La Liga 2010-2011 Preview: The Lowdown On All 20 Teams
Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao scored the first goal of the 2010-11 La Liga championship last night to hand his side a 1-0 victory at Estadio Jose Rico Perez, the stadium of newly-promoted C.F. Hercules, a club playing in the highest echelons of Spanish football for the first time in 13 years.
Later on, Sevilla and Valencia made it three away wins out of three with 4-1 and 3-1 wins over R.C. Deportivo and Malaga.
No opening day upsets. No surprise.
There are still those in the footballing world - fans, managers, players, pundits - who insist that Spain's premier footballing competition is unrivalled the world over for the quality of players, the level of football on display and the drama and suspense of the action.
The same people who conveniently overlook the fact that only five different clubs have won the title in the past 20 seasons and that Barcelona and Real Madrid have enjoyed a duopoly for the vast majority of that period.
It might be said that a similar order has been established in the English Premier League, with only FOUR clubs having enjoyed the jubilation of lifting the prestigious trophy and with Manchester United and Chelsea sharing the honours exclusively over the past six seasons.
Nevertheless, the Premier League is at least unpredictable on a weekly basis, even if you can be fairly of which teams will finish in the top six places and qualify for Europe.
For example: Wigan Athletic 0-4 Blackpool; Wigan Athletic 0-6 Chelsea; Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 Wigan Athletic. Anyone who knows anything about English football will tell you that the Latics' first three results of the 2010-11 Premier League season make no sense. The accumulated odds of these results would be exorbitant.
In this slideshow, I will put aside my bias for the English game - at least, that is what Spanish fans reading this article may accuse me of - to study each club's strengths and weaknesses and predict where they might finish in the league. This should not be rocket science!
Almeria: Will The Team's Slide Down The League Continue?
Almeria will travel to Pamplona today to take on Osasuna in their first game of the season. Despite being without their leading striker, Nigerian-born Kala Uche, Juan Manuel Lillas' team will be confident they can start their season with a victory.
One of their reasons for optimism is a strong pre-season which saw them stay in Spain to bond as a group and record 10-0 and 6-0 victories over Cartagena and Costa Calida respectively.
The team should have enough talent and experience to remain in La Liga this season, but anything more than that really would be a bonus.
Last Season: 13th
Manager: Juan Manuel Lillas
Key Player: Modeste M'Bami
Athletic Bilbao: Will ''La Cantera'' Continue To Cap Their Ambitions?
As one of only four clubs that is owned and and managed by its members (the others being Barcelona, Osasuna and Real Madrid), Atletic Bilbao also differs from all of its counterparts through its ''cantera'' policy, whereby it focuses on developing homegrown players and only buying players born in the Basque region or with Basque ancestry. This means that the club also fielded its first-ever black player, Jonas Ramalho, last season.
While these policies are noble, the latter in particular has prevented the team from ever posing a serious challenge to the league's more wealthy and prestigious clubs. Imagine if Chelsea or Manchester United were restricted to using players born in London or Manchester only...
Despite this, the ''Lion King'' Fernando Llorente, with 46 goals in 166 games for club and 3 goals in 9 games for country, led his team to a healthy 8th position last season. More magic from the tall striker is required if the club is to repeat this feat - if he is not snapped up by Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, that is!
Last season: 8th
Manager: Joaquin Caparros
Key Player: Fernando Llorente
Atletico Madrid: So Near Yet So Far?
This year may be the year for manager Quique Sanchez Flores and his Colchoneros.
After last year's memorable Europa League victory and this year's impressive European Super Cup victory over Internazionale, you could be forgiven for thinking that surely this is Madrid's strongest team.
However, despite these successes in cup competitions, it is the bread-and-butter La Liga where Atletico continue to labour; last season the team finished a lowly 9th.
This season, led by the super-talented strike duo of maned Uruguayan Diego Forlan and Diego Maradona's son-in-law Sergio ''Kun'' Aguero - the youngest player ever to start a game in the Argentinian league at an astounding 15 years and 35 days old - the team should make giant leaps.
Last season: 9th
Manager: Quique Sanchez Flores
Key Player: ''Kun'' Aguero
Barcelona: Will Pep Pip To Jose To La Liga Title?
That is the number of fans that could fit into Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium to enjoy some of the finest football ever played by anyone anywhere.
Last season, ''La Blaugrana'' romped to the Spanish title thanks to another clean sweep of the two El Clasico derby showdowns against arch-rivals Real Madrid:1-0 in Camp Nou, 2-0 at the Bernabeu.
