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Promoted Teams: Real Murcia, Real Valladolid and UD Almeria

Our preview ends with a look at the three promoted sides to La Liga this season. While many critics have already written off their chances of survivial, there may still be surprises in store before the end of the season.

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From mid table Obscurity to Europe: Real Zaragoza, Deportivo La Coruna, Real Mallorca, Athletic Bilbao and Villareal 

Real Zaragoza on paper were one of the most exciting teams to emerge from the pack last season. Built around the Argentine axis of the Milito brothers, Pablo Aimar and Andrés d’Alessandro, Zaragoza at times resembled the South American giants in style and play.

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Title Contenders: Seville, Valencia and Atletico Madrid

Recent events have dealt a huge blow to Seville’s championship hopes even before the season has even started. The rumours of coach Juande Ramos’s departure, the sudden death of Antonio Puerta and the boycott of Daniel Alves have all cast a huge pall on the club and it would not be easy to put these issues behind.

This is a pity because Seville should have won the la liga last year, two successive UEFA Cups notwithstanding. Their attacking style of play is a real breathe of fresh air and on the field at least, Duda on the left and Arouna Kone on the right can compensate for the gaps left by Puerta and Alves. The arrivals of Seydou Keita and Tom De Mul have also strengthened a midfield short of goals.

As long as the likes of Frederic Kanoute, Luis Fabiano and Jesus Navas keep up their high standards, and coach Ramos remains, Seville will still be the neutrals’ best bet to win the title outside of Barcelona and Madrid.

Valencia should also be better equipped to challenge the duopoly this season. Stalwarts like Ruben Baraja and David Albelda have returned to the club after missing the whole season through injuries while smart buys like Manuel Fernandes and Ivan Helguera add experience and depth to team. The continual growth of David Silva on the left and Joaquim on the right should create plenty of chances for the dangerous duo of David Villa and Fernando Morientes.

And as if the attack cannot get any stronger, Valencia has brought in the giant Nikola Zigic to add in a new dimension to their attack. Considering the trio plundered 42 goals amongst them last season, only a sustained title challenge will suffice.

Atletico Madrid is one of the most mysterious and exasperating clubs in world football today. They have splashed out the cash and the squad that they have built this season is definitely capable of challenging for the title. Yet had they showed this ambition earlier, then perhaps cult hero Fernando Torres would still be around to lead the charge.

Still on paper, Javier Aguirre’s team on full flow is an exciting, attacking unit bolstered by the likes of Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Jose Antonio Reyes, Simao Sabrosa and Luis Garcia. Any coach in the world would be amazed at the rich attacking riches at Aguirre’s disposal. However even the strongest weapon is only effective if the ammunition supply is consistent so Atletico’s deadline failure to sign Juan Roman Riquelme may come back to haunt them eventually.

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Critics of the Spanish league have long dismissed their claims of being the best in the world by pointing to the fact that in their history, only 8 teams have been league champions and the big three of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have been top a whopping 76%. That means close to 3 out of every 4 titles are won by one of the three clubs.

Things though are starting to change and in recent seasons, the strength of the league can be seen from the increased competitiveness and results achieved by the lesser-known teams. This can be seen most clearly from the performance of Spain’s oldest team, Recreativo de Huela, last season.  

Just promoted a year ago and with a reputation as a yo-yo side, one could be forgiven for thinking that they would be relegated after enjoying a short stint rubbing shoulders with the big boys. Instead, ex-coach Marcelino Garcia Toral paid scant attention to the naysayer, forged a cohesive unit and lead Recreativo to an 8th place finish – with Real Madrid (3-0 at the Bernabeau) and Valencia (2-0) amongst the scalps.

For a coach who brought Recreativo all the way from the lower leagues to such heights, this was the pinnacle and Toral predictably resigned at the end of the season. Recreativo though enter the new season with great optimism having now brought in former Barcelona great Victor Munoz as Toral’s replacement.

Munoz may not be the best tactically but his honest and disciplined personality should suit the team down to a ‘T’. The first job Munoz had on his hands was to retain the services of top scorer Florent Sinama Pongolle, who was reborn after futile spells at Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers.

