The new season also begins this weekend for Real Madrid Castilla, who play CD Ebro from Zaragoza in the opening game of Segunda B Group 2. Real Madrid's second team, coached by Zinedine Zidane, play in what looks on paper a tough division to be in and includes Getafe B, Real Sociedad B, and Real Union de Irun as regular opponents. Castilla didn't have the best of seasons last time around, missing out on the promotion play-offs, and Zidane will be hoping for better things in the forthcoming campaign.
Segunda B is a tough league to get out of. It's a regionalised league that is split into four geographical divisions with a complicated play-off system which offers no guarantee of promotion to the eventual winners of each division. At the end of the league season, the four regional winners go into a draw which produces two semi-finals, played over two legs home and away. The two winners of these games are automatically promoted to La Segunda proper, and they also meet each other in a one-off final to decide who gets the overall championship trophy. This was won last season by Real Oviedo.
The two losing semi-finalists then go into another series of play-offs along with the teams that have finished in second, third, and fourth places in their own groups for another knock-out contest; with the games again played on a knock-out basis over two legs. These matches will eventually leave four teams; who then play each other in two mini ‘finals'; with the two winners of these games making up the four teams promoted to La Segunda proper.
Following last season's play-offs, Real Oviedo, Gimnastic Tarragona, Bilbao Athletic and Huesca all won promotion to La Segunda. Oviedo and Gimnastic went straight up by winning their semi- finals, while Bilbao and Huesca qualified for promotion the long way round, having had to join the runner's up competition for the second qualifying play-off series.
The play-off scenario has become popular with the fans of the clubs in the third tier of Spanish football; although it's obvious that winning the division outright does not guarantee promotion to the division above. This can only be earned by winning the end of season play-offs as opposed to just finishing in the top place. Cadiz, for example, whom Castilla beat in the play-offs to go into La Segunda a few seasons ago, led their own Group 4 for most of last season but lost the winner's semi-final to Oviedo. Although the Andalucian club beat Hercules de Alicante in the runner's up series, they were eventually eliminated by Bilbao Athletic who took the last remaining promotion place.
In addition to Cadiz, Hercules and Racing de Santander are potential opponents for Castilla in this season's play-off stages assuming that Zinedine Zidane's young squad qualify for these by at least finishing in one of the top four places in Group 2. The problem though, lies in the fact that many of the clubs in Segunda B are populated by older, seasoned professionals who although may not be as talented in a footballing sense as the likes of Martin Odegaard et al, are more than capable of stealing a march on Zidane's youngsters in a physical sense.
That last sentence is by no means intended to infer that Segunda B is a league dominated by the physical presence of players, but it's a fact that these older pros know how to handle themselves on the field and can use their experience and physical attributes to give the Castilla youngsters a hard time. It's not only the Castilla youngsters who are finding this out, either, since there are other La Liga sides in the regional divisions such as Betis B who play in Group 4 for example, whose youngsters have also had to learn to adapt to a more physical game; and often on different surfaces.
Again, though, just being in Segunda B doesn't necessarily mean the pitches are bad; since the bigger clubs whose first teams are currently playing there such as Cadiz, Racing and Hercules for example, have first class facilities and pitches which are designed for higher levels of the game. However, some of the other clubs play on artificial surfaces and these are frequently considered by many to be an injury risk. Although the artificial pitches have improved in recent years there is still a huge difference between grass pitches and their synthetic substitutes.
There's been a lot of change at Real Madrid behind the scenes over the summer months with restructuring of the Cantera having taken place, and Madrid's focus outside the first team is now aimed at the Castilla and the under-19 squad led by Luis Miguel Ramis. However, Zinedine Zidane's side are the ones who are likely to be subjected to the majority of media focus outside the first team; as indeed Zidane often is himself.
