La Liga Season Preview

It’s nearing that time again.

That time of the season when blind optimism takes over and you become engulfed in a sea of fervour towards your team. The deadwood from the previous season has been cast asunder and the new signings arrive fresh and ready to add impetus to the team. To help the club move towards the next level.

Or you could follow a team in La Liga. The league where the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Real Madrid or Barcelona will win La Liga this season. That much is certain. Whatever else happens in the league is anyone’s guess. Could Levante match last season’s incredible events and somehow manage to finish 6th again. Will Athletic deliver in the league and eradicate the cup team tag which now follows them? Is this finally the season when Atleti manage to live up to expectation and actually deliver in their desire to finish in the Champions League spots? Will the project continue at Malaga? In his debut season, could Pellegrino secure a 4th consecutive 3rd place finish for Valencia? There are a multitude of issues surrounding the league this season.

And that is just on the pitch.

Will off the pitch events have any bearing on the league? Will games really kick off at 11pm on Sunday and Monday evenings?

Madrid will correctly start as favourites as a degree of uncertainty envelopes how Barcelona will react to the appointment of Tito Vilanova as successor to Pep Guardiola. The concerns are not so much in how the team will continue to evolve tactically on the pitch where Guardiola and Vilanova often shared responsibilities. The concern will surface off the pitch. Guardiola was a charismatic, charming figure. His are extremely large shoes to fill and Vilanova appears much more introverted. Can he successfully bridge the gap. If he can, then Barcelona can retain the title. For Madrid, the desire to retain the title will be huge but will Mourinho share this desire? Or will he be focusing now upon the Champions League as he seeks his own personal record?

Neither side has made significant changes thus far with more outgoings than incomings.

Alba remains the one key signing for Barca. A further boost to the defence has been the promotion of Marc Bartra from the B team. Speculation continues to surround the future of Tello at the Camp Nou and the saga around the possible signing of Alex Song from Arsenal drags on further. The squad welcomes back Villa and Afellay to full fitness whilst Keita departs but given his limited appearances, his absence will not be missed.

For Madrid, Altintop has departed and Sahin appears to be moving to the Premiership on loan. Fernando Gago and Pedro Leon leaves permanently for Valencia and Getafe respectively. None of those players made any sort of impact last season and, as with Keita above, will not be missed.

If Madrid secure Modric, how he will fit into the team will be interesting. Will he partner Alonso at the base of midfield or is he a replacement for Alonso? It’s most likely he will be a squad player which aptly demonstrates the strength of the big two. First choice players elsewhere (Modric and Song, if he joins) are only considered squad players now.

With a full squad of fit players to select from, Barcelona should be stronger than last season and the title race could once again see the big two break domestic records. Great news in terms of an exciting title race but the continuation of a developing trend whereby nobody in La Liga can match the big two on or off the pitch and thumping defeats become the norm. Mourinho’s summary was perfect. Any team in Europe joining La Liga would finish third at best. The big two are operating at a different level from everyone else.

That’s the title, the easy aspect, and depending upon your perspective maybe the most boring matter too, out of the way. For the remaining 18 teams, it’s probably easiest to consider them into three separate groupings:-

!. Teams chasing the Champions League places.

2. Teams fighting to avoid relegation.

3. The teams in the middle where a positive run of form can elevate you to a European contender or a negative run of form will leave you struggling for survival.

The one trend which has been evident in Spain during the close season has been the gradual drain of the top players from clubs outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona. You’re a top player in Spain but neither Barcelona or Real Madrid want to sign you. Therefore, you leave the country. Replacements have been of a lesser standard in many cases as financial reality starts to bite hard. It means a number of squads are thin with limited numbers. There could be a greater reliance by clubs on la cantera to boost numbers. An inconsistent season could be in store for a number of sides as they struggle to establish any pattern of form.

