La Liga is back! After a summer of big-name departures, might there be a shake-up at the top? Graham Hunter previews the new season.
Are Atletico the best team in Madrid?
Does no Cristiano Ronaldo and no Zinedine Zidane mean a red-and-white opportunity for Diego Simeone & Co.?
In Julen Lopetegui, the Atletico Madrid manager faces his fifth different coach since he became manager of Los Colchoneros in 2011. What is more, the No. 1 obstacle to Simeone’s side regularly overtaking Real Madrid in the pecking order, Cristiano Ronaldo, has left town.
So, after finishing above Los Blancos in La Liga for only the second time in 22 years, and while, in contrast to Atletico’s continuity, Real try to assimilate massive managerial and squad upheaval, is it a good bet that Simeone can oversee not just a title challenge but the domination of their city rivals?
It is worth being cautious.
Madrid showed huge weaknesses last season in league competition; they didn’t just allow a 17-point gap between them and champions Barcelona, but regularly flopped in front of their own fans at the Bernabeu.
That malaise partly accounts for Zidane’s shrewd decision to step away from the manager’s hot seat in a moment of historic glory after a third straight Champions League triumph. Without him and without Ronaldo, the European champions are shorn of talent, class and proven know-how.
However, the reaction might well be a pulling-together and a chance for some, who felt themselves bit-part players with Ronaldo around, to assert their character and their talent. Madrid have lost an icon, but might they have gained more team unity and a shared sense of responsibility?
Trying to conquer Europe always induces lust, but this is a season in which they want Lopetegui to make them domestic champions, something that has only happened four times in the last 15 years. That, I believe will be the club’s focus.
Conversely, while Simeone, Antoine Griezmann, Koke, Jan Oblak and Diego Godin can certainly envisage themselves both edging past Madrid and staying title contenders right until the end, do not forget where the Champions League final is being staged next June: Atleti’s Metropolitano stadium.
The overwhelming, beseeching demand from their fanatical support will be to finally lift that historic trophy — after so many near misses — and to do so in their new stadium. That might distract even the most focused, most demanding and most professional of minds in Simeone’s squad.
That said, in 2014 when Atleti last won La Liga, they also managed to reach the Champions League final, so opportunity presents itself. They have superb resources and are an ongoing project, not one in transition. Plus, they believe. History beckons.
This has not (yet) been the summer of mega-“marquee” signings in La Liga. Instead, we have to try to identify significance, planning and intelligence.
Champions Barcelona have done a lot of business, much of which sounds like it comes from the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, given they added two Arthurs and a Malcom.
Arturo Vidal’s arrival stands out for the lightning-fast transition between news of his move seeping out and the deal being done. To howls from many Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola devotees.
Malcom is a headline signing because Roma, Barcelona’s Champions League nemesis last season, actually announced they had captured him and fans were waiting at Ciampino airport for him, before the Camp Nou club swept him away.
But it is Arthur Melo who looks most intriguing, a Brazilian who plays as if he has been educated in the famous “pass-move-pass-move” philosophy of La Masia.
Madridistas might shout for Thibaut Courtois, who is arguably among the world’s top two or three goalkeepers. Vinicius Junior is the real treasure, though.
Signed when just 16, having been specifically scouted to diminish president Florentino Perez’s fury at losing Neymar to Barcelona, two years later he is looking dynamite, although he remains very inexperienced.
For Atletico, while retaining Griezmann was a “marquee” capture, they needed extra creative quality. Therefore, winning the race to sign Thomas Lemar — via club-record expenditure — was muscular, smart and daring transfer market business.
Although Cristiano Ronaldo divides people’s opinions and loyalty in a way that Andres Iniesta never has, it is still a crushing loss to La Liga in general that the two are playing in Italy and Japan respectively.
Yes, the departures will be felt tactically and in leadership terms, but Spanish football is less textured, less exotic, less thrilling and less talented without them.
