La Liga – Mid-Season Review

With Barcelona trailing by five points behind Madrid, Villareal struggling to stay afloat and the miracle of Levante, a lot of changes are taking place in Spanish football. Sumit Sarkar reviews the primera division of La Liga so far

La liga kicked off on the last weekend of August this season, and if the kick-off did not get delayed by a week due to players’ strike, twenty clubs would have played each other once by the time this review reaches the editorial desk. The first round of matches got rescheduled on the third weekend of January, and as of now, each club has played 17 games. We reviewed the primera división of la liga in our September issue of Goalden Times and with only two rounds of the first leg remaining, it is a good time to take stock of the happenings so far. After seventeen rounds, the league table looks as follows, with Real Madrid CF on top, five points clear of FC Barcelona, despite being beaten handsomely in the El clásico.

Club

Played

Won

Drawn

Lost

GF

GA

Points

Real Madrid

17

14

1

2

61

16

43

Barcelona

17

11

5

1

51

9

38

Valencia

17

10

4

3

28

18

34

Levante

17

9

3

5

21

19

30

Osasuna

17

6

8

3

21

28

26

Málaga

17

7

4

6

20

22

25

Sevilla

17

6

6

5

19

19

24

Espanyol

17

7

3

7

18

21

24

Athletic Bilbao

17

5

8

4

23

19

23

Betis

17

7

1

9

19

22

22

Atlético Madrid

17

5

5

7

23

27

20

Getafe

17

5

5

7

17

23

20

Mallorca

17

4

7

6

15

22

19

Rayo Vallecano

17

5

4

8

19

26

19

Granada

17

5

4

8

11

21

19

Real Sociedad

17

4

6

7

16

23

18

Racing Santander

17

3

8

6

12

21

17

Villarreal

17

3

7

7

15

25

16

Sporting Gijón

17

4

3

10

16

29

15

Zaragoza

17

2

4

11

13

32

10

              Green – Champions League; Blue – Europa League; Red – Relegation Zone

The Title Contenders – the Usual Suspects Tangoing

Given the state of affairs in la liga over the last 6 years, it is no surprise that Madrid garnered a staggering 43 points from 17 games, losing only 2 and drawing only 1. Barcelona, the defending champions who have drawn six and lost only two games in the entire league last season, already have drawn five and lost one. In Spanish general elections held in November, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero lost the Prime Minister’s office to Mariano Rajoy. With power shifting from the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party to the Partido Popular – with whom the Blancos always enjoyed a harmonic relation – it is being said that the Barcelona era in Spanish football is nearing its end. Incidentally, on the last weekend of November, two weeks before the clásico, Barcelona lost to Getafe. Since the clásico of December 10, the talk about shift of power in Spanish football from Camp Nou to Bernabéu was shelved for the time being, but as the liga resumed on the second weekend of January, the whispers returned with the draw at the Barcelona derby.

Real Madrid is in an even better position than they were, at this stage, when they last won the title in 2007-8. Between 24th September and 10th December they had a winning streak of 10 games. They scored 61 goals in 17 games, averaging 3.6 per game. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 21 in 17 appearances, Gonzalo Higuaín 13 in 16 appearances and Karim Benzema 10 in 15. Ángel di María and Mesut Özil produced 13 and 8 assists respectively. Real Madrid is indeed playing awesome football, and to a plan.

Beating everyone else in la liga and beating Barcelona though, are two entirely different propositions. It’s been long since Madrid came to a clásico as favourites and they took the lead before the ball reached their half even once. In spite of the slip-up, which led to Madrid’s first goal 23 seconds into the match, Barcelona kept playing the ball to Valdes, and Valdes continued to play the short passes as confidently as ever. Barcelona not only defeated Madrid, but established the superiority of the brand of football they play. Barcelona completed 681 passes against Madrid’s 427. Barcelona’s brand of football is characterized by passing and possession. No team other than the Ajax of 1971-72 possibly has played this brand of football so consistently and so efficiently. Real Madrid is playing wonderful football this season, but the Barcelona era is far from its end. Barcelona, however, is not playing as well as they played last year. Their average possession has gone up by 2-3% this season. Since the Copa del Rey final in April 2011, they remained undefeated in 24 competitive games before their shock defeat to Getafe in November. During that period they defeated Manchester United, AC Milan and Real Madrid. But they have drawn away not only against Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol, but also against Real Sociedad. They drew against Sevilla too at home. In the absence of Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez, the Barcelona attack has lost its width. Injuries to Puyol and Pique left the centre of Barcelona defence soft. If either of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets play centre back instead of their holding midfielder role, it doesn’t help the team. Pep Guardiola tried playing only three at the back, and it gave width in the midfield through Thiago Alcântara, and at times through Cesc Fàbregas. Nevertheless, the 3-4-3 formation is risky and leaves a hole in the defence. The absence of Andrés Iniesta is restricting the variety of Barcelona’s game plan. The dazzling form of Leo Messi is covering up a lot, but the problems exist.

