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La Liga Rings In The Changes

Happy New Year, La Liga aficionados! The holiday winter break is finally over and Spanish football is back in full swing. So what’ll happen in the world’s best league in 2016? Besides Barca winning the UEFA Champions League, Atletico Madrid claiming the league, Spain defending the Euros and Real Madrid firing Zinedine Zidane, who knows?

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By Cesar Benoit

The year is barely 6 days old and already Real Madrid is making big news, with the sacking of head coach Rafa Benitez. Let’s be honest: This wasn’t a match made in heaven. I gave him until April but once his team lost the plot to Barcelona 4-0 earlier this season, the writing was on the wall.

The world’s most impatient club has lost just 3 league matches (and drawn 4) but that wasn’t good enough for President Florentino Perez and friends. 17 points have slipped away from the Galacticos in the opening 18 weeks of the season. Madrid couldn’t beat Barcelona, Sevilla, Atletico, Villarreal, or Valencia. That spells doom.

Valencia’s Mestalla stadium showered Rafa with love this past weekend, something he didn’t receive often at the Bernabeu. Rafa won two league titles with Los Che in ‘02 and ‘04 and this was his first match at the old grounds since leaving for Liverpool in ‘04.

Mestalla is a notoriously tough place to play. Barca drew there and Valencia hasn’t lost a home match in all of 2015. Madrid had their chances (and I’d be remiss not to mention the amazing Karim Benzema goal from the first half. Pure beauty), but Valencia controlled large portions of the match, especially after Mateo Kovacic’s red card in the second half.

Madrid Lacks Grit

Truth be told, Madrid lacks grit. It’s too heavy on attack and is scarce in fortitude and toughness. That’s on President Perez, who thinks of buying the shiny new toy every season and doesn’t focus enough on building a balanced squad. He certainly didn’t do a good job with this incantation of Real Madrid and he most definitely set Benitez up for inevitable failure. Rafa shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. But Carlo Ancelotti shouldn’t have been fired to begin with, so …Here’s new coach Zinedine Zidane, a veritable legend of the game.

He’s embarking on his first top-flight managerial job, for which his only experience is 18 months with the youngsters at Real Madrid B, down in Spain’s 80-team, regionalized third tier. He comes mid-way through the season, inheriting a team in third place, who’ve been whistled by their own fans during every home game for six weeks.

Perez is setting him up for success, eh?

My prediction: Zidane does better than expected but still ends the season third. Or even fourth. Zidane has more leeway with the fans and board because he’s a club legend. But don’t think the trigger won’t be pulled should Zizou find himself on the short end of a losing streak and a shiny new toy like Jose Mourinho is still available. Zidane will be sacked by November.

There’s other news, friends.

Barcelona’s 14-month FIFA transfer ban is finally over. What did they do? Sign 77 new players! No, I’m not kidding. Of course, this is spread all across their different age group teams. The two signings who will make a significant impact? Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, who made their debuts in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey match against Espanyol.

Did you see the league table? Atletico Madrid is in first place. Sure, Barca have played one less match due to their Club World Cup commitments (they won that cup, by the way). But still, Atleti is in front by 2 points. They’re ultra defensive and don’t score enough but they have the most wins in the league. Some luck? Yes. But so what?

Gary Neville. How’s it going? The new Valencia coach hasn’t won a league match yet, but the team looks better. They’re better positioned, they’re tactically more sound and they hustle more than under former coach Nuno. Neville now says he wants to stay past the summer and there’s a chance the Manchester United legend could lose the interim tag.

Their 2-2 draw against Madrid was a tantalizing game and should Valencia play with that intensity every week, they’d see significant improvement.

Villarreal has won 5 in a row.  They’re six ahead of Athletic, 10 ahead of Sevilla and 13 ahead of Valencia. They’ve beaten Real Madrid (third), Valencia (10th) and now Depor (seventh), all top-four rivals and they now have a five-point buffer on fifth-place Celta Vigo. Look out: The Yellow Submarine are back.

Beyond that, it’s a muddled picture.

Vigo are fifth and are 5 in front of 9th place Sevilla. Valencia is way back in 10th on 23 points. The relegation battle is also murky, with seven clubs within striking distance of the last three spots.

The only certainty? Levante. Valencia’s other club is on 11 points, 4 behind 19th place and don’t look like they’re making up the difference. It’s getting late early. The league is halfway through next week.

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