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La Liga Season Review (for Soccer360 Magazine)

Sevilla
A Europa League final and a 13 point improvement are no mean feat for a club €80 million debt and without Ivan Rakitic, Alberto Moreno and Fabio Fazio. Unai Emery’s outstanding coaching and bargain recruits (Carlos Bacca’s 34 league goals over two seasons have cost just over €200.000 each) ended up a point short of Europe’s Elite.

Villareal
Villareal’s 3-2 defeat to Barcelona in early March was not supposed to herald a crash. Yet the Yellow Submarine went from making the Europa League Second Round and being a point short of fifth (Sevilla), to an 11 game winless streak, including elimination to (guess who) Sevilla and ending the season 17 points short of Champions League football.

Athletic Club
Despite only racking up 19 points in the first slate, Ernesto Valverde stuck to the 4-2-3-1 formation, earning a 1-0 win over Real Madrid and 36 points for only three second-half losses, not to mention a berth in the Copa del Rey final. Downsides: losing Iker Muniain to an ACL tear, falling to Torino in Europe and relying on Aritz Aduriz’s 18-goal tally. No-one else made it past five in Liga play.

Celta Vigo
Fans at the Balaidos can hang their hats on a few things, namely Celta’s giant-killing of Barcelona (away) and Atletico Madrid, as well an an exciting attacking trio of Nolito, Joaquin Larrivey and Fabian Orellana, who scored 29 goals between them. Nolito himself ended up as a Top 5 assistman with 13. Los célticos also added 13 points in second half play, second only to Real Madrid.

Málaga
Close to Europe until March, Málaga simply ran out of steam, winning just one of their last eleven La Liga games and conceding a horrifying seven goals in the last ten minutes of play down the stretch. Though the defence shut Barcelona out in a shocking 1-0 win, it’s ageing (Sergio Sanchez is the only starter not in his 30s) and didn’t contribute a single goal at the other end.

Espanyol
Los Periquitos improved on 14th place by losing only three of their last 14 games. Deceptively respectable against Top 10 opponents in the second half of the season, Espanyol were not as ruthless in the Copa, where they were despatched by Athletic. Ended the season in hot water following racist chants in the Derby, a game they haven’t won since 2009.

Rayo Vallecano
It’s no surprise Ska-P chose to dedicate a song to Rayo, who somehow earned a monstrous 23 points on the road despite being outscored 42 to 20. Ruthlessly efficient against their peers, the Bees were anything but against their betters, whether it was losing 6-1 to Celta Vigo or drawing 4-4 at the Mestalla in the Copa, having lost 3-0 there only a few days previously.

Real Sociedad
The Basque outfit achieved the unusual accolade of somehow beating Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid with three different managers. Yet this pales in comparison to the work David Moyes has done, restoring cohesion, discipline and grittiness to a side languishing near the bottom of the table. At 1.37 points a game under the Scot, the Txuriurdin would have been just shy of Athletic’s record had he begun the season with them.

Elche
Who do you call when you’ve spent most of the winter in the bottom three, when your president has resigned, when your club is 40 million in debt and unable to sign players in the transfer window? Fran Escriba, that’s who! And to think Los Illicitanos were safe with three games to go. Jonathas’ 14 goals were key, as no-one else bagged more than five.

Levante
What’s that? Fran Escriba isn’t available? Lucas Alcaraz will do! Though it wasn’t pretty, the former Granada lifesaver orchestrated late wins in six-pointers against Eibar, Getafe, Almeria and Cordoba to keep La Liga’s third-worst defence up. David Barral and Victor Casadesus combined for a crucial 19 goals.

Getafe
The Azulones were always just about good enough to float above the relegation zone, never returning to the bottom three after matchday five. This is hardly a backhanded compliment, especially when both Cosmin Contra and Quique Sanchez Flores jilted the club midseason, leaving it to sputter its way to the finish with six defeats in nine games.

Deportivo la Coruna
Cash-strapped, short on talent, constantly barracked by their fans and fresh off another turn on the managerial merry-go-round, the once-proud Depor looked to be in deep trouble a month ago. With only one win in ten and likely needing points from their visit to Barcelona to stay up, the Galicians (under former glory days winger Victor Sanchez) were lucky their opponents eased off after going 2-0 up, allowing for the most unlikely of comebacks.