European Contenders – Some Radical Shift

Valencia are at the third spot with 34 points after 17 rounds – 4 points less than Barcelona and 9 less than Madrid. While it may not sound surprising, let us not forget they were financially in troubled waters, and in spite of losing Juan Mata at the start of the season they are playing better football than they did last year. But some remarkable changes are taking place in Spanish football and that is reflected in positions 4 through 6 in the table. Villareal, who finished fourth last year are struggling to stay outside the relegation zone. Sevilla finished fifth last year and are hanging out there at seventh spot. Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid, who finished the last season at sixth and seventh spots respectively, are now at the ninth and eleventh spots.

The Levante Miracle

Who did Madrid lose to other than Barcelona? It was Levante Unión Deportiva – a club whose entire football budget for a season cannot pay Cristiano Ronaldo for more than half a season. The club that came up from segunda division and barely survived relegation last season, shot up to the top of the table on the eighth week of this season, and remained there for two weeks. Levante apparently defies all logic, but their achievement cannot be disregarded as fluke. A club in administration and a team with average age of thirty-two, they are at number four at half way through the season only because they played rationally. Being a team of mature players, they know their limitations and are well organized. Their new coach, Juan Ignacio Martínez applies a simple strategy – no pretences. They don’t try to hold the ball, they have a well-organized defence and they are swift on the counter attack. 36 year old Sergio Ballesteros, their captain, who on a few occasions outsprinted Ronaldo in the Madrid game, has been the inspiration for the team. After seventeen rounds they are at number four, ahead of Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and even high spending Malaga.

Osasuna

The club that brought Levante down from the top on the tenth round is now at the fifth spot – Osasuna, a club that finished ninth last season. They have drawn against Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Malaga, and defeated Espanyol and Villareal.

Project Malaga Paying Off

Malaga finished eleventh last year. They are a European contender this season and are at the sixth spot now. Their spending of €58 million in the summer will pay dividends if they qualify at least for the Europa league. Though they lost to Sevilla and Valencia and Real Madrid, among the bigger clubs of la liga, they defeated Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Villareal. Giving a 3-year contract to the ex-Real Madrid coach, Manuel Pellegrini looks like one of the best moves of Malaga boss Seikh Al Thani.

Newly Promoted Clubs

Real Betis moved up from segunda división this season and won their first four games, and was on top of the table in September. They played some good attacking football but lost their composure.  They are presently at the tenth spot with 22 points. Rayo Vallecano, who returned to the primera división of la liga after eight seasons and Granada, the club that returned to the top flight after 35 years are placed fourteenth and fifteenth respectively. Both of them scored 19 points each through 5 wins and 4 draws, but are separated on goal difference.

Relegation Zone

After seventeen rounds, the three teams in the relegation zone are Villareal, Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza. With only 10 points from 2 wins and 4 draws, Real Zaragoza, S.A.D., another la liga team in administration, are at a sad state and are at the bottom of the table with little chance of survival. Sporting Gijón lost 5 and drew 2 of their first 7 games. After seventeen rounds they are at the nineteenth spot with only 4 wins, but they can still survive.

Villareal – from European Contender to Relegation Zone

On the third week of the season, when Madrid lost to Levante in one of the biggest upsets of the season so far, Villareal lost to newly promoted Granada in another major upset of that round. With only 3 wins against Mallorca, Rayo and Betis, they are at the eighteenth spot with 16 points. Villareal more or less retained their team from the last season with the exception of Santi Cazorla, but they are nowhere near their last season’s performance. They crashed out of UEFA Champions League by finishing at the bottom of their group without earning a single point! If Giuseppe Rossi had not been injured, things could have been better for the Yellow Submarines. Nevertheless, with only 4 points separating 8 teams from the eleventh position through eighteenth, Villareal should be able to avoid relegation.

