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Deportivo La Coruña: A Cautionary Tale

deportivoSpanish football.  Fútbol español.   Over the last decade, Spain has become the game’s spiritual home.  And why not?  Its national team is the first side to be defend the European title while reigning as World Champions.   Out of the last 20 Champions League semi-finals, a Spanish team has been present for 11 of them.  In fact, Barcelona has reached the semis seven out of the last eight years, earning three titles in the process.   Sevilla and Atlético Madrid have each earned themselves a brace of UEFA Cup/Europa League trophies.   Spain has the best co-efficient in Europe and FIFA has the national team leading the world rankings by a country mile.

But as the nation itself teeters between austerity and economic ruin, so must Spanish football clean up its financial house.   Like the Spanish economy, many clubs have lived beyond their means, wanting the things that they haven’t got… and then paying the price in the long run.

There is likely no better cautionary tale than that of Deportivo La Coruña: a small club that found short-term success through front-office debt and backroom decisions.  Until the early 90’s, the Galicians were a yo-yo club.  But after securing top-flight football in 1991, they picked up two young Brazilians, Bebeto and Mauro Silva.  The pair were excellent for both club and country, with Bebeto earning the Pichichi in 1993, and then scoring three goals as Brazil won the 1994 World Cup.   A year later, the pair helped Los Blancoazuis win their first-ever Copa del Rey.

Roy Makaay was arguably Europe’s best player during his Depor days.

The club’s pinnacle came in 2000, when Diego Tristán and Roy Makaay led Deportivo to their first and only league title.  That win kicked off five straight seasons of Champions League football, culminating in 2004 where they were a penalty kick away from the finals.  If they kept eventual champions Porto from scoring from open play, who knows what they could have done against Monaco in Gelsenkirchen?  Tristán and Makaay won the Pichichi in 2002 and 2003, respectively, with Makaay earning the European Golden Boot as well.   Between 2000 and 2004, Deportivo La Coruña were Spain’s most consistent team in league football.

But after a series of mid-table finishes — and no money from Champions League football — the tiny team was in over its head financially.   Players begin to leave with the club still owing them wages.  (Albert Luque claims that he is still owed €2.1M.   He left in 2005).  Deportivo finally hit bottom in 2011 when they were sent back to the second division after a 20-year stay in the top flight.   “Superdépor” was no more.

The club came back on the bounce, but the signs were not good in 2012-2013.  The first half of the season was filled with multi-goal disasters: a 5-1 loss to Real Madrid; a 5-4 loss to Barcelona that could have been uglier; a promising start against Real Zaragoza that ended with the Aragonese side coming back to win 5-3; a disheartening 6-0 loss to Atletico Madrid.  By Christmas, Deportivo were dead last.

The team could find the back of the net and they spread the goals around.  But they couldn’t defend to save their life.  Manager José Luis Oltra was good enough to get them out of the second division, but he just wasn’t the man they needed for the Primera.   Just before New Year’s Eve, the club dumped Oltra and brought in former Portuguese international Domingos.  But the 43-year-old lasted just 41 days (a delicious parallel to Brian Clough at Leeds United, who later also overextended themselves for Champions League football and paid the price).  On March 10th, club brass brought in Galician “national” team manager Fernando Vázquez, who had coached Deportivo’s rivals Celta Vigo just five years before.

The Vázquez era began poorly, but it was to be expected.  His first four matches in charge were against Sevilla, Real Madrid, Barca and then an inexplicably successful Rayo Vallecano.   In those four matches, A Coruña went 0-3-1, giving up seven goals in the process.  It was their season in miniature.

But then came the Galician derby at the Riazor, a nasty affair between two clubs who were trying to claw their way off the bottom of the table.  A 3-1 victory over Vázquez’ old employers sparked a seven-game unbeaten streak, easing fears that Los Turcos were headed back to the Segunda after only one season.  And even though they lost two of their next three games, they were out of the drop zone heading into their last match.

Alas, it was not to be.  Deportivo dropped their final game 1-0 to Real Sociedad, a club hungry to taste European football for the first time since 2003-2004 (a season when Sociedad, Deportivo and Celta Vigo were all Champions League participants).  Meanwhile, down the AP-9, Vigo got past a middling Espanyol to survive another season in the top flight.  It hurt Deportivo to drop back down again.  But to do so while helping your biggest rival stay up? Galling.