His speed and eye for goal saw him plunder 12 goals and as his confidence returned, so did the performance of the team. The Frenchman repaid the club by putting his signature on a new deal that should see him stay at the club for a while yet. 

A lot of credit for Recreativo’s performance was down to the creative endeavours of midfield magician Santi Carzola whose performances were so impressive that his club Villareal recalled him immediately once his loan spell expired. His departure leaves a big hole that Munoz must try to fill if the team is to continue their run of success. 

To that end, Portuguese starlet Carlos Martin has been brought in as Carzola’s replacement. Martin was once identified as one of Sporting Lisbon’s emerging talents together with the likes of Nani, Joao Moutinho and Cristiano Ronaldo but injuries and a bad attitude derailed his promise. 

With a generous attitude, excellent field vision and a great shot, it is a coup for Munoz to have captured Martins and if he can fulfil his promise, Recreativo would have another successful reclaimation project on their hands. 

Martin will have no problems blending into the team with a budding Portuguese enclave already in place at the club. Besides Martin, Recreativo can also call upon central defender Beto as well as new striker Silvestre Varela who are all Portuguese.  

Munoz’s philosophy has always been to build a strong backline and besides the impressive Beto, he has also brought in two key components that will play a big role at Recreativo. Jose Cesar Caceres arrive with a big reputation, having been a rock for the Paraguayan national team and is seen as the natural replacement for the great Carlos Gamarra. The pairing of him with Beto will give Recreativo as strong a defence as any in La Liga.  And that’s not counting Italian goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino.

He may not be well known back in his home country but he carries a big reputation with him, having been hailed as the best goalkeeper in Greece when he was playing for AEK Athens. Before Recreativo stepped in, he was rumoured to be heading home to either AC Milan or Lazio. 

With such strong foundations in place, Recreativo looks to be even better equipped for battle in the La Liga this season. And if Spain is to truly become the best and most competitive league in the World, then it will be the likes of Recreativo and Getafe that will be the deciding factor and not big names like Real Madrid and Barcelona. 

Possible Recreativo de Huelva First XI:
Sorrentino; Bouzon, Beto, Caceres, Poli; Martin, Jesus Vazquez, Aitor, Marcos; Sinama Pongolle, Varela

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Racing Santander surpassed even their own expectations when they managed to escape relegation with relative ease last season. A large part of their success story was simply down to an unlikely couple – one a towering centre-forward who has still to hit his prime while the other is a hunching veteran who has his best years behind him, relying now more on wits and intelligence than on speed.  

This little-and-large combination though funny in sight, was very effective and accounted for more than half of Racing’s victories. New coach Marcelino Garcia Toral’s main job this year is to make sure that Spanish defences this season do not solve this unorthodox problem. While the formula remains, the personnel will have to change.

For a while though it looked as though Pedro Munitis will have to look for another partner because Nikola Zigic was attracting a lot of attention from many of the big clubs and that became reality when Valencia snapped the big Croatian centre-forward up. This will be a huge loss to Racing as Zigic got 11 goals in a tough first season and was expected to surpass that total this year. 

If there is any consolation, it would be Racing’s tactics. The team was very realistic last season: Rather than taking teams head-on, they kept things tight and relied on the hit duo to grab the all important goals. It may seem very negative but one cannot dispute its effectiveness. Perhaps amongst the unsung heroes who emerged were the centre-half Ezequiel Garay at the back and Colsa in midfield.

Adding Argentine hardman Aldo Duscher was also a masterstroke, giving Racing another biting physical player that they can deploy in the battlefield. If one considers that Duscher was once linked to giants such as Manchester United and Juventus, this is a real coup. 

One has to admire the economical ethos at Racing; the club is not one to spend silly money bringing in star players who may not pull their weight. Instead the belief is to bring in players, who may not be the most skilful or the most famous but have determination in abundance and are willing to work for the team. Team spirit is of prime importance and the players all work for each other in a coherent unit. 

The word out from the club now is that they have signed Ebi Somlarek as the natural replacement for Zigic and while the Polish international lacks Zigic’s goalpower, he does possess a good footballing brain and has the versatility to play in midfield as well.

