Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Month in the World's Best League (Which one?)

In the past week several mainstream outlets have addressed how exciting the EPL is , how boring la Liga is, and how badly the EPL's defenses are playing. So my first urge is to launch into another ardent defense of la Liga. But, as we say in Spanish, "Las comparaciones son odiosas." Or, "Comparisons are detestable." Not to mention subjective. The EPL is either lax at the back, or exciting because of the goals scored. La Liga's received that criticism for several years now. Alternatively, this year's liga is the most exciting as Ronaldo v. Messi and Barcelona v. Madrid take center stage ... or as Lucy Turner argues in the above link, the most boring with the two favorites running away with it. Alas, there are truly two sides to every coin. So perhaps I'll just lean back, enjoy that over here in the New World we're seeing more of both leagues than ever, and stick to loving on my league, rather than going all District 9 and marginalizing the EPL.

So, speaking of lovin' on la Liga...

We're four games in, and already some judgments can be made. For example, after 62 years in second division, Xerex (0 pts.) will be returning there very shortly. But it's a bit early to be judging on points alone, so let's take a closer look at the table and check in on the form of la Liga thus far.

Directly above Xerex are Atletico Madrid and Villarreal, with two apiece. For Villarreal sitting at 18th is somewhat surprising as they're representing Spain in the Europa Cup this year and have fared remarkably well in recent years (2nd place, Champions League semis). To be fair, they've looked a strong side and picked up all three points in Europe and lost to a strong Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao side. Not to mention new coach Ernesto Valverde has rolled into town and key player Marcos Senna has been out to injury. They looked good with only ten men at midweek against Real Madrid and gave the merengues all they could handle. I'm still looking for them to return to "Europa" next season.

Somehow, though more talented, this Atletico side is the more worrying of these two bottom dwellers. Blessed with Aguero and Forlan, the team's management learned nothing from last season's European adventure. Atletico's starting eleven, especially midfield forward can run with anyone. Their back four are strictly pedestrian, and the team has only gotten thinner. Going down to Porto last year, only a rally at the close of the league and Valencia's collapse saved them from christening the Europa Cup. Perhaps more worrisome is the mental fragility of the team in all senses - on the pitch, the fans, and the management. It's often the plight of the loveable losers, but it truly is time for Atletico to step it up. They couldn't get past a goalless draw against Cypriot outfit APOEL in Madrid, or against Almeria and Racing in league. Not to mention the humiliation at the Camp Nou. Eventually, their talent will (hopefully) propel them to, at worst, a middle of the table spot. But by then the side could be out of Europe (especially with Chelsea and Porto in their group), and back on their way to mediocrity.

Malaga (17th, 3 pts.) and Zaragoza (15th, 4 pts.) are two teams that have always had a soft spot in my heart. Malaga's a beautiful city, and you can see Malaga's stadum, la Rosaleda, from the back side of the city's gorgeous Arab castle, the Alcazaba. Zaragoza I've never been to, but have some ties to and I'll always remember seeing the sight of thousands of fans weeping as their team went down to segunda in 2008 on the last matchday, after 40 plus years in primera. Both sit above Atletico and Villarreal, are competitive but probably can't aspire to much more than that last European spot or a nice showing in the King's Cup. Malaga is into their second year in the first division and continue to play a nice brand of attacking football. Their three points came at the expense of Atletico in an opening day 3-0 blanking of the boys from the capital. Zaragoza is far from the side that went down to second division in 2008 in a year they had hoped to aspire to a European berth of some kind. Their year in hell has rather depleted the side, and they'll do well to stay up and keep rebuilding. Up and onwards, hopefully, for these two.

Indeed, the 7th place spot all the way down to 16th is a cluster of 4, 5, or 6 points, with only a few teams standing out as teams that could surprise and compete for a Champions League spot. If any of the teams earning six points might have a chance, then the goal differential actually does a good job of identifying them this week: Deportivo (7th), Getafe (8th), and Espanyol (9th) look the best of the middle. Otherwise, its difficult to determine who will pull away from the pack over the course of the season. But as we gaze upwards is where things really get interesting.

Valencia sits in 6th with 7 points, and Mallorca occupies the spot directly above with the same point total. Valencia, alongside Villarreal, were the two teams that most Liga fans hoped would represent it in this year's Champions League, as the vulnerabilities of Atletico were apparent a long way out. The "ches" (a nickname picked up when the club was inundated with Argentines) did well to keep Villa, Silva, and Mata this summer, and their attacking trident continues to play well. A bit deeper than Atletico, Valencia's real problem may have been the loss of Raul Albiol. Already an undisputed starter in Madrid, the Valencia rearguard has looked disoriented for much of this season. It will be interesting if Unai Emery's men can get their act together and compete in the Europa League as well as grab a Champions League spot for next year. One would hope so, though it seems just as likely that Sir Alex snaps up Silva in that time, and Valencia falter even further. Mallorca won't occupy their current spot for much longer, as this Gregorio Manzano side lost several key players last summer, including Venezuelan star Arango, and were set to do little more than avoid relegation. Hats off to them for their early success, but middle of table should be about right in a few months.