Somewhere, in the midst of all of this, we need to find a place for Malaga. The financial implosion of the club and the continuing fall out has massive repercussions not just for the club itself, but for La Liga as a whole. The sale of Santi Cazorla did not solely represent a cash boost to the Andalusian side, it represented a fatal blow to the hope, however faint it was, that someone could challenge the big two. Malaga were supposed to be that team, challenging on the back of substantial investment.

Race for the Champions League

Every season, Valencia sells their best players and begin rebuilding and every season they finish third in the league.

This season perhaps marks a change. The appointment of Pellgrino to replace Emery may have left some within the Mestalla faithful a tad underwhelmed but the appointment has received the blessing of Rafa Benitez. A coach under Beintez at Liverpool and Inter, this appointment is Pellegrino’s first steps into management. A former player for Los Che, this may buy him some breathing space if things don’t start well. The Mestalla crowd can be notoriously fickle as Unai Emery experienced first hand.

What is of greater significance is that Valencia have spent as much as they have received in transfer fees (depending upon which figure you believe for sales / acquisitions) which is an indicator of their improving financial health. Still massively in debt but substantial repayments have been made over the past few seasons.

The arrival of Gago, Pereira, Guardado, Nelson Valdez (on loan) and Canales helps address key areas of the team and strengthens the side following the departures of Mehmet Topal, Aduriz and Alba. Combined with the removal of players such as Dealbert, Aduriz, Bruno and Maduro, who moves to Sevilla following an injury affected four years, and the squad is refreshed and improved.

Guardado will start on the left wing pushing Mathieu back to left back. Can the left side of Valencia cope without Alba?

With Piatti and Parejo having settled following their first season, the future again looks bright for Valencia. A return to form and fitness for Canales and the burden on Soldado as the main goalscorer could be reduced. Another 3rd place finish should be achievable although how far they lag behind second place is important. The gap has grown too great and a narrowing, however symbolic this may be, could bring a renewed sense of optimism to the league.

Diego Simone offers the dream to long suffering Atleti fans. That this might, just might, be the season they secure Champions League football. For so long a side who performed the art of inconsistency with aplomb whilst demonstrating an ability to acquire quality strikers and poor defenders in equal measure. Falcao remains the prized asset and had claimed he aims to beat Messi and Ronaldo to the “Pichichi”. Falcao will score goals but the sale of Dominguez, their best defender, again leaves questions marks over the defence. Cata Diaz joins from Getafe but a significant improvement is required here.

Diego returns to Wolfsburg although suggestions that Atleti may try to lure him on loan again remain. For the time being, Emre will need to fill the creative void. A more reactive style may continue to develop at the Calderon with Atleti content to let opponents make the running before counter attacking sharply. It was a ploy used superbly against Athletic in the Europa League final.

Athletic Bilbao commence the season hoping to hang onto Llorente and Martinez although the sale of Llorente at some point is now inevitable with the confirmation that he will not renew his contract. The constant rumours of a move to Juventus remain whilst Martinez seems intent upon a move to Bayern. The loss of these two key individuals would certainly reap financial reward for Athletic yet leaves the issue of how they reinvest such sums unanswered. Acquisitions would leave a number of other clubs weaker with likely targets including Benat (Betis), Martinez (Sociedad) and Monreal (Malaga).

Pre-season has been anything but straightforward for the Basques. A Europa League spot is a possibility but above that seems beyond them. Much will depend upon the quality of the replacements and how they integrate with Bielsa’s methods.

Sevilla have entered a period of relative stability in the recent unsettled waters. Michel remains at the helm despite not meeting last season’s objective. Monchi has been active the transfer market as a reshaping of the squad takes place. Jesus Navas remains one of the few players who played under Ramos in the UEFA Cup winning side as the old guard leave.

The rebuilding starts with Cicinho filling the problematic right back berth as a possible successor to the long departed, but never replaced, Dani Alves. The defence is improved further with Botia arriving on loan and Maduro, if he stays fit, joining from Valencia. Behind them, Sevilla have secured the services of Diego Lopez for a ridiculously low fee. Promising youngsters Rabello and Kondogbia offer future potential but any appearances will be fleeting.

