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



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


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


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


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


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


Casual fans may not be aware of this but the oldest team in Valencia is actually not Valencia CF but Levante UD. However the accomplishments and profile of the younger brother has far overshadowed that of the older brother and their priorities are vastly different. For Valencia CF, Champions League competition and league title challenges are the norm; for Levante survival in the Primera Liga is and remains their only goal leading into the new season.

In fact, at one point in time last year, it looked like even achieving that aim would be a miracle. A rag-tag bunch made up of unknown locals and semi-famous Europeans struggled to get to grips with the pace and standard of the competition and by the end of 2006, Levante were relegation certainties.

Then things took a total turnaround; the arrival of veteran goalkeeper Jose Molina and defender Serrano tightened the defence and a run of 7 wins and 6 draws in 2007 saw them climb up the table to respectability. The recovery was also credited as the work of new coach Abel Resino who breathed new life into the squad.

Going into the new season, there certainly is an air of optimism that the battle against relegation would be easier this time round. Levante is a better side then most people give credit for; a 4-2 win over local rivals Valencia, a 1-0 win over Real Madrid and a 1-1 draw with Barcelona are testimony to their ability. It just so happens that their offensive style of play is less effective when facing side that packs their defence and hits on the break.

Still do not expect things to change. Coach Abel is regarded as an offensive manager, playing with the defensive line high up the field and he will continue to do so. This is sometimes seen as a risky stile of playing which is why the defensive reinforcements is so crucial. The addition of Italian veteran Bruno Cirillo can only help the likes of mainstay Alvaro and fullbacks Monolo and Rubiales. Molina has since retired, leaving the way open for Argentine Pablo Cavallero.

Levante were fortunate that they managed to hang on to Italian midfielder Damiano Tommasi. His leadership and distribution in the middle of the park was one of the team’s biggest strength and he looks set to continue his partnership with Diego Camacho.

The key to Levante’s attacking play is the utilisation of wingers on both flanks. Not many clubs in Europe do so now but Felix Ettien is a  a strapping muscular presence on the right and with an abundance of skill and with his direct style, he is a handful for any defence.

On the left, Resino has swapped the inconsistency of the mecurial Laurent Robert for the dependability of Brazilian Savio. The 33 year-old performed admirably but could not prevent Real Sociedad from relegation and he will be hoping for better luck with Levante.

Rounding out the attack are the odd pairing of Dutchman Riga Mustapha and Georgian international Shota Arveladze. Both are comfortable on the ball and show a keen eye for goal but only Riga made good on his promise last year with 9 goals. Cosidering that he is technically a right winger, his return is outstanding.

Arveladze may be 34 but he is a proven goalscorer and has shown consistency no matter where he has played so his addition is a bonus for Levante considering that the rest of the strikers like Nino, Cameroonian Albert Meyong Ze and even new arrival Geijo are more like squad players. Nino was one of the second division’s most highly rated striker but he struggled at the highest stage.

Levante Possible First XI:
Cavallero; Manolo, Serrano, Alvaro, Rubiales; Ettien, Tommasi, Camacho, Savio; Arveladze, Riga


The last season was a disappointing one for the Catalan giants; not only were they knocked out of the Champions League at an early stage, they effectively threw away the Spanish League title and lost the chance to win three titles on the trot. More than the statistical failure, the way the season imploded amongst dissension within the team and tactical errors seemed to suggest that they were coming to an end of a mini-dynasty.

One knew that there would be a response; afterall a team like Barcelona is not used to failure but few would have guessed that the answer would come in the shape of Thierry Henry. The mercurial striker joined Barcelona after more than a year of courtship and his arrival has turned the dark clouds of failure into rays of optimism and hope.

More than just adding a superstar, the Frenchman’s arrival gives Barcelona an awesome frontline. Even Barcelona’s captain Carlos Puyol was moved to describe them as, “perhaps the best attack line in the world. The rest of Europe and Spain will be terrified.” After all, who chance would any defence have against the likes of Henry, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o?

Yet the critics are not satisfied; already questions are being asked about how Frank Rijkaard is going to fit them into his favoured 4-3-3 and who is going to be dropped. Actually there is a way in which Rijkaard can accommodate all his superstars and Barcelona’s subsequent signings follows this same train of thought. One only has to look at Brazil and how they managed to play Ronaldinho with Ronaldo, Kaka and Adriano together at the last World Cup for a clue.

The answer lies in a change of formation; a switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 would solve the problem. Both Eto’o and Henry may be used to being the focal point of the attack but they are also versatile enough to play with another partner so pairing them both upfront is a no-brainer.

The key to making this work is to utilise Ronaldinho and Messi as inside-halves instead of employing them as wingers. With their skills set and dribbling abilities, they are more than capable of stretching defences by going outside to the flanks or cutting in towards goal. With Henry and Eto’o’s propensity to move to the sidelines to draw defenders out as auxiliary wingers, both Ronaldinho and Messi would have even more space to manoeuvre. This is very similar to Brazil’s famed 4-2-2-2 ‘magical square’ formation.

What it means is that the two midfielders in the centre will have the job of protecting the defence as well as distributing the ball. Barcelona’s squad of players are geared towards doing exactly that. Deco reportedly has fallen out Rijkaard and is on his way out so the playmaker’s position should be contested between Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Alongside them, the defensive midfield position will be filled by either Rafael Marquez or new signing Yaya Toure.

The way the formation is strung out usually leaves both sides of the field unprotected; Brazil of course uses Roberto Carlos and Cafu as their full-backs and the attacking-minded duo is able to exploit the space in front of them to full advantage. This was also the reason Barcelona made Eric Abidal the most recent signing; with him and Gianluca Zambrotta manning the flanks, Barca are one of the few teams in the world who can make this tactic work.

The only weakness in the side is in the middle of the defence where Puyol is often exposed by the inadequacies of his partner. The Catalans have been busy shopping for a capable defender and their prayers have been answered by the arrival of Argentine Gabriel Milito. An assured player, Milito is capable of initiating play from the back and would complement Puyol perfectly. If either is lost through injury (and Puyol is likely to still be out when the season starts), their best solution would actually be to retreat Marquez into defence and to pair Iniesta up with Toure.

With a line-up chockfull of attacking power and with an imaginative midfield, it seems Barcelona have acted swiftly and smartly in reloading their team for another assault on domestic and European glory. And we haven’t even talked about fledging talents like Giovanni Dos Santos and Bojan Krkic waiting in the wings.  

Demise? What demise?

Barcelona possible First XI:
Valdes; Abidal, Puyol, Milito, Zambrotta; Marquez, Iniesta; Ronaldinho, Messi; Henry, Eto’o