€5.0 mm, to Sevilla); John Guidetti, CF (sold to Alavés for €4.0 mm following end of loan); Theo Bongonda, LW (€1.6 mm, to SV Zulte Waregem, in Belgium); Pablo Hernández, CM (promoted from Celta Vigo B, and sold to Independiente, in Argentina for €1.4 mm)

Did you know? Celta’s Estadio Municipal de Balaídos played host to three matches in the 1982 World Cup. The matches, eventual champion Italy’s first three group games, all ended in draws.

Despite having never won La Liga or the Copa del Rey, Celta de Vigo does actually have European silverware to its, having claimed the 2000 Intertoto Cup.

In 2018-19… Between the aforementioned Aspas, Sisto and Maxi Gomez, along with captain Hugo Mallo, Stanislav Lobotka and incoming loanee Sofiane Boufal, there’s plenty of top-end talent on the roster. However, Celta must replace three major contributors in Wass, left-back Jonny Castro and center-back Sergi Gómez, a trio that logged nearly 9,000 minutes last season, with each appearing in at least 33 games.

It’s conceivable that Néstor Araujo and Okay Yokuslu will immediately slide in and spark an improvement on defense, but it’s also reasonable to assume that, coming from Mexico and Turkey, respectively, the pair might require a moment to acclimatise to new surroundings. Combine this with the fact that Yokuslu and goalkeeper Rubén Blanco are returning from injury, while Maxi Gómez and center-back Facundo Roncglia struggle with injuries of their own, it won’t be shocking to see Celta stumble a bit early on before righting the ship and turning in a similar season.

Athletic Bilbao

Established: 1898

City: Bilbao, Vizcaya, Basque Country (610 km / 379 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): San Mamés (53,289)

Coach: Eduardo Berizzo

Barcelona v Athletic Club - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: From the €65 million poaching of their defensive star Aymeric Laporte by Manchester City, to replacing him with thus-far underwhelming Iñigo Martínez, to awful home form that produced just six wins and 26 points in 19 games, to a maddening gift for dropping points to subpar competition, to an infuriating inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities, to Chelsea pulling a Guardiola and signing away potential superstar keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga for a staggering €80 million, it’s been a disappointing, if rather lucrative, last fourteen months for Athletic Bilbao.

It was a contradictory season for Bilbao, who hung around the middle third for almost the entire season, before a late-season swoon slotted them into their sixteenth-place finishing position. Los Leones ended on just 43 points, on the back of a paltry 41 goals scored and -8 goal difference. Based on expected goals/points, however, this was actually a top-half team, with the numbers suggesting that Bilbao ought to have found the net roughly ten more times than they did – without conceding much more – and played to the level of a 54-point team, with a positive goal difference.

To find the perfect embodiment of Bilbao’s 2017-18, look no further than their September 23 visit to Málaga. Staked to a lead following a fourth-minute penalty. Just after the half, Málaga – inept, rock-bottom, 20 points on the season Málaga – has a man sent off. An Iñaki Williams brace gives them a commanding 3-1 lead. All’s well… until a genuinely unfathomable breakdown sees them allow goals in the 81st and 84th minutes, to limp home with a sickening, solitary point.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Yuri Berchiche, LB (€24.0 mm, from Paris Saint-Germain); Ander Capa, RB (€3.0 mm, from Eibar); Cristian Ganea, LB (€1.0 mm, from FC Viitorul, in Romania); Dani García, CM (free transfer, from Eibar); Unai López, AM (end of loan – returns from Rayo Vallecano); Alex Remiro, GK (end of loan, returns from Huesca)

Departures: Kepa Arrizabalaga, GK (€80 mm, to Chelsea); Urtzi Iriondo, LB (free transfer, to Saint Gilloise, in Belgium); Enric Saborit, LB (free transfer, to Maccabi Tel Aviv, in Israel); Mikel Vesga, DM (loaned to Leganés); Xabier Etxeita, CB (loaned to Huesca)

Did you know? Athletic Bilbao is one of three founding members – along with Real Madrid and Barcelona – never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight, since its inception in 1929.

