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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