Sevilla (3rd) and Athletic (4th) are tied with 9 points, and this comes as no surprise for the men from Andalusia. The Sevillans have built their success on the back of loudmouth president Jose Maria Del Nido and more importantly sporting director "Monchi." Despite the losses of Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Julio Baptista, Reyes, and Saviola in recent years, the club always finds a way to regenerate itself and keep its top spots. Their zeal for attacking football doesn't hurt either. Their form has been tops this season, with their only loss coming opening day after they were reduced to ten men (red to Kanoute) against Valencia. These are the odds on favorites for that third place spot ... again. Athletic is the more novel of the two teams. Historically one of la Liga's great teams (Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Athletic are the only sides never to go down), the Basques have been less than impressive in recent years. But a glut of young talent and the development of a striker of Llorente's caliber have catapulted the men from la Catedral to Champions Leagues spots. They tend to score with their head, and if they keep it on straight, these "chicarrones del Norte" might just be with Europe's elite next year. It's ambitous, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who'd complain in seeing Athletic's return to glory.

Of course, recent debate has centered around the top two teams, Barcelona (1st) and Real Madrid (2nd) both with twelve points. Is it a two horse race? Probably, but can you honestly tell me the EPL isn't? (Smart money's on Manchester Utd. and Chelsea). And by "probably" I mean, "I see no way in hell any team but these two could win the league." Do I care? Somewhat, but it's a special year when the world's greatest team is met by a team aspiring (and actually making the moves necessary) to take their place.

Barcelona need little introduction, as for all intents and purposes they've only grown more compact as a unit and increased their fluid play this year, cementing them as the best club in Europe (for now). Ibrahimovic has scored in each of the first four games, and Messi only seems spurred on by this, picking up a brace against Racing Santander in response to Zlatan's opener. Guardiola has complained the squad is a bit thin, which could cost them considering the enormously draining season that awaits them after winning everything known to man last year. Not to mention the adverse effects of the African Cup of Nations on Barca's roster. Messi has five goals in four games, and the blaugrana train just keeps churning forward destroying everything in its path. It's a joy to watch, even for someone who hates Barcelona, because to truly hate them, you have to love football. And on the club level they're the greatest exponent of the sport right now, as demonstrated in their destruction of Racing midweek with two crackers from Messi. And don't even get me started on the six-touch from keeper to Ibra chip goal against Atletico, or Ibra's heel flick feed to Pique against Racing. If a team from the capital hadn't made it a point to compete with the machine known as Barcelona, this league might well be over now.

Real Madrid, to be fair, has sputtered out of the gate, if not in results certainly in style. The Madrid press is starting to get nervous, ridiculously so, since the team added seven new starters this summer. Pellegrini has done well to rotate the players thus far, keeping all the egos in check. He has not, however, quite figured out the perfect formation and alternates between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-2-2. Both would probably work, and my instinct is that it's more a matter of time playing together and less one of formation for Real. Once the players truly get to know each other and their natural positioning I have very litte doubt that the show the merengues will put on will rival if not surpass the Catalans. Pellegrini's penchant for attacking football meshed with strong defending, and his encouragement of fluidity for the men up top bode well for the team. But everything takes time and patience, and so far the results are buying the Chilean these assets. CR9, meanwhile, also has five goals in four games (seven in five if you count Champions League) and is already paying dividends. Kaka may have a better handle on the team as a whole by virtue of his position, but Ronaldo is bringing the spectacle, scoring in every way known to man. The Portuguese international's midfield slolem against Villarreal was a masterpiece, and once the team begins to play as one instead of surviving on individuals, well, let's just say this year's Clasico (end of November) will be must see TV of the highest order.

But focusing in on this weekend, Valencia greet Atletico in a game the colchoneros need much more than the ches. That said, the weak defenses and superlative attackers in this game should make for an open, fluid, and highscoring affair. Sad to say, it could also be a determinative game for Atletico, as one more debacle could send the team into a tailspin. A less critical but equally interesting match will be the 3 v. 4 encounter between Sevilla and Athletic. Can the Basques bounce back from midweek defeat and use their pragmatism to defeat freeflowing Sevilla? I think not, but we'll have to wait and see. Villarreal v. Deportivo is another attractive match, but of course, all eyes will be on Barcelona and Real Madrid, as these two giants continue on their paths to greatness. As Ronaldo pointed out this week, we'll only know who the best is at season's end. It'll be a joy to watch them along the way, and while someone's heart will be broken come May, it'd be foolish not to enjoy this honeymoon of a season.

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