In recent years Real Zaragoza have walked many paths, many have been narrow but almost all have led to nowhere. Now, after being in the wilderness for so long, they're finding their way.
It could be said that the key point in this turnaround for Zaragoza, was when Manolo Jimenez stepped into the club. His appointment last December didn't spark an immediate turnaround, and it wasn't until the March that results started to turn. Jimenez did his job though and saved the Aragonese outfit, before confirming he'd be staying on during the summer. Saving them from relegation wasn't all he did though, because a relegated a club in Spain with north of €100m worth of debt and no genuine saleable assets, might never return.
With safety assured, Jimenez has set about taking Zaragoza on a new journey. It's not via a scenic route, but instead a more serene one. The image of Zaragoza on the field has become one far removed from the one we've become accustomed to in recent years. A bunch of rushed signings, made up of loans and gambles, playing like strangers and not identifying with the club or the Coach – the latter of which there have been a few. Jimenez instead is overlooking a steady level of progress at the club, with a familiar line-up, experience, a smattering of youth, and European journeymen.
Zaragoza's summer was perhaps best summed up by the signing of Jose Movilla from Rayo Vallecano. Although 37-years-old, he was the ideal solution to both the lack of responsibility and direction in the team. His old limbs have found a new lease of life in his second spell with the club, as he soothes the midfield and provides security. In polar opposite to the veteran there is Franco Zuculini, an energetic, abrasive character closing down every opponent. The Argentinean is thriving this season in Jimenez's system that's tailor made for his approach.
Another youngster, Alvaro Gonzalez, was brought in from Racing Santander. He's showing this season that Valencia and Sevilla were right to take a look at him, but wrong to leave it at that. Capable of playing at either full-back or centre-back, Alvaro's offering up a quick, decisive and committed presence in the backline.
If those players paint a less than appealing picture, then there is a duo that are rapidly producing a more elegant image. Both are products of Barcelona's La Masia, whom like many, have found their careers lie elsewhere in Spain.
Paco Montanes is one of those players every fan wants in their team these days – he's easy on the eye, delightful in the pass and reads the game like none of his teammates can. An attacking midfielder, Montanes earned his move to Zaragoza following an inspirational season with Alcorcon in Segunda Division. Thus, he's adapted effortlessly, and provides invention and an engaging dynamic to Jimenez's mix.
The star though, has undoubtedly been Victor Rodriguez. 23-years-old, when signed during the summer it was with the 'B' team they had in mind for him. The exciting attacking midfielder has shown an incredible level of performance to become an essential first team member. He's switched between central and wide attacking midfield roles effortlessly, offering himself as a key link between Movilla's midfield basics and the attack. Victor has the pace, skill and technique, but also the awareness of his defensive duties and a fantastic work ethic. So far he's weighed in with five assists, and the variation in those from the set-piece deliveries, to the slipped in passes, to the crosses from wide areas, shows how strong his all-around game is.
A victory over Rayo Vallecano on Monday night was the finest moment of the season for Jimenez. It was a controlled performance, but still with the intent neccessary to hurt the opposition. The counter attacks were well judged, and the defensive discipline was there too. These again, are all basics – but these are all basics that have been beyond Zaragoza for too long.
Zaragoza, one step at a time, are walking down the correct path.