Publish date:

La Liga 2010-11 season preview


But the strangest thing of all was that Granada stood virtually alone. Not just in the garbage as it rooted around, recovering its money, trying to fend off the media and light-fingered kids who had gathered to watch, and profit from, the recovery operation, but in Spain as a whole.

With five days to go until the close of the transfer window, it turns out that this year very few Spanish clubs have thrown their money away after all. Surprisingly few. Maybe even worryingly few. After all, it is not so much a case of clubs being careful with their cash and deciding not to just stuff it in plastic sacks or the pocket of some giggling president who has sold them a dud; it is not so much a case of the sudden emergence of talented kids, leaping freely from youth team to first team. It is more a case of them being broke.

This has been a summer of caution and frugality, not fantasy. Financial reality bites; Spain's debts are huge, calculated to be in excess of $4 billion. Even Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano's explanation for why the club did not ultimately sign Douglas Maicon spoke of "austerity." That is myth, of course. It cost Madrid almost $125 million to bring in Jose Mourinho, putting together the expense of terminating Manuel Pellegrini's contract, compensating Inter Milan and paying for the new coaching staff. They have also spent more than $100 million on six players, with Mourinho demanding more. But elsewhere it is a reality.

Of Spain's 20 first-division clubs, only six have spent more than $6 million. And two of them are Valencia and Sevilla, third and fourth last season, respectively. Worse, while they have spent $33.4 million and $13.7 million, respectively, they have recovered $99.6 million and $18.4 million. In other words, their net spend is zero; they have sold more than they have signed. If Luis Fabiano departs from Sevilla -- and with the club having been eliminated from the Champions League this week, someone is probably going to have to go -- that figure will be even starker. And before you say, "Well, they've got cash, at least. Valencia did brilliantly, as now it has $66 million burning a hole in its pocket," it hasn't. That money is burning a hole in the bank's pocket.

Only four sides in Spain have a net spend in excess of $6 million this season: Málaga, which is under intriguing new ownership and new management and has brought in almost $19 million worth of new players; Atletico Madrid; and, inevitably, Madrid and Barcelona.

Barcelona is struggling. Former president Joan Laporta signed David Villa; new president Sandro Rosell immediately had to take a bank loan to pay his players, sold Dimitro Chygrynskiy, sold Yaya Toure and admitted defeat on Cesc Fabregas. Coach Pep Guardiola rightly insisted that Barcelona could not compete with "Madrid's zeros." But the club still bought Villa for $50 million.

No one else can compete at all. Predictions might be a mug's game, but one that can be made with certainty is that Madrid and Barcelona will be far too good for the rest. As Sevilla sporting director Monchi put it during a conference in Jaén, the concern is that Spain could end up like Scotland. It is not just that Madrid or Barcelona will win the league; it is that Madrid and Barcelona will win virtually all their games. In 2009-2010, Madrid broke the points record and still didn't win the title. The league, which begins its 2010-11 season Saturday, is supposed to be hugely exciting; the risk is that it becomes tedious.

Last season, second-place Madrid finished 25 points ahead of Valencia in third and 33 points ahead of Sevilla in fourth. In terms of points, those two sides, supposed challengers, were closer to relegation zone than the title. Even the World Cup reinforces the imbalance: Of the Spanish starting XI in the final, only one player did not play for Madrid or Barcelona, left back Joan Capdevila, from Villarreal.

Nor does it look like a freak season. It is reinforcing, self-fulfilling. With TV contracts signed individually, club by club, Madrid and Barcelona can make three times as much in a season as their nearest competitors.

This year, the gap is likely to be maintained, maybe even widened. Look at those figures above. Both Sevilla and Valencia have sold more than they have bought. They are the third- and fourth-best sides in the country and yet they cannot build. Valencia has lost Villa and David Silva. Sevilla has lost Adriano. Similarly, fifth-place Mallorca has lost its coach, both central midfielders and its main striker. Sixth-place Getafe has lost its best player, Pedro Leon. He has gone to Madrid, just as Villa and Adriano have gone to Barcelona.

Two sides' strengthening is, yet again, everyone else's weakening.

The fact that no one can compete with Madrid and Barcelona suggests that even some of the problems that appear to present themselves for Madrid are not problems at all. Mourinho complained this week that he needs time to build his side, that it is "still not ready." He insisted that Barcelona has an entrenched identity, unlike Madrid. "They can come back from the summer holidays and after three days they're already playing well. They could play blind," he said. "We can't do that. We still need to build an identity."