Two Spectacular Games

La liga may not be the most competitive league around, but surely throws up some incomparable games of football. Barcelona thrashed Villareal and Atlético Madrid, but drew 2-2 with both Valencia and Athletic Bilbao and goalless with Sevilla. The game at Bilbao, when Athletic Club hosted Barcelona in the eleventh week, was uncantoalfútbol (an ode to football) according to Pep Guardiola. In a spectacular display of fast end-to-end football, Marcelo Bielsa’s boys went up twice leaving it for Leo Messi to show his prowess on a waterlogged pitch to save the day for Barcelona at injury time. After Bilbao took the lead for the first time, Fàbregas headed in a cross from Eric Abidal to level the score. Then a Mascherano back pass went out of play and Bilbao scored from the corner as it landed on Abidal’s feet, and then deflecting against Pique, crossed the goal line. Already inside the injury time, Iniesta failed to hold on a pass from Messi. Bilbao keeper, Gorka Iraizoz also slipped. Messi finally slotted in the deflection. The game had it all – tactical twists, brilliant goals, awful misses, great saves, fouls and cards. Athletic Bilbao was intensely attacking, which is a signature of Bielsa.

Another extremely competitive game was played at the Mestalla between Valencia and Madrid. Madrid were up 1-0 at the half time, but they slackened in the second half. At 71 minutes, Ramos slotted in a header to put Madrid up 2-0. Then came the most dramatic 20 minutes of la liga so far. Roberto Soldado made it 2-1 but a Valencia corner was hoofed back to their half that Diego Alves tried to clear coming out of his box, missed, and Ronaldo scored from a difficult spot. Soldado scored another, which was the fourth goal in 11 minutes. In between, Mourinho had some heated exchange with Jordi Alba. At injury time, Valencia got a free-kick near the Madrid goal line. Tino Costa took it as the entire Valencia team was up there in Madrid’s box. Artiz Aduriz and Higuain collided and Higuain fell on the ground. The ball banged on the bar and rebounded to Soldado, and was rolling towards the goal when Higuain put his shoulder on its way. Valencia was robbed of a penalty and possibly a point. Had the referee given a penalty instead of a corner, the top of the table would have looked a lot more competitive at the winter break.

 Predictions

After the winter break, the league commenced with the Barcelona derby and the Valencia derby on the second weekend of January. Both the games ended in draws. Madrid easily defeated Granada and will play Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao in their remaining games in the first leg. Barcelona plays Betis and Malaga in their last two games of the first leg. Anything can happen and the league is wide open between Madrid and Barcelona. However, it is advantage Madrid at the moment. Valencia has an outside chance, but in la liga it has been next to impossible to cover a deficit of 9 points in 21 games. It will be good to see Levante playing in the Champions League – even if they play only the qualifiers. Between Osasuna, Malaga, Sevilla and Bilbao any two may qualify for Europa league. Villareal will survive, but apart from Zaragoza, any two among Sporting, Racing, Granada and Rayo will get relegated.

Millionaires Turned Paupers

You may blame the Mayans. They had predicted something similar. The fifth of the seven key Mayan prophecies talks about how the established world order will change. It also gives a time frame of when the change will be manifested – sometime in 1999 things will start deteriorating. 1999 is also the year, when a special edition of the Argentine sports magazine “El Gráfico” named River Plate as “Champions of the Century”, noting the club’s achievements, especially their (then) 28 Argentine championships against Boca Juniors’ 19 and Independiente’s 13. If one were to plot the course of achievements for the club based in the Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, then that would very much be it. Whatever ensued, culminating in relegation in June 2011, looks like a swift and steep curve down.

The History

One can’t stress enough on the significance of River Plate in the history of Argentine and South American football and the society in general. Founded on May 25, 1901, in what is today the neighbourhood of its fiercest rival – Boca Juniors, the club moved to Palermo and  then on to Belgrano in the northern part of Buenos Aires in 1923. They earned their nickname of Los Millionarios when in the early 1930s, they paid £23,000 for Bernabé Ferreyra, a quite unheard of sum and a record transfer fee for over 20 years, and most of it was paid in gold. Ferreyra repaid the amount with a scarcely believable 187 goals in 185 matches for River.

