With the 2015-16 Spanish league season kicking off this weekend, we preview the road ahead for La Liga’s 20 sides. In the final instalment of our La Liga Season Preview, Adam Dow looks at the bottom half.
For a league that is so often derided (particularly in England and Australia) as one that is a battle of two sides, with little tales to be had elsewhere, La Liga put on a show in 2014-15. Though Barcelona had the title wrapped up before the last round, they finished just two points ahead of Real Madrid. Last season’s champions Atletico could not repeat their heroics, and held on to their third place spot, with a reinvigorated Valencia and usually consistent Sevilla breathing down their neck.
However, a far more interesting battle was taking place at the opposite end of the ladder. Deportivo, Granada, Almeria and, of course, tiny Eibar, were all in a relegation battle with just one round remaining. A point would be enough for Depor and Granada, as they had a superior record over Eibar in their head to head table. Eibar did their part, winning 3-0 against already relegated Cordoba, but Barcelona let slip a 2-0 lead at Camp Nou, allowing Depor to survive. Granada got their point that they needed too, as a game against Atleti was played out in farcical circumstances, with both sides needing a draw to meet their objective. Almeria lost to Valencia, sealing their fate – though a three-point penalty was retrospectively applied so the final-day loss meant little after all – which meant that Eibar, Almeria and Cordoba were the three teams to go down.
Except that they weren’t. Elche, who escaped the relegation battle as the season’s end drew to a close, were relegated to the Segunda for not paying their tax debts. This threw the 18th placed side, Eibar, a lifeline and another fairytale year in Spain’s top flight.
Joining La Liga for 2015-16 from the Segunda are Las Palmas, who qualified via the playoffs, champions Real Betis, who bounced straight back from their 2013-14 relegation, and Sporting Gijon, who return after a three year absence from the top flight.
Las Palmas have bounced between the second and third tier after their relegation from La Liga in 2001-02, and key to their success will be ex-Barcelona B striker, Sergio Araujo. The Argentinian scored 25 goals in 43 matches for the Canary Islands outfit, who have also picked up ex-Everton and Wigan defender, Antolin Alcaraz.
Real Betis will be hoping for a better return than their last outing in La Liga, where 2013-14 saw them cop 78 goals and they duly finished bottom, earning just 25 points. Though Sporting Gijon have retained much of the playing group that got them promoted (there’s some talk that Barca’s Alen Halilovic could move on a season-long loan, however), Betis aren’t taking any chances. They’ve recruited heavily, with the best of the new recruits Rafael van der Vaart, who finally escaped from Hamburg in Germany having survived two relegation playoffs with them. Betis have also made the loan deals of Cristiano Piccini (Fiorentina) and perhaps most importantly, Francisco Portillo, of Malaga, permanent. Peruvian international Juan Vargas also joins from Fiorentina.
We think that Betis’ recruitment strategy sees them best placed to survive out of the bottom three, but only just. They’re also managed by Pepe Mel, who of course had that horrid spell in charge of West Bromwich Albion.
Levante conceded 67 goals in 38 games last season and their 14th place finish could have been far worse had it not been for a good late run of form. They spent more time than any side other than Cordoba in the relegation zone, and with no significant changes to their squad other than a few Segunda Division recruits, we think they’ll go down alongside Gijon and Las Palmas.
It’s going to be another tough year for Eibar, who were actually sitting 8th after 22 rounds but crashed badly in the remaining games to fall into the second tier. Elche’s mismanagement gives them another chance though, and it looks as though they’re following the same transfer policy that nearly saw them stay up last season. Plenty of loans and free transfers see a new look to this Eibar squad, which has English Premier League experience in the form of ex-Aston Villa defender, Antonio Luna.
Rayo Vallecano conceded as many goals as Cordoba last season (68) but their kamikaze style of play was good enough for an 11th place finish. Manager Paco Jemez has had a few seasons with Los Franjirrojos now though, and they’ll be as likely as anyone in this bottom half to push the rest for a top half finish. They were in the top five for possession and shots per game in 2014-15, and so over the course of the season, despite losing top scorer Alberto Bueno (17 in 36 last season) on a free transfer to Porto, they’re a team used to high turnover of players and their team-based approach should keep them in good stead. They’ve also picked up German winger Patrick Ebert from Spartak Moscow, while ex-West Ham United defender Razvan Rat also joins, as does former Manchester United star Bebe.
Getafe‘s last La Liga fixture ended a ridiculous 7-3 to Real Madrid, which probably makes their end of season goals conceded statistic worse than it really is, but 2015-16 is a real chance for them to kick on and push higher up the ladder, particularly with some certain relegation fodder earning promotion. There’s been some shrewd acquisitions from the Madrid-based side, with La Liga experience in the form of Cala (Granada) and Damian Suarez (Elche) joining on free transfers. Sunderland centre-back Santiago Vergini arrives on loan, but the impressive Sergio Escudero has moved to Sevilla, while club veteran Diego Castro will ply his trade in our very own A-League with Perth Glory.
They may have survived relegation by the barest of margins last term, earning a 2-2 draw with Barcelona after staring a 2-0 deficit and the Segunda right in the face, but Deportivo de La Coruña are better placed to mount a stronger challenge this season. They’ve gone for experience, signing 34-year-old midfielder Cani, who arrives after 10 years at Villarreal. Adding extensive experience to the squad is ex-Sevilla defender Fernando Navarro, who is just a year younger than Cani. Ex-Sevilla product and Liverpool attacker Luis Alberto also finds himself at Estadio Municipal de Riazor on loan having fallen out of favour with manager Brendan Rodgers (mind you, he was never in favour, to be fair).
Granada, who played out a sickening 0-0 draw with Atletico Madrid to secure their La Liga status for 2015-16 (and Atleti’s automatic UCL group stage spot), should be amongst the relegation battle yet again. Aside from cellar dwellers Cordoba, they finished with the worst goal difference in the league. The Nazaries have signed ex-Inter Milan defensive midfielder Rene Krhin, a current Slovenian international, but is he the answer to shore up their woes at the back? Maybe just, but as always, this could be as tight a relegation battle as we saw last season.
Finally, Barcelona’s nearest rivals (by geography, of course), Espanyol, probably overachieved last season enroute to a 10th place finish. In saying that, the Periquitos showed remarkable consistency once they reached the top half of the table, barely moving from there for the rest of 2014-15. They’ve gone for youth over experience, offloading Mexican international Hector Moreno, Uruguayan striker Christian Stuani, and Sergio Garcia – not the golfer – who moves to Qatar having scored 41 goals in 145 games for Espanyol. Keeper Kiko Castilla also moved in the off-season, joining Real Madrid. In comes young forward Gerard Moreno, who impressed at Villarreal in patches last year, as well as winger Hernan Perez, who also joins from The Yellow Submarine.
The Blog FC predicted finish:
11th Rayo Vallecano
13th Deportivo La Coruña
17th Real Betis
19th Las Palmas
20th Sporting Gijon