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La Liga preview 2018/19 - Struggle for Survival

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Part 2 of our look ahead to the new season

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

With La Liga’s August 17 kickoff quickly approaching, we’ve been taking a look at each of the teams that will take part in the 2018-19 season. We began last week with a look at the league’s three newcomers. In today’s installment we examine the state of affairs at four clubs who, through a bit of luck and well-timed competence, managed to grind through the 2017-18 season with their La Liga lives intact – and they’ll likely need to do it again:

RCD Espanyol

Established: 1900

City: Barcelona

Stadium (Capacity): Estadi Cornellà-El Prat (40,500)

Coach: Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia (“Rubi”)

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

Last season in La Liga: Espanyol managed a seemingly respectable eleventh-place finish in 2017-18, on 51 points. A closer look, however, reveals some very real reasons for concern. First, the team only managed to find the net 36 times in 38 league games, the fourth-lowest total in La Liga (two fewer than relegated Deportivo La Coruña), and four fewer than anyone else in the top 16. Gerard Moreno was their leading goal scorer with 16, doubling the tally of his highest-scoring teammate, Leo Baptistao, with no other member of the team managing more than two. Sergio Garcia led the team in assists, with six, the only member the squad that set up more than three goals.

It was only thanks to a stingy defense that Espanyol’s goal difference (-9) was merely ugly, and not utterly disastrous. Fittingly, they spent the vast majority of the season between thirteenth and sixteenth, before a couple of late-season showings vaulted them up the standings. In 2018-19, however, goalkeeper Pau Lopez will be manning the net for Real Betis. Meanwhile Moreno, acquired from Villarreal for a modest €1.5 million, will be back with the Yellow Submarine after a sale of €20 million – that’s great business, but not so good on the pitch.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Borja Iglesias, CF (€10.0 mm, from Celta de Vigo); Sergi Darder, Midfield (€8.0 mm, loan from Lyon made permanent); Roberto, GK (end of loan – returns from Málaga); Hernán Pérez (end of loan – returns from Alavés); Álvaro Vázquez, CF (end of loan – returns from Gimnástic de Tarragona)

Departures: Gerard Moreno, CF (€20.0 mm, to Villarreal); Pau Lopez, GK (free transfer, to Real Betis); Sergio Sánchez, CB (end of loan – returned to Rubin Kazan); Carlos Sánchez, Defensive Midfield (end of loan – returned to Fiorentina)

Did you know? On August 8, 2009, while in the Italian village of Coverciano with the club, Espanyol’s 26-year-old captain, Dani Jarque, tragically died from a cardiac arrest. Since his passing, Espanyol fans sing his name in tribute and remembrance, and give a one-minute ovation in the 21st minute (Jarque wore #21) of every match in his honor. Upon scoring the goal that secured Spain’s victory in the 2010 World Cup Final, FC Barcelona great and a close friend of Jarque’s, Andrés Iniesta, paid tribute to his fallen friend with a t-shirt stating that Jarque is “siempre con nosotros”.

In 1928, Espanyol became a founding member of La Liga. They’ve since taken part in 81 of the league’s 89 campaigns – this is the largest number of La Liga seasons for any team that’s never won the title.

In 2018-19… I don’t know that Espanyol is in actual danger of winding up this season in the drop zone, but the loss of the only true goal-scoring threat from a relegation-level attack is really going to sting. Combine that with the departure of one of the league’s better goalkeepers, even with much of an excellent defensive unit returning, and this team is facing some very real obstacles in 2018-19.

Unless Borja Iglesias emerges as a legitimate top-flight scoring threat (there is a non-zero chance, given he scored 23 goals in 41 Segunda appearances with Real Zaragoza last season), Espanyol will struggle to secure the victories needed for mid-table comfort. Basically, this team smacks of last season’s Athletic Bilbao.

Levante UD

Established: 1909

City: Valencia (349 km / 217 miles southwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadi Ciutat de València (26,354)

Coach: Paco López

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

Last season in La Liga: Prior to the penultimate game of 2017-18, Levante was probably the La Liga team to you’d thought about the least. Your run-of-the-mill bad team – spent the entire season flirting with relegation without ever actually falling into the bottom three, scored just enough (44 goals), and conceded a not-eyepopping 58. In all, 46 points, fifteenth place and a -14 goal differential was a fairly accurate representation. Not good, not embarrassing, eminently forgettable. Until May 13…

That was the day that Barcelona rolled into town, unbeaten in 43 league matches, unbeaten in league play by Levante in 53 years, and 94.7% of the way to the first unbeaten La Liga campaign in more than 80 years. With Levante’s safety already assured, the game was considered such a formality that Lionel Messi was totally omitted from the matchday squad, in order to preserve him for a vital marketing exercise in South Africa later in the week (#neverforget). There’s no need to rehash every detail, but suffice it say that the Emmanuel Boateng hat trick and Enis Bardhi brace that staked Levante to a mindboggling 5-1 lead after 56 minutes, and the subsequent battening of the hatches that secured the shock 5-4 win won’t soon be forgotten.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Erick Cabaco, CB (€2.0 mm, loan from Nacional (Uruguay) made permanent); Coke, RB (€1.5 mm, loan from FC Schalke 04 made permanent); Aitor Fernández, GK (€1.0 mm, from Numancia); Sanjin Prcic, CM (free transfer, from Stade Rennais); Rubén Rochina, AM (undisclosed fee, loan from Rubin Kazan made permanent); Rubén García (end of loan – returns from Sporting Gijón); Javier Espinosa (end of loan – returns from Granada); Samu Garcia (end of loan – returns from Málaga)

