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Hinchas y Jugadores - Real Zaragoza with Max Bluer (18th May, 2017)

Follow Max Bluer on Twitter here.

A bit about yourself and your background

So I’m a 25 year-old living here in Madrid and working for the Spanish Ministry of Tourism. By night I freelance as a writer on politics and fútbol.

How long have you been a fan of Real Zaragoza and what made you support them in the first place?

Well Zaragoza was the city I moved to when I first came to Spain in August 2014. My flat was about 10 minutes walk from La Romareda, a real thrill as I’d never before lived within easy reach of a top level stadium. I think this was made me become such an ardent Zaragoza fan, I’d always loved football but growing up in a little town in Wiltshire, UK I’d never really had a local team. Then all of a sudden I found myself next door to a team with all of this amazing history that is as a standard-bearer for the city. How could I not be hooked?

Given the transfer windows and the squad that was assembled at the start of the season, is Real Zaragoza where you want it to be?

God no. Although the squad looked short in a few areas, particularly in defense, zaragocistas were really excited about the return of two prodigal sons who had come through the academy 10+ years ago. Alberto Zapater and ‘Cani’ have both had good seasons, and been really important leaders on and off the pitch, but the shortcomings of the squad were simply too much for them to overcome on their own. Something we all kind of knew from the beginning but no-one wanted to admit.

The first XI looks pretty good but their physical condition is poor and the replacements are nowhere near a good enough standard. Lack of squad depth has really hurt us this year.

Of the signings made this season, which one worked out the best/had the most impact and why?

It would have to be Zapater, with honorable mentions to Uruguayan center-back Marcelo Silva and José Enrique (yeah that one, ex-Newcastle and Liverpool). El gran capitán has overcome the injuries that made him miss three straight seasons and has been absolutely key for us at the back of midfield. On top of distribution and winning back possession, he’s been the one to always front up after our (regular) terrible performances and his return and leadership have been one of the few saving graces of this season.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Real Zaragoza this season? Any standout players?

The squad is undoubtedly geared towards ball players. People like Cani or Manuel Lanzarote have magic in their boots but lack the physical capacity necessary to last 90 minutes every weekend. César Láinez, our third coach of the season, is the only one who has cottoned on to this screamingly obvious fact and is actually trying to play the possession football that so clearly suits the players. When the manager has told the players to keep the ball on the ground and pass it to each other, we’ve been pretty good.

The problems have been without the ball, our defensive record is appalling; only two clubs have conceded more than us this year at the time of writing. Individual lapses have dogged the defense (we’re on our 3rd goalkeeper as well as our 3rd coach of the season) while the defenders brought in this summer as back up to the first team have been catastrophic. Răzvan Popa came with a bright reputation from Internazionale’s youth system but was inexplicably ignored and was loaned out in January, while his fellow defender Macky Bagnack managed to make a slapstick error leading to a goal in at least 4 of his 5 or 6 starts and has since become a complete laughing stock. Meanwhile the less said about left-back Jorge Casado the better.

It’s clear that the team’s strength is going forward. Striker Ángel Rodríguez has 22 goals with four games left to play this season, despite often being marooned on his own up front. His hard running, intelligent movement and inventive finishing have been a glimmer of light in the darkness of this season; I shudder to think where we’d be without him.

Behind him Lanzarote and Cani have shown glimpses of their enormous talent, while the recent emergence of attacking midfielder Pombo from the academy has been lovely to watch (despite his silly hair and sillier tattoos). Now that manager César Láinez has switched to a possession based game, midfielders Edu Bedia and Javi Ros have been able to shine too.

List some things you appreciate and some things you can’t stand about the club management.

The first thing to make clear is that we fans have to be grateful to the current board (or the Fundación 2032 as the group of investors have styled themselves) for taking on the club and saving it from liquidation back in 2014. The disastrous management of the previous owner, Agapito Iglesias, had left Real Zaragoza with an absolutely enormous debt to the taxman, which he was threatening to call in and effectively force the club into bankruptcy. The new ownership consortium injected some funds that staved off liquidation and have slowly but surely have been paying off the debt ever since. Kudos to them.

