La Liga: The small clubs challenging the usual pecking order

La Liga: The small clubs challenging the usual pecking order
Alex Wrigley
Alex Wrigley
November 2, 2018
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Content Editor at Free Super Tips, Alex was born in the shadow of Old Trafford and is an avid Man Utd fan. After graduating from university he combined his love of football, writing and betting to join FST and now closely follows goings-on in all of the top European leagues.

In any division in any country, ten games is generally regarded as the point in which league tables tend to start to mean something and can be relied upon for providing a rough picture of how the season might pan out. Every team in La Liga reached the ten game mark last weekend however a quick glance at the table suggests things have far from settled down yet with some surprise inclusions in the top six.

Were the season to end now, Alaves would be heading to the Champions League while La Liga’s Europa League places would be filled by Espanyol, Real Valladolid and most likely Levante. Clearly there is still a very long way to go and with the league table a congested one, the likes of Real Madrid and Valencia could quickly turn things around should they find a bit of form. Certainly the poor starts of those two clubs plus those of European regulars Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao goes some way to explaining why La Liga has a very strange look to it right now. However it isn’t simply a case of big teams under-performing and La Liga’s current surprise packages are worthy of a closer examination to see whether they can keep their fine starts going over the course of a season.

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Alaves dreaming of a return to Euro glory years

Vitoria is a small city in the Basque Country, whose basketball team has largely outshone the football one. However there is one notable exception to that and one season that set the bar for all future Alaves teams to aspire to. Their magnificent run to the UEFA Cup Final in 2001 is still reflected on fondly at the Estadio de Mendizorroza with their 5-4 Final defeat to Liverpool, one of the most memorable and most dramatic European finals of all time.

In the years since, Alaves have dropped down the divisions and flirted with extinction in the face of severe financial problems. Their latest ‘crisis’ came at the start of last season when they sacked two coaches in the space of a few months and looked destined for relegation. However they’ve been a team and a club transformed ever since Abelardo took charge in December 2017. Under his stewardship, they boast an outstanding 55% win ratio in all competitions, 40 games into his reign.

This season, they’ve already beaten Real Madrid and have made a habit of scoring key stoppage time goals, repeating the trick again last weekend to defeat Villarreal. They are a team with few stars but they do have quality in wide areas with winger Jony currently on 5 assists, more than any other player in the division besides Leo Messi. They’ve also scored the joint most headed goals in Europe’s big five leagues this season (along with Everton) which tells you a good deal about where their strengths lie.

Read more – Eibar vs Alaves preview

Rubi working wonders at Espanyol

Rayo Vallecano vs Espanyol Predictions, Betting Tips and Match Previews

Like Alaves, Espanyol were another side that were tipped to struggle this term. The departure of their only reliable striker Gerard Moreno in the summer left a big void to be filled but fortunately his replacement Borja Iglesias has delivered the goods. He was prolific in the second tier last term and has quickly settled into life at the higher level with 5 goals in La Liga this term.

The secret to Espanyol’s success largely comes at the other end though. Rubi, who never fully convinced in his previous stints as a top flight coach, appears to have matured during a successful year at Huesca and he has really got this Espanyol defence organised. The back four has been marshalled brilliantly by Mario Hermoso while the likes of Marc Roca provide good protection in midfield which has made them a tough side to break down. Their home form has also been key and Espanyol take a 100% record at the RCDE Stadium into this Monday’s clash with Athletic Bilbao.

Valladolid defying the odds on return to La Liga

Another team to have found some success largely thanks to solid defensive foundations is Real Valladolid. Heading into match-day 11, they boasted the second best defensive record in La Liga but crucially they’ve started to look more threatening at the other end too. A failure to score in any of their first four matches suggested they were going to be in for a very long season but out of nowhere they’ve hit form.

The turning point was a fine comeback on match-day five where they recovered from 2-0 and 3-1 down to draw 3-3 at Celta Vigo. They followed that up with four straight wins to climb from the bottom three to the top six in the blink of an eye and highlight just how quickly things can turn around for La Liga teams this season. They’ve already taken some pretty big steps towards securing survival in their first season at this level since 2014. With former Real Madrid and Brazil legend Ronaldo now their majority owner, it could be the start of something quite exciting for Valladolid fans although overall it’s virtually impossible to see them maintaining a top six position over the coming weeks and months with a squad that is a bit short on genuine attacking quality besides a couple of decent loan signings.

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Levante – The second best team in Spain since Lopez appointment

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There are all kinds of surprising stats that highlight what a strange season this has been so far in La Liga. One of the most remarkable is that only Barcelona have collected more points in the Spanish top flight than Levante, in the period since the Valencia club appointed Paco Lopez on 4th March this year. Levante have taken 41 points in 21 games under him, just 4 fewer than Barcelona.

Much like Abelardo at Alaves, he turned a relegation scrap into what turned out to be a comfortable survival last season. Many expected the bubble to quickly burst this time around and when they were thumped 6-2 at home by a rampant Sevilla side, that pretty emphatically looked to be the case. However they’ve found a new lease of life again since then, reeling off four straight victories to move into the top eight.

They are a team that seems to thrive on the underdog tag and enjoys playing on the break. Winger Jose Luis Morales has been hugely impressive with a couple of dazzling solo goals and he and striker Roger Marti have 10 goals between them this term. Lopez meanwhile already has a pretty impressive list of scalps to his name. Levante have already beaten both Real Madrid and Barcelona during his short stint at the helm while their 3-0 win at Real Betis on the opening day this term perhaps best highlighted how effective they can be despite regularly posting possession figures of well under 40%.

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