It wasn’t the last of Deportivo’s woes.   In January, the club had applied for bankruptcy protection, with an estimated debt load of over €150M, more than a third of that owed to the Spanish government.    Panic set in among the players who demanded the club pay their outstanding wages.   A last-minute deal with creditors at the end of July — literally 15 minutes to midnight — saved them from getting dropped into the third division.  But that meant a) many players were out the door, including their two top scorers, and b) any player acquisitions had to be approved by debt administrators.

Eight of the league’s top-flight clubs — eight!!! — were in administration last season.  Twenty-four of Spain’s top two division teams have done the same over the last two years.  But obviously, not all of them were relegated.  Being a second-tier team makes things tough for Deportivo, who won’t be able to play the Big Two with their massive television audiences, unless they get them in the Cup.   But even though they have had a uneven start, it is still early and promotion is still a reasonable goal.

Bad business practices, player flight, unfair television deals: these aren’t unique to Deportivo La Coruña.   Clubs like Valencia, Villareal, Sociedad, Zaragoza have all been stung in the past few years (Sociedad were relegated after their last CL appearance and spent three years in Primera exile).   Nor are these problems unique to Spain.   But with several good players leaving what is supposed to be the best league in the world, and with so many eyes watching around the globe, Spain’s problems become embarrassingly obvious.

Deportivo’s problems are fixable.  So are Spain’s.  But it will be a long haul back to where they were just a few years ago.

Brent Lanthier

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Leeds, Ipswich long for Red Letter Days

Leeds United turned back the clock this weekend

Rewind 10 years to May 2001.  Manchester United had just won their English third league title in a row. It was the first time a single manager — Sir Alex Ferguson — managed the feat.  Arsenal came in second, pipping Liverpool to the spot on the last day of the season.  But the Merseysiders shed few tears, winning a treble of trophies — UEFA Cup, FA & League Cups — and earning a third-place finish that would put them in the Champions League, their first foray into top-tier European football since the Hillsborough disaster.

The top of the table was awash in a sea of red.  But just below them were the other colours of the Union Jack: Leeds United white and Ipswich Town blue.  Both teams were riding high. Both teams would find their success short-lived.

Fast forward 10 years to the present day.  Leeds and Ipswich have spent much of the last decade in the lower leagues, unable to replicate the success of 2000-2001.  Now both teams must go through Arsenal to have any chance of cup glory this season.

Ipswich Town
Back in 2001, both clubs were riding high.  Ipswich had only been promoted the previous season and were widely picked to go down again.  But they stayed in the top six for much of the campaign,  finishing fifth and earning George Burley the Manager of the Year award.  They also picked up a place in the UEFA Cup, the trophy they had won 20 years earlier.

George Burley: Manager of the Year 2001

But that success turned out to be a blip.  After their fifth place finish, the Tractor Boys spent much of the next season at the foot of the table and were relegated, entering administration in the process.  They’ve remained in the First Division/Championship ever since. Ipswich came close to coming back up, securing play-off spots in 2004 and 2005, but lost both times to West Ham.  Since then, they’ve have simply floundered.  The hiring of former Ipswich great Jim Magilton, and then Man U giant Roy Keane, did nothing for either the club’s results… or for the idea of using unqualified players as managers.

Leeds United
For Leeds, the heights were even loftier. Although they slipped from the previous season’s third-place finish, they made up for it in 2001 by going all the way to the Champions League semi-finals.  A 3-0 defeat to Valencia prevented them from facing their opponents in the 1975 final, Bayern Munich.

That Leeds side featured several young players who would make names for themselves at other clubs: Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Rio Ferdinand.

Leeds: Too good to go down…

But like Icarus flying to close to the sun, the Yorkshire side was burned by pride.  Buoyed by Leeds’ domestic and European success, Chairman Peter Risdale borrowed heavily to secure new players. That proved to be short-sighted: their fourth-place league finish meant they had to settle for the UEFA league.  Leeds lost much-need television revenue and they began their descent.

