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2011-2012 La Liga Preview: Or, Barcelona is good, Malaga is threatening, Rayo Vellecano is ballin’, and there is a reason for Hamit Altintop. August 28, 2011

Posted by J.A. in European soccer, Spanish soccer.
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Yes, Eto'o and Guti made it

(Eto’o and Guti made it in.)

Given the current format to La Liga, there are four distinct groups where a given team might finish. The groups are The Title Contenders (spots 1-2, Hint: there will be Clasicos involved), the Europe or Bust group (spots 3-8, a.k.a don’t finish 8th), the Won’t-Be-Relegated-But-Otherwise-Underwhelming (spots 9-14) group, and the Relegation Battlers (spots 15-20). This preview will attempt to determine who will be in the aforementioned groups, who the impact/surprise players might be, and who is in my perfect starting 11 (who I want in my entourage). Finally, I will assess how baller each team is based solely on mine own subjective, and most likely inaccurate, portrayals of various footballers.*

Group 4 – Relegation Battlers

GRANADA

Had 12 players on loan from Udinese last year. They won the play-off for promotion last year, so they must be scrappy. However, given the liberal amounts of Flamenco and Alhambra 1925 Reserva (Arguably the best Spanish beer) it’s very difficult to achieve anything productive. They’ll be battling to stay up. Baller scale: 7

LEVANTE

I know nothing about Levante. I don’t really want to either. I’m happily arbitrarily putting them in the last group based on prior seasons and a lack of interest. Their break-out player will be an on-loan Wellington Silva. Baller scale: 1

OSASUNA

A perennial La Liga title contender (in Fifa 2007). Raul Garcia will bolster their attack, and their Iranian 2nd vice-captain will mean something. Probably the least likely to go down in the group of relegation battlers. Look for them to finish somewhere around 15th. Baller scale: 4

RACING SANTANDER

My roommate from Santander will not like this, but Santander is going down. The eccentric owner Ali Syed has lead Racing into administration and they have lost players. Look for Swede Kennedy Bakircioglu and captain Munitis to impress in an otherwise depressing season at the Sardinero. Baller scale: 5 (I’ve got love for the north of Spain, otherwise it’d be a 2)

RAYO VALLECANO

Rayo Vallecano’s stadium has three sides, lets get that out there right now to breath. It’s also in the middle of a not-so-good neighborhood of Madrid (where many of my students are from). The players barely got payed last year and many of them have left this year. On the upside, their stadium will be rocking (probably literally) for the derbies (if you can call them that) against Atletico and Real, and tickets will be cheap. It’s actually kind of a heart-warming story how they gained promotion and will now be playing in the top league in Spain, because circumstances dictate that they shouldn’t have any business being here. Root for Vallecano, but don’t expect them to hang around the top league for long. Baller scale: a fluffy 8

Z(TH)ARAGOZA

Although not terrible on paper, Javier Aguirre does have some magic to work. Past experience says he does. With Pablo Barrera, Uche (I couldn’t be bothered writing his first name) and intriguing youngster Juan Carlos (Real Madrid youth product) they have attacking options. They stay up. Baller scale: 6

Did I mention I hate Levante?

Group 3 – Won’t-Be-Relegated-But-Otherwise-Underwhelming

REAL BETIS

Perhaps I’m being generous saying that they will stay up, but Betis romped through the second division last year, and with quality (maybe) in their squad, look to have a promising 11-12 La Liga campaign. I got all the information about Real Betis from a 6-year old student of mine. Baller scale: 4

ESPANYOL

I might be harsh to say they won’t compete for a spot in Europe, but they did finish last year 9 points behind Atletico. They have lost lots of players who I cannot name besides Jose Callejon. Unlike Levante, I’m trying to see Espanyol impress me this year. I will predict a derby win against Barcelona. I take back my previous statement. Baller scale: 5

GETAFE

Getafe is balin’. Why? Because they signed Diego Castro, the jack-of-all-trades player formerly of Sporting Gijon. Is this whole prediction based on him? An emphatic, Marv Albert-esque, “Yes!”
Baller scale: 8

MALLORCA

Have you been to Mallorca? Then you know how awesome Mallorca can be. Also, Mallorca was too broke to play in the Europa league last year. The Europa league! How broke is too broke to play in the Europa league? Ask Mallorca. Also, Mallorca would be a great club for a super rich play-boy multibillionaire to buy. Just saying. Baller scale: 8 (Under certain circumstances, being broke is baller).

REAL SOCIEDAD

Hand Xabi Prieto the keys to the offense and let him do work! Also, Carlos Vela is somehow on this team. Situated in picturesque Donostia, Anoeta is one of the stadiums I have to get to this year. Maybe not comfortably, but Sociedad stays up. Baller scale: 7

SPORTING GIJON

Gijon can, at times, be the stingiest team in all of La Liga. They defend defend defend, then, when you aren’t paying attention, Barral, Billic, De Las Cuevas, or someone else snags the lead. Ask Jose about Gijon if you don’t believe me. Gijon play their football in a beautiful ocean-side stadium called the “Molinon.” Go there. NOW! Baller scale: 9 (Barral beat Madrid, and the coaches almost came to blows, pretty baller).

