Can Alaves become La Liga's Leicester City?
It's been an odd beginning to the 2018/19 La Liga season. The big clubs have been dropping points aplenty, with no team having won more than five out of nine league matches so far. That said, there is still a certain familiarity about the standings. Barcelona, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are all in the top seven despite poor starts, but in joint second place with Espanyol, there is a surprise package. Alaves currently sit on 17 points, just one behind table-toppers Barcelona.
Alaves aren't one of La Liga's giants but they shouldn't be regarded as minnows either. Liverpool fans will be familiar with the name as they were the opposition in Dortmund when Liverpool won the 2001 UEFA Cup after a 5-4 thriller that took 120 minutes to separate the teams. After that defeat, Alaves began to struggle and were relegated in 2003. They were promoted in 2005 but went straight back down. This time it took them a bit longer to return to the top flight. They spent six years in the Segunda and even four seasons in the Segunda B before being promoted to the top tier again in 2016.
Alaves have done reasonably well since. They have finished ninth and 14th in La Liga and even made the final of Copa del Rey in 2017, but lost to Barcelona who has made the competition their own in recent seasons. While Alaves deserve praise for their last two seasons, this season has been on a completely different level so far.
Alaves' form hasn't been a fluke. On 1st December 2017, they were bottom of La Liga with just six points from their first 13 games, but brought in Abelardo Fernandez as manager which sparked a remarkable turnaround. Alaves picked up 41 points from their remaining 25 games which took them well clear of the relegation zone. At that rate of picking up points, if Abelardo had been in charge for the full season, Alaves would have picked up 62 points which would have been enough to finish fifth last season.
Abelardo actually finished his playing career with a season at Alaves after long spells with Sporting Gijon and Barcelona. His time at Barcelona was particularly successful as he helped the Catalan side to two league titles, two Copa del Rey's, two Spanish Super Cups, a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and a UEFA Super Cup. He also won over 50 caps for Spain and won a gold with the under-23 team at the 1992 Olympics. As a coach, he has spent the majority of his time at Sporting with the B team and the first team but he has also had spells with Candas and Tuilla. His biggest achievement to date was winning promotion to La Liga with Sporting in his first full season in the job.
Since taking over, Alaves have become a tough nut to crack. They have conceded just eight goals this season with four of their five wins coming courtesy of a one-goal margin. They're not exactly free-flowing in attack but Jonathan Calleri, Ibai Gomez and Jonny have all done well in the final third while the likes of Tomas Pina, Ximo Navarro, Fernando Pacheco, Victor Laguardia and Guillermo Maripan have all contributed well to the defensive effort. It's a huge ask for Alaves to stay in the title race and the likelihood is once injuries and suspensions kick in they will drop back but there's no reason that they can't do enough to maintain a push for European football. For now, the big hitters are struggling and their misfortune is a positive for Alaves and with every passing week that they stay in touch the belief will grow and the unthinkable dream may just become a reality.