Departures: Raúl Fernández, GK (free transfer, to Las Palmas); Ivi, RW (loaned to Valladolid); Sasa Lukic, CM (end of loan – returned to Torino); Giampaolo Pazzini (end of loan – returned to Hellas Verona); Alex Alegría, CF (end of loan – returned to Real Betis)

Cool to know: During the Spanish Civil War, Levante’s ground was destroyed. Meanwhile, another local club, Gimnástico Football Club, had a ground (Estadio de Vallejo), but had lost most of their players in the war. As Levante still had enough players to field a full squad, in 1939, the clubs merged, forming Unión Deportiva Levante-Gimnástico – renamed Levante Unión Deportiva (“Levante U.D.”) in 1941, sporting the blaugrana home colors originally used by Gimnástico.

Following his Barcelona career and subsequent stint in the North American Soccer League, Johan Cruyff suited up ten times for Levante in 1981, scoring twice. Cruyff went on to play another three seasons with Ajax and Feyenoord in Holland before retiring in 1984, but this was his last stop as a player in Spain.

In 2018-19… There’s a case to be made that, by simply returning their best performers – top scorer (10 goals) and assister (8) LW José Luis Morales, Bardhi (9 goals in 26 appearances), Boateng (6 in 25, including the aforementioned hat trick), and midfielder José Campaña – Levante should be primed to outperform last season’s results and maybe even jump up a tier in the league’s hierarchy. With a bit of luck, that case seems perfectly reasonable.

It’s worth noting, however, that, for an overwhelming majority of the season, relegation was a very real possibility for Levante. Putting five past an auto-piloted Barcelona papered over some cracks – excluding that fever dream performance, the team managed just 39 goals in 37 games, and Bardhi and Boateng combined for just ten goals in 49 appearances. There’s enough talent on the (possibly overcrowded?) roster to ensure safety in the coming season, but with Boateng coming back from a meniscus injury and Bardhi drawing interest from bigger clubs and a possible winter transfer target, a dramatic jump up the table in 2018-19 is not very likely.

CD Leganés

Established: 1928

City: Leganés, Madrid (618 km / 384 miles west of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio Municipal de Butarque (11,454)

Coach: Mauricio Pellegrino

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

Last season in La Liga: Leganés was essentially a less exciting Levante, and without the feel-good factor of a shocking win over the league’s top team. Los Pepineros ended the 2017-18 season as the lowest ranked team to avoid relegation, in seventeenth place, with 43 points. Their 34 goals scored were the fewest by any non-relegated team (and four fewer than relegated Deportivo La Coruña, and their -17 goal difference was the worst of any team that avoided the drop. Their leading goal scorer, Gabriel Pires, found the net a whopping five times, with Javier Eraso and since-departed Miguel Ángel Guerrero (four apiece) the only other players to score more than twice all season. Meanwhile, also-since-departed Nordin Amrabat led the team in assists, with four, followed, again, by Eraso and Guerrero, with three each. A weekly fireworks show this was not.

Leganés actually started 2017-18 quite strongly, hovering around the top-ten for much of the first half of the season, sitting in ninth place after 18 weeks. However, they proceeded to stumble for much of the remainder of the campaign, spending eleven of the season’s final thirteen weeks no higher that fourteenth place. That they were not relegation fodder is a testament to timing and luck – had last season’s bottom three put up anything resembling a fight, Leganés’s status as a top-flight club would have been in serious peril.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Diego Rolan, CF (on loan from Deportivo de La Coruña); Juanfran, RB (on loan from Deportivo de La Coruña); Rubén Pérez, DM (loan from Granada made permanent on free transfer); Jonathan Silva, LB (on loan from Sporting Lisbon); Mikel Vesga, DM (on loan from Atheltic Bilbao); Michael Santos, CF (on loan from Málaga); Guido Carrillo, CF (on loan from Southampton); Mamadou Koné, F (end of loan – returns from KAS Eupen, in Belgium)

Departures: Diego Rico, LB (€12.0 mm, to Bournemouth); Miguel Ángel Guerrero, CF (free transfer, to Olympiacos); Martín Mantovani, CB (free transfer, to Las Palmas); Claudio Beauvue, CF (end of loan – returned to Celta de Vigo); Nordin Amrabat, LW (end of loan – returned to Watford); Darko Brasanac (end of loan – returned to Real Betis)

Cool to know: The 2016-17 season, some 88 years after the club’s founding, marked Leganés’s first ever in the Spanish top-flight.

