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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