He seems to be a natural fit for Racing, playing either as a frontman alongside Munitis or allowing Marcelino to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Oscar Serrano on the left and Munitis on the right flanking Jorge Lopez in the hole. The arrival of Mohammed Tchite also allows Marcelino to use him as the lone frontman and hope for attacking support from his midfielders.

While it is getting increasingly harder to compete in the new world order in football where finances rule, as long as Racing still have the spirit and if the problems upfront can be solved, they will still be a side to be reckoned with.

Possible Racing First XI:
Tono; Pinollos, Garay, Moraton, Fernandez; Vitolo, Colsa; Serrano, Smolarek, Munitis; Tchite

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One of the most surprising success stories last season was the achievements of Getafe, who not only finished 9th for the second successive season but also reached the Spanish Cup final, swiping away Barcelona 4-0 in the second league in the semi-finals. Part of their impressive CV also included 5-1 and 4-2 versus Valencia, as well as 3-0 versus Villareal. Yet one would have the wrong impression if one assumes that they employ an all-out attacking strategy.

On the contrary their success was built on an excellent goalkeeper and a air-tight backline that honed a soak-and-strike strategy to perfection, often catching teams off-guard with long balls launched out of defence. Ironically things are now expected to stick closer to the script now that Michael Laudrup has taken over the reins.

Born and bred in the Total Football philosophy of Ajax Amsterdam, the Danish legend is expected to instill a more eye-pleasing, passing strategy. Now that the bar has been set so high, one can wonder about the pressure that he will face but so far Laudrup has taken to this new task quite well.

His job will no doubt be helped by the fact that the famed Getafe defence has been kept intact with Argentine keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri who was voted La Liga’s best custodian last season. His performances were a major reason why Getafe boasted the best defence in Spain last year, conceding only 33 goals in 38 games. Other names to watch out for include captain David Belenguer and Romanian veteran Cosmin Contra who is still capable of bombing up and down the right.

In the pre-season friendlies, Laudrup seemed to depend a lot on the central midfield duo Javier Cosquero and Swiss international Fabio Celestini to control the proceedings and to move the team forward. Together with Mario Cotelo and Nacho, Getafe’s seemed to have found a settled line-up that works very well together.

Even though former top scorer and terrace hero Daniel Guiza has moved onto Mallorca, few are panicking in South Madrid because his replacement Kepa Blanco is just as good. His burly, aggressive centre-forward play is tailor made for this team and he is expected to hit the target on a regular basis.

Laudrup also gave an insight into his plans by regularly pairing Kepa up with Nigerian Ikechukwu Uche and the duo seems to be getting on pretty well, both strong physical players who relish a battle with the defenders. Playing with two forwards also give Getafe more options when they are attacking, rather than to play every ball long to Guiza like they did last season.

The equation is simple: if Getafe can maintain their defensive discipline and add to that a more sophisticated attacking strategy that will hopefully translate into more goals, that should mean more victories and more points. Thus fighting for a place in Europe will be a realistic target for Laudrup and his men. What are the chances of another former Real Madrid playmaker moving onto the Bernabeau hot seat after bringing Getafe to greater glories?

Possible Getafe First XI: Abbondanzieri; Contra, Beleaguer, Pulido, Licht; Cotelo, Casquero, Celestini, Nacho; Kepa, Uche

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Last season was the best time to be an Espanyol fan; not only did neighbours Barcelona struggled and came up empty-handed, their own team performed admirably, securing their league status quite comfortably and even made it to the final of the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1988. 

Even if they lost to Seville, it was through the lottery of the penalty shootout and Espanyol have nothing to be ashamed of, having given their all. So it will come as no surprise to know that Espanyol has kept the entire team largely intact and have made some astute signings that should bring the club to an even higher level.  

Espanyol has managed to hang onto the talisman of the side, keeping both goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and team captain and fans idol Raul Tamudo. The fact that both rejected overtures from other bigger clubs and stayed with Espanyol is a clear indication that the side the coach Ernesto Valverde is building is on the ascendancy. 

Kameni was one of the most impressive goalkeepers in the whole of Spain last year with his agility and shot-stopping abilities catching the eye of many big clubs including Manchester United. As long as he is around, he should be one of the first names put down by Valverde. 

