With La Liga returning this weekend after its winter break, Oliver Miller takes a look at how this season’s campaign is shaping up
Can Barcelona see the job through?
The winter champions and by some distance (9 points); Barcelona have dominated La Liga from matchday one – their 5-1 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup in August seems a distant memory. At the beginning of the season, Coutinho was expected to be lining up for la Blaugrana but he hadn’t come. Neither had Marco Veratti, Hector Bellerin, Angel Di Maria, or Inigo Martinez – all muted transfer targets. One-third of the MSN had gone, another third had gone off – Luis Suarez endured his longest goal-drought since joining Barcelona – and the final third, the best there’s ever been, was days away from being able to leave the club on a free.
They did sign Ousmane Dembele but the most expensive player in their history walked off 52 minutes into his league debut, injuring himself as he tried to do a backheel, and he still isn’t back. The former president went to jail. They’re involved in seven legal cases ranging from tax fraud to “an act of espionage.” The club has been caught up in the nation’s biggest political storm in many a year. Incapable of pleasing everyone all the time they’ve played in an empty stadium, supporters stopped at the gates while two directors resigned.
And yet …they’re top.
Not only that but they’re unbeaten – only drawing three of their 17 matches – scoring 45 and conceding only seven. They’ve made it to the knockout round of the Champions League with relative ease. And in the final matchday before Christmas, they beat eternal rivals Real Madrid 3-0 … at the Bernabeu. It is certainly happy viewing at the top for Ernesto Valverde and the ‘crisis-ridden’ club.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way and at times this season, it has been hard to explain why it is this way. The easy answer is Leo Messi who has been in exceptional form even by his standards. 15 goals scored in the league and many, many more created. At a time when Ronaldo is being examined – harshly some may say – for his goalscoring form, Messi is once again proving that there is so much more to his game than goals.
Ernesto Valverde is a perfect fit for this Barcelona. Calm in a crisis, hugely likeable, universally popular, and abnormally ‘normal’. He has done what most at the higher echelons of la Blaugrana fail to do… be liked and respected by all. When Barcelona appointed him in the summer, some were unsure whether he was the man for the job – taking Athletic Bilbao into Europe four years in a row, as well as successful periods at Espanyol and Olympiacos, wasn’t enough for some. He has certainly proven his worth. A startling ability to block out the noise and cut through a lot of the nonsense that surrounds football is a virtue that few exhibit. “Valverde has made Camp Nou fall in love with him,” the president Josep Maria Bartomeu said. That may be an exaggeration but – a listener as well as a leader – it is true that he invariably connects. The ant is on the march.
Ivan Rakitic now plays alongside Busquets, Andres Iniesta is carefully deployed when he is needed, and Paulinho has made an impact that few predicted – all propelling Barcelona above the rest. It will now be more of a surprise if Barcelona don’t lift the league title in May. The Christmas Clasico was seen as Real’s last chance to threaten the title race, 14 points is too big of a gap to bridge even in remarkable circumstances. Atletico Madrid, quietly, have become Barca’s closest challenges whilst Valencia – who were so good for so long – have recently slipped up. Even though Barcelona’s lead is not as big as Manchester City’s in the Premier League, like the English champions-elect, they are a level above their competitors.
Will the appointment of the most Spanish of Italian managers work out for Sevilla?
The sacking of Eduardo Berizzo just before Sevilla’s winter break was one that shocked and saddened the football scene in Spain. Not only had Berizzo just returned to the Sevilla dugout after successful treatment for prostate cancer but Sevilla found themselves in 5th place and in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Results may have disappointed slightly and Berizzo has taken longer to get to grips with the Andalucian side than Sampaoli did last season but this is a club who have just lost a hugely significant figure in sporting director Monchi and consequently have their weakest squad in terms of quality for some years.
However, the appointment which Sevilla have gone with is interesting and, at face value at least, appears a good fit. Vincenzo Montella began coaching youth teams at Roma at the age of 35 before going on to take the reins of the first team and since then has been at Catania, Fiorentina, and Sampdoria before taking on the job at AC Milan – each a step up the footballing ladder which has Sevilla on the next rung. Montella has been labelled the ‘most Spanish coach in Italy’ and he stood out for playing attractive football, which resulted in his Catania side becoming known as the ‘little Barcelona’ and Fiorentina being renowned for their Spanish style and easy on the eye style.
Montella was sacked by Milan in November – after having a good first year at the helm and introducing young Italian talent into the side, interfering owners spent unnecessary money in the Summer to overhaul a young, dynamic team and replace it with an older and less exciting one – the organic development was prevented from unfolding. As a result, Montella was forced to shoe-in players whom he hadn’t signed whilst fulfilling the ambitions of the owners – a task that even the greatest of managers would have found difficult. Montella – irrespective of his time in Milan – is still very well thought of and is one of Europe’s most promising coaches.