The squad is probably not yet ready to push for a Champions League spot and a Europa League finishing place is achievable although the absence of any European distraction this season could help provide them with a small advantage over their rivals.

The Relegation Battle

La Liga has specialised in providing last day drama over the past few seasons with a plethora of permutations on the final day. This season should see that recipe for excitement and nerves continue as a number of clubs could be caught in the scrap for survival.

The departure of Michu leaves Rayo with a void to fill. An equally large void had also been left following the club’s decision not to renew the contract of Jose Ramon Sandoval. Paco Jemez arrives from Cordoba faced with replacing key players with loan’s and free transfers. The quality has dropped and the cantera will be called upon throughout the season to boost the squad. A 90th minute goal against Granada in the final game of the season helped Rayo scrape into safety last season. With financial problems continuing and a lack of depth and quality to the squad, another season fighting for survival beckons.

Arouna Kone has departed Levante to join the Spanish enclave developing in Wigan under Martinez. It’s difficult to envisage where the goals will arrive now for Levante with the aging Theo Gekas brought in as Kone’s replacement. Their wonderful early start to last season camouflaged the later collapse combined with an almighty carve up amongst the teams below them. Another season of defensive football, grinding out results looks on the cards but whether their aging limbs can continue remains to be seen. Squad numbers will be boosted by free transfers as the club aim to source cheap players and sell them on.

Granada secured their top flight status on the final day last season and another fight looks likely if they are to survive again. The revolving door at Granada has been in full swing over the close season with over thirty arrivals and departures, partially explained by the relationship with Udinese and loan spells ending / starting. If the problems of players gelling is sufficiently overcome, the issue over the suitability of new coach Anquela will be examined. Anquela has never operated at this level and questions will emerge if a slow start to the season is experienced.

Valladolid return to La Liga under the guidance of former Valencia defender Miroslav Djukic. Blanquivioleta fans will be expecting much from two of their new signings from Germany, right back Antonio Rukavina from 1860 Munich and Partick Ebert from relegated Hertha Berlin. The team will be reliant upon the goals of Javi Guerra to fire them to safety but it looks a tall order and a long season appears in prospect. As with so many in the division, home wins will be crucial.

For Celta, survival will be the aim. Coached by the former Liverpool Assistant, Paco Herrera, the financially stricken club has achieved much by reaching La Liga. The motley crew of cantera products and free transfer signings will need to garner as many points as possible at home to ease pressure. Javi Varas joins from Sevilla to provide experience and a vocal presence at the back but his form has shaded over the past few seasons. The season ahead may prove to be an arduous task.

The Rest

And this is where you will find the bulk of the teams. Within a few points of each other, tightly bunched together. Cobble together a few victories and you will be propelled forward to the fringes of the European places. Alternatively, hit a run of poor form and you will be dragged into the relegation mire.

The fortunes of Cleta’s Galicain neighbours are somewhat different. Deportivo make their returns to La Liga and appear to be aiming slightly higher than just a safety and a comfortable finish should ensure. Carlos Marchena arrives to help a ropey defence whilst Nelson Oliveira will offer competition to Riki and Bopido in attack. The loss of Guardado to valencia is a blow thogh. The Mexican international led the way last season with the most assists and goals for Depor. Increasingly dull and boring under Lotina as their La Liga tenure drew to a conclusion with relegation, it was often joked that Depor considered 0-0 as being their favourite result. Whilst they will not dazzle anyone with stylish displays, there is enough about the side to ensure safety hopefully with more than a few cameo performances provided by the great Valeron as his career moves into its final stages.

Espanyol have begun brightly in the past two seasons before severe dips in form have dragged them down the table and much closer to the relegation places than they would like. Los Pericos have lost a number of keys players across their team such as Romaric, Coutinho, Weiss, Javi Marquez and Didac Vila. Replacements have arrived in the shape of Wakaso, Capdevila, Colotto and Tejera but the squad is painfully thin now. A poor start to the season will heap pressure on Pochettino who showed visible signs last season of the stress