The only new face joining the backline will be Argentine right back Clemente Rodriguez and his attacking sensibility will add a new dimension to the Espanyol team that can call upon players like Daniel Jarque and Moises Hurtado – no nonsense, take-no-prisoners types. 

Talk to any Espanyol fan and they will tell you that the best Raul in Spain actually plays for their home team and not Real Madrid and at times it was hard to dispute that view. Skilful, deadly and yet a total team player, Raul Tamudo was Mr. Captain Extraordinaire – an inspiration to both fans and teammates. Expect him to maintain his standard coming into this new season that promises much for Espanyol. 

If there is a reason for Tamudo’s resurgence, it can be traced to the play of Ivan de la Pena or better known as ‘Little Buddha’. De la Pena emerged from Barcelona’s youth team as Spain’s most promising and talented playmaker, but despite his obvious potential, he flirted between excellent and anonymous performances and was discarded to the Italian outpost of Lazio.

His struggles there continued (and at his next club Marseille) and it was not until he returned to his spiritual homeland of Catalonia that De la Pena regained his form. Re-born and rejuvenated, De la Pena grew into his role and today, he is the heartbeat of this Espanyol side who relies on him for instigating and creating chances. 

His usual partners in crime last season were Albert Rivera and Francisco Rufete, who also rediscovered his second wind after being discarded by Valencia. With Valdo now in the mix, having joined the Catalans from Osasuna, there will be more support for De la Pena and the Brazilian will help to fill in the creative role in case of his absence. 

Another excellent signing for Espanyol is the capture of the Serbian U-21 international Milan Smiljanic who slots in immediately in the defensive midfield role. Not only does he win the ball, but he also knows how to use it intelligently and at 3million euros he is a real bargain. 

Rounding off the team is the excellent Luis Garcia who is another fan-favorite. Able to play on either flank, Garcia is often asked to support Tamudo in attack and in fact, the pairing plundered 25 goals together – a total that is second only to Valencia’s David Villa and Fernando Morientes. 

With a settled team and with the injection of more quality, the sky is the limit for a club that traditionally has been in the shadows of the giant figure that is Barcelona. While they may lack the glamour and resources of their neighbour, Espanyol can expect to compete on equal terms on the field.   

Possible Espanyol First XI: Kameni; J. Garcia, Jarque, Hurtado, D. Garcia; Valdo, De La Pena, Smiljanic, Rufete; Raul Tamudo, L. Garcia

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The city of Pamplona is famous for the quintessential Spanish art of bull fighting and it appears that the city’s football club also takes after the same image, displaying the tenacity and fighting spirit of a bull to stay in the Primer Liga year after year no matter the circumstances. 

Last season was one of CA Osasuna’s finest as they finished in the top half of the table and made the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup. As with all small teams in Spain, the reality of success means the inevitable exodus of players as more than half of the first team like Carlos Cuellar, David Lopez, Valdo, Raul Garcia, Webo and Savo Milosevic moved on to greener pastures. 

Yet once again like the bull that refuses to stay down, Osasuna has regrouped admirably and has built on paper a team that is as good if not even better than last season’s vintage. Sound management means Osasuna has rebooted with quality players like Hugo Viana, Javier Portillo and Walter Pandiani to give coach Jose Angel Ziganda materials for fashioning another side capable of causing the big boys problems. 

Goalkeeper Ricardo is still around to provide security and leadership in front of a reshaped defence that still can call upon the experience of veterans like Cuchaga, Jose Izquierdo and Nacho Monreal in addition to promising players like Javier Flano and Josexto. Muscular and well organised as a unit, Osasuna are not an easy side to break down. 

The team’s most impressive players were from the middle of the park and their departure means renewed opportunities for the young players to step up to the plate. Lopez, Garcia and Valdo may be gone but a midfield quartet of Juanfran, Patxi Punal, Javad Nekounam and Ludovic Delporte is still capable of holding their own in Spain’s top flight.  

Iranian international Nekounam in particular was one the revelations from last season in his defensive midfield role, showing composure and the ability to win the ball and use it intelligently while Juanfran was one of Real Madrid’s most promising players but lost his way amidst the chaos and pressurizing situation in the capital. Osasuna represents the right-winger’s best chance to redeem himself and he will be raring to go. 

