When you take a look at the top of the La Liga table one name sticks out – Mallorca.
Joaquin Caparros’ side are joint-third and still unbeaten. Granted, the season is just five games old, but at this stage last year, under Michael Laudrup, they had already lost three times.
A win at Getafe on Monday night would make this their strongest ever start to a League season, eclipsing the 12 points they had won after six games in 1998-99, a season where they finished third, qualified for the Champions League and reached the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
There is no chance of the latter happening again this season, but after such a promising start and there being no clear favourites for third and fourth spot, a Champions League berth is an ambition the team are starting to consider.
Earlier this week midfielder Tomas Pina summed up the mood in the dressing room: “We can’t lose sight of the fact that our main aim is to stay up. But beyond that, there’s no reason why we can’t strive to achieve bigger things. We are an ambitious team.”
Pina was echoing Caparros’ use of the word ‘ambition’ after Mallorca’s last game, a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Valencia. It was their toughest test so far this season and was made tougher after Javi Marquez had to be substituted after just 20 minutes with an ankle injury. But it was a test they came through and will be a far more confident team for it.
It should be noted that Caparros has been somewhat flattered by a generous fixture list, avoiding Barcelona and Real Madrid early on. Nonetheless, the club hierarchy have been very impressed with his work since taking over almost a year ago, and are considering offering him a contract that would keep him at the club until 2016. This gesture should not be underestimated – Coaches in Spain are often seen as easily dispensable, and long contracts are rare. Tito Vilanova was only offered a two-year deal with Barcelona when he was confirmed as their new Coach, to give one example, and Mallorca themselves could hardly be accused of giving their tacticians long careers – Caparros is the 10th man to sit in the dugout in as many years.
But Caparros is not like any other Coach. He consistently gets the best out of teams, and his record shows that if you give him time you will be rewarded. In five years he turned Sevilla from a Segunda Division outfit into a team that qualified for the UEFA Cup two years in a row, turning players like Julio Baptista, Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves into top class players who quickly became targets for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and who were eventually sold for a combined €87m. Unfortunately for Caparros, he was not rewarded for his work, and was replaced by Juande Ramos at the end of 2005-06.
When Caparos joined Athletic Bilbao in 2007, he inherited a team that had avoided relegation the season before by the skin of their teeth. He stabilised them in his first season, and followed that by taking them to their first Copa del Rey Final in 24 years the season after.
Athletic steadily improved in 2009-10 and 2010-11, coming eighth and sixth respectively, but Caparros was disposed of again, this time in favour of Marcelo Bielsa. Athletic may have gained admirers around the world for their heroics in the Europa League under Bielsa, but it was thanks to Caparros they were given the opportunity to play in Europe in the first place. Nor should it be forgotten that last season Athletic under Bielsa finished four places lower in the table than under Caparros and with nine points fewer.
The type of football his teams play is both a blessing and a curse for Caparros. On the one hand, his aggressive, no nonsense style wins him few admirers and after a few years fans and directors strive for something more aesthetically pleasing. On the other hand, it gets results and provides stability, an attractive prospect for a club such as Mallorca.
How Mallorca cope in the following two months without Javi Marquez will be fascinating to see, as will how they fare against more testing opposition. But don’t be surprised if they are up there challenging for the Europa League places, or even a place in Europe’s elite competition come the end of the season.