Football NewsMonday 26th December 2016

LaLiga: The best of the season so far

LaLiga: The best of the season so far

Best Team: Real Madrid

I don’t think anyone can dispute this but feel free to prove me wrong. Zinedine Zidane’s reign at Real Madrid has been nothing short of remarkable, whether you believe that’s down to pure luck or Madrid having finally found the right man to control the egos which run riot at the Santiago Bernabeu. After just under 12 months in charge he’s won more titles, three (Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup), than losses, two (Atletico Madrid, Wolfsburg).

It’s 37-matches unbeaten for Zidane, a new club record, and what’s more impressive is that record remains intact after already going away to both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona this season. Even the most ardent rival of Madrid has to tip their head to what has been an almost flawless opening six months of the season.

Best Player: Lionel Messi

He might not have won a Golden Ball or a Golden Melon as his manager Luis Enrique called it, but Messi has been sensational this season. There’s a definite change in his style of play compared to previous years, perhaps age taking its toll or merely a way to prolong his legacy in football at the highest level, but he’s still an absolute pleasure to watch.

Unlike the buccaneering 90-minute displays we’re used to, Messi instead decides to save his moments of brilliance for a 20-30 minute spell and that’s usually the difference maker for Barcelona. Often on the peripheries of matches, some rival fans even going as far to call him lazy (don’t anger the man, you fools) but he’s as influential as ever. 23 goals and 8 assists in just 20 matches show when Messi’s not involved, he’s simply recharging his batteries.

Best Goal: Kevin-Prince Boateng (Las Palmas vs Villarreal)

Most goals which make highlight reels, Vines (RIP) and YouTube compilations tend to be moments of individual brilliance. A stunning volley from 30 yards out, an overhead kick or perhaps a thundering free kick that goes in from off the bar. One standout goal from one standout player. However, the Las Palmas goal, which was finished off by Kevin-Prince Boateng, was as beautiful a team goal as you’ll see anywhere in football.

To describe it in simple terms, it was like one of those goals you scored with your mates when you went down to the park. The one which you didn’t expect to end up with a goal as you calmly knocked it about until someone flicked the ball into the air and that forced everyone, to begin with, the fancy flicks. A lofted through ball into the box is back-heeled into the path of the Prince who scissor kicks it beyond Sergio Asenjo. Worth the price of admission alone.

Most Improved Team: Real Sociedad

After finishing second place in LaLiga back in 2002/03, Real Sociedad flatlined and ultimately ended up being relegated. They spent three seasons in Spain’s second tier before returning to the top division. A couple of years of consolidation was needed but in 2012, it looked like the club had finally found its feet when they returned to the Champions League. And then they dropped off the pace again.

Managerial upheavals and failed experiments left many disillusioned up in San Sebastian but this season has bucked the trend. Much of that is down to Carlos Vela, who can be a game changer when he wants to, but it’s also thanks to Asier Illarramendi, Xavi Prieto, and David Zurutuza in midfield. There’s a beautifully balanced squad available to Eusebio and, to his credit, he’s getting the most out of it. A shock result away to Deportivo aside, they’ve been one of the best teams in the league so far.

Most Disappointing Team: Valencia

How can it be anyone else? The problems at Valencia seem to increase with each passing day and due to the frustration amongst fans and the local media, every molehill that rears its head is swiftly turned into Mount Everest. It’s like watching three kids fighting over the same toy, each agreeing to let the other ones have a turn, but at the same time refusing to let go – and it’s breaking.

You have to fear the worst, and this time the worst is a very real possibility. When this team was littered with stars it came dangerously close to being relegated. Now, with all those stars gone, the club remains in the thick of it at the wrong end of the table and there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest things will drastically change. Valencia might find themselves ‘fuori’ of LaLiga come May.

Most Improved Player: Steven N’Zonzi

It was a tough call between the giant amongst men Steven N’Zonzi and the previously mentioned Carlos Vela, but I’ve just given the nod to the Sevilla man. Often viewed in England as merely a big man who was a threat at set pieces but technically lacking to succeed at a higher level, N’Zonzi has proven everyone wrong during his time in Spain.

Despite Monchi’s fantastic record when it comes to transfer dealings more than a few raised an eyebrow at the signing of Stoke City’s hard man. And once again, Monchi was right. N’Zonzi is a lot more than a set piece threat and someone who loves to tackle. He’s composed on the ball, brilliant at reading the play and more than capable of picking out a pass to get a move going. It’s no surprise to see the biggest clubs in both Spain and England expressing an interest in the former France U21 midfielder who has been key in Sevilla’s, up to now, title challenge.

Most Disappointing Player: Neymar

I know, I know. Some of you are going to be cursing at the screen and throwing things around the room as you see Neymar’s name but, honestly, it’s true. The Brazilian international was expected to challenge for Messi’s throne at Barcelona this term after finally securing an international trophy with the national team during the summer. It meant so much to him, you could see that.

Yet while Neymar hasn’t been awful this season for Barcelona, it’s fair to say he’s been disappointing. Discontent towards his performances is commonplace at the Camp Nou and Arda Turan, who is scoring for fun when given a chance, is perhaps a more worthy starter than the Brazilian on current form. Neymar hasn’t scored since the 2nd October in LaLiga, eight matches without a goal, and maybe needs the winter break to rest after a non-stop year of football.

Best Signing: Pablo Piatti

This is probably the toughest category to judge as so many teams made smart signings this summer. Samir Nasri at Sevilla, Nicola Sansone at Villarreal, Diego Lopez at Espanyol, Florin Andone at Deportivo and Willian Jose at Real Sociedad could all have won without many complaints. However, for me, Pablo Piatti’s performances at Espanyol just edge him ahead of the rest.

Deemed as surplus by Valencia, someone they didn’t fight to keep hold of, Espanyol moved quickly to secure the signature of the Argentinian winger. He’s scored five goals and provided eight assists in 13 appearances this season and, while the defensive line at the Barcelona-based club is superb, Piatti is playing a key role in the side’s offensive record. At 27-years-old he’s coming into his peak, looks back to his best, and it’d only take €1.3m to make his move up north permanent. What a signing.