In 1996-97, a 16-year-old Samuel Eto’o was loaned by Real Madrid to Leganés, with whom he made 28 appearances and scored three times.

Leganés’s María Victoria Pavón, along with Eibar’s Amaia Gorostiza, is one of two women to hold the title of President of a La Liga team.

In 2018-19… It’s tempting to look at this team’s solid defensive performance from 2017-18 (just 1.34 goals conceded per game), see an experienced and accomplished manager at the helm, run through the list of incoming forward players, and envision a solid side that boringly grinds out results en route to an unsung middle-third finish.

At a second glance, however, that optimism begins to feel an awful lot like wishful thinking. First, there’s a staggering amount of work to be done in attack, and a few mediocre strikers from a handful of other relegation-level teams is not going to suffice – particularly in light of the departure of one of the team’s only goal “threats” in Guerrero. Add to that the departures of one of the team’s better defenders in Diego Rico, an aging-but-influential captain (Martín Mantovani), forward Claudio Beauvue and the solid midfield presence of Nordin Amrabat, and there’s not much here to hang your hat on.

Deportivo Alavés

Established: 1921

City: (501 km / 311 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Campo de Fútbol de Mendizorrotza (19,840)

Coach: Abelardo Fernández Antuña

Barcelona v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: To say that Alavés stumbled out of the gate in 2017-18 would be quite the understatement. They failed to find the net in their first five games, en route to dropping each of their first six. Prior to chalking up their first points of the season on September 30 (a 2-0 win over Levante), Alavés had scored a single goal and conceded ten. From that point forward, however, Los Babazorros were arguably the best side in the bottom half, racking up 47 points and 39 goals in 32 games, while conceding 40. It wasn’t until halfway through the season that they climbed out of the relegation zone, but they successfully avoided the bottom three for the entirety of the second half, even climbing as high as twelfth place in the penultimate week of the season.

Alavés ultimately ended the season fourteenth in the table, on those 47 points, with a miraculous (given the way the season began) goal difference of -10. Barcelona’s own Munir El Haddadi was the team’s leading scorer, with ten goals, with Ibai Gómez contributing seven of his own. The same duo paced the team in assists, with six apiece, with Alfonso Pedraza managing five.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: John Guidetti, CF (€4.0 mm, loan from Celta de Vigo made permanent); Patrick Twumasi, RW (€3.0 mm, from FC Astana, in Russia); Jony, LW (on loan from Málaga); Borja Bastón, CF (on loan from Swansea); Martin Aguirregabiria, RB (promoted from Deportivo Alavés B)

Departures: Munir El Haddadi, CF (end of loan – returned to FC Barcelona); Alfonso Pedraza, LW (end of loan – returned to Villareal); Álvaro Medrán, CM (end of loan – returned to Valencia); Hernán Pérez, RW (end of loan – returned to Espanyol); Bojan Krkic, F (end of loan – returned to Stoke City); Thomás Pina, CM (end of loan – returned to Club Brugge, in Belgium); Christian Santos, CF (free transfer, to Deportivo de La Coruña);

Cool to know: At the time of its founding in 1921, Deportivo Alavés went by the delightful moniker “Sport Friends Club”

The 2017-18 squad was clearly a results-oriented bunch with little appetite for ambiguity, as only two of their 38 league contests ended in a draw.

The 2000-01 Alavés side took part in what is considered not only one of the greatest games in UEFA Cup history, but one of the most fascinating major tournament finals recent memory. Having gotten past Inter Milan, Rayo Vallecano and FC Kaiserslautern, Alavés met Liverpool in the competition’s finale, in Dortmund. That the game ended with a 5-4 score line is sufficiently absurd, but consider: with the score 4-3, Jordi Cruyff struck in the 88th minute to equalize and force extra time; another two goals were disallowed in extra time; in addition to six yellows cards accumulated by the two sides, Alavés had a pair of guys sent off in extra time; and the game’s cruelly decisive goal, in the 117th minute of play, was an own goal by Alavés wing-back, Delfi Geli.

In 2018-19… Like other members of their on-the-brink brethren, Alavés has endured significant losses up front, having also lost their top scorer, Munir El Haddadi, as well as arguably their best midfielder in Alfonso Pedraza. They are replaced by a pair of loanees, left-winger Jony (formerly of Málaga) and Swansea City striker Borja Bastón, It’s worth noting that theoretical striker John Guidetti, previously on loan from Celta de Vigo, is now a permanent member of the squad as well. Of particular interest here is Bastón, who, prior to his 2016 move to the Premier League, was developing into an extremely prolific striker in Spain. He’s struggled considerably the past two years, but he’s played well La Liga before, and should get ample opportunity to do so again.

It’s not terribly difficult to envision a scenario in which Alavés is mired in a bottom-third struggle for survival. I will say, however, that, between the excellent defense they exhibited in the latter stages of 2017-18, and the presence (despite some turnover) of some solid, quality pros in attack, this team is likely good enough relative to its bottom-half competition to avoid any serious run-ins with the drop zone.

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 who, next season, will likely be found around the table’s middle third.