Granada
Talk about a timely managerial change! Six points from safety with four games to go, Granada somehow pulled off three wins and a draw to Atleti to stay up. Jose Ramon Sandoval didn’t do it all himself, however, as Youssef El-Arabi grabbed key goals against Getafe, Cordoba and Real Sociedad to guarantee a sixth-straight season in La Liga, all without ever topping 15th place.

Eibar
Someone should snap up the movie rights right away. I mean, the plot writes itself: the fans crowdfunding 1.7 million to guarantee promotion, a wild bunch of loanees and spare parts (appropriately sponsored by a scrap metal dealer) beating parent club Real Sociedad on opening day, racking up 26 points and 8th place in an impressive first half of the season, the catastrophic downfall… All that’s missing is the hollywood ending, as the Basque outfit’s 3-0 win over Cordoba was moot once news came through that Deportivo had drawn at the Camp Nou.

Almeria
Though a draw wouldn’t have been enough, Valencia’s winner on the last day of the season against La Union was a fitting metaphor, the through ball squeezing past Sebastian Dubarbier’s desperate lunge to find Paco Alcacer. A valiant performance against Los Che wasn’t enough to ensure survival, nor indeed to compensate for Almeria’s many weaknesses, especially against set pieces.

Cordoba
Having come up in the most dramatic of fashions, los Califas seemed to be acquitting themselves decently by early January, in fourteenth place and with Miroslav Djukic at the helm. From that point onwards, however… things went Pete Tong. No wins (not one!) in the second half saw Djukic get the sack, and provoked Florin Andone’s x-rated rant: “I’m awful. I can’t even play a f—ing pass, and the team’s the same. I’m sick of everything.”

“Nu’ fuoc’ ‘e paglia”

One of the first things I learned at University was that history doesn’t repeat itself. After all, how can a series of complicated, interwoven phenomena always produce the same exact result? Isn’t it rather the case that hindsight is 20-20, and that we tend to oversimplify things in order to fit a particular narrative? Good thing we put that notion to bed. Now, what were we talking about again?

 

Ah.

For the uninitiated, the first clip was of Juan Mata scoring Chelsea’s sole effort in Naples two years ago in a 3-1 defeat. Game over, right? Wrong. Chelsea won the return leg 4-1, exploiting some more lax defending as well as a series of woeful Cavani misses to power their way to the 2012 Champions League final. The second is of Aritz Aduriz exploiting a hesitant Napoli defense to send Athletic Bilbao through to the Champions League group at Napoli’s expense.

Wednesday evening’s elimination proves that it really is possible to always be the bridesmaid without ever being the bride, especially if you’re a club like Napoli, and you have repeatedly failed to make much headway in Europe or even come anywhere near winning the Serie A (their best score was 9 in 2012-13. Last year they were 24 points short of Juventus).

This is not to disparage what the Partenopei have done over the past few years: they’re hardly Sophie Thompson‘s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral (who actually ends up getting married, but whatever), but rather one of Serie A’s most spectacular sides since returning to the fold in 2007.

Trust me, as an Inter fan with a dystopian view of his club and Serie A’s future, Napoli have done a lot to restore my faith in Italian football, what with that powerful combo of attacking midfielders, Higuain’s finish in the first leg… you get the picture. But two Coppa Italia trophies are a poor return for a team that always threatens to compete before fading away, with Wednesday night’s debacle causing fans to demand spending and results, and not necessarily in that order either.

It certainly wouldn’t be fair to expect title upon title from Napoli either, or indeed expect them to win the Champions League (though De Laurentiis has certainly tried). For every Lavezzi or Cavani, Napoli have also had to make do with the Mestos, Cannavaros and the Garganos of this world. But why haven’t they come close, even just once? Or made a deep run in Europe? Are they what Americans would call “chokers”, or have they actually over-performed in coming second and third in the past two seasons?

It actually turns out that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does come pretty close. Though Napoli have had many different iterations since they came up in 2007, the end result is very similar, whether they show up with a porous defence (last night) or a wasteful forward line (Edinson Cavani at Stamford Bridge in 2011-12), whether they attack head on (Benitez) or on the counter (Mazzarri). An exception should also be made for the Europa League- which former coach Walter Mazzarri never took seriously (I’m sure De Laurentiis fully agreed) and often used as an excuse to trot out the reserves.

