There’s change in the air in La Liga. Real Madrid are in crisis, and Barcelona have a lost a touch of their formerly impenetrable air.
New challengers are sensing an opportunity, including Espanyol, Real Valladolid and Levante.
But the star of the season so far is Deportivo Alaves.
The club, from Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain’s Basque region, are not a big club. Their best days were at the turn of the century with a sixth place finish in La Liga in 2000, before losing to Liverpool in that famous 5-4 UEFA Cup Final in 2001.
This is only their fourth season in the top flight since that cup loss. They finished 14th last season but now they sit second, just a point behind Barcelona having won six of their opening 10 games, including victory over Real Madrid.
What’s the secret behind their new-found success?
A magic manager
Alaves appeared doomed last season. They lost 11 of their opening 13 matches and change was desperately needed.
In came former Barcelona hero Abelardo to succeed Gianni De Biasi, and the new boss brought about an instant impact.
Alaves won their first game under their new boss, coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Girona.
That win was followed by 12 more to comfortably ensure survival.
A smart and sensible summer
Despite owning one of the smallest budgets in the division, Alaves and Abelardo spent and dealt wisely in the summer.
In came the experienced right-back Ximo Navarro for just £1m. John Guidetti has added a presence up front after a £3m move from Celta Vigo, and central-midfielder Tomas Pina is proving to be a bargain at £1.35m from Club Brugge.
Alaves have been smart in the loan market too. Borja Baston has arrived after a torrid time at Swansea City, and bagged a 94th minute winner against Villarreal last weekend, while Jony Rodriguez has supplied five assists so far during his loan move from Malaga.
And Argentine striker and one-time West Ham United forward Jonathan Calleri is another loan success. The 25-year-old has netted three times in seven games.
Consistency brings success
Abelardo doesn’t have a large squad to choose from, but he’s working with what he’s got.
Seven Alaves players have started at least nine of their 10 league games this season. That familiarity is helping the side overcome teams with bigger budgets and more gifted players.
Equally, Abelardo isn’t messing around the formations or tactics. He’s largely stuck to a 4-4-2 with two deep-lying holding midfielders and that consistency is again helping the Basque outfit defy expectation.
Never say die approach
If La Liga matches actually ended on 90 minutes, Alaves would be mid-table, with one eye on the drop zone.
But Abelardo’s men love an injury-time goal. They grabbed a 93rd-minute winner at Real Valladolid in September, before a stoppage-time equaliser against Getafe two weeks later.
Manu Garcia then sent home fans into raptures with a 95th-minute winner to beat Real Madrid, before Baston bagged another late winner last time out against Villarreal.
To do it once may be fortunate, but four times to grab an extra seven points shows a true commitment to the cause and team spirit. The players are fighting for the club and their manager until the very end.
The run can continue
It’s a remarkable turnaround by the club, and there’s no reason Alaves will stumble any time soon.
Their next three games are against Eibar, Huesca and Leganes, each of whom sit in the bottom six.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing