Liga 2012-13: 10 Things We've Learned so Far

Rob TrainFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2012

Liga 2012-13: 10 Things We've Learned so Far

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    Barcelona leads the table by quite a margin going into the winter break. Atletico sits in the top two, and Real Madrid has already lost two-thirds the number of matches it had over the past two seasons combined.

    Malaga is the only Spanish team unbeaten in the Champions League. Last seasons Europa League finalists crashed out of the group stage. 

    It's been a pretty interesting first half to the season. What can we draw from it all? Not much of course as football is essentially unpredictable. Less so in Spain, where unpredictable is a four-letter word, but still...

    Here's hoping the first half of 2013 treats La Liga fans as well as the second half of 2012.  

Barcelona Doesn't Need a Pep Talk

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    They say change is good. It allows for growth, a change in perspective and new life experiences.

    Tell that to Barcelona. When Pep Guardiola decided he’d had enough, Tito Vilanova stepped into the breach. Would the new man possibly be able to fill the fine Italian leather shoes of his predecessor?

    Of course he would. And he even went one step better, smashing the best start to a league season previously set by Real under Radomir Antic in 1991-92 of 12 wins and a tie.

    Barcelona has won 16 and tied one (against Real Madrid) under Vilanova. Real is 16 points behind.

    The champion has pretty much been decided before 2013 has even arrived. 

Is Jose's Time Up?

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    Ah, but change is good. Isn’t it? Real has certainly never been afraid of the stuff. When Antic joined the club in 1991 he was the third coach of the season after John Toshack and caretaker Alfredo di Stefano.

    It has ever been thus. Jose Mouirnho is the club’s 10th coach since it sacked Vicente del Bosque in June 2003. He has lasted longer than most. My personal favourite, Jose Antonio Camacho, lasted for six games.

    But it seems all is not a bed of roses at the Bernabeu. Mourinho’s constant war footing with the world around him seems to be taking its toll.

    In a poll conducted by Marca on Christmas eve, 82.2 percent of the 100,000 people who voted wanted the Portuguese out. 

    98.6 percent of the people who read the tabloid are Real Madrid fans. It would be a major surprise if Mourinho is still around in June. 

They Say You Should Never Go Back

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    At least Real has for now—until Raul retires?—resisted the temptation to bring in a barely qualified former player as a coach. A great player does not always make a great coach.

    Often the most successful coaches were rather average during their playing days but perhaps more cerebral than their peers.

    The weight of popular opinion plays its part, and nowhere does popular opinion get more air time than at Mestalla.

    The crowd hounded Unai Emery out of the job after three consecutive third-place finishes, and club president Manuel Llorente turned to former fan favorite Mauricio Pellegrino, who had worked as an assistant to Rafa Benitez at Liverpool and Inter.

    Fourteen league games later, following a 5-2 loss to Real Sociedad, Llorente admitted his mistake, sacked his man and brought in Ernesto Valverde, despite Pellegrino successfully negotiating the group stage of the Champions League and the early rounds of the cup.

    Four wins out of five in all competitions since Valverde’s arrival suggests he did the right thing. 

Espanyol Back on Song

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    An example of a former player working as a coach is Mauricio Pochettino at Espanyol. He was hired with the Parakeets far from on song and led them to Liga safety. He then kept them there for the next three seasons.

    But with Espanyol languishing in last place with nine points from 13 matches, it was clear his post was untenable.

    Javier Aguirre, a veteran safe pair of hands, was tasked with arresting Espanyol’s slide when Pochettino was dispatched at the end of November.

    Three ties—one against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu—and a win later suggests Espanyol president Daniel Sanchez Llibre was right as well. 

    Whether or not the change will be enough to ensure Espanyol's top-flight status remains to be seen, but it is a much better state going into the new year than it was a month ago. 

El Catedral Faithful Need to Pray

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    If change is needed anywhere, it is at Athletic Bilbao. How Marcelo Bielsa’s side has turned from world beaters into relegation candidates in the space of a summer is a mystery.