Worse, there is a common thread to all of these underwhelming results. It is said insanity is doing the same things over and over and hoping it all works out. Aurelio De Laurentiis’ Napoli are guilty of just that. A prime example is the kind of players the Partenopei bring in, or rather how meager the returns have been on signing centre-backs. Albiol and Britos both cost over €8 million, and Victor Ruiz just under that. To put it kindly, they’ve not exactly been slam-dunks, though Albiol can certainly improve. Ruiz, for his part, lasted a whopping six months. De Laurentiis generally prefers cheaper options who work fine in Serie A, but come undone in Europe (Cannavaro, Aronica, Grava, Campagnaro, Gamberini). It was Cannavaro who provided us with that moment of unintended hilarity that Mata was so happy to profit from.

Buying defenders in Italy is a tough business these days- just look at how the league’s decreasing prestige and buying power has seen many big stars (Thiago Silva, Mehdi Benatia) leave, or how Juventus pieced their back three from recycled parts (Barzagli), in-house talent (Chiellini) and young Italian potential. The obvious names for the latter category are Leonardo Bonucci and Angelo Ogbonna, two players who show just how risky it is to invest in Italian talent. But Juventus and Roma conceded 23 and 25 goals respectively last year, Napoli 39, on a par with Inter. Hardly a breathtaking performance.

Truth of the matter is that the Partenopei always seem to have something missing, whether they’re looking to put out a truly competitive starting XI, going for European glory, or even simple respectability: having done remarkably well in their first season back from purgatory in 2007-8, Napoli spent several years floating around the Top 10, alternating brilliant home performances with disappointing outings. In 2008-9, the squad looked capable of shooting for the stars with the likes of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Maggio, and racked up 20 points in their first nine outings. Regrettably, they then failed to win a game in three and a half months, leading to coach Edy Reja’s sacking.

It’s like Napoli have to do accompany every good decision with a bad one, whether it is having Marcelo Zalayeta and Michele Pazienza in that 08-09 squad, or even hiring a good coach like Walter Mazzarri, the man who saved a Reggina side that had begun the 05-06 season with a 15 point penalty. Mazzarri could get the best out of his creative players, motivate his men and cook up a very good gameplan, but could also be tactically inflexible at the worst times. His failure to shore up the back line at Stamford Bridge will stay with him for a long time.

Napoli have arguably ramped things up over the past couple of seasons: bringing in Mertens on the cheap, as well as Callejon and Higuain from Napoli, and Insigne back from his loan to Pescara. Faouzi Ghoulam is a very promising player, and Benitez just the man to bring them European success. But just as things looked set for a turnaround, the bad news hit like a hurricane: it turns out we all forgot that Benitez doesn’t do leagues (his last win in 2004-5, before I could legally drive. Not that I do anyway), and was outsmarted in Europe, the very stage he normally excels in. We also discovered that Napoli’s choice to bring in cheap players from less fancied European leagues (a very market efficient approach) doesn’t always pay off. Khalidou Koulibaly can certainly become someone special, but needs time to adapt to life after the GAUNTLET that is the Belgian league. Why on earth was he starting against Athletic? Why was Michu watching the return leg from the stands?

It’s hard to disagree with the title of this piece, a Neapolitan expression for “[this team is] a flash in the pan”, uttered by a dejected fan as the defense bumbled its way to conceding a third goal. All this feeds into an increasingly depressed mindset. Napoli fans are somewhat like Philadelphia Eagles supporters, always close, always sucked in, never winning anything in the NFL. Even a quick backwards glance does seem to confirm that Napoli don’t just take the long road, they cover it in marbles and go about the task with their stilettos. It goes back to former owner Achille De Lauro, who spent a whopping 105 million lira to tempt Nordic superstar Hasse Jepson back in 1952, expecting the titles to rain down on the back of his massive spending spree. He would not live to see the day when Diego Maradona lifted the trophy a whole 35 years later, though he went out with a bang, bossing around his coaches and sacking players like nobody’s business. Even with El Pibe at the helm, Napoli never even got close to winning the European Cup, all whilst being accused of blowing a title race in order to help the local Camorra make a killing (a financial one, not that they mind much either way).

Let’s just hope Napoli don’t make life too hard for themselves this season. After all, things like this tend to happen when they don’t.