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ASpanish League record 687 games at eight clubs means the Luis Aragones school of football is well-documented.

The Madrid-born coach has consistently produced sides with two defining characteristics: one, they swear on the bible of counter-attack; two, they’re conditioned to finish the season like express trains.

Aragones’ Mallorca lived up to expectations on both counts. Led by the quicksilver Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o, the Dark Reds proved more deadly on the counter than Sugar Ray Leonard at his peak. In the end, only Deportivo’s resilience denied Mallorca second place in the League.

As recently as 1980 the islanders were scratching around in Spain’s regional leagues. Their transformation can be traced back to 1995, when Antonio Asensio became major shareholder. The media baron died in April but his legacy includes the 23,142-capacity Son Moix stadium and a œ3.5million training complex.

The club’s progress to the upper echelons was not without its hiccups, however. In 1996-97 coach Victor Munoz was sacked with four games to play, even though his team were top of the Second Division. Asensio cited flagging morale, but the gamble nearly backfired. Under caretaker Tomeu Llompart, Mallorca dropped to third place before defeating Rayo in the play-offs to reach the top flight.

The decision to recruit Hector Cuper proved more perceptive, the Argentinian leading the club to fifthand third-place League finishes, not to mention Spanish and European Cup-winners Cup Finals.

Fernando Vazquez was brought in when Cuper moved on to Valencia, but he was sacked last summer despite leading Mallorca to a still highly respectable 10th place. That is when Aragones arrived, having spent the 1999-00 immersed in a relegation dog-fight at Oviedo.

But although he rescued that club, the veteran coach appeared to have another struggle ahead as Mallorca sold top scorer Diego Tristan and midfield stars Lauren and Jovan Stankovic.

Sure enough, after the first six games of last season, Mallorca were propping up the table. However, back-to-back wins against Barca and Real Madrid buried any notion of a crisis. Eventually, Aragones’ team finished eight points ahead of Barca and Valencia to equal Cuper’s third-place finish of 1998-99.

Samuel Eto’o, on loan from Real Madrid, has been a revelation, his bare-faced cheek andpace causing defenders migraines. Former Barca apprentice Alberto Luque, 23, is more of a penalty-box animal, while home-grown winger Alvaro Novo, 23, combines qualities of both of the above. Former Lanus playmaker Ariel ‘Nutmeg’ Ibagaza, 25, began to live up to his nickname too during last season.

Yet there is plenty of experience in the side. At 35, former Barca centre-back Miguel Angel Nadal has played his way back into the Spain side, right-back Xabier Olaizola, 31, has made more top-flight appearances for Mallorca than any other player, and left-back Miquel Soler is impossibly athletic for a 36-year-old.

In midfield, Vicente Engonga, 35, remains an immutable presence, while Marcos, 32, has thrived back at his first club. Former Ajax and Betis winger Finidi George, 30, struggled early on but scored some decisive goals in the final straight.

Aragones’ decision to take his book of rules to Atletico Madrid (for a fourth spell) leaves a question mark over Mallorca’s future. If several keyplayers also leave, the new coach will have to rebuild in record time before the Champions League preliminaries. Luque, Ibagaza and centre-half Fernando Nino are all targets for bigger clubs, while young keepers Leo Franco and Miki have been so impressive that Mallorca will also cash in on Carlos Roa and German Burgos.

Between them, pastplayers Marcelino, Romero, Amato, Valeron, Mena, Dani, Lauren and Diego Tristan cost Mallorca just œ7million. Yet they were sold on for œ48m, a staggering piece of business by any standard.

The key to Mallorca’s future is how well they reinvest their latest round of profits.

Kelsey Media Ltd
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