This season, the club has already swept aside Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup, courtesy of an exquisite 4-0 second-leg victory, to add yet another trophy to the football museum's bulging cabinet.
The signing of feisty Argentinian holding midfielder Javier Mascherano from Liverpool in a €22 million deal and the loan of under-performing Swedish striker and record signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to AC Milan are seen to be the final pieces in a jigsaw puzzle which will once again prove impossible to break down.
Expect Leo Messi to run amok, David Villa to fill his boots and Bojan Krkic to have breakthrough season.
Last season: 1st
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Key Player: Leo Messi
Deportivo La Coruna: Lack Of Attacking Options Could Lead To Disaster
La Liga winners 11 years ago, runners-up the two following season, what has happened to ''SuperDepor''?
What has happened is that all of the team's best players have moved on to bigger clubs and pay packets and the Galician club has struggled to retrieve a winning formula. Their only recent silverware was the Intertoto Cup, a sure sign that this is a team on the wane.
The team's problem this year will not be a lack of quality in general, but rather an inability to score goals: last season only Espanyol scored fewer. Their opening match against a Real Zaragoza team will tell us not only whether they will still struggle to break down teams, whether they can make ''El Riazor'' a fortress and whether they have enough offensive threat in Mexican winger Andres Guardado and striker Ivan ''Riki'' Sanchez.
Manager Lotina will need to call on all of his experience and maximize his resources to avert disaster.
Last season: 10th
Manager: Miguel Angel Lotina
Key Player: Andres Guardado
Espanyol: Can The Three Musketeers Lead The Team To A Top-Ten Finish?
Last season, Espanyol was overshadowed by the sudden death of its captain and best player Daniel Jarque, who was found dead in his hotel room shortly after a pre-season training session in Italy.
Understandably, his team-mates were distraught and did not live up to expectations last season, the biggest problem being a complete inability to score goals - their 29 goals in 38 games was one of the worst records throughout European football. It doesn't help that their four strikers have a record of just 70 goals from 457 appearances between them for the Llobregat-based club!
With this in mind, the management has brought in promising young Argentinian striker Pablo Osvaldo on loan from Bologna for the season.
If Osvaldo and veteran Luis Garcia can score the goals, the team has better prospects this time around - especially of Carlos Kameni and Juan Forlin can continue to form a strong defensive spine.
Last season: 11th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Key Player: Pablo Osvaldo
Getafe: The Forgotten Team To Continue Making Capital Gains?
58 goals and 58 points from 38 games saw Getafe record their highest-ever La Liga finish last season: 6th. The team also made it all the way to the final of the Copa Del Rey.
This was achieved largely because of former Real Madrid striker Roberto Soldado's 16 goals. His importance to the team and his quality in general led to Valencia moving quickly to sign his as a €8 million replacement for the outgoing David Villa.
This is a big loss to Getafe, who have only managed to replcae their hitman with former Zaragoza striker Javi Arizmendi and Adrian Colunga, who returns following a reasonably successful loan spell with the same club.
A much tougher year for Getafe is in store.
Last season: 6th
Key Player: Derek Boateng
Hercules: Herculean Effort Required For These Minnows To Stay Afloat
Hercules return to the top flight this year, after finishing second in the second tier last season.
The team achieved its success due to its home form, which saw 51 points collected from 21 games.
Despite losing out on the title to Real Sociedad, the team managed to beat the champions 5-1 at home and continued to score freely throughout the season. However, manager Esteban Vigo has not had much money with which to strengthen a squad which is threadbare.
Unless former Real Madrid striker Javier Portillo plays out of his skin, Hercules will be heading straight back to where they came from.
Last Season: 2nd (2a Division)
Manager: Esteban Vigo
Key Player: Javier Portillo
Levante: Is There Good News On The Horizon Or Will The Sun Set Soon?
Levante (Llevant in Catalan) sneeked into La Liga this season ahead of Real Betis, despite recording the same number of points and a worse goal difference.
It was a team effort which saw them promoted, and the players will need a lot of spirit to cope with the rigours of competing against the likes of Messi, Kaka, Ronaldo and Villa this season.
The team has signed the Segunda Division's second-top goalscorer from last season, Uruguayan Christian Stuani, on loan from Albacete Balompie and have retained the services of their own top scorer, Ruben Suarez.
However, it remains to be seen just how quickly the first team, up to five of which will be loanees, can gel. Former Chelsea player Asier Del Horno's La Liga experience and good distribution should help, but their 4-1 home defeat to Sevilla last night is ominous.