Athletic Bilbao have won La Liga on eight occasions, fourth most in the history of the league, trailing only Atlético Madrid (10), Barcelona (25) and Real Madrid (32). They’ve enjoyed even greater success with the Copa del Rey, having claimed the King’s Cup either 23 or 24 times (depending on who you ask), second only to Barcelona’s 30 victories.

The club is known for its “cantera” policy, which, since 1912, has involved playing exclusively with players meeting the club’s criteria to be deemed as Basque. The practice is centered around signing only professional players native to or trained in football in the greater Basque Country – Viscaya, Gipuzkoa, Álava and Navarra in Spain, and Labourd, Soule and Baja Navarra in France.

In 2018-19… On the heels of a maddening season, fans in Bilbao could be forgiven for looking ahead to this season with a fair bit of optimism. Until about a week ago, the only real losses were a couple of bit-part players leaving, for free, to Belgium and Israel, and loans to a couple of bottom-third teams. In the meantime, they’d further strengthened an already-stout defense with the acquisitions of left-back Yuri Berchiche from PSG, along with right-back Ander Capa and defensive midfielder Dani García from Eibar. And everyone else was back: top scorers Raul Garcia (10 goals) and the ageless Aritz Aduriz (nine) are back, this writer’s irrational mancrush, Iñaki Williams, Iker Muniain, captain Markel Susaeta, a more settled Iñigo Martínez – the gang’s all here. Alas…

A sizable transfer of funds from Roman Abramovich has turned what could (should?) have been a push for a top-six/-seven finish into a transitional year. With Kepa now in London, Bilbao’s last line of defense (at time of writing) is either veteran backup Iago Herrerín (currently fighting a minor injury) or the unremarkable Alex Remiro, just back from a loan spell with Huesca. That’s rough.

The hope here has got to be that the attackers are far more efficient in front of goal, while a solid defensive unit provides ample cover for whoever winds up in goal. Do that, and top-twelve, maybe top-ten, is within reach. If either of those elements falters, however, San Mamés could be the setting for a frustrating rerun.

Girona

Established: 1930

City: Girona, Catalonia (102 km / 64 miles northeast of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Montilivi (13,500)

Coach: Eusebio Sacristán

Barcelona v Girona - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: Prior to 2017-18, Girona had spent precisely none of their previous 81 seasons in the top-flight. For anyone unaware of this, it would have been impossible to tell. Girona kicked off its season with a rousing 2-2 home draw against Atlético Madrid, grabbed another point in the return leg, and managed a comeback victory at home over Real Madrid in late October. After finishing the tenth week of the season thirteenth in the league table, Girona incredibly spent 24 of the season’s final 28 weeks in the top ten, never falling below twelfth, and sitting as high seventh for multiple weeks, en route to 51 points and tenth place. That’s as good a top-flight debut as you’re going to see.

The strength of this side clearly lay in attack, as they netted 50 goals (eighth-most in the league), while conceding 59 times – third-most among non-relegated teams. World Cup quarterfinalist Cristhian Stuani showed himself to be one of the La Liga’s better attacking threats, scoring 21 goals in 33 appearances, with Portu contributing another eleven from midfield. Meanwhile, the captain, Álex Granell, led the team in assists, with seven, while Borja García and Portu each setting up five.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Marc Muniesa, CB (acquired from Stoke City for €5.0 mm following end of loan); Johan Mojica, LB (acquired from Rayo Vallecano for €5.0 mm following end of loan); Sebas Coris, LW (end of loan – returns from Osasuna)

Departures: Rubén Alcaraz, CM (sold to Valladolid for €1.0 mm following return from loan at Almería); Farid Boulaya, AM (loan to FC Metz, in France, made permanent for €800,000); Pablo Maffeo, RB (end of loan – returned to Manchester City U-23); Douglas Luiz, CM (end of loan – returned to Manchester City); Michael Olunga, CF (end of loan – returned to Guizhou Hengfeng, in China)

Did you know? As of August 2017, Girona FC was 88.6% owned by City Football Group (owners of Manchester City and MLS’s NYCFC, among others) and Girona Football Group, led by Pere Guardiola, brother of ex-Barça and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Each entity holds an ownership stake of 44.3%.