The team was forced to sell star players to fund debts, killing morale at the club.  Leeds were relegated in 2004, and then dropped again to League One in 2007.  After two playoff losses in a row, the Whites finally got promoted to the Championship last season with a second-place finish.

Cup Success?
One club has rebounded, one has not.  The difference between the two was evident this weekend.   Ipswich sacked Keane on Friday, just two days before the East Anglians were to face Chelsea in the FA Cup.  Owner Marcus Evans was unhappy with Ipswich being in 19th place, but his timing was awful.  The champions and cup holders humiliated Evans’ team, 7-0.

Meanwhile, Leeds — who sit in fifth — almost earned a famous win at the Emirates, if not for a Theo Walcott dive in the dying minutes.  United must now fancy their chances with the replay being held in the intimidating environs of Elland Road.  If they win, a West Yorkshire derby awaits at home against Huddersfield Town.

Ipswich still have a chance at redemption.  New gaffer Paul Jewell will lead them out against the Gooners today at home, in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Ipswich are 7-1-6 at Portman Road.  But after five trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger is hungry for silverware and isn’t likely to let up on the Tractor Boys.

Ten years ago, both Leeds United and Ipswich Town were riding high.  Now, after a decade of being left red-faced, both clubs are hoping for a blue-ribbon day against a formidable opponent, lest they are forced to wave the white flag of surrender.

Brent Lanthier

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Fergie’s Fantasy: The Dream Team

Lamps' hernia operation means no fantasy points

We are only five weeks into the season, but many fantasy managers are already thinking about using their “wild card” to start again from scratch (unless you’re like me, and you’ve already used it).

How else can you make up for mistakes, like thinking poor World Cup play by Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres wouldn’t carry over into the Premier league? Did you really think this is the year Cesc Fabregas stays healthy? How could you guess that Frank Lampard wouldn’t even rate as one of the three Chelsea players you should have in your line-up?

To help you in your search for the “best of the best”, here’s the top scoring players at each position so far. Without regard for the rules of the fantasy game — you can only have three players from any given club, and your salary cap wouldn’t allow you to afford all of the players below — I bring you the dream starting 11… (if you had to play by all the rules, it would be a “dream” team now would it?)

FORWARDS

Didier Drogba – Chelsea

As I mentioned, two of the most threatening strikers in the league — Rooney and Torres — are off to very slow starts. But last year’s Golden Boot winner Didier Drogba has picked up exactly where he left off, and thus is the Premier League’s most valuable fantasy point getter. He’s also the most expensive player in the league but I suggest you suck it up, pay his price, and make him your captain every week until he starts to slow down. Drogba is not only scoring goals, he’s also setting them up and taking the corners while Lampard has been injured. That makes him even more valuable.

Berba finally starts flying...

Dimitar Berbatov – Manchester United

On a team with Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, and new signing Javier Hernandez, Manchester United’s Bulgarian striker had to show some spark early on and he’s done just that. Witness how he single-handedly took apart Liverpool last week with a hat trick,  including a bicycle kick goal that will be a contender for goal of the year. With play like this, it will be impossible for Sir Alex Ferguson to keep him out of the lineup.

Carlos Tevez – Manchester City

This Argentinian bulldog is technically tied with Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll at this point… but I expect Carroll to fade and Tevez to come on even stronger. Man City have a wealth of striker options but Tevez seems to be the only one with any consistency right now. The fact that he’s regularly outperforming Rooney couldn’t be more annoying for United fans.

MIDFIELDERS

Florent Malouda – Chelsea

Here’s a player who has overcome his World Cup woes after playing for France. Malouda has shown an impressive scoring touch so far, and an obviously improved chemistry with his teammates after taking the bulk of last year getting used to life in the Premier League. I see no reason why his form would dip. A must-have purchase for all fantasy managers, as his price keeps going up.

Kalou on top... but for how long?

Salomon Kalou – Chelsea

Kalou is reaching the potential Chelsea thought he would have when they signed him. His four goals in five games is all the more impressive when you consider he only started two of those games. He could be a risky long-term prospect as I’m not sure he’ll start as often when Lampard comes back… if the rest of team stays healthy. But he’s on fire right now at a good price: he could be a strong short-term pick-up.