Montella prefers to maintain possession and win the ball back quickly, a style that the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan is used to and relishes. “Sevilla must play with spirit and passion,” he said in his introductory press conference. “I want to win more as a coach; this is the ideal team to carry out my ideas.” Sevilla certainly know how to win and stability under an ambitious manager is what is needed for Sevilla to find their feet after an unsettled few seasons. Manchester United in the Champions League awaits and qualification for next years competition is the target. However, his first La Liga game in charge is the home derby against Real Betis on Saturday – the biggest of welcomes awaits senor Montella.
Will the Primera newcomers who have won the hearts of many football fans stay for a second season?
“In the summer nobody knew us and now we are one of the most recognisable teams in La Liga,” said the Girona president Delfi Geli. A draw on the matchday one against Atletico Madrid made people sit up and take note. Since then the Catalan side have received more and more admirers. The 2-1 victory against Real Madrid at Montilivi in October was undoubtedly the pinnacle thus far and the fact that the La Liga newcomers find themselves in 10th place – only 4 points away from a European place – has lifelong Gironistes pinching themselves. Reaching Spain’s top flight had taken so much toil and torture that just being there was an achievement, how they’ve adapted to the Primera is a credit to the club.
Fans still sit on temporary seats on a temporary scaffold structure, increasing their attendance to over 13,000, however the objective is to make this – the stadium stands and league status – more permanent. City Football Group became co-owners of Girona in September whilst the other co-owner is Pere Guardiola – Pep’s brother – and his Girona Football Group. This has seen a number of Manchester City youth players arrive for competitive first-team football. Pablo Maffeo is probably the most notable prospect on loan with Girona – Douglas Luiz, Marlos Moreno, Olarenwaju Kayode, and Aleix Garcia have also moved to Catalonia on a temporary basis.
But it has been Uruguayan Cristian Stuani – relatively ancient at 31 years old compared to the youthful loanees – that has led the Catalans in the first half of the season with nine goals – his first coming on opening night against Atletico. Pablo Machin is yet another young Spanish manager who is taking his opportunity in La Liga. Like their Catalan neighbours Barcelona, Girona have been engulfed by the political scene in Spain as of late but of which there is no doubt is that if Girona continue to apply themselves in a positive manner and usurp the talent arriving from further afield then the Catalans will be here for longer than first thought.
Paco Jemez at Las Palmas. Genius? Mistake? Definitely entertaining!
“It’s more than a sports project, I take it as a personal challenge,” Paco Jemez said about re-joining Las Palmas. Jemez previously managed the club from Gran Canaria between April 2010 and February 2011 when they were playing in Spain’s second division and barring a massive turn in form – and logic – they will be back there next season after three seasons in Primera. Initially, Jemez rebuffed the offer to return to the island but after some consideration – and Las Palmas failing to obtain Jorge Almiron as he didn’t have the appropriate coaching licence – he decided to bring his philosophy back to Las Palmas.
Las Palmas are never far from drama; they seemed destined for their first promotion to La Liga in over a decade in 2014 when they were winning the play-off final at home against Cordoba, fans had started edging onto the pitch in anticipation of the celebrations but Cordoba then scored in stoppage time and were promoted on away goals. Las Palmas were promoted a year later and in their first season back in La Liga an immediate relegation looked on the cards until Quique Setien took the reins and turned them into a good footballing side. Last season they continued to impress – high-energy, confident, gung-ho football was the recipe. But Setien soon fell out with the people who held the power and in the past six months they’ve gone through three managers. Nothing seems to be straightforward at Las Palmas.
Paco Jemez you would imagine will therefore fit right in. The Spaniard really made his name during his four years at the helm of Rayo Vallecano. Three consecutive mid-table finishes hardly tell the story but the fact that in his final season with the Madrid club they were relegated whilst being the 5th top scorers and the 2nd worst defence says enough. Those who went to Vallecas regularly where rarely starved of entertainment. Jemez then ventured south to Granada where he lasted only six matches – with no wins – leading the club to their worst start in over 70 years. His reputation tainted but his philosophy remained unchanged – play high, attack, and entertain. After a season in Mexico with Cruz Azul he now finds himself back in Spain.
Las Palmas and Paco Jemez face a tough task – they are four points adrift of safety – and whilst the bottom of the table is congested, other troubled sides Malaga and Alaves have seen slight upturns in performances. It is difficult for a side with no confidence to play a style that requires the stuff – they are too open and easily beaten – thus Jemez’s appointment is interesting but also potentially dangerous. There are no two ways about how Jemez will set his new side up and instruct them to play but whether they are capable of staying up is less known.