In 2018-19… While expected goals scored and points suggest that 2017-18 Girona would up exactly where they should have in the league table, it’s worth noting that the defense conceded roughly seven more goals than they “deserved” to. If they can perform to a similar level while maintaining offensive production, Girona could take a big step toward cementing itself as a La Liga mainstay. Good news on this front is that virtually everyone of consequence returns. Among players that saw the pitch for more than 500 minutes in 2017-18, only Pablo Maffeo, starter of 32 games at right back, is gone.

Talent, continuity and a reasonable case for some better luck? You can forgive Girona for eyeing another top-half finish.

Getafe

Established: 1983

City: Getafe, metropolitan Madrid (634 km / 394 miles southwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, (17,393)

Coach: José “Pepe” Bordalás

Barcelona v Getafe - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: Be honest, how many of you knew, off the top of your head, that Getafe finished comfortably in the top half of the league, with a near-double-figure goal difference, within a win of Spain’s final European spot?

Their defense ranked among La Liga’s elite, allowing just 33 goals, or 0.87 per game. They conceded more goals than only Barcelona (29) and Atlético Madrid’s silly total of 22, with Valencia (38) the only other team under 40. And they were, theoretically, actually even better than that! On an expected basis, only Getafe (39.7 xGA) and Atléti (35.5) should have allowed fewer than 40 goals. That’s obscene.

2017-18 Getafe was basically Bizarro Celta – an elite defense paired with a bottom-third attack, producing the least goaly season (75 total scored/conceded) by any team in La Liga. It may not have made for riveting television, but hey, this was good enough to carry them to 55 points and eighth place in the league table, with an excellent +9 goal difference.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Ignasi Miquel, CB (€5.0 mm, from Málaga); Nemanja Maksimovic, CM (€5.0 mm, from Valencia); Iván Alejo, RW (€4.0 mm, from Eibar); David Soria, GK (€3.0 mm, from Sevilla) Vitorino Antunes, LB (acquired from Dynamo Kyiv for €2.5 following end of loan); Mauro Arambarri, CM (acquired from Club Atlético Boston River, in Uruguay, for €2.15 following end of loan); Markel Bergara, DM (free transfer, from Real Sociedad); Jaime Mata, CF (free transfer, from Real Valladolid); Oswaldo Alanís, CB (free transfer from Chivas de Guadalajara, in Mexico); Leandro Chichizola, GK (free transfer from Las Palmas); Sergi Guardiola, CF (loan, from Córdoba)

Departures: Emiliano Buendía, AM (€1.5 mm, to Norwich City, following return from loan to Cultural Leonesa, in the Segunda); Fayçal Fajr, AM (€1.5 mm, to SM Caen, in France); Vicente Guaita, GK (free transfer to Crystal Palace); Francisco Molinero, RB (free transfer, to Sporting Gijón); Mathías Olivera, LB (loan, to Albacete); Filip Manojlovic, GK (loan, to Panionios Athens, in Greece); Álvaro Jiménez, RW (currently without a club); Mathieu Flamini, DM (currently without a club)

In 2018-19… The stylistic formula is in place. Keeping the ball out of your own net, avoiding defeat (13 losses, tied with Villareal and Espanyol for fewest by non-top-four team) and grinding out victories is a perfect recipe for sustained success at a small club. Beyond that, adding the second tier’s far-and-away top goalscorer (Jaime Mata scored 35 league/cup goals for Valladolid; his 33 league goals led the league by nine) to an attack clearly in need of explosiveness is an absolute coup. Hanging on to your top scorers in the meantime (Ángel Rodriguez with 13, and Jorge Molina with seven) is another clear win.