However, their management of the club on the field has been an absolute disaster. Two sporting directors and six managers in the last three seasons have left us with a lopsided squad that had very little forward thinking go into its construction. Only making the play-offs once in our four years in the Segunda is simply not good enough for a club that dwarfs everyone else in the league in terms of history and the size of its fan base. The poor performance can be excused to an extent by the need to focus most of the club’s income into paying off the debt, rather than investing in the playing squad. But this year the squad has featured top caliber players like Cani, Zapater, Giorgios Samaras or Manuel Lanzarote, while Ángel Rodríguez is only a couple of goals off the top of the scorers charts. The failure to fully maximize the talent within this squad has been criminal.

What has the mood among the fans been during the campaign? Do you generally agree/disagree with them?

Unsurprisingly the fans are not impressed. There have been times when they have been unnecessarily harsh on struggling players (it’s never good to boo your own players), but for the most part they have stuck behind the team; even when performances haven’t deserved it. Average attendances have stayed steady compared to previous years in Segunda, which really is a credit to the loyalty of a fan base that has suffered a lot in recent years.

Are there any talented youngsters at the club that you expect to have a big future?

Three players spring to mind. Jorge Pombo is a local attacking midfielder with a ferocious shot and a trick or two up his sleeve. His attitude has been questioned at times this season and he failed to earn the trust of either of the two permanent coaches this season, playing far less than anyone expected. But Láinez, who was Jorge’s coach in the reserves trusts him implicitly and he has featured in every one of the current manager’s starting XIs. He signed his first professional contract in April and the hope is that he will push on and really establish himself next season. Jorge’s canon of a right foot and goal-scoring record for the reserves have raised hopes that he could solve one of the squads biggest problems of recent years, goals from midfield.

Then there is goalkeeper Alvaro Ratón. Promoted from the reserves at the beginning of the season, Ratón was designated as 2nd choice ‘keeper behind new signing Xabi Irureta. However Irureta started the season terribly - and only got worse - meaning that fans have been clamoring for Ratón to start since about September. Like Pombo, he was unfairly ignored by the two permanent coaches this season (Luis Milla and particularly Raül Agné really have a lot to answer for). January saw the club bring in a journeyman Sebastián Saja to replace the hopeless Irureta, rather than trust Ratón – yet another baffling decision – but when Láinez was appointed manager in March he immediately put Ratón in goal and the youngster has shone ever since. Real Zaragoza look to have found themselves a goalkeeper for many years to come.

Perhaps the most exciting youngster on the club’s books right now, however, is Raí. The Brazilian teenage attacker couldn’t be registered until Janaury for bureaucratic reasons and has played only 18 minutes of first-team football in his career. But his youth, his nationality and the rave reviews of those who have seen him live have had the fans clamoring for his inclusion. Such is the expectation on the poor kid’s shoulders I have a horrible feeling that when he does get his chance the fans will get on his back if he doesn’t prove himself to be a mini-Neymar straight away.

If you could make one realistic signing for Real Zaragoza this summer who would it be?

Like the rest of the fans, I’m more concerned with keeping hold of the likes of Ángel, center back Marcelo Silva and to a lesser degree Giorgios Samaras. All three are out of contract at the end of the season and all three are looking increasingly unlikely to sign on for next year, particularly Ángel who is rumored to have interest from top flight teams Leganés, Álaves and Las Palmas. If/when Ángel does leave, local press have linked us with a move from Alcorcón striker David Rodríguez. He has scored plenty of goals at this level (last year people were ironically nick-naming him DR7) and his club are in real danger of relegation, which would of course put him on the market.

Finally, predicted finish for Zaragoza?

Lower mid-table is looking likely, which is an absolute disgrace. Relegation is still a possibility – at the time of writing we are 13th in the table but only four points above the relegation zone – but our form is just about good enough to avoid that nightmare. 

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