It is a pity Viana will miss the first few weeks of the season through injury; the Portuguese international has a fantastic left foot and he will be counted upon to either deputize for Delporte on the left or replace Punal in the heart of the midfield. Osasuna will count on him rediscovering his form that makes him one of Europe’s leading young playmakers not too long ago. 

It was an astute decision on the part of the Osasuna management to sign Javier Portillo from relegated Gimnastic. After losing his way at Real Madrid (again) and Fiorentina, Portillo showed class and a renewed appetite for goals last season and he is sure to hit the target on a consistent basis this year. 

Coach Ziganda has the enviable option of either deploying Argentine Bernard Romeo alongside him in a mobile, quick-thinking unit or he can opt for the little-and-large combination of Portillo and Pandiani. The signing of ‘The Rifleman’ means Osasuna now boasts a strike force that combined for a total of 30 goals last year, one of the more successful units among local strikers last season.  

The confidence inspired by the frontline can only be a boost for the rest of the team and after an off-season of seeing their heroes leave, the Pamplona fans can now look forward to another exciting and rewarding campaign. Certainly it will surprise no one if Osasuna repeats what they did last year or even surpass the achievements of the past. That will be just reward for a group of fans that is as passionate and crazy as any in the whole of Europe. 

Possible Osasuna First XI: Ricardo; Flano, Izquierdo, Josexto, Monreal; Juanfran, Nekounam, Punal, Delporte; Portillo, Pandiani

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At Real Madrid, nothing it seems is permanent. The entire club is always in a state of flux amidst battles on and off the field, a far cry from the Galaticos era under Florentine Perez where the only question asked was which new superstar was going to don the famous white jersey.

In a way, Perez himself is partially responsible for what is happening today. As the Galaticos imploded within, a club starved of success brought in sweeping changes and a disciplinarian in Fabio Capello who unfortunately got sacked for NOT getting the team to play like the Galaticos even though he won them the La Liga title for the first time in four years.

New German coach Bernd Schuster has been roped in to get Real to revert back to their DNA but those expecting drastic changes may have to think again. His reign at Getafe has shown that this canny coach builds his team on a tremendous goalkeeper and a solid defence, relying on the counterattacking long ball to launch the team forward. He looks set to continue that style with Iker Casillas one of the world’s best in goal.

Schuster has bolstered his defence also, bringing in central defenders Christoph Metzelder and Pepe to team up with Italian Fabio Cannavaro, thus allowing Sergio Ramos to move to right back where he is at his best. New signing Royston Drenthe, a Roberto Carlos clone, looks set to claim the left back role and his rampaging runs down the flanks will be key to Madrid’s tactics under the German.

Schuster’s main strength was that he knew when to shut up shop and when to urge his men forward and he has already declared his intention in an earlier interview, promising to press further forward up the field and to give his attackers more independence to initiate and develop the attacking play. This willingness to allow his attackers more room to dribble and use their ball skills should suit players like Robinho, Raul and Gonzalo Higuian. 

More than just freedom, Schuster’s moves in the transfer market seems to suggest that he will be injecting more pace into the team, getting the players to transfer from defence to attack much more quickly to catch teams off-guard. Most of the play will be channelled through the wings where the speed of Drenthe on the left and Robinho on the right will force the opposition backwards.

The arrival of Arjen Robben gives Schuster another weapon to use on the flanks. Robben has already proven himself during his time at Chelsea to be one of Europe’s leading talents and together with Drenthe, they give Madrid one of the strongest left flanks in Spain. 

Schuster’s aim has been to create depth in strength and on the right as well, Madrid seems to have good depth especially when Higuain can also be deployed on the right in the event of injuries. New signing Javier Saviola is also capable of playing there, increasing Schuster’s options. With Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Raul seemingly entrenched as the front pairing (with Saviola for Raul and Soldado deputising for the Dutchman), the only question mark revolves around the playmaker’s role.