There are new faces at a couple of key spots following the departures of Fayçal Fajr and starting goalkeeper Vicente Guaita. Former Las Palmas keeper Leandro Chichizola (who really seemed much better than the team he was on) should step in ably in goal. Meanwhile, a number of midfield and defensive reinforcements should offset any losses sustained in the middle of the park and at the back.

“Pepe” Bordalás demonstrated a talent for inspiring buy-in into a disciplined system. There’s no reason to doubt that he can integrate new talent into his system, and guide Getafe right back into the top half.

Eibar

Established: 1940

City: Eibar, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country (551 km / 342 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Ipurua (7,083)

Coach: José Luis Mendilibar

Eibar v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: Eibar’s 2017-18 campaign was essentially two seasons in one. The team spent the first fifteen weeks in the bottom half, with more than a month between the sixteenth and eighteenth spots. From that point on, however, Los Armeros authored as dramatic a turnaround as anyone in the league, spending virtually the entire second half of the season in the top ten, climbing as high as seventh, and ultimately coasting into a well-deserved ninth-place finish, with 51 points.

The team did well in spreading the goal-scoring wealth, with Charles and Kike García leading the way with eight apiece, with Joan Jordán netting six, Takashi Inui kicking in five of his own, with another three players contributing three apiece. Similarly, José Ángel led the team in assists, with eight, with six teammates contributing at least two assists apiece.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Sergio Álvarez, CM (€4.0 mm, from Sporting Gijón); Fabián Orellana, RW (loan from Valencia made permanent for €2.0 mm); Pedro Bigas, CB (loan, from Las Palmas); Marc Cardona, CF (loan, from FC Barcelona B); Pere Milla, LW (end of loan – returns from Numancia); Alejandro Gálvez, CB (end of loan – returns from Las Palmas); Bebé, LW (end of loan – returns from Rayo Vallecano)

Departures: Iván Alejo, RW (€4.0 mm, to Getafe); Ander Capa, RB (€3.0 mm, to Athletic Bilbao); David Juncà, LB (free transfer, to Celta de Vigo); Dani García, CM (free transfer, to Athletic Bilbao); Takashi Inui, LW (free transfer, to Real Betis); David Lombán, CB (currently without a club); Vukasin Jovanovic, CB (end of loan – returned to Bordeaux)

Did you know? La Liga’s smallest club, playing in the league’s smallest stadium, Eibar is owned by more than 10,000 fan shareholders from 69 countries worldwide.

In May 2014 Eibar earned promotion to La Liga for the time in the club’s history (celebrated using confetti originally produced by Barcelona, in preparation for a league title that never came. Awkward). However, the club was threatened with relegation back to the third tier, pending their ability to secure share capital of just over €2.1 million before August 2014. The club launched the Defiende al Eibar campaign, aimed at securing the required capital through an equity offering – the campaign proved successful, with the club reaching its goal on July 15.

Eibar’s first-ever season in the top flight, 2014-15, ended with the club doomed to relegation, after an eighteenth-place finish. However, they’d picked precisely the right season to flounder, as thirteenth-placed Elche was demoted to the Segunda due to financial mismanagement, with Eibar reinstated.

In 2018-19… As with Girona, expected goals scored and points suggest that Eibar would up 2017-18 where they should have in the league table. As was also the case with Girona, the defense conceded roughly five more goals than they’d “deserved” to, suggesting a bit of luck-based improvement may be in the cards.

However, performing to a similar level in 2018-19 could prove a bit challenging. Inui, one of the team’s top outfield players, is gone, as is starting right-back Ander Capa, along with contributors Iván Alejo and David Juncà, who appeared in 37 games (24 combined starts) on the wing and at left-back, respectively.

The good news is that Eibar was not overly reliant on any one player in 2017-18, and the team retains enough of its front-line talent to maintain some continuity. Another top-half finish may prove a bit optimistic, but there’s enough of an infrastructure here to keep Eibar safe in the middle third.

Stay tuned, as later in the week, we’ll continue to climb up the tiers of the league, taking a look at a group of La Liga fixtures for whom a spot the top half is but a starting point…