Last season: 3rd (2a division)
Manager: Luis Garcia Plaza
Key Player: Asier Del Horno
Malaga: Will Qatari Money Reap Its Dividends?
Qatari investor Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani, perhaps keen to benefit from the large British ex-pat following and the club's prime location close to an emerging and sizeable African market, bought Malaga this summer in a deal worth €36 million and immediately signalled his intention to build a second Puerto Banus-style complex, which would require an investment approaching €70 million.
Malaga fans will hope that some of the man's considerable wealth may benefit the football club also. He is clearly not welcomed by all, after eight phones, six laptops and a luxury watch and handbag were stolen this summer from his local mansion.
After Malaga escaped relegation last season, the Qatari should have invested heavily in the squad in order just to retain the team's position in La Liga. But he has not and Malaga could be in trouble again this season.
New record signing Sebastian Fernandez, a €3.6 million capture from Banfield, scored in yesterday's 3-1 home defeat to Valencia - he and on-loan former Arsenal player Qunicy Owusu-Obeiye will need to score plenty more and new coach Jesualdo will need to work some magic if Malaga is to make any impression this year.
Last season: 17th
Manager: Jesualdo Ferreira
Key Player: Sebastian Fernandez
Mallorca: Can Michael Laudrup Conjure Up Another Stunning Season?
The recruitment of striker Fernando Cavenaghi on loan from Bordeaux and attacking midfielder Johnathan de Guzman from Feyenoord, and Michael Laudrup, an immensely promising coach fresh from leading Spartak Moscow to a second-placed finish, are astute is astute business from a club that will continue to punch above its weight.
Last season, ''Els Barralets'' finished fifth. But this was overshadowed by the club's crippling debts and a circus surrounding various failed deals to buy out the club. Eventually in May this year, a deal was completed by former manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer to purchase the club.
Serra Ferrer will have a huge task on his hands to reduce the €85 million arrears which have led to UEFA banning the team from playing in this year's Europa League, a competition which would have provided a vital source of income.
Yet, there is enough talent and a fantastic manager at the helm, which should add up to a similarly fruitful season.
Last Season: 5th
Manager: Michael Laudrup
Key Player: Pierre Webo
Osasuna: A Season Of Blood, Sweat and Tears?
Walter Pandiani scored six goals in 31 appearances for Birmingham City in the Premier League in 2005-06.
Not a great record for an average side, you may think.
But former Real Madrid and Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho will be relying on the 34 year-old Uruguayan's La Liga experience and ability to find the back of the net - he also scored 31 goals in 86 matches for Deportivo and has 24 in 71 for Osasuna - if he is to remain in his current job for a while yet.
Last season, the club reaped the benefits of a solid defense and also recorded two particularly notable results: an impressive home victory against Atletico Madrid and an away win at Villarreal.
Last Season: 12th
Manager: Jose Antonio Camacho
Key Player: Walter Pandiani
Racing Santander: Unlucky Number Six
This season will be Racing's ninth consecutive in La Liga. In the previous eight, the club has flirted with relegation on no less than FIVE occasions.
This will be Unlucky Number Six, I fear.
For despite the recruitment of resourceful Swedish midfielder Kennedy Bakircioglu from Ajax, the team will continue to ship goals at will: they suffered four defeats by more than two goals last season at El Sardinero - to Barcelona, Getafe, Malaga and Sevilla.
Unlike other teams surrounding, they are blessed with a manager who is neither the most tactically astute nor particularly experienced. Doom and gloom in Santander this season.
Last season: 16th
Manager: Miguel Angel Portugal
Key Player: Marc Torrejon
Real Madrid: Can Mourinho Finally Dethrone Barcelona?
Last season, the fate of the La Liga trophy was ultimately decided by El Clasico.
Two victories for Barcelona both at home and in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu saw the Catalans finish on 99 points, three points ahead of Real Madrid.
This year, Real has a new manager - possibly the most gifted and tactically astute in the world at the moment.
However, they not only have a lot of catching up to do to create the same confidence, team spirit and flowing football that Barcelona achieve on a weekly basis, but they also have to do it with only three top-quality forwards: Gonzalo Higuain, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
They should, nevertheless, have enough goals in the squad to cruise into second place, while Florentino Perez will hope that Mourinho can repeat his extraordinary Champions League success with Porto.
Last Season: 2nd
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Key Player: Gonzalo Higuain
Real Sociedad: Are The Basque Giants Here To Stay?