Recently touted as a candidate for the vacant Marseille post filled earlier this week by former Castilla coach Michel, Zidane's role has been high profile since he re-joined Madrid as part of the new staff brought in by Carlo Ancelotti. It has been significant that Zidane has remained in his role after the departure of the Italian's backroom team, thus indicating that although he came in with the previous regime, he's likely to stay a lot longer and it will be interesting to see if his actual role is extended further under the new management team.
Rafa Benitez is renowned for the importance he places on the reserve and academy / canteras wherever he has worked; and to that extent, the recent changes introduced as part of the restructuring of Real Madrid will undoubtedly have been made with the aim of bringing the reserve and cantera sides closer to the first team than they may have been in the past. In his role as Castilla coach, Zinedine Zidane is likely to have more of an involvement with the first team this coming season, since the job is unavoidably linked through the movement of players in and out of both.
This will benefit the Madrid club as a whole in terms of adopting similar playing styles, training ideas and such like. Although Castilla will remain as a separate club on the outside, the increased integration with the Real Madrid first team should provide cross-benefits for both; yet the priority remains for Castilla to win promotion from the regionalised Segunda B and into La Segunda proper.
Castilla's side this season is likely to be made up of mainly younger players and that's where the need for experience is highlighted, particularly for several of the tough away fixtures on the calendar. Clubs in Segunda B will still raise their game against Castilla in the same way that they did last season, simply because Castilla are Real Madrid; just the same as the clubs in La Primera do with the first team. Castilla are likely to rely heavily on the talents of Borja Mayoral and Enzo Zidane who has recently been given the captain's role following Sergio Aguza's recent departure to MK Dons in England. Additionally, Castilla have lost Diego Llorente to Rayo Vallecano and Derek Osede to Bolton and it may take some time for the newer players to settle in.
Zinedine Zidane has high hopes for several of his Castilla squad. Martin Odegaard, may well find the coming season easier than last; having now got that first, difficult, year out of the way. Zidane also rates central defender Jaime Sanchez, who has even been mentioned as the natural heir to Sergio Ramos in some quarters. The former Cadiz youth player was rapidly promoted by Zidane to Castilla's first team and had his contract extended last season by Real Madrid until 2018. Castilla have also recently recruited goalkeeper Carlos Abad-Hernandez from Tenerife, and Zidane is quietly building a solid backbone for the team with Sanchez in defence, Odegaard in midfield and Mayoral up front.
The difficulty though lies in the way ambition presents; and with the transfer window still open, players like Borja Mayoral and Martin Odegaard may still move on before too long in order to gain first team experience at a higher level. Such is the way of second team football, however, and transfers, loans and promotion to the first team are all part of the disruption caused when players move on; either to further develop or even shape their careers.
None of this will worry CD Ebro though on Saturday night. Just promoted into Segunda B, the club from Zaragoza will be coming to Madrid looking for a result and should provide a good opening test for the young Castilla side. A local game at Majadahonda follows the week after, and the team then travel to the Canary Islands to face Mensajero before tough games at home against Real Sociedad B and Real Union de Irun away. With Bilbao Athletic winning promotion by defeating Cadiz over two legs in the final play-off fixture of last season, Athletic's Basque rivals from San Sebastian will be keen to emulate that success. As a result Real Sociedad might well be one of Castilla's biggest obstacles to promotion; and staying with the Basque teams, Real Union won't be easy opponents either.
It's going to be an interesting season for Castilla followers, although in terms of success on the field much will depend on who is available to Zidane at any given time. On that basis, the second teams are at a disadvantage in this league since most of the opposition will be able to field regular settled sides week in week out. That argument, as we all know, is balanced by the fact that Castilla's full-time professionals should be more than a match for the opposition; and although much younger in years, Zidane's team should have the edge in footballing terms.
Time will tell whether youth beats experience, but like the Madrid first team, the Castilla squad have gone through an intensive pre-season programme of training and playing. Zidane's youngsters are now ready to step up to meet the challenge of their own league campaign, and hopefully take Castilla into La Segunda once again.