Segunda playoffs preview, predictions and players to watch
Málaga, Deportivo la Coruña, Albacete and Mallorca play each other over the next few days to see who will meet in the final for the last, lucrative LaLiga spot.
Spain’s second division is over for 18 of its 22 clubs. Osasuna and Granada are back in the top flight as the two stand-out performers this season, finishing first and second. Reus, Gimnastic, Cordoba and Rayo Majadahonda are all heading south after being relegated and the other 12 will retreat to the drawing board. Four teams are still fighting for that one last lucrative spot in LaLiga with Malaga, Albacete, Mallorca and Deportivo la Coruña playing each other as the best of the rest after the top two.
Malaga play Depor on Wednesday night and Saturday as the two heavyweights in the playoffs Albacete and Mallorca play on Thursday and Sunday to set us up for a final to be played the week after over two legs. One quirk of the playoffs is that there will be no penalties. Away goals stand but if the games finish scoreless after extra-time, the team who finished higher in the league will qualify. Málaga, in other words, are four scoreless draws away from a seat at the top table.
FiveThirtyEight have it remarkably close with Málaga slightly more likely than the other three of going up. They do, however, have more pressure than any of the other teams save for Depor. Mallroca probably never imagined they would get this close after a year in the wilderness last season following relegation to the Segunda B. Albacete and Mallorca's two managers have been revelations this season with the islander's Vicente Moreno being mentioned as the coach of the year and Luis Miguel Ramis exceeding expectations at Alba too and could and should return to compete again next season if they fall short in the next 10 days.
A quick look
Albacete might just play the most pleasing football for the neutral with a pair of attacking full-backs in Fran Garcia and Alvaro Tejero on loan from Real Madrid along with Eugeni Valderrama and Jeremie Bela in wide positions ahead of them cutting in and causing havoc. Malaga replaced their manager, Juan Ramón López Muñiz, when it looked like their season was headed for the toilet. They replaced him with Victor Sanchez del Amo and they might just be the best team in the division over the last couple of weeks. In seven games, he has won five, drawn one and lost one, bringing them to the cusp of automatic promotion before falling short due to time and the headstart built by Granada.
Mallorca might be pushing Albacete as the most exciting team left with the third most goals in the league this season behind the unstoppable Osasuna and their opponents in the semi-final. Depor, on the other hand, are the ugly duckling amongst they bunch. They snuck into the final place leaving a trail of incompetent teams behind them - they just happened to be the least incompetent of the also-rans. Real Oviedo and Cadiz just couldn’t seem to find that little bit of luck when they needed it and failed while Depor have built a solid campaign off the back of a stingy defense. They do have the top scorer left in the competition in Quique. Former Man City defender, Pablo Mari, and Domingo Duarte, on loan from Sporting Club de Portugal, are arguably the best defensive pair in the league, as they look to ride the coattails of their backline back to the top flight.
Players to keep an eye on
Quique is the top scorer left in the competition but another player to keep a close eye on is Lago Junior, who has scored 11 goals and added eight assists for Mallorca. The 27-year-old attacking midfielder is versatile and full of energy with most of their play going through him down the left-hand side. Tejero, on Albacete's right, will be subdued on Thursday night while trying to keep Junior's fingerprints off the game.
Javi Ontiveros might be the best individual player left in the playoffs. The 21-year-old is special and while he suffered from ill-discipline in previous seasons at the club, he is the man who could change everything for them in the next few games. Luis Miguel Ramis left Real Madrid Castilla and came straight back in search of players he could take on loan. One of those players, Alvaro Tejero, has been the standout right-back in the Segunda this season. So much so that it looks like he will be playing in the top flight somewhere next season. Werder Bremen are interested in the Bundesliga while Real Valladolid are also interested. Aleix Febas is another player to keep an eye on as a Real Madrid Castilla loanee with his svelte frame covering plenty of ground at the base of midfielder and linking play.
Pablo Mari has been excellent at the back for Depor on route to their place amongst the last four. The Manchester City loanee says he doesn’t want to think about his future for now but the 25-year-old will surely find a home either at Depor or if Manchester City don’t want him, somewhere further up the pecking order in the top five leagues.
Malaga will be without Alfred N’Diaye as the Senegal midfielder left for international duty in the African Cup of Nations. It is a dilemma for Victor Sanchez, who will choose between a number of players including Mehdi Lacen and Badr Boulahroud, who played and scored in the final game of the season against Elche before running to his coach to celebrate. Confidence is high in the south of Spain and the feeling is good around the team. They are also without Jack Harper and David Lombán. Depor are without Vitor Silva and Krohn Dehli, neither of which will make a difference as they haven't played significant minutes in recent months.
Albacete took their foot off the gas last weekend when they realised they couldn’t be automatically promoted and would prefer to finish fourth than third. They lost to Almeria with a second string team but they also suffered a massive loss with Alvaro Arroyo tearing the meniscus in his right knee in the process. The centre-back was another key part of Ramis’ side and that absence will loom large over Albacete’s chances.
Don't expect too many goals on Wednesday night between Malaga and Depor. But the winner probably will come from that semi-final. They are two institutions of Spanish football, who should not be in the second division and want to rectify that.
Albacete and Mallorca don't have that kind of pressure on their shoulders, which could be a boon for them but in highly-tense situations, that defensive stubborness displayed by Malaga and Depor throughout the year should and probably will help them on their quest for LaLiga football.