Schuster is a throw back in that respect, still believing in the qualities of having a player dictating play from the middle of the field. Overtures to Cesc Fabregas ended in failure, putting paid to Schuster’s plans. Actually Madrid does have options within the squad – Guti for all his inconsistency and mood swings remains very good, ideal to take the playmaker’s role. Argentine wonderkid Fernando Gago is the other option and he certainly has the quality although Schuster will have to restore his confidence level to see him at his best.

With doubts surrounding both players, Madrid has brought in Wesley Sneijder from Ajax Amsterdam and while he may look slender and waif-like, this Dutch international is a supremely confident playmaker and he looks set to become Schuster’s natural successor in the lore of Madrid midfield generals. Another option would be to play him on the left with Guti and Diarra anchoring the side through the middle, giving the team a more solid feel.

With all the pieces of his grand plan appearing to be in place, Schuster has already stamped his identity on the Real Madrid team. Whether that is going to translate into success and glory remains a huge question mark and it will be interesting to see how this new era pans out.

Possible Real Madrid First XI:
Casillas; Ramos, Metzelder, Pepe, Drenthe; Guti, Diarra, Sneijder, Robinho; Raul; Van Nistelrooy

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It must be tough being a Real Betis fan right now; not only are they down on the dumps, they also have to put up with the fact that arch rivals Sevilla are not only double UEFA Cup winners, and challenging for the title, they are also acknowledged as playing the best football seen in Spain for a long time.

Once the pride of Andalusia with the club featuring in the Champions League and signing big stars like Denilson, the club is now struggling – they only managed to keep their Liga 1 status with a win on the last day. For the board, the scenario was unacceptable and they will be determined this season to put the club right back on track.

The man charged to instil order back to the club is Argentine veteran Hector Cuper although one wonders if his one-year deal is a sign of non-confidence. Probably this is for the best since Cuper’s last stint at Real Mallorca ended with the exact same situation – fighting the relegation trapdoor. Still his pedigree is undisputed – leading Mallorca to the UEFA Cup final and Valencia to the Champions League final in successive years is proof of his ability and Betis will be hoping he can rediscover his magic. 

In a way, the playing staff at Betis is built up ideally to be a Cuper-side; there is a surfeit of defenders and attacking midfielders but few reliable strikers. As such, it will come as no surprise to learn that Cuper intends to implement his 4-5-1 framework – relying on the counterattacking strategy with quick-fire wingers to supply and support a lone front man. 

It remains a mystery why the defence struggled so much last year, leaking goals all over the place. Betis is betting that it was more due to psychological rather than physical problems. With Spanish international Juanito and David Rivas formed an uncompromising pairing in the middle while Slovenian right-back Branko Ilic was one of the heroes of the relegation battle.  

With Marko Babic coming in from Bayer Leverkusen at left-back and with the charismatic Portuguese international Ricardo being the new goalkeeper, the defence is complete and Cuper’s reputation as a defensive whiz will serve to ensure that last season’s nightmare will not be repeated. 

Assuncao and Alberto Rivera will fill the two defensive midfielder roles and their energy and work rate should fit Cuper’s tactics to a ‘T’, with other options like Arturo Garcia and the promising Juanlu ready to step in as a replacement.

Cuper loves to have players who are fleet of foot on the wings and in David Odonkor and new Chilean speedster Mark Gonzalez he has two ideal candidates. They have the ability to stretch the field and get behind the defence while at the same time providing an outlet for the long ball out of defence. 

The feebleness of the Betis attack can be seen from the fact that Brazilian hitman Robert was their top scorer with only 9 goals and compatriot Edu chipped in with 8. And they are not even expected to be the first choice players.  

What is likely to happen is that Cuper will employ the mobile and skilful Brazilian Rafael Sobis as the lone target man with either Edu or Capi assisting him from the attacking midfield position. Sobis’s intelligence and ability to hold the ball will allow other players like Gonzalez to surge up in support. Robert will be called upon if a more direct and physical approach is needed. Much is also expected of new Argentine striker Mariano Pavnoe.  

Expectations are lowered entering into the new season and this can only be good news for Cuper; expect them to be tough and hard to break down as he shapes Betis into a team after his own image.

Possible Betis First XI:
Ricardo; Ilic, Juanito, Rivas, Babic; Assuncao, Rivera; Gonzalez, Edu, Odonkor; Sobis