Best starting XI not on Real, Barca

November, 17, 2011
Ballesteros, Banega, SoldadoGetty ImagesOur La Liga best starting XI outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona includes Sergio Ballesteros, Roberto Soldado and Ever Banega.

As La Liga returns after another round of internationals, Real Madrid and Barcelona have occupied the top of the standing for the past two weeks, and few would bet against that being the case for the rest of the season. As the stars of the division jetted around the globe to carry out their international assignments, many Liga players remained at their clubs, kicking their heels until domestic competition resumed. Here are 11 (mostly) non-internationals from the "league of 18" who have shined for the lesser lights so far this season.

GK: Javi Varas (Sevilla)

Having dislodged the long-serving Andres Palop from the No. 1 shirt last season, Varas has proved himself invaluable to Sevilla's cause this season. The 29-year-old has conceded eight in 11 games, making 71 saves in doing so. This included nine saves when he single-handedly kept Barcelona at bay for 94 minutes to win his side an unlikely point at Camp Nou, stopping a Lionel Messi penalty for good measure at the last minute, by which time Sevilla had only eight outfield players left on the pitch. Varas repeated the trick against Mallorca, pulling off some fine stops to keep the improving Balearic side's goal tally at zero. It's unlikely he'll ever represent Spain, but there are plenty of other nations that would happily field Varas between their sticks.

LB: Jon Aurtenetxe (Athletic)

19-year-old Aurtenetxe plays alongside Fernando Amorebieta and was himself born in a town called Amorebieta. In any case, his assured performances at the back for Athletic this season have helped the side climb from the relegation places to its current ninth, culminating in an early contender for game of the season against Barcelona at the beginning of the month. With the national side's one semi-problem position being the same one Aurtenetxe occupies, the ever-twitching moustache of Vicente del Bosque will likely be a regular fixture at San Mames this season. Although one or both of the more experienced Jordi Alba and Nacho Monreal will travel to the Euros ahead of the Spain youth international, it won't be too long before Aurtenetxe gets the call.

CB: Sergio Ballesteros (Levante)

There is a case for including half the Levante team in this side, but the man behind the surprise of the season is undoubtedly Ballesteros. The center back, now 36, returned to the club where he learned his trade -- mostly getting sent off and roaring in the face of teammates -- after it was relegated to Segunda for the umpteenth time. The club captain made 34 appearances last season and has not missed a minute this season. "They can say I'm ugly, but never slow," the bruiser said in an interview last month.

CB: Adil Rami (Valencia)

Signed from Lille earlier in the year, Rami joined Valencia in the summer in under-the-radar fashion as fans of Los Che were too busy watching all their players leave to notice the imposing Frenchman. It didn't take long for Rami to make an impression. He scored a fine header on his debut in Valencia's pulsating 4-3 win over Racing and popped up with another goal in a 1-1 tie with Mallorca while providing height and a mean tackle at the back.

RB: Javi Lopez (Espanyol)

A defender/midfielder promoted to the first team last season by Mauricio Pochettino, Lopez seems to have found a niche in the Espanyol defense at right back. The Catalan side has kept four clean sheets in its past five games and was bizarrely robbed of an unbeaten streak, since a predictable drubbing at the hands of Real, when this penalty was awarded to Malaga for handball. Lopez is what commentators like to describe as "robust," racking up seven yellows and a red so far, but Pochettino was no ballet dancer, either, so he probably won't mind as long the goals-against column remains reasonable.

MF: "El Chori" Castro (Mallorca)

It took Gonzalo Castro Irizabal a while to earn his place in the Mallorca team, but the Uruguayan has been one of very few bright spots for the Balears this season. He combines mazy runs with a powerful shot off both feet and tireless chasing of the sort that fans of struggling teams appreciate.

MF: Michu (Rayo)

After a career spent in the lower divisions with Oviedo, then Celta B and Celta, nobody really noticed when Michu, 25, signed up to join newly promoted Rayo. He made his Primera debut this season against Athletic, scored his first Primera goal two games later to win the Southern Madrid derby against Getafe for his team, then scored twice at the Bernabeu (although Rayo lost, 6-2). Against Real Sociedad in the last round of fixtures, he added another brace to bring his tally to five in 11 games -- more than a third of Rayo's total. Not bad for a free transfer.

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Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesMalaga's Joaquin has delighted fans with his genuine wing play in an age of tiki-taka.

MF: Ever Banega (Valencia)

There was always the impression that Banega would be filed in the draw marked "expensive flop" after his arrival from Boca Juniors. Swiftly loaned out to Atletico, his time in the capital was marked mainly by disciplinary problems and lackluster performances. Shipped back to Valencia after an underwhelming season, Los Che tried to offload him to Everton, but Banega was denied a visa. Asked to fill the rather considerable midfield void left by the departure of Juan Mata, Banega has stepped up to the plate this season, becoming the creative force behind the team's rise to third. After Banega was injured in Europe against Leverkusen, Valencia coach Unai Emery noted: "The fact is that recently the team has really been relying on Banega's form."

MF: Joaquin (Malaga)

There is something visceral in the way Joaquin approaches the game, and it is a pleasure to see genuine wing play in an age of tiki-taka and counter-attack. There were more glamorous, more expensive signings made by Malaga during the summer, but Joaquin seems to have found a new lease on life on the South Coast. His ability to spirit past a defender remains intact, and the ball often seems to pre-empt his boot when he is hemmed in. Against Betis in Malaga's last match, two things summed the evergreen Joaquin up -- his movement across the final third, alternating wings and popping up a striker, and most tellingly, the complete absence of catcalls from the supporters of his former team.

F: Roberto Soldado (Valencia)

Soldado is in the form of his life, according to Soldado himself, and he seems to be right. Probably not quite good enough, or marketable enough, for the present guise of Real Madrid, but certainly too good for Getafe in its current state. Valencia and Soldado seem to be a perfect match. The bustling striker has scored six in 10 starts this season, adding a couple in Europe as well. Last week in Spain there was a televised debate between the two runners for prime minister; the following day, shortly after the "highlights" of that, a reporter took to the streets to ask Spain's long-suffering citizens a question of greater import: Should Soldado have been called up for the England and Costa Rica friendlies at the expense of Fernando Torres? A vast majority of interviewees said yes, indeed, and Torres did little to champion his cause in the recent internationals.

F: Manu del Moral (Sevilla)

Signed from Getafe after an impressive 2010-11 that culminated in a call-up to the Spain squad, Manu was expected to play a second -- or third -- fiddle role to senior strikers Álvaro Negredo and Frederic Kanoute. Instead, the 27-year-old, who looks closer to 12, has started nine of 11 games, scoring four of Sevilla's 11 goals and looking like he has played for the club for years. If his form continues, it may not be long before the Soldado debate is extended to his erstwhile Getafe teammate.



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