Six games into the season, a little-known football club from the Basque Country by the name of Deportivo Alaves sit fourth in the La Liga standings, level on points with Atletico Madrid who are third by virtue of better goal difference and only two behind Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. Fox Sports Asia tells the story of this season’s surprise package.
If at the start of a season, you were asked to predict the top four in La Liga, picking the top three would not have posed much of a challenge as you’d only have to arrange Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in some order. However, selecting the fourth could be a tricky proposition.
In the last six seasons, while the top three were the usual suspects, five different teams namely Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have finished in the fourth place. The 2011-12 season was the last time Atletico finished outside the top four and in that season, Valencia were third and Malaga were fourth.
Here’s how things stand…
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) September 27, 2018
All of which means that the final Champions League spot in Spain’s top division is up for grabs and that position is now occupied by a surprising contender in Deportivo Alaves. However, if Alaves manage to pull off this feat, then it will be a fairy tale along the lines of Leicester City’s miraculous Premier League winning campaign in 2015-16.
Promotion to the LaLiga and a brilliant debut season
Before their most recent promotion to the La Liga, Alaves were best known for reaching the final of the 2001 UEFA Cup which they lost 5-4 to Liverpool in extra time courtesy of a golden goal — unfortunately an own goal.
In 2016, they earned promotion to the La Liga as Segunda division champions and followed it up with a 9th place finish in the league in 2016-17. More impressively, they reached the final of the Copa del Rey but lost 3-1 to Barcelona.
Alaves’ performance in 2016-17 was aided by some smart loan signings. They signed eight players on a loan deal of which Theo Hernandez from Atletico and Marcos Llorente from Real were the most notable names.
Managerial shuffles and relegation battle
Ahead of the 2017-18 season, the club’s manager Mauricio Pellegrino signed for Premier League side Southampton and he was replaced by Luis Zubeldía from Argentina. Just like in 2016-17, Alaves also roped in eight loan players but that wasn’t enough to build on the success of their previous campaign.
They started their season with four straight defeats without scoring and that was the end of Zubeldia’s stint as the manager. He was succeeded by Italian manager Gianni De Biasi under whom the Albanian national team had qualified for Euro 2016.
0 – Luis Zubeldia has been the first manager sacked in La Liga this season (Alavés: 0 points & 0 goals scored). Bye pic.twitter.com/6Mk5LSuHi2
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 18, 2017
Managed by Biasi, Alaves won two league games but lost six more. As they slipped towards an impending relegation, the club decided to part ways with Biasi and appointed Abelardo Fernández who famously played for Barcelona but retired as a player at Alaves.
When Abelardo arrived, Alaves were at the bottom of the table with only six points from 13 games.
The Abelardo era kicks off
Abelardo’s first game in charge was two days after his appointment away to Girona FC. His side were trailing the game 2-0 with 20 minutes left but they won the game in the third minute of added time courtesy of a hat-trick from Ibai Gomez. The Spanish manager also won his second game to double the team’s points tally from before he took over.
Alaves ended the 2017-18 season in 14th place and lost only 10 games under Abelardo The Basque club started the current season with a 3-0 defeat to Barcelona followed by a goalless draw against Real Betis but they won the next three games which included a 5-1 win away to Rayo Vallecano.
It feels like the job Abelardo has done at Alavés still isn’t getting enough attention. 30 games in charge now. 51 points (16 wins, 3 draws).
Only Barça, Madrid & Atleti have got more in the same period.
— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) September 23, 2018
After six league games, Alaves are currently fourth in the league table level on points with Atletico Madrid and just two points behind both Barcelona and Real.
Incredibly, Alaves have picked up 52 points since Abelardo was appointed as the manager and in the same period, only Barcelona (71), Atletico Madrid (65) and Real Madrid (62) have picked up more. This gives a better perspective of the progress Alaves have made under the Spanish manager.
Alaves do not boast any big names but they have a fantastic manager who has instilled a winning mentality into the side and made them more than the sum of all parts. If they can beat the likes of Sevilla and Valencia to finish fourth in the league at least, it will be a remarkable achievement for the small club from the north of Spain.