The mere task of winning promotion into any of Europe’s top-flight leagues is arduous to say the least. That isn’t to imply that second divisions are havens for amateurish or clunky football (quite the contrary, particularly in Spain). But it does mean that a potential life-or-death degree of money and exposure lay ahead for your club if you could only win the league or navigate your way in through the promotion playoffs.
Stakes are high, and they continue to rise even after your promotion is achieved. Getting there is one thing; staying there is another. This year’s batch of promoted sides in La Liga consists of both new and old, green and experienced. But regardless of the decorated or not-so-decorated histories of each of these clubs, one thing’s for sure: It’ll be an absolute grind.
Longtime La Liga mainstays, Real Betis, re-enter Spain’s top-flight after a one-year hiatus. After a slow start in the Segunda last season, and multiple manager changes, former boss Pepe Mel returned to the Villamarin last December to play knight in shining armor for the Beticos. Under the Spaniard’s leadership, the club won the Liga Adelante title, scoring the most goals in the division, as well as maintaining the best goal-differential. This campaign will mark their 50th in Spain’s Primera.
Betis have spent hard and well on veteran additions this off-season. Didier Digard, Heiko Westermann, and Juan Manuel Vargas represent an experienced core of acquisitions that should figure into Mel’s squad without upsetting it. Undoubtedly the biggest pick-up, however, comes in the form of Rafael Van der Vaart, who Betis nabbed from Hamburg on a free transfer in June. Even in Andalusia’s most green of forests, leadership and quality at the level of the Dutchman’s doesn’t grow on trees. If the former Real Madrid player, now 32 years-of-age, finds his feet early, this could be the steal of the summer.
But you don’t necessarily have to look outwards to find where Betis plans to improve this season. When it comes to projecting development, few in Spain appear to have a higher ceiling than 19-year-old midfielder Dani Ceballos. The ex-Sevilla product spent his summer helping Spain’s U-19s capture the UEFA U-19 European Championship title, in which he was named to the Team of the Tournament. Look for a breakout season from the youngster.
Of course, much of Betis’s success will come down to the production of one man: Ruben Castro. An injury prior to the 2013-14 season kept the forward on the sidelines for a large portion of the season; a fact that surely aided in their eventual relegation. But regardless of the past, Castro hasn’t lost a step and even finished last season as the Segunda’s top scorer with a staggering 34 goals. The 34-year-old has now led Betis in scoring for the last four seasons. If the Beticos hope to survive — and maybe even thrive — it’ll be on the back of Castro’s goals.
Having bowed out of last year’s promotion playoffs sooner than expected, Sporting Gijon were deadset on going the auto-route this time around. The Rojiblancos capped a stellar 2014-15 campaign by finishing second in the Segunda. This promotion brings an end to their three-year La Liga absence.
Under club legend Abelardo Fernandez and defensive stand-outs like Alberto Lora and Luis Hernandez, Sporting have become a defensive juggernaut in their time away from the bright lights. Their automatic promotion was heavily reliant on them having second-best goal-differential in the Segunda (both finishing on 82 points, Sporting held the second-place tie-breaker over Girona). They had far and away the fewest goals-allowed in the division with 27 (next best was Girona with 35); a tally that resulted in only two losses all season — with a club-record 20-match unbeaten run in there as well. To put that in perspective, the next fewest amount of losses was eight (Betis, Girona, and Las Palmas). Simply put, Sporting were the best defensive unit in the second division last season, and it wasn’t even close.
The other side of this coin, however, is Sporting’s mild attack. Miguel Guerrero led the side in goals last year with a mere eleven. To be fair, both Jony and Pablo Perez also contributed seven, while the extremely promising Carlos Castro notched nine — admittedly not terrible outputs, particularly for blossoming young talent. But the numbers don’t lie, and despite winning auto-promotion, Sporting’s goals-for tally was the worst out of any side in the Segunda’s top six. In an attack-heavy league such as La Liga, this can and will be an issue.
A born-and-bred Austurian, Abelardo’s managerial style hinges on his undying faith in Sporting’s youth academy. Because of the club’s bare transfer kitty, the boss has turned to many of the players from Sporting’s developmental squad, Sporting B, who Abelardo used to coach. Of the first-team’s current 25-man squad, fifteen have previously played for Sporting B.
The Rojiblancos come into La Liga with a very combative, almost Diego Simeone-esque acumen. Abelardo, a former central defender, has them well oiled and inspired to compete every time out. That might not be enough, however. Due to their aforementioned financial issues, the only additions Sporting have made this summer have been loans (Tonny Sanabria from Roma and Omar Mascarell from Real Madrid Castilla). Considering they will almost certainly allow more goals this season having to come up against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the question remains: Can Sporting score enough goals to offset the ones they’ll surely concede? If not, this could be a short stay on the mountain for the Rojiblancos.
Fate couldn’t have been crueler for Las Palmas last June in the La Liga promotion playoff final. Winning 1-0 at home to Cordoba in injury-time, hordes of Las Palmas fans prematurely stormed the pitch to celebrate their perceived promotion to the top-flight. But the game wasn’t over. As the supporters were ushered back to their seats, the game continued. And with confusion and chaos reigning at every end of the pitch, Cordoba managed to grab a last gasp equalizer, putting the visitors through on away goals.
Twelve months later, Las Palmas were back in the playoffs. This time, though, they would not be denied. In a thrilling tie, the Canarians defeated Real Zaragoza on away goals, 3-3.
Though they’ve spent nine straight seasons in the Segunda, Las Palmas could very well surprise the top-flight. A first division regular up until the 1980’s, the Amarillos and their fans believe they belong among the giants of Spanish football. Like Sporting Gijon, Las Palmas are a club who relies intently on its homegrown talent. A baffling eighteen of the current squad of 25 were born and developed in Gran Canaria. The club’s commitment to youth and identity is a great testament to the islands’ genuine love for football. And it very much shows in their soccer.
Lead by Catalan manager Paco Herrera, Las Palmas employ an entertaining style of attacking football. Alongside Betis, they lead the Liga Adelante in goals with 73, thanks largely to the efforts of lead striker Sergio Araujo. The former Boca Juniors product contributed 23 tallies, a number bettered in the division by only Ruben Castro. Just 23-years-of-age and a knack for the spectacular, 2015/16 looks to be a vital season with immense expectations for Araujo.
Las Palmas are equipped with a wealth of talent from top-to-bottom. The presence of veterans like Juan Carlos Valeron, Nauzet, and David Garcia assures that the newbies won’t be pushed around or out of their depth amongst Spain’s heavy hitters. Still, Las Palmas’ key player could yet be winger Jonathan Viera, who has permanently made his way back to Gran Canaria after failed spells with Valencia, Rayo Vallecano, and Standard Liege. The 25-year-old looks to be finally peaking while at his boyhood club, and will continue to be a crucial cog for the Amarillos in attack. Each of these players discussed bring to La Liga with them bags of experience and quality. And, perhaps most importantly, they each bleed amarillo.