Real Madrid will host Real Betis tomorrow, at 22:30 CET, in La Liga's Day 2. In order to get to know our rivals a little better, we spoke to Antonio Durán (you can follow him at @antonioduran93), who is a Betis supporter writing great pieces at En Corto and El Minuto 93, and to whom we are deeply thankful for his cooperation.
Managing Madrid (MM): Tell us a bit about Betis's last season. The level they showed was not the one of a second division team, was it?
Antonio Durán (AD): It is true that Betis performed as a dominating team in April and May, but we should split Betis' last season into two pieces: the one in 2014 and the one in 2015. The first five months of the season in Heliópolis were really rough. Betis coach Julio Velázquez was doing quite a tedious job and his offensive tactics were poor. The fans, who were aware that Betis's roster was meant to be in the top places of the table, did not support him and, finally, his place was taken by the second team's coach, Juan Merino. He did not manage to develop the identity that Betis was missing, but the four victories he got were a great transition towards Pepe Mel.
Mel's debut was on January 4th, against Alcorcón, and although some groups of fans were skeptical about him, he succeeded in cleaning Betis's image. He finished off all uncertainties and in a few weeks' time the team had a fixed scheme and attitude on the pitch that would be stable until June. Mel's Betis obtained 2.3 points per game and looked pretty much like a first division team when Spring began. Transitions were their fundamental weapon, the one that showed they were a step ahead all their rivals. The ball moved fast along the pitch, the players occupied spaces conveniently and most onslaughts ended up with a goal.
MM: What is your opinion about this season's signings? Van der Vaart may be the most famous one, but there have been other interesting moves.
AD: I am a bit skeptical about Van der Vaart's signing. His virtues have not been decisive for a few years now, but bringing in a player with his name makes the project attractive to everyone. When Betis gets in a negotiation with Petros Matheus, from Corinthians, the player is not coming to any team, he is coming to "Van der Vaart's team". It seduces you. Let's say his role is more the one of a hook. One has to pay a tribute to Macià's great work (Macià is Betis's new football director). We have a lot of hopes posed on Germán Pezzella, an Argentinian centerback, Didier Digard, a French central midfielder, and Juan Manuel Vargas, a Peruvian fullback. In fact, all of them are expected to be starters this season.
MM: To what extent have the signings made Betis better compared to last season?
AD: For example, I would start by mentioning Francisco Portillo, who is not exactly a signing because he is with us since January, but Betis has not been able to get his full transfer up to now. Having him from the beginning is going to be a great upgrade. Actually, he was a great upgrade in January, when he arrived. He does everything: he helps to start Betis possessions from the defence, covers N'Diaye's back when the Big Man goes forwards, unclogs traffic with his dribble and has an extraordinary final pass. He may be our most intelligent midfielder, and I love him.
Obviously, the new men have improved what we had here. Signing two centerbacks (Pezzella and Westermann) and two fullbacks (Vargas and Piccini) was a necessary condition to step up.
MM: How important would be Joaquín's arrival for Betis?
AD: Joaquín in Seville has a similar degree of importance as a Beatle in Liverpool, and I am not kidding. He is the absolute idol for thousands of kids born in the eighties and the nineties. His name is associated to the latest golden era of the club, with several European participations, including one in the Champions League, and a Copa del Rey in 2005. His possible return is a dream for many people, and I don't doubt that he would be a great improvement for the team in the final third of the field. He has a terrific talent, knows Mel personally, and I just can hope that Fiorentina will finally let him go.
MM: Focusing on the game now, last week we saw a very offensive team against Villarreal: high pressure, fast transitions, the fullbacks coming up, two strikers upfront... Is this coherent to what you have seen throughout the pre-season?
AD: Not really. The truth is that Betis's pre-season has not been quite good. The team looked slow in certain phases and lost several games. We saw some interesting things in August, but quite different to what we saw against Villarreal. The pre-season Betis was more of a reacting team, depending on its pace and speed, and not so able to propose so much. We have to be aware that the Benito Villamarín forces Betis to have the ball most of the time, but I would not say this worried Villarreal at all. I want to see Betis in a different context, I believe a more dynamic style suits us better, as we are quite docile in positional attack situations.
MM: In such a case, do you expect a similar setup against Real Madrid, in the Bernabéu, or do you think they will adopt a more defensive stance?
AD: Yes, as I was telling you I believe that Mel has a longer team in mind, more ready to steal and run and, in the Bernabéu, I guess we will not fight for the possession and stay back. Mainly, because putting the defensive line so far from our goal is giving too many yards to Ronaldo, Bale and company.
In any case, between 2010 and 2013 Mel was really bold when competing against Barcelona and Real Madrid, and so if he comes up with some crazy plan it would not be the first time. He always says that he goes to big stadiums to win, so I would not really be surprised if we ended up with a 50-50 possession.
MM: In any case, I felt that Betis is a team with some very clear weaknesses, mostly in defensive transition situations. The centerbacks are not quite good, the fullbacks are out of place frequently and N'Diaye's mobility leaves Torres alone. Was this a one-time thing or is Betis usually like this?