Nani – Manchester United

You are likely smarter than me anyway, but you are definitely smarter than me if you took Nani at the beginning of the season. With Valencia rounding into form at the end of last year, it appeared Nani might be a useful substitute. However, he’s now proving to be an indispensible supplier of crosses into the box for United and has the ability to score, given the chance. If another player brushes up against him, he goes down like he received an uppercut to the face, but there’s no fantasy deductions for that!

Theo Walcott – Arsenal

Gooners were ecstatic to see Walcott get off to a flying start with four goals in the first three games… especially since he’s never scored more than four in a whole season! His pace gives him the ability to score almost every time he gets the ball and some space to work in and now he’s playing with a lot of confidence. The only problem? He’s injured and it’s likely he’s won’t be back until sometime in October. Keep an eye on him when he returns as he could be worth a transfer into your squad if he keeps it up.

Defenders

Ashley Cole – Chelsea

The quantity of Chelsea players on this list is a bit annoying, but there’s nothing bad you can say about Cole’s performance this year. He’s made great runs down the left side for years, but now it seems those crosses always get to someone in blue who will put them in the back of the net. Cole is pricey, but he’s the top scoring defender in the league right now, so you get what you pay for.

Captain Schtupping has yet to face serious opposition

John Terry – Chelsea

I wouldn’t necessarily introduce him to my girlfriend, but it’s hard to do better in selecting a defender. Again, he’s expensive but you get what you pay for. Chelsea are likely to continue racking up clean sheets and Terry is virtually a constant presence on their back four.

Micah Richards – Manchester City

Richards has played every moment so far for Manchester City and has helped them keep two clean sheets, along with the occasional assist. You could also look at Nemanja Vidic from Man United or Alex from Chelsea, but Richards is a lot cheaper and is sure to play in every game.

Goalkeeper

Hart has only allowed two goal so far

Joe Hart – Manchester City

A big part of the reason Micah Richards is on this list is the amazing play of Joe Hart. He’s showing that he should have been the man for England in South Africa (i.e. he has yet to throw a ball into his own net). Hart has a bright future and his fantasy value is also only going to go up.

Scott Ferguson

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Valencia continue to amaze

Hadi Zogheib

While the headlines across Spain in recent months have revolved around the mega clubs, Valencia’s remarkable consistency may be the story of the year in La Liga. Sure Barcelona, with the phenomenal brilliance of Lionel Messi and co., look set win the title. And the return of Los Galacticos, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, has kept the race interesting. But under the radar of many, Valencia continues to impress each week, although they have been more pedestrian in the past two months.


Photo from fOTOGLIF


What makes their story all the more amazing is the fact that they are playing scintillating football in the midst of rumours that their two superstars will be sold to relieve the club’s crushing debt. With the number reportedly hovering around the 500 million euro mark, is it any wonder that the board is considering all of its options? And yet, the team keeps on winning. Meanwhile, the media continues to speculate on where David Villa and David Silva will be playing next year. Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United have all shown a keen interest in one or both of these players but, for now, none of that seems to matter.

Valencia’s success this season can be attributed to many factors, but its road form is the most eye-catching. They began the season a remarkable 7-2-2 away from the Mestalla and, despite a five-match road winless streak, have maintained a solid foothold on third place and an automatic Champions League spot for next season. David Navarro has been the anchor in a solid defence and the emergence of holding midfielder Ever Banega has been a revelation. This has allowed attacking players such as Silva, Juan Mata and Pablo Hernandez more freedom to terrorize opposition defences.

And let’s not forget number 7. While the off-field soap opera continues, Villa has proven time and again why he may be the most coveted striker in Europe. Only Messi’s brilliance has kept him out of the running for the pichichi, given to the highest goal scorer in Spain. Is there anyone more automatic from 12 yards in?

While the La Liga crown remains out of reach for Los Che, they can still exert an influence on the title race, with a visit to Madrid’s Bernabeu on tap this Sunday. While they’ll be valuable summer targets, not many in the capital will be happy to see Villa and Silva in town this weekend.

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