By Alan Feehely.
Bob Marley once sang “who feels it knows it”. What he was trying to articulate was that once somebody understands a concept instinctually, as opposed to intellectually, they understand it with a conviction otherwise impossible.
People who understand Andalusia, the unique region in the south of Spain, will identify with this feeling. Putting to one side cultural heritage and physical beauty, Andalusia is a feeling as much as a destination, an idea as much as a place.
It’s a land with hot blood, sangre caliente, running through its veins. The Andalusian diaspora, forced to migrate because of economic necessity, have contributed much of what makes Spain so alluring to the rest of the world — flamenco music, a love of fiesta, a strong sense of pride and familial identity. This passion has also influenced the region’s love of football — they approach the game with a reverence bordering on devotional.
Heading into the 2020/21 season, La Liga now has four Andalusian clubs in its Primera: the two giants from Seville, Real Betis and Sevilla, are mainstays, but also included are Granada and Cádiz. Granada are riding high after an excellent year back in the top flight, while Cádiz have just been promoted from the Segunda. This article will investigate the prospects of each of these teams ahead of the new campaign.
“The problem with the squad was a lack of cohesion, a lack of balance,” explained Seville-based journalist David Whitworth. “The defence was porous and [Joel] Robles had a bad season.
“He’s better as a number two — when he became the number one he wasn’t being pushed enough and he just didn’t find the level that we need should we aspire to reach a European place.”
The problems Whitworth is referring to are Betis’ performance levels last season. Despite a talented and seemingly well-balanced squad, they finished 15th in 2019/20. There had been high hopes when they appointed Rubi, fresh off a successful spell at Espanyol, as head coach, with the idea being that he would employ an attractive, possession-first style. Things didn’t transpire that way, however, and he was sacked in June — in his place has come Manuel Pellegrini, a man with significant international experience and serious pedigree.
“Pellegrini’s track record speaks for itself,” continued Whitworth. “He’s had a fantastic career and he’s done marvellously in La Liga wherever he’s been, so I have every faith in him that we can have a good season.
“For me, that would mean challenging for a Europa League spot. We’ve got the squad to do it, and with a couple of signings we should certainly be [there or thereabouts] come the end of the season.”
If Betis are to improve on an insipid 2019/20, they’ll need some of their underperforming stars to step things up a notch.
“I think this will be a big season for Borja Iglesias,” Whitworth added. “He had a really poor season last year but I think there’s still a very good player in there. [Nabil] Fekir can step up again — he’s got more of a level [to reach] — but he needs to link up better with the other players.
“For me, he’s starting too deep — he needs to play more in the final third. [Sergio] Canales had a really good season last year and I think he’ll produce more of the same this coming campaign. I feel he’s put his injuries behind him now and seems to be in the most settled spell he’s been in since he joined Betis.
“[Marc] Bartra was clearly mentally fatigued at the end of the year. He’s already got three goals in pre-season, and I think he’ll show his quality. He has little mistakes in him here and there and that ebbed away at his confidence a little bit in a manner that really affected him, and the team as well.
“Aitor Ruibal was on loan at Leganés last season and has also performed well in pre-season. He looks a promising prospect, as does Guido Rodríguez, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.”
Betis’ season began in earnest this past Sunday, with a late strike from Cristian Tello proving enough to earn Pellegrini’s men three points away to Alavés. Having lost on the opening day for the past four consecutive years, the victory felt like something profound, and the Betis players celebrated accordingly. A new era may have dawned.
“Cádiz started last season amazingly,” asserts Spanish journalist Fran Martinez. “By matchday 17 they had lost only two matches, so it was the best start of a team in the history of Spain’s Segunda.
“Cádiz used to have a tendency to start well and then slide down, and that happened to an extent last season. After matchday 17 they won just one of their next seven, but recovered to eventually secure promotion.”
Cádiz are competing in the Primera for the first time since 2005/06, when they finished 19th. This will be just the 13th season in which the club has competed in Spanish football’s top flight — between 1929 and 1977, they only played in the second and third divisions.
Much like the club, the city it represents exudes a unique spirit — it is famed for its cultural significance, being pivotal in the development of flamenco and housing a citizenry renowned for their bohemian flair. The late Michael Robinson, an avid cadista, said that Cádiz is a place where “capitalism is not the law”.
Cádiz finished just one point behind champions Huesca and four points clear of third-placed Real Zaragoza.
“From my point of view, Álex Fernández is the star of this team,” continued Martinez. “He has played for Real Madrid and Espanyol, but last season he played 41 [league] games for Cádiz and, from midfield, scored 13 goals.
“This season will be complicated — we don’t know how Cádiz will match up against the other teams in the Primera, or whether each team will be able to use three or five substitutions [it’s since been revealed that they can use five].
“Everything’s up in the air, but I hope that Cádiz will prove to be strong and can thrive in the Primera.”
“The manager is very clear that the DNA of this team is to fight, always, and never compromise on that,” Spanish journalist José Grima told Hay Liga. “Cádiz will always be a team who fight regardless of the pitch they play on.”
