THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY

Soccer 360 - - Inside -

THE GOOD

La Liga is def­i­nitely not short of top qual­ity goalscor­ers, and while Uruguay in­ter­na­tional Cristhian Stu­ani might not be the most recog­nis­able name from the Span­ish top flight, he is cer­tainly prov­ing that he can cut it with the best strik­ers in 2018-19.

Af­ter for­get­table spells in both Italy and the lower leagues in Spain, he joined Mid­dles­brough in 2015, and af­ter that did not work, out he headed back for Spain for an­other bite at the cherry, with Girona.

At 32, he is cer­tainly mak­ing up for lost time – par­tic­u­larly when you con­sider that he did not make a top flight ap­pear­ance in Europe un­til the age of 24 – and he is qui­etly lead­ing the way in the La Liga scor­ing charts.

He net­ted 21 League goals in Girona's de­but in La Liga in 2017-18, bet­tered only by four play­ers last sea­son, and his form so far in this cam­paign is dis­prov­ing any doubts that he could be a one sea­son won­der.

Stu­ani's per­for­mances are eas­ing the ex­pected hang­over from the de­par­ture of Girona's for­mer Coach Pablo Machin, to Sevilla, as the Cata­lan side enters into only their sec­ond ever sea­son in La Liga.

He has con­sis­tently been the vi­tal dif­fer­ence for Girona this sea­son, with key goals against Vil­lar­real, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, lead­ing the line and pro­vid­ing a plat­form for their younger attackers to thrive.

With Stu­ani slowly be­gin­ning to feel the breath of more and more of La Liga's lead­ing de­fend­ers on his neck, he has in­cor­po­rated a greater amount of link up play into his all round play, al­low­ing Pe­dro Porro and Pa­trick Roberts to thrive in the space be­hind him, all the while still en­sur­ing he is on hand to pro­vide the fin­ish­ing touch when needed.

THE BAD

Ath­letic Bil­bao are in a state of La Liga freefall, en­ter­ing the cru­cial Christ­mas and New Year pe­riod with just one win, and the Basque side are in very real dan­ger of rel­e­ga­tion from La Liga for the first time in their 120 year his­tory.

An­swers are never easy to find in these sit­u­a­tions, but the com­mon theme in their de­cline does ap­pear to be the exit of Ernesto Valverde, to Barcelona, back in 2017. Valverde se­cured a pe­riod of con­sis­tent Euro­pean qual­i­fi­ca­tion, and League plac­ings not seen at the club since the ti­tle wins in the early 1980s, dur­ing his four sea­sons at the helm.

He was re­placed at the start of last sea­son

by Cuco Zi­ganda, his for­mer re­serve team Coach. How­ever he proved to be a dis­as­ter, fin­ish­ing in 16th, their low­est fin­ish for over a decade. The club moved to re­place him in the sum­mer with for­mer Celta Vigo and Sevilla boss Ed­uardo Ber­izzo to pro­vide some sta­bil­ity.

But he has al­ready been re­lieved of his post fol­low­ing the hor­ror start to the sea­son, with the club's board look­ing to be proac­tive in their at­tempts to stop the rot at San Mames, and avoid the rel­e­ga­tion scram­ble of Zi­ganda in 2017-18.

With an age­ing squad, in­clud­ing Aritz Aduriz, Raul Gar­cia and Markel Susaeta, ap­proach­ing the end of their ca­reers, ma­jor surgery was needed in the sum­mer, but it didn’t hap­pen in the cross­over be­tween Zi­ganda and Ber­izzo.

And now, with just 11 points gained from their open­ing 14 games, Ath­letic face some huge fix­tures over De­cem­ber and Jan­uary. The club have again looked in­ter­nally for a so­lu­tion, with Gaizka Gar­i­tano pro­moted to first team coach, and charged with the task of over­see­ing a dra­matic turn­around to save Los Leones from a dis­as­trous slide into the rel­e­ga­tion zone on a per­ma­nent ba­sis.

THE UGLY

Barcelona's start to the 2018-19 La Liga sea­son has been a pos­i­tive one, as they seek to re­tain their League ti­tle, in the face of their great ri­vals Real Madrid's en­dur­ing a testing time.

The Cata­lans es­tab­lished a nar­row lead over the chas­ing pack, at the top of the ta­ble, and Ernesto Valverde's side se­cured their pas­sage into the knock­out stages of the Cham­pi­ons League for the 15th con­sec­u­tive sea­son.

How­ever the for­mer Ath­letic Bil­bao Coach has had quell rumours of po­ten­tial rifts be­tween cer­tain se­nior play­ers in the early stages of the cam­paign.

Ger­ard Pique's row with his team­mates was an is­sue for Valverde to ad­dress in his post­match Press con­fer­ence fol­low­ing their first de­feat at Camp Nou since in Septem­ber 2016, against Real Betis in Novem­ber.

Barca are still the team to beat in La Liga, but the row be­tween Pique and Luis Suarez, and then Ar­turo Vi­dal, at full time of the

4-3 loss has opened sup­port­ers eyes to po­ten­tial fric­tions in the squad.

Suarez was re­port­edly un­happy at Pique not pass­ing on to him on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions dur­ing the match, and the Spain in­ter­na­tional later rowed with sum­mer sign­ing Vi­dal, af­ter a mix up be­tween them saw Betis scored their win­ning goal.

Pique, who re­tired from in­ter­na­tional duty fol­low­ing the 2018 World Cup, is reg­u­larly the re­cip­i­ent of ex­ces­sive crit­i­cism in the do­mes­tic me­dia, and moved to dif­fuse the sit­u­a­tion by dis­miss­ing it as a mi­nor in­ci­dent, and an in­evitabil­ity fol­low­ing a de­feat and the end of their proud home record.

But it worth keep­ing an eye on for the re­main­der of the cam­paign as Barcelona chase back to back ti­tle wins for the first time since 2016 un­der the man­age­ment of Luis En­rique.

ABOVE:THE GOOD, Cristhian Stu­aniLEFT:THE BAD, Ath­letic Bil­baoBOT­TOM, OP­PO­SITE PAGE: THE UGLY, Ger­ard Pique

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