A new impetus also came from the social movement whereby, the military rulers as well as the civilian reformers of Argentina focused on the development of character through sports in the 1920-40s. It was seen as a step towards the building of a modern nation. River became the symbol of that with an all conquering team that swept everyone before them. Three league titles in the 1930s were followed by four in the 1940s and five in the 1950s. The 1940s team earned its nickname, La Maquina (the machine), based on their ruthless efficiency in the domestic and international scene. The team even bears comparison to and is seen as one of the earliest precursor to ‘total football’ as propounded by the Ajax and Dutch of 1970s vintage.

The Achievements

River Plate in its 110 years of history has been the most decorated club in the Argentinian domestic front. Much like other fierce rivalries in Europe, where one of the rivals would collect more international trophies only to be outdone in the domestic scene by its fiercest rival (think Liverpool – Manchester United or AC Milan – Juventus), River swept through the domestic scene collecting 33 league titles in its 110 year history. Even though bitter rival, Boca Juniors have the record (jointly owned with Milan) for the maximum international club tournaments. River can point towards their Annus Mirabilis of 1986-87 when they won the domestic title, the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Interamericana and the Copa Intercontinental. Such a clean sweep was quite unprecedented. They almost repeated the same after a decade in 1996, when they once again won the domestic title and the Copa Libertadores. This 1996-97 display by the team led the club to first place in the IFFHS ranking for six consecutive months, the first Argentine club to do so. They are also the only Argentine club ranked as the best World team in a full season (1997–1998). At the turn  of the century, the ultimate accolade of “Champions of the Century” was thus conferred on the club. The following year, in a FIFA sponsored vote, River was voted the best Argentine team of the 20th century. Indeed the club has been a conglomerate of champions over its 100 years and one would not attempt to capture the stars that have passed through the El Monumental but fair to say that, in every decade, the best of Argentina have always come from either River or Boca, who together commandeer over 70% of the Argentine public support.

The Decline Years

The last decade has not been kind to River Plate, especially in the latter half. A brief note about the Argentine domestic tournament details may be relevant. Like many Latin American leagues, the Argentina league is divided into 2 halves, the Apertura and the Clausura (literally, the opening and the closure). The winners of each of those halves can claim to have won a league. This departure from a unified single home and away league was undertaken from the 1990-91 season and incidentally River Plate was the last club to win the unified league championship in 1989-90.
With this truncated 2 mini leagues (one home and one away) put into a season, River were doing fine as can be seen from the 12 league titles (Apertura or Clausura) in the next 14 years i.e. till 2004. Since then, only once have they managed to win – the 2008 Clausura. But there has been no shortage of managerial merry-go-rounds. To illustrate the point, Ramon Diaz was the last manager to preside over consecutive seasons, from 1995-1999, arguably the time when River were the team to beat and had won their title as Champion of the Century. Since then there have been 15 (yes 15!) managerial appointments in 12 seasons. None of those managers could string 2 seasons consecutively but there were many re-appointments, and each ended with further misery than the previous one.

Financially too, the fortunes took a nosedive as the club is estimated to have run up a debt of 280 million Argentine pesos ($67.76 million). Part of the reason is how the club let the ultras (Los Borrachos del Tablón – literally “the Drunks in the Stands”) take care of certain financial transactions of the club. A lot of ultras and miscreants took charge of merchandising, and even had a pie from player transfer earnings. They enjoyed huge perks like all expenses paid for away matches and even free tickets. All this was done with José María Aguilar as the club president (2001-09). For these 8 long years, many of the top talents from River were sold off to Europe while filling the gap with players who were owned by 3rd party or by agents. Hence when they moved on, the club didn’t earn much out of it. Some of the money is still unaccounted for and may have been siphoned off. The total mismanagement of funds coupled with power given to the ultras and lack of motivation for players led to a huge decline in the performance. Refer to the table for decline.

Taking 2007 Clausura, which they won; if we consider the mean of the gap that existed between the winner and River over the last 6 tournaments (2008-9 – 2010-11) was close to 18 points, implying a gap of 6 defeats. For a team that had won the 2007 Clausura, that is a steep, sharp and ignominious decline. The most appalling fact being, the team managed to finish last in the league in the 2008 Apertura, right after winning the 2007 Clausura. Once a domestic behemoth, River Plate now stood merely as a middling team, for whom finishing in the top 5 could prove beyond their means in 8 out of 14 attempts since 2004. Certainly this is not the stuff of “Campeon de Campeones”. The Millionaires were on the precipice of bankruptcy. The push would come soon.