It’s a quality they’ll need should they wish to succeed in La Liga. Their opening day saw them lose 2-0 at home to Osasuna, a club that could well be a direct rival in the battle to avoid relegation. Regardless of the difficulty of their task, however, one can be assured that the club and the city will fight tooth and nail for every point.
“The key ingredients [of last season’s success] were continuity and belief,” reflected Granada-based journalist Heath Chesters. “That’s what Diego Martínez brought as the manager who guided the team to promotion, and it’s what he maintained when Granada returned to La Liga.
“What’s more, he maintained a core of the same group of players and was boosted by important additions to the squad such as Domingos Duarte in defence and Roberto Soldado in attack. Getting great performances out of Carlos Fernández, on loan from Sevilla, was also a major boost.”
Granada returned to La Liga last summer after finishing second in the Segunda, eight points behind champions Osasuna and five clear of third-placed Andalusian rivals Málaga. Their first season back in the Primera after two seasons away was a roaring success. The club, under the shrewd stewardship of Martínez, qualified for the Europa League having finished a remarkable seventh, above heavy-hitters including Valencia, Athletic Club and Betis.
For Chesters, this success was derived from an admirable collective spirit. “It’s the strength of unity as a team which really stands out about Granada under Martínez,” he continued.
“The experience and leadership of Soldado inevitably makes him an influential player, both in terms of his performances and his encouragement of other players in the squad.
“Getting Yangel Herrera back for another year on loan from Manchester City is fantastic news. He was excellent last season and I’m sure he’ll be one of our best players again.
“New signings Luis Milla and Alberto Soro have bags of potential, and they’ll have plenty to prove in La Liga. Among the existing players, this could be a really big season for Darwin Machís if he can take his game to the next level.”
European football could be a double-edged sword. It lends prestige to Granada, but could also derail their domestic progress. They opened their campaign in promising fashion with a 2-0 victory over Athletic Club, but Chesters admits that fighting on multiple fronts could place considerable strain on such a small squad.
“Juggling competitions will be the big challenge for Granada this season, without any doubt,” he adds. That said, it’s hard to shake the sensation that with Martínez at the helm, anything is possible.
“I honestly can’t see this Granada side struggling too much, so they should at least be capable of finishing around mid-table and avoiding the relegation scrap with some comfort.
“As for the Europa League? Given that it’s the first time Granada have competed in any of the continental competitions, they’ll just take each game as it comes, enjoying the journey for as long as it lasts.”
“The team went through a ton of changes [last summer], starting with the most important one — getting Monchi back at the helm as Director of Football,” explained Sevilla supporter Chris Lail.
“Monchi did Monchi things and overhauled the team, bringing in 16 new players and either selling or loaning out over 20 others. Monchi’s boldest move, however, was bringing in the forgotten former Real Madrid and Spain manager Julen Lopetegui.
“He implemented a defence-first system that saw Sevilla concede just 34 goals, which bested the great 2006/07 team’s record of 35. This system helped Sevilla finish fourth in the league and win its sixth Europa League.”
It was a truly remarkable season for the club based at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán — perhaps even greedily so. Indeed, they finished ten points clear of fifth-placed Villarreal and level on points with Atlético Madrid, qualifying for the Champions League — a ticket to the continental elite that Sevilla’s subsequent triumph over Inter Milan would have also granted, but they were in no need of this spare.
The onus on Sevilla now is to build on this base, utilising their lack of outgoings in the summer window to try to cement their top-four status and even challenge for the title.
For Lail, the summer success was a culmination of much individual excellence. “Sevilla saw several great performances this year, led by their captain and iron man, Jesús Navas,” he continued.
“Navas played in 47 matches across all competitions in the 2019/20 season to log 4,149 minutes, second only to Jan Oblak’s 4,446. It was an impressive season for Navas, with the full-back’s ten assists across all competitions including an absolute beauty in the Europa League final.
“Éver Banega also put in one of his best seasons in his farewell La Liga campaign — the Argentine was a different man after the coronavirus-induced break and was critical to Sevilla’s feat of going unbeaten in their final 21 matches.
“New faces, such as Lucas Ocampos, Jules Koundé, Sergio Reguilón, Diego Carlos and Fernando, all had great first seasons. With a 17-goal haul, Ocampos was the most prolific member of Sevilla’s attack, and was probably the side’s most important player.”
Lail, despite an understandable optimism, is wary that it will be difficult for the club to take their game to the next level — Sevilla’s campaign begins with the European Super Cup against Bayern Munich on 24 September.
“The challenge of competing in the Champions League as well as La Liga this season will be the true test of Sevilla’s aptitude. The transfer market has so far been kind: Óscar Rodríguez, the former Real Madrid youngster, has joined after a successful season at Leganés; former captain, Ivan Rakitić, has returned to try to fill Banega’s shoes [the Argentine has left the club to join Al-Shabab in Saudi Arabia]; and the club have also made permanent the loan deals of Suso and Bono.
“If they can retain the defensive pairing of Carlos and Koundé, add a solid left-back [to replace Reguilon, who had been on loan from Real Madrid] and hang on to Ocampos, I don’t see why they can’t build on the 2019/20 campaign and compete in all three competitions.”