Football Features

The morbid curiosity of watching a natural disaster: La Liga’s three most thrilling clubs

By Ruairidh Barlow

Published: 16:03, 29 November 2021

La Liga might be shorter of star power than in recent years and nothing sells quite like… fiscal responsibility…?

However, if there’s one thing that Spanish football has in abundance, it’s a seemingly endless depth of technicians worth watching and storylines worth binging.

Here’s your guide to the three most thrilling dramas in the land.

Rayo Vallecano

This is a team ready to nourish you with all of the footballing vitamins you could want. A decent-sized, vociferous support packed into an old ground to roar on the pride of a tight-knit community. That support, characterised by fan group Los Bukaneros (The Buccaneers), is an institution and good for some humour too: once staging a mock funeral for football by walking a coffin into Vallecas to protest kick off times.

Yet what was once the cosy retreat for those with an affinity for the club’s identity is now the hot ticket in Madrid, for the very simple reason that Rayo Vallecano are a suave, serious football outfit. Sneaking into to the promotion play-offs last season by securing sixth on the final day of the Segunda season, Rayo already find themselves six in the big league.

On top of that, they also secured the services of maturing superstar Radamel Falcao to lure the public in. Uniting his predatory instincts with the best No. 10 in Spain so far, Óscar Trejo, there is a decent chance of magic every time Rayo take to the pitch. Flicking, caressing and cushioning seven assists into the path of his teammates, only Karim Benzema can compete with Trejo’s creativity.

In fact, only Benzema’s Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Real Betis have scored more goals than Rayo in La Liga so far this season. Los Franjirrojos’ 15 matches have yielded 39 of those in total – only six other teams can boast more (two of which are in the bottom four, conceding the most goals). Although their manager Andoni Iraola might not be quite as eccentric as the iconic Paco Jémez, bombastic press conferences are unnecessary. The product on the pitch is entertaining enough. The influence of his former bosses Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde gleam through Iraola’s work – and his work is shining.

Valencia

In this tightest of La Liga seasons where the peloton is a tightly congested, almost singular mass of jostling shoulders, there’s a melancholy that Valencia are not in the Champions League hunt. In contrast to last season, however, there is reason to watch them.

Last year the club showed the exhaustion brought by many years of internal war. The consequence was a dull team without purpose, which has since been given a double dose of adrenaline by new manager José Bordalás. On the pitch at least, there is blunt edge and a fight. Losing is once again a problem at Mestalla, it’s only to be contemplated after scuffles, acrimony and many, many tactical fouls. In other words, a team being remade in the image of their manager. The perfect villain, Bordalás’ resting level of irritation resembles José Mourinho with a bone to pick – which, even without the football, is fun.

It’s the driving force behind this Valencia team, however. That newfound boxer’s mentality has led to some great comebacks. Two goals down in stoppage time to the reigning champions, substitute Hugo Duro scored twice to secure a 3-3 draw with Atlético Madrid in the 97th minute. What’s remarkable, is that they did the same against Real Mallorca just two weeks earlier, which accounts for four of the six goals they’ve scored in the 88th minute or later.

Being able to call on reserves of grit like that is a source of pride for manager and fans alike. For the neutral, it’s the fact they are in the process of being remade that brings so much suspense. That grit is being used to fill in for imperfections. Valencia matches average 2.73 goals yet that adds up to a measly goal difference of +1. All of those late goals were to rescue draws too. In perhaps the best game of the season so far, Los Che were left devastated by two late Real Madrid goals, rendering a brilliant performance redundant. Valencia might not be perfect yet, but they’ve come a long way from dreary.

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Barcelona

Rain hammering down, darkness reigns only to be lit in a gothic freeze-frame – there’s something engrossing about viewing a thunderstorm from the safety of your home. More so with natural phenomena: when it comes to witnessing volcanoes and the like, a morbid fascination kicks in.

That’s kind of what Barcelona are at the moment: a natural disaster. Granted this is of their own making, but the brutal nature of their demise is one normally registered on the Richter scale. There’s a case to be made that no big club has fallen from their previous heights so fast.

“Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe ****,” said Gennaro Gattuso, to put it another way. Few other sides could be three goals to the good at half-time, only to then crumble to a draw in the 96th minute as Barcelona recently did against Celta Vigo. That being so, it’s not the goals you come for. Their 0-0 draw with Benfica was thrilling. You watch because of that morbid curiosity, in the knowledge that you may witness a catastrophe at any moment. Impossible is nothing, Celta’s sponsor would say.

On the flip-side, club legend Xavi Hernández has now taken over a group of talented youngsters, with a smattering of stars, under the explicit promise of entertaining football. There are plenty of reasons to suggest an upswing is coming and those prospects hold the key to turning things around. Even the most optimistic observer can’t ignore the desperate circumstances that have put them there though. Against Espanyol in Xavi’s first match, nine of the 15 outfield players used were aged 22 or under, a sign of very limited resources he has to work with.

The state of flux Barcelona find themselves in is unique, and that translates to a captivating watch on the pitch. Rarely, if ever, will a club of this size play so many academy graduates in the modern era. Xavi’s task is to convert a broken side into an operational footballing idea capable of going head-to-head with any opponent, supported by a backbone of teenagers and veterans in their mid-thirties. It’s a compelling experiment at any rate.

Article produced by Ruairidh Barlow in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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