Early-season La Liga review Part I

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The Spanish sports daily Marca called them "Football's Oscars" and gave them more than 22 pages, mostly packed with photos of the great and the good and, let's face it, the not quite so good smiling and shaking hands. It was time to hand out the now traditional Pichichi and Zamora awards to the best goal scorer and best goalkeeper of the 2009-2010 La Liga season, won this time around by Lionel Messi and Victor Valdés, respectively.

It was time, too, to hand out the newer, rather less traditional "Oscars"; the Alfredo Di Stéfano award for the first division's best player (Messi), the Zarra award for the first division's best Spanish goal scorer (David Villa), the Miguel Muñoz award for the best coach (Pep Guardiola) and the Puerta-Jarque award, named in memory of Dani Jarque and Antonio Puerta, given to Gorka Iraizoz and Filipe Luis for their sportsmanship following Filipe's broken leg that he suffered in a challenge with Gorka.

There was also the Guruceta award for the best referee -- an award bizarrely named after the referee at the heart of one of the most mythologized "scandals" in Spanish football history, when he gave Real Madrid a penalty against Barcelona despite the foul occurring more than a yard outside the area and, more important, the referee whom the former Anderlecht president admitted to paying off to allow his side to beat Nottingham Forest in the semifinal of the 1984 UEFA Cup. That went to Undiano Mallenco.

Plus, there were special prizes for Quique Sánchez Flores, for having won a European double of Europa League and Super Cup, and for Iker Casillas as the best player at the World Cup. "Who else?" asked the Marca cover. And before you rush to say: "Well, Xavi, for a start, or David Villa, or Andrés Iniesta ..." don't forget that Iker, unlike Messi, Villa and Xavi, was able to go to the ceremony and collect his trophy in person. Don't forget that Casillas plays for Marca's beloved Real Madrid, not Barcelona.

And, yes, hidden and not-so-hidden agendas can make a difference. It is true that Messi won the Di Stéfano award, but he was such a clear candidate it would have been absurd for him not to have done so. Messi, Villa and Valdés won their awards on a purely statistical basis. And yet sadly, no, nothing is sacred; sometimes, not even the stats are.

Last season, Marca realized with horror that then-Real coach Manuel Pellegrini was leading the ranking in the Miguel Muñoz award -- despite the fact that the publication had been campaigning for his removal all season. So, suddenly, his weekly 2 or 3 out of 3 rating dropped to 1 or 0 and Guardiola's rose to 3 (even after a dreadful 0-0 draw with Espanyol). The result was exactly what Marca wanted the result to be: Guardiola pipped Pellegrini at the post.

So far this season, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored three goals. According to Marca, he has four -- it gave him a deflected free kick goal even though the referee's official report, the LFP, and every other media outlet has credited it to Pepe. That means that rather than having only one player ahead of him in the chase for this year's Pichichi award, his position is weaker than or only as strong as 11 others.

The question is, Will that little bit of help be decisive? (a few years ago, a "goal" taken off Samuel Eto'o cost him the Pichichi, which was won by Diego Forlán instead). Will Ronaldo win this year's Pichichi? And if he doesn't, who will? Who will be this year's Pichichi? Who will be the Zamora? The Di Stefano? And the Guruceta? Who should win all the awards this time?

Just six weeks into the season, it's too soon to make definitive judgments, but here are some of the early candidates ...

At the start of the season, there were three obvious choices for the Pichichi: Messi (34 last season), Ronaldo (26 in just 29 games) and Villa. After all, Messi is Messi -- the reigning European Golden Boot winner -- and Villa had just come back from being top scorer at the World Cup (alongside his new Barcelona teammates), just as he was top scorer at Euro 2008. He scored 21 and 28 in each of his last two seasons, and over the course of his first-team career at Sporting Gijón, Real Zaragoza and Valencia, he had never dropped under 15. At Sporting, Zaragoza and Valencia! How could he fail to get loads of goals at Barcelona?! So far, he has just two (plus two in the Champions League), which isn't bad, but the signs of frustration are growing -- easy misses, shots off the post, even the penalty he scored was far from convincing.

Ronaldo also has looked a little anxious, irritated with himself when the ball doesn't go in and prone to shooting wildly from anywhere. But he is already on four (well, three), and it's hard to believe that he won't get lots of goals this season. Madrid is dominating more than ever before and Ronaldo remains at the heart of what it does.

Another obvious candidate, Diego Forlán, also has three but has found the last few weeks without Sergio Aguero tough. Above them all are the quick, clever and neat goal scorers Nilmar (five) and Giuseppe Rossi (four) for Villarreal, while Bilbao's Fernando Llorente has started the season impressively with three and Alvaro Negredo (three) could be reborn now that Sevilla has a decent coach at last, having sacked Antonio Álvarez and brought in Gregorio Manzano.

But it's hard to see any of them being above the Barcelona pair and Ronaldo (or Gonzalo Higuaín, who has also been a little wasteful in front of goal as Madrid finds space harder to come by this campaign than last). All of which, despite his teething troubles, makes Villa a likely recipient of the Zarra award again. If he struggles, don't rule out either of his replacements at Valencia: Roberto Soldado and Artiz Aduriz.

As for an outside bet: Malaga might not always defend well or keep the ball wonderfully, but it has ridiculous pace up front with Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Eliseu and José Salomón Rondón, and it can be lethal on the break. Rondón has three goals already. Another 15 or so is certainly not out of the question.


Next up (on Monday): the Zamora, Guruceta, Puerta-Jarque, Miguel Muñoz and Di Stéfano awards.