“The king is dead, long live the king!” It might be a habitual and healthy part of life, and football thrives upon new talent, new blood and new impulses, but we kiss goodbye to greatness when the Fuentealbillan and the Madeiran say “adios.”
Who is the third significant goodbye? I am sad Joaquin Correa has left Sevilla for Lazio of Serie A and will miss studying the development of Kepa Arrizabalaga and Fabian Ruiz, now at Chelsea and Napoli respectively, before we had time to see them flower at Athletic and Betis.
But the standout guy, whose departure robs us of greatness, romanticism and achievement is Fernando Torres. El Nino broke records, restored Atletico to the elite, returned from England and left with his hands on a European trophy. When will they see his like again?
Who will win the league?
Speak up neutrals, is it not true that you crave Atletico or Valencia knocking the big two over and lifting a rare title? There is a chance. It remains slim, but is fatter than last year.
In Marcelino, Valencia have a superb coach and a squad both battle-hardened and better equipped, thanks to shrewd signings like Mouctar Diakhaby, Cristiano Piccini, Michy Batshuayi, Kevin Gameiro, Daniel Wass and Denis Cheryshev, plus the conversion of Geoffrey Kondogbia from loanee to permanent staff member. They have “won” the transfer market and are a more implacable rival than last season. Title challengers? Perhaps.
There is no escaping that Barcelona will be hard to prise away from top spot, because if Lionel Messi, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez are focused and determined, rather than distracted or tired, they are already “habituals.”
Madrid? The good bet is that they are a better league team without Ronaldo, specifically because they will fight hard to become a better “team.” His loss is graver in Europe and, quite possibly, a determining factor in them not retaining the Champions League.
With the addition of goals before the transfer market shuts at the end of August, Lopetegui can make his new charges more title-competitive than last season.
However, given that Barcelona and Madrid have a certain degree of flux, World Cup tiredness to deal with and are under vastly higher pressure, there is a slight chance that Atletico can repeat their amazing feat of 2013-14.
Not simply keeping Oblak, Griezmann and Godin, but hearing each of them actively turn down mega-money moves to Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester United respectively, is a sign that the greats in the squad believe glory is near.
They have also bought well, and if their youth system is regularly trusted by Simeone, then while it is fair to say that Barcelona should win the title, it is equally fair to suggest that Atletico might.
For reasons already mentioned, it will surprise me if the top four are not Atletico, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia (though not necessarily in that order!).
It will also raise an eyebrow if fifth and sixth — the only Liga slots that guarantee Europa League football — are not occupied by the two clubs from Seville. Betis and their city rivals have the pedigree, quality of coach, squad, summer signings, fan base and attitude to tilt at the top four but accept the next best.
Snapping at their heels, or perhaps biting their legs off if my judgement is wrong, should be Real Sociedad and Villarreal.
Everyone else needs to focus on a shock Copa del Rey win … and avoiding the drop.
The battle at the bottom
Speaking of which … Many will look at the three promoted sides and think that Rayo Vallecano are on a yo-yo between the Segunda and Primera, that Real Valladolid have long been mired in the second tier and that Huesca, although a romantic story in their debut campaign as a top-table team, won’t cut it.
Three up, then; nine months or so later, three down.
Except that the last few seasons have seen Eibar, Girona, Leganes, Alaves and Levante come up and stay up, to La Liga’s great benefit.
Rayo do not benefit from having to play so many Madrid derbies and, looking at their defending, I am not sure that they will keep their goals against column sufficiently acceptable.
All three new arrivals need to have signed well and, on that front, Huesca look as if they have acted shrewdly by acquiring Xabier Etxeita, Luisinho, Pablo Insua and Ruben Semedo.
As for established clubs that might be toe-to-toe with the upstarts in a battle against the drop, consider Espanyol, despite an outrageously successful preseason; Girona, who will badly miss departed coach Pablo Machin; Celta, where there is too much chopping and changing; and Alaves, whose coach, the excellent Abelardo, will save them again.