A couple of days ago, someone on one of the Spanish Bético forums invited fans to predict where the club would finish this season. Around 120 replies came in and the results are pretty interesting: 12th was the most common answer and 10th the average; no-one was brave enough to choose third place (the highest realistically available), but then again not a single respondent predicted relegation, either. It seems Béticos are anticipating - and would be perfectly happy with - a quiet season of all-round consolidation.
I wouldn't disagree at all. Right now, before a ball has been kicked, it's obviously hard to be exactly sure where Betis stand in the Primera pecking order, but most of the important signs are positive. Despite the fact that relegation in 2009 was the culmination of several years' worth of struggle, only the most chronically pessimistic fans foresee a return to that kind of anxiety.
1. The players
An outsider might look at the current squad - which, after all, is not that different from last year's - and see a dearth of Primera experience. Fair enough - but that's not to say these players aren't ready now. Names like Chechu Dorado, Salva Sevilla, Jorge Molina and Beñat have worked their way up through the ranks, becoming the stand-out players at tiny clubs like Conquense and Poli Ejido before moving up to Segunda level and shining there. They are serious, ambitious, talented footballers who are all the hungrier for success in Primera because it's cost them so much to get there. "Hombres no nombres," as the Spanish phrase goes (men, not names). If they were racehorses, you'd say they were "unexposed" - in other words, the upper limits of their abilities hasn't been revealed yet - with the quality of the football they played last season (collectively and individually) suggesting this team has more than enough ability to cope comfortably with most Primera opposition. (And that's even before we've mentioned the younger talent already coming through...)
2. The Copa del Rey run
Not that you need to take my word for the qualities of this Betis side. Last winter they beat two mid-grade Primera clubs - Zaragoza and Getafe - over two legs in the Spanish equivalent of the FA Cup. They were the better side in each of the ties, and completely took Getafe apart in a 3-1 away win. They then gave a three-quarter strength Barcelona side two good games, winning in Seville and impressing Pep Guardiola so much he was still talking about us at the end of the season. Those were six proper tests and the new Betis passed with flying colours.
3. Pepe Mel says everything will be fine
"I'm completely happy with the players who took us up last year," the Betis coach told reporters in the summer. "I've said many times that the side that finishes as champion of Segunda generally makes a good showing in Primera the following year. I'm convinced that the likes of Dorado, Iriney, Beñat, Salva, Molina and Rubén Castro are going to prove themselves."
Like the Béticos polled above, he's looking higher up the table than 17th. "I have a lot of confidence in my team and I think we're going to be competitors. OK, only two teams can win the title, but I'm not going to say that our only objective is to stay up. It might be the first target, but once we've achieved it, which I'm sure we're going to, then we'll start aiming higher."
While Pepe Mel's assertion that Segunda champions do well in Primera isn't entirely accurate - six have gone straight back down in the last 10 years - it is mostly true that promoted teams overall hold their own. Over the last 15 seasons, only 15 of the 45 sides to have come up from Segunda have been relegated in the very next season.
5. Los 40,000
Need I say more?
This is obviously a nervous time. Pre-season has seen a rather odd mixture of meaningless thrashings of minor teams and unlucky defeats to bigger ones, and then there's been the strike to keep us stewing just a little bit longer. Now we play the first game of the Primera season against a side we faced three times last year. It'll be a good couple of months before we really know how Pepe Mel's Betis will shape up at their new level, so in the meamtime we're relying on guesswork and sheer blind faith. Where do you think they'll finish? Call me crazy, but I'm going for 8th.
(Preview of tonight's game to follow later.)