Real Betis keeping pace with Real Madrid and Barcelona
Their manager, however, is refusing to get carried away ahead of their trip to Athletic Bilbao this weekend
Just two rounds in to the 2011-12 campaign, Real Madrid, Valencia and Real Betis are the only clubs in La Liga which still boast 100 per cent records.
It is fair to say that promoted side Betis, who are enjoying their best start to a season since 1996, are the surprise package in that leading triumvirate.
When quizzed on his team’s fine start at the beginning of the week by Spanish sports daily Marca, Betis manager Pepe Mel smiled and said: “I look at the table, yes, but also at the date by its side”.
Lively yet cautious, hesitant yet optimistic, Mel knows exactly what it is to get promoted and then suffer the ignominy of an immediate return to the second division.
The Madrileno enjoyed his best playing years with the Verdiblancos on the working class side of Seville and in his debut season back in 1989-90, he helped Real Betis to gain promotion to the top flight, picking up the Segunda Division Pichichi award along the way.
A year later, Mel and his team mates were back in the second tier after finishing bottom in the 1990-91 campaign.
That Real Betis team that got promoted was lead by a host of accomplished veterans, but, unfortunately, the club’s ascent in 1990 coincided with the departure of several of the Andalusian’s most important figures.
Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning goalkeeper Nery Pumpido returned to his boyhood club Union de Santa Fe in 1991, although an inauspicious double leg break in Italia ’90 prevented a meaningful contribution to Betis’ top flight exploits that year.
The team was further depleted by the loss of Mexico ’86 World Cup veteran, Ramon Caldere, who moved to provincial club Sant Andreu on the outskirts of Barcelona, and Chilean winger Patricio Yanez, a 1982 World Cup star, who returned to homeland team Universidad.
The perennial number 11, Roberto Lopez Ufarte, who represented hosts Spain at the World Cup in 1982, retired from professional football altogether.
Back then, Mel watched on helplessly as his influential team mates moved on, but more than two decades later he acted to prevent a similar exodus on the occasion of Real Betis’ recent promotion.
There has been change in the close season and the loss of key man Achille Emana was expected to be felt more than any other departure.
But Mel was backed in the transfer market by Miguel Guillen over the summer and the recruitment of players matching or surpassing the calibre of the recently departed such as Jefferson Montero, Antonio Amaya, Javier Chica and Roque Santa Cruz, has given the Beticos hope of a more propitious adjustment to life in La Liga this time round.
And judging by their exceedlingly good start, those hopes are not unfounded.
Betis were spared an electric opening day fixture against fierce city rivals Sevilla due to the player’s union strike and they went on to record victories against Granada and Real Mallorca in the succeeding games.
This weekend they gear up for their trickiest test so far, a trip to the Basque country to face Spain’s third most decorated club, Athletic Bilbao, at ‘La Catedral’ San Mames.
Defeat on the hardened fields of the industrial north would not be a cause for immediate concern. Victory in Bilbao, however, would certainly merit delirious celebration.