Adrift in the relegation zone, Real Zaragoza looked a doomed outfit less than a month ago. The promoted Aragonese club were still smarting from a 6-0 hiding at Real Madrid and the dismissal of their coach Marcelino Garcia. Incredibly, he was the sixth coach to be sacked at La Romereda in 18 months.Fans were up in arms, blaming the board and the club's owner, the regional political heavyweight Agapito Iglesias. Protests marred games while the team had the unenviable record of the worst defence in La Liga. That was surprising given that Zaragoza's strength this season was supposed to be their central defensive partnership of Roberto Ayala - the former Valencia and Argentina international - and Francisco Pavon, formerly of Real Madrid.
Zaragoza had spent big, with Ayala on ?80,000 a week (Dh402,000) and coach Marcelino earning more than Barcelona's Pep Guardiola. Jermaine Pennant's surprise move came after he turned down all offers in England because Zaragoza were prepared to pay more. Yet by the turn of the year, they were heading back to the second tier they left last May, not a place for a club that averages 30,000 crowds.What a difference a month makes. On Sunday, Zaragoza recorded their second consecutive victory to move out of the relegation zone. Their 2-1 win over a Sevilla team who have now lost five of their last seven league games was their best performance of the season. Injury-hit Sevilla's alarming dip has left them in fifth, though they are still in the Champions League and likely to reach the Copa del Rey final after a 2-0 first leg victory over Getafe last week.
Before their brace of victories, Zaragoza had not won a game since early November and the story behind their turnaround lies in their busy January in the transfer market. The elegant former Barcelona and Brazilian World Cup-winning midfielder Edmilson arrived from Palmeiras. Loan deals were quickly concluded for several other players. The prolific Chilean international striker Humberto Suazo came from Mexican side Monterrey. Another striker, Adrian Colunga, was bought from Recreativo Huelva.
To improve what is still the worst defence in the league, having conceded an average of more than two goals per game, Matteo Contini arrived from Napoli and the Czech international Jiri Jarosik, formerly of Chelsea and Celtic, was also brought in. Portuguese winger Eliseu, signed from Lazio, completed the recruits who have revitalised the club now coached by their former B team boss Aurelio Gay.It is not just the new faces. Home-grown defender Ander Herrera, 20, looks as energised as Pennant, last summer's most costly import who had been used sparsely by Marcelino and appeared to have no future at the club. One club source even stated that Pennant had been bought because he came on a free and could be expected to leave for a free.
Pennant's burst of speed and glimpses of class against Sevilla were encouraging as Zaragoza's turgid football continued its transformation into a more expansive attack minded formation of 4-2-3-1.Of the previous line-up, the once brilliant Ayala was allowed to go while Pavon has slipped out of the picture. Neither can say they were not given a chance.Zaragoza have a run of winnable games approaching, starting with next week's visit to Real Valladolid followed by a home game with Sporting Gijon.
Though their position remains precarious, some fans are daring to smile again in Spain's fifth biggest city. @Email:email@example.com