AD: Well, I wish to insist on the fact that the context against Villarreal was new, but I agree with you on the fact that we have certain weaknesses. First of all, I believe that Mel was wrong on setting the centerbacks so far from our goal on Sunday. Pezzella and Bruno are box-centerbacks, and they are slow. They are strong when they have to defend their box close to their goal, but they suffer a lot while running backwards if they play so far from the baseline. It is easy to run past them and this is why the defensive transition looks poor, which is also a problem related to our central midfielders, but I would like to be more understanding with N'Diaye.
On Sunday, Mel used Cejudo (almost a pure winger) on the right wing, which would be N'Diaye's flank, instead of Portillo, who is the one that usually corrects his ravings. The Senegalese is a weapon that I would never avoid using. He occupies a huge portion of the field and reaches mostly every spot. Both in defensive situations, where he is really intimidating, and in offensive ones, when he runs twenty yards upfront and starts generating second actions, which is what I like the most about him. He runs upfront like crazy and takes part in every aerial duel. A regular central midfielder averages five or six aerial duels per game, and N'Diaye may reach fifteen. He ruled this area in second division and, if Mel uses him "à la Fellaini", as a friend of mine puts it, he will rule it in La Liga as well. But having him implies those risks you commented, and this is why Portillo's role is so important. I also believe that Digard, who did not play against Villarreal but will feature at the Bernabéu, is a better partner for N'Diaye that Xavi Torres, as he is stronger and occupies a bigger sector of the field.
MM: Aside from Rubén Castro, who is expected to keep scoring tons of goals, the team's star is Dani Ceballos. Talk to us a little about him and give us your opinion of his possible signing for Real Madrid. Do you think he will be a starter on Saturday?
AD: Ceballos is a fascinating player. He has a special type of talent, and he is so thin and so fast that he goes through any crack and automatically generates spaces for his partners. It is fair to say that Mel has made him a better player than he was. He used to take a lot of time for simple things, he was not efficient. As of today, he lets the ball go easily, dribbles less but more successfully, and occupies the areas of the field where his team needs him to be. In the U19 Euro Cup he showed his more thoughtful version and, naturally, drew a lot of attention to him.
A lot of teams have asked Betis about him, in fact I heard about an offer by Marseille being made yesterday, but it is true that Real Madrid seems to be closer than anyone else. The kid has a lot of pressure on him right now. He has spent the whole summer delaying his contract extension and the fanbase is a bit angry with him. It was kind of metaphorical last Sunday, when he was whistled by most of the fans when he entered the field, but still managed to dismantle Villarreal's defensive system with three or four interventions. He is a special player and, although one has to doubt about his loyalty, I would do anything to keep him.
I don't know what to say about his participation in Saturday's game. As I said, he had a good performance last Sunday, but in the post-match press conference Mel hinted that he is not happy with his attitude about the whole Real Madrid situation.
MM: Van der Vaart is not the only former Real Madrid player in Betis right now. What can you tell us about Antonio Adán's development since he arrived in Seville?
AD: What he has done deserves credit, because he came here the year we got relegated and he knew he was getting into a hostile situation. The fanbase was angry with most of our players, and specially with our goalkeepers. Sara and Andersen had failed miserably in the first half of the season, and since Adán got here that wound was closed. He cleared all doubts and earned the love of the fans, although it seems that he loves he beticismo even more than the beticismo loves him. Adán had some kind of an lack of affection that Betis supporters have fixed. He is not an extraordinary goalkeeper, but he has proved that with a good degree of confidence he deserves a spot in the first division. He is tall, blunt and does not blunder, and that is more than enough.
MM: Finally, I would like you to predict the lineup and the final score of the match.
AD: Well, I would like to believe that the lineup is going to be quite similar to the one in Day 1. Logically it will be Adán on goal, with a four-man defensive line formed by Piccini, Pezella, Bruno and Vargas. Let me say a few words about Piccini, a man that the fans loved in the game against Villarreal. He is a physical prodigy, he has lungs and muscle to run many, many yards every game, and he was really visible last Sunday, but I think that Mel made a mistake by giving him such a prominent role with the ball. He touched the ball 83 times, but he made too many wrong decisions, and this is something that needs to be fixed.
I understand that the double pivot will be formed by Digard and N'Diaye, and the wings will be occupied by Portillo and Cejudo. I really hope Ceballos will take Cejudo's spot, but I don't know how the kid has behaved during the week. The attacking couple will be formed by the eternal Rubén Castro and Jorge Molina. It is a 4-4-2 on the board, but Castro falls to the left wing constantly, where he feels comfortable, and Portillo, who is in theory a winger, behaves as a central midfielder sometimes.
The result will depend on the degree of inspiration of the white all-stars. It is going to be interesting to see how Mel and Benítez fight each other. I had the opinion that giving this roster to Rafa was pretty much like entrusting the paintings of the Sistine Chapel to any regular wall painter, but I have liked a lot everything I have seen in his Real Madrid so far. They did many things right in El Molinón last Sunday. Anyway, I will trust my team and will bet for a 2-2 draw.
Finally, I would like to say it is a pleasure to collaborate with such a big and good site as Managing Madrid. I hope you will keep growing at the current rate and to keep featuring so interesting pieces.