    Losing Javi Martinez to Bayern and having want-away striker Fernando Llorente collecting the bibs after training hasn’t helped, but Athletic’s academy is second only to Barcelona’s.

    Iker Muniain is a shadow of himself, and Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Markel Susaeta have failed to reach the heights of last season. All were targets for Europe’s giants at the start of 2012. Most would be lucky to get a game at Real Sociedad at the moment.

    Bielsa has completely lost the dressing room. Probably after recordings of his post match rants were leaked to the press.

    Only Athletic, Real and Barcelona have never tasted the bitter brew of life in Segunda.

    Knocked out of the cup by third division Eibar and beaten 2-0 by Zaragoza in the final league game of the season, San Mames is about to razed and replaced with a costly new stadium; club president Josu Urrutia has plenty to mull over his festive wine.

    Athletic fans need to start praying. 

Deportivo Needs to Strengthen

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    Deportivo last season stormed Segunda Division last season, finishing six points clear of local rival Celta to take the title. In a 42-game season, Depor lead from round 20 and never relinquished the  top spot.

    Juan Carlos Valeron was in imperious form and only beaten in the assists chart by Andres Guardado. Goals flowed through Lassad Nouioui and Riki. Daniel Aranzubia conceded little more than a goal a game.

    The trouble for Depor is that Primera is not Segunda. Guardado left for Valencia and Lassad went to Rangers, both on free transfers. All that came in were loans: Carlos Marchena is a little past his sell-by date, and Nelson Oliveira has found the net a couple of times but too much responsibility is still on the shoulders of veteran Valeron and Riki.

    Rock-bottom Depor needs to buy to stay up, and with the tax office breathing down its neck, that won’t be easy. Neither will survival in 2013. 

Television Revenues Need Rights as Well

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    Part of the reason clubs like Depor cannot compete any more is the television sharing system. Real and Barcelona take the lion’s share of course, around 140 million euros or so each per season.

    Atletico comes off the best of the rest with about a third of that, followed by Sevilla and Valencia. The rest, Depor included, feed on the scraps.  

    Ten Liga clubs, led by Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido (above), have rebelled against the system and called for change. The rebellion was swiftly crushed, and the status quo restored.

    Atletico is providing a footnote to the season this year, but the situation is not set to change significantly within the next decade. It is simply not in anybody’s interest to do so, at least those who control the top two teams and the television stations.

    Meanwhile, Depor is being hounded by the tax agency while the total bill owed to the state by Liga clubs stands at about 750 million euros.

    Guess which doors the inspectors aren’t banging on? 

La Liga Needs Falcao More Than He Needs La Liga

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    The Colombian striker has set La Liga alight this season, jousting with Ronaldo and Messi at the top of the Pichichi race and leading Atletico to second place at the winter break.

    Combined with Real’s slump and Barcelona’s imperiousness, a two-horse race for second is at least on the cards this season.

    But don’t supporters deserve more? Even Diego Simeone said recently that the league is boring. And how long will Falcao stick around? The vultures are already circling over the Calderon, which itself accounts for about a third of the aforementioned bill. Atletico has to sell to buy.

    A shame. Imagine Kun Aguero and Falcao on the same team.

    As things stand, let’s just enjoy the ride for the first half of 2013. The second will probably be the usual old game between the usual two teams. 

Malaga Offers Hope for Changing of the Guard

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    Meanwhile, Malaga beat Real at the weekend and is still without a loss in Europe. Manuel Pellegrini’s team sits two points behind Real in fourth and is in great form.

    For Real, the winter break has come at just the right time. Malaga would have preferred to carry on.

    The model isn’t necessarily sustainable, but then few are in the long-term vision of Monsieur Platini. At least Malaga is trying to make ends meet, despite being singled out for special treatment by Uefa.

    La Liga needs something to fill the hole left by Unai’s Valencia at the very least. With Atletico’s books the way they are, Malaga might just be it. 

Another Fine Messi

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    Apart from all the records he has broken, all those he will and whether or not he’s the best player there has ever been, Leo Messi has scored more league goals himself than any team outside the top five has collectively managed so far in the 2012-13 season.

    That’s pretty impressive on its own.