He is right but it may not matter. Whoever wins the league this season will probably need a huge amount of points and can't afford to drop any. But even a half-ready Madrid should be too strong for the rest. Madrid can improve on the job. This preseason might even provide the paradigm: Madrid did not play particularly well but it did -- as the newspaper Marca comically reminded everyone, splashing "Invictus: Madrid, preseason champions" across its cover -- go unbeaten. Madrid does not travel to Barcelona until late November; there is plenty of time. And in that match, few will demand sparkling football. Just a result.

SI Recommends

It is hard to avoid the uneasy conclusion that the title might be virtually decided over that match and the return game in Madrid. Two matches in 38. Or maybe by the occasional unexpected draw. Certainly, the margins are likely to be fine. That is why Madrid, even if it is essentially not as good a side as Barcelona, has every chance of winning the title. Especially as things are not perfect for Barcelona, even if the signing of Villa is about as close to a sure thing as you can possibly get.

Barca has the shortest squad in Europe -- if Zlatan Ibrahimovic goes, it will be shorter yet; if he doesn't, after all that has been said over the last few days, things will be even worse -- and eight of its players were in the Spain squad for the World Cup. It has barely been training for two weeks. Xavi Hernandez, the ideologue, the metronome, is 30 and has not had a break for the last three summers. Although youth teamers are coming through, the Super Cup first leg against Sevilla, a 3-1 loss with four Barca B players in the side, urged caution. They can ill afford injuries. Worse, there is a hint of tension between Guardiola and Rosell.

Below Madrid and Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia are not equipped to compete with the big two. In fact, they might not even maintain their current best-of-the-rest position. The teams best positioned to challenge for Champions League places alongside or even ahead of them should be Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. And perhaps Athletic Bilbao or Getafe.

Atletico's ninth-place finish last season was well below where it should be. The club has kept faith in Quique Sanchez Flores; got the monkey off its back with the UEFA Cup win, its first trophy in 14 years; and bought well this summer, with Diego Godin, Tiago and especially Felipe Luis, who is only a left back like Dani Alves is only a right back. Above all they have, perhaps surprisingly, kept Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero.

Villarreal announced new, austere times as president Fernando Roig's ceramics industry gets hit hard by the crisis, but it has navigated cleverly. Carlos Marchena has replaced Godin, it won't unduly miss Joseba Llorente, Ivan Marcano or Ariel Ibagaza, and Borja Valero is an excellent acquisition.

And then there's Athletic. Eighth last season, they boast two World Cup winners -- both of whom, typically, have been pursued by Real Madrid; both of whom, rather less typically, have stayed put. Athletic won't be subtle, but it has genuinely good players. Javi Martinez, still only 21, and Fernando Llorente have benefited from South Africa, 17-year-old Iker Muniain will improve and few clubs can boast such support, continuity or clarity when it comes to a footballing identity.

That's an identity that could hardly be more different from Getafe's neat, tidy, occasionally delicate approach -- last year, its president moaned, "We're a bunch of mothers" -- but if the team from the south of Madrid, sixth last season, can get it right, it is wonderful to watch and effective too.

At the other end of the table, it's hard to see Malaga needing to wait until the final day to survive again. Sporting could use a striker but has signed well (Nacho Novo, Sebastian Eguren, Ayoze), held on to Diego Castro, has great fans and a hugely popular, brilliantly mustachioed coach, Manolo Preciado. But along the coast at Racing de Santander, where its best player went to Real Madrid (sound familiar?), it could be a very different story.

If you want an outside bet for a side to suddenly collapse and be unexpectedly dragged into it, how about Deportivo de La Coruna? It was fourth at the midway stage of last season and then won just three times in 17 matches without the injured Felipe Luis (who has departed). It has Rikki from Aranjuez up front. It might as well have Ricki Lake. She'd be less annoying, too.

Then there are the three promoted teams, always considered likely to go straight back down again. Real Sociedad -- packed with homegrown players, including the returning Joseba Llorente -- should survive. But a quick return to the second division for Hercules and Levante is a definite possibility.

Still, at least no one can accuse them of throwing away their money. Levante has not spent a cent, while suspicions linger that Hercules spent its cash on just getting into the first division after recorded conversations allegedly revealed its owner speaking to its captain about buying off opponents. Those conversations also implied that match-buying in the second division is frighteningly common as teams fight for the chance to reach the Primera promised land.

Because the judge refused to release the tapes and the Spanish football authorities decided that they were going to ignore it, there has not been an investigation. There will not be one, either. Just as there was not when similar accusations were made against Malaga two years ago.

On Saturday night, Hercules faces Athletic Bilbao in its first game in the top flight in 13 years. The stadium will packed. TV cameras will be in attendance. It will be a special night. The sad conclusion for teams looking to make the same journey is simple. Such is the impunity and such are the rewards. So passive is the response that even in times of crisis, it's worth it. Far from throwing away your cash, a spot of cheating might just be money well spent.