The Relegation

The rules of relegation in the Argentine League, needs a bit of discussion before we delve into River’s final ignominy. Back in the 80s when the league was concerned with sudden departure of top talents from the big teams to Europe, they wanted to put in place a system which would help these teams recuperate from sudden loss of form owing to such transfers. So they installed a system of “promedios” (points averaging), whereby a team’s relegation status is determined by working out their points per game average over the last three seasons instead of the overall performance in that particular season. Although this implies that one poorly played season by a newly promoted team could spell doom, on the flip side, it was quite unthinkable that a big team would have 3 consecutive bad seasons spread over 6 league phases.

There is but one more chance provided to teams following the average of 3 seasons. Based on them, the bottom two teams (19th and 20th) are demoted directly to Primera B Nacional. However the 18th and 17th teams go into a 2-legged playoff with the 3rd and 4th placed teams from the Primera B Nacional. With the away goals rule present, the 17th and 18th teams can thus win these matches and remain in the Primera Division.

For the year 2010-11, it came down to these 4 teams – River Plate (17th) with a points average of 1.237, Gimnasia La Plata (18th) with a points average of 1.096, Huracan (19th) with a points average of 1.096 and Quilmes (20th) with a points average of 1.096. Quilmes was relegated directly and Huracan lost in a relegation play-off with Gimnasia as they both had the same average, and thus relegated directly. River and Gimnasia went into a 2-legged play-off with Belgrano and San Martín de San Juan respectively.

River lost the 1st leg 0-2 away and hence needed to win by 3 goals to stay in Primera Division or to win 2-0 and force a tie breaker. When the return leg arrived, River were desperate to win it. Around 60,000 had packed into the El Monumental (government safety limit being 40,000) to watch their favourite team battle for their lives. The match itself started very promisingly as River took the lead in the 6th minute with Mariano Pavone scoring a fine goal. An uneventful 1st half followed by a calamitous 2nd half that sealed their fate. First Belgrano equalized from a defensive shamble by the River defenders and goalkeeper and then Pavone missed a penalty that would have given them a glimmer of hope. The referee, pressed by the rioting of fans, didn’t bother with extra added time for stoppages and finished the match in 90 minutes sharp.

The Aftermath

If the match itself was insulting what with such a proud club going into uncharted ignominy, more disgrace was added with the rioting and violence that followed. Violence broke a minute before the match got over. Annoyed fans pelted players with a variety of objects from the stands, and police replied with high-powered fire hoses while some fans climbed fences topped with razor wire.

The clashes left 89 people injured, while over 50 were arrested, according to Argentina’s Federal Police. Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses – inside and outside the stadium – with police using teargas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting. As they scattered, rioting fans set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.

Looking Ahead

The future ahead doesn’t look too rosy. There lies the debt factor, which cannot be helped by the reduced revenues that will be a feature of life in 2nd division. For example, the TV revenue of around $7.5 mn per year would take a nosedive to $855,000 per year as is the standard for Primera B. The sponsorship deals would also be markedly reduced since they hinged on River being a Premier Division team.

The advertising deals, which include sponsors like Adidas, Petrobras and others wouldn’t help much as the money has already been used to pay the debt that had been built up since 2001 under President José María Aguilar. Club legend and World Cup winning captain, Daniel Pasarella became the President in 2009 and it was expected that after 8 years of misdirection, he would lead the club to its former glories. Instead the results have only deteriorated. The steady flux of managers and invasion of the ultras remain.

Post the recent relegation, the reins of the club have been handed over to Mattias Almeyda, who retired this season as a player at River. It is for him to chart a path to the top division at the earliest. President Pasarella has been quoted as saying, “I would be dragged out feet first”, which shows a resolve to restore the team to its rightful position. The manager has been given some new players, all on a free transfer. Some of those names have a River history and are good bargain buys (Christian Nasuti, Alejandro Dominguez, Fernando Cavenaghi), however, some of the talents have left too, notedly Erik Lamela, the crown jewel of the River team, who was sold for about half of what he would have been sold had River not been relegated.

One cannot imagine the South American football scene without a club like River Plate in its midst, as much as one cannot imagine a year without Superclásico in Argentina. A new chapter has been added to Argentine and South American football. One hopes that River would bounce back soon enough to give a happy ending to this chapter.