Group 2 – Europe or Bust

ATHLETIC BILBAO

“Hi. My name is Fernando Llorente. I’m going to net 30 goals in all competitions this year. Someone is going to buy me for lots of euros. I’m going to get a hat-trick at home against Real Madrid. I’m going to score the winning header in stoppage time at the Nou Camp after a nifty cross from Iker Muniain. Deal with it. Also, I’m really f-ing jacked. 4th place.”**
-Fernando Llorente as told to me in July 2012

Baller scale: 9

ATLETICO DE MADRID

Get used to the rowdy crowds at the Calderon singing new songs about Falcao and Turan. It’s too bad nobody at Atletico ever heard the phrase, “defense wins championships.” If the D comes together, they’ll get a place in Europe. Too bad the D won’t come together. Baller scale: 7

MALAGA

It’s a sunny albeit cool October day in Malaga, and you’re some random defender for Levante who nobody cares about. A hulking figure takes the kick and passes back to a diminutive winger. Next thing you know the hulking figure receives a pinpoint pass right back and begins to make what commentators would call a “run” but what is really more akin to a rhino charging—but directly at you. That’s when you recognize the forward wearing the purple jersey is actually Julio “The Beast” Baptista. Just then you notice the other forward, who is making a way-too-casual diagonal run from Baptista is the one and only Ruud van Nistelrooy. You glance back from Ruud just in time to get run-over by the purple rhino that is Julio Baptista. As you lay there deciding whether or not your lungs will work again, the little winger comes over, cracks a smile and offers you a hand up. “Sorry, he does that sometimes—Julio, tell this guy you’re sorry.” Turns out that little guy is Asturian wonder-kid Santi Cazorla. As the medic comes out to provide wonder spray to your ankle for what doctors will later diagnose as 2 collapsed lungs during your 14 day stint in the hospital, you realize that Malaga is the real deal, and that nobody wants to see those purple kits in their stadium.

Baller scale: 10

SEVILLA

Frederic Kanoute is a boss. Everything about him is bossy (this is also worth seeing, but I won’t touch it). They also have a couple dudes named Negredo and Navas who I hear are decent. They win the Copa del Rey because of Kanoute’s greatness (See Barcelona section).

Baller scale: 9 (It’s all Kanoute)

VALENCIA

Like last year, but without Mata and with Canales. Aduriz is an underrated striker and I’m trying to see more Maduro. Baller scale: 6 (They have a giant Bat on their logo, it’s dope.)

VILLAREAL

Like last year but without Cazorla. Maybe with a little more crafty Marcos Senna. Nilmar and Rossi aren’t bad either. They leapfrog Valencia this year. If they stay healthy they take 3rd. Prediction: Borja Valero will get 15-20 assists. Side note: I’m absolutely pumped to see Villareal vs. Napoli in the group stages. Two teams with an attacking mentality. Baller scale: 7

GROUP 1 TEAMS WHO WIN THINGS***

BARCELONA

They just managed to get Cesc and Sanchez. No biggie. Probably going to roll again this year baring any major injuries to Xavi or Messi. I’m also interested to see how Sergio and Mascherano continue to evolve in their center back roles. Barca loses twice. Once at Rayo Vallecano because they are confused at why they are playing in such a terrible stadium, and once at home to Bilbao. They lose the Copa del Rey to Sevilla 3-2 because Kanoute gets a hat-trick—all in the 63rd minute. MARK IT DOWN. However, they do win La Liga by 5 points over Real Madrid. Baller scale: 8 (This would change if Messi had a Ronaldo sized opinion of himself).

REAL MADRID

Cue the music: The Champions!!!

It’s tied 2-2 in the 118th minute in the finale of the champions league. Villa opened the scoring with a fantastic Half-Volley (had to get that in there!) and Messi—with a dazzling run that only he can make—puts Barca up 2-1 after a Ronaldo header. In the second half Madrid presses hard for an equalizer, but nearly go down 3-1 many times if not for Casillas in goal. Madrid looks determined and want to make up for two Clasico losses. In the 80th minute, a beautiful move by Ozil leads to him firing in a low cross that everyone in the stadium knows is going to be cleared easily by Pique—except for Marcelo, who, at the last second, darts in front of Pique (probably dreaming of Shakira) and puts one past Valdez. Marcelo does back flips. 2-2, we go to extra time.

Barcelona has used their 3 subs, (Thiago, Sanchez, and Hleb—yes Hleb). Madrid counters with Sahin and the mercurial Royston “Rickie” Drenthe (yes, Drenthe). Jose has one more move to make. Does he bring on Kaka? Does he bring on that new signing from the January transfer window that has done reasonably well? Does he bring on Higuain? No. He brings on Hamit Altintop. For Ronaldo. Benzema quickly gets fouled just outside the penalty area showing of some nifty footwork that surely would not have lead to a goal. Ozil to take the kick. Does he go for goal? Does he make a crafty pass? The tension is palpable. The referee blows the whistle, Ozil takes a deep breath—and watches Altintop step by him and take the kick, bending it beautifully over the wall and into the top corner of the goal. Check and mate, Pep, check and mate.

Baller scale: 10 or 1

*How “Baller” a team is has no correlation with how they will finish in La Liga
**Opening day tie with Rayo does not change my prediction. It only makes it stronger.
***I may have changed the group names, I’m not worried about it.

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