Wednesday, January 30, 2008

La Liga 2007-8....Is It All Over?

There comes a time every football season, when La Liga has passed its half way point, and a blogger has to look back at those unreliable predictions made while we were still being warmed by the late August sun.

I certainly didn’t get things right about Real Madrid, currently runaway leaders with a 9 point advantage over second placed Barcelona. The early season doubts have disappeared, and under Schuster Madrid are showing that they have perfected the art of picking up points even when they are not playing well; something they did in a less attractive fashion under Capello last season. A formidable season from goalkeeper Casillas has helped a lot, whilst up front the combination of Van Nistelrooy and a revitalised Raul is ensuring that goals are not in short supply. Also, Sergio Ramos has turned into the most versatile and solid player in the Spanish game, whilst Robinho may not be the “new Pele” but he seems to have found his role in the team. I still maintain that it is a team made to look better by the failings of their principal rivals, but the statistics are impressive. The test of my theory will be the approaching challenge of the final rounds of the Champions League. Of course, if Madrid take their traditional springtime exit from this competition then their chances of winning the Liga only improve.

As for Barcelona, currently the only other possible challengers for the title, it’s hard to say just why things aren’t working out for them. The team that was hailed as the best in Europe just 2 years ago has gone into a steady decline. Much of the attention focuses on Ronaldinho and there is now a lot of talk of his impending exit. However, the failure is a more general one than just one player losing interest, the team has lost its fluency and is in danger of becoming what Madrid have been for several years; a collection of talented players with a chronic inability to play together as a unit. Another team whose season will be shaped by the Champions League, failure in that tournament as well as the Liga probably means the end of the Rijkaard era.

Now where did it all go wrong for Valencia? At the top, I suspect. When I heard that they had contracted Ronald Koeman as their new coach I sensed potential disaster in the making. They say that Quique Flores, his predecessor, was sacked just as things were starting to work better for him at the club. He is said to have had problems with some of the players but the team was at least still functioning. Now, a team that should be in the running for at least a Champions League place is showing form that qualifies it as a relegation candidate. Koeman’s disastrous spell may not have much longer to go, given the reaction of the fans to last weekends defeat. His main legacy may be the wall he is having constructed at the club’s training ground to isolate himself and the players from the press and supporters. The squad probably needed a bit of refurbishment, with some of the senior players being eased out, but the ham-fisted way in which Koeman has isolated former favourites like Cañizares, Angulo and Abelda has not helped his situation.

Probably no club has had a more turbulent start to the season than Sevilla, beginning with the awful tragedy of the death of Antonio Puerta following the game against Getafe. Eventually the club had to appeal to the supporters to stop commemorating the player’s death in the same minute of every game as it was affecting the performance of the team. Then came the delayed, but unsurprising, departure of Juande Ramos for Tottenham. Nevertheless, it is a club that works with a system and so far at least that system seems to have survived the departure of Ramos. A variable performance in the league has been compensated by an impressive debut so far in the Champions League, although they need to concentrate on finishing high enough in the league to ensure participation in next years edition.

Al least in the case of Atlético Madrid my crystal ball seemed to function reasonably well. They have days when they seem inspired, and those days tend to be the ones when the Argentinian “Kun” Agüero is on form. However, there are still too many other days when the team is off colour, and that is what makes the difference between a club that will probably finish high enough to get European football next season, and one that will start to challenge the current dominance of their city rivals.

Of the rest, Villareal deserve a special mention. With Forlan gone to Atlético and with the troubled Riquelme having finally left the club, they have continued to show that you don’t always need pots of money to compete with the big boys. Likewise, both Español and Racing Santander have shown that teamwork and a bit of stability can lift a club above what might have been expected of it. Zaragoza have failed to impress, they didn’t start well and in the end they resorted to sacking the coach. The replacement for Victor Fernandez lasted a matter of days before former Deportivo trainer Javier Irureta was brought in to bring a bit of stability.

Take a close look at the league table, only 9 points separates 7th placed Sevilla from Deportivo in 19th. That’s 13 clubs that could find themselves in trouble if they have a bad run. Levante look doomed, despite a victory last weekend, but the battle for who will join them in going down is going to be tough and unpredictable. It’s hard to believe that Deportivo is the team that most threatened the stranglehold of the big clubs a few short seasons ago. Of course it doesn’t help the situation when your two main goalkeepers start (literally) fighting each other for a place in the team. Other supposedly big teams like Betis and Athletic Bilbao continue to struggle too. The battle in the lower half of the table could be what maintains any interest or excitement in the rest of the season, because unless Madrid lose their nerve or Barcelona recover their historical memory it’s going to be a dull second half for the Liga this year.


leftbanker said...

The front page of Valencia's Levante newspaper said it all for our team: Free Fall.

Graeme said...

Well at least you're still in the Cup! It's a sure sign of crisis for the big Spanish clubs when the Copa del Rey becomes important.