Real Sociedad return to La Liga after winning the Segunda Division last year by four clear points from Levante and Hercules.
The club's recent history in La Liga has been confusing and inexplicable: despite finishing runners-up in 2002-03, the team narrowly escaped relegation in the four following years and have perished on the second rung of Spain's football ladder ever since.
The team suffered just one home defeat all season, despite the epic distances they had to travel for some away games and the defence excelled.
Talented manager Martin Lasarte, who has achieved some success at top Latin American clubs, will have the privilege of pairing talismanic former Espanyol star Raul Tamudo with goalscoring machine Joseba Llorente up front. And it may be this tasty partnership which sees the team survive this season.
Last season: 1st (2a division)
Manager: Martin Lasarte
Key Player: Joseba Llorente
Sevilla: What To Expect Of The League's Most Unpredictable Team?
Last season was a disappointing one for Sevilla, despite a respectable 4th-placed finish and victory in the Copa Del Rey.
For of all of the teams eager to challenge the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, it is only really they who have the players and resources.
This season, even more disappointment may follow. Having led the first leg of the 2010 Spanish Supercup by 3-1 against Barcelona, they crumbled to a 4-0 loss at Camp Nou.
Despite managing to keep hold of exciting World Cup winning winger Jesus Navas, who is bound to join Real Madrid soon, the team's strikers are not what they once were and there are still unsettling reports that Luis Fabiano that may be a Tottenham Hotspur player before the transfer window shuts.
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Antonio Alvarez
Key Player: Jesus Navas
Sporting Gijon: Could They Be This Year's Surprise Package?
Such is Gjon's excitement at the arrival - and confidence in the ability - of little-known Argentine striker Gaston Sangoy that, despite playing only a relatively modest €1 million transfer fee to Limassol, the club has inserted a €20 million release clause in his contract.
The team, coached by the astute Manuel Preciado, finished disappointingly in 15th last season. But, having finished stabilised their presence in La Liga following 10 years of wilderness, this spirited group of players can be expected to make a bigger impact this season.
If the new striker Sangoy can make an impact and form a good partnership with fellow recruit, ex-Rangers striker Nacho Novo, and the team can pick up a few more victories on the road to go with their decent home form, they will be the team to make heads turn this year.
Last Season: 15th
Manager: Manuel Preciado
Key Player: Nacho Novo
Valencia: Will Team Continue To Win The Second League?
Good news and bad news for Valencia fans: David Villa is no more but Roberto Soldado can score his goals; the team still looks an impressive outfit, but the club has a mountain of debt.
This season will be an exciting and nerve-wracking one at the Estadio Mestalla: upcoming coach Unai Emery can pair Spanish international with promising Algerian signing Sofiane Feghoulu in midfield, a potentially lethal duo who could provide plenty of ammunition for in-form David Villa replacement Roberto Soldado.
Add to the mix talented midfield trio David Albelda, Ever Banega and Manuel Fernandes and there is a very good team on paper. That was the case last year, and will be the case this year. In fact, ''Los Che'' started the season on a high with a comprehensive 3-1 win at Malaga, with veteran winger Joaquin scoring two.
This year will see Valencia re-affirm their position as La Liga's nearest rival to Barca or Real - but any shot at breaking up that tussle is still a long way off!
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Unai Emery
Key Player: Roberto Soldado
Villarreal: Close But No Cigar
Seventh last season, but with a goal difference of +1, it is easy to see that Villarreal's problems lie in their defence, which conceded 57 goals in last season's competition.
In fact, were it not for an awful away record which saw the team record just 11 points in 19 games, they might have qualified for the Europa League.
Nevertheless, Estadio El Madrigal remains a fortress for them and former Man Utd striker Giuseppe Rossi showed English fans that he is an excellent footballer with a pre-season hat-trick at Tottenham earlier this month.
Last season: 7th
Manager: Juan Carlos Garrido
Key Player: Giuseppe Rossi
Zaragoza: Just Enough Quality To Stay Up Again
Last season, Zaragoza . No question.
Winning only 10 games and conceding 64 goals was the story of their season. In fact, the team only avoided a second relegation in 3 years by a five-point margin.
Short on quality and with no reliable goalscorers, the team will do well to replicate their limited success last season.
However, Carlos Diogo retains a high level of quality in defence, and loan signing Florent Sinama-Pongolle and new signing Marcos Perez will cause some teams difficulty with their power and pace, especially when playing at home.
Last season: 14th
Manager: Jose Aurelio Gay
Key Player: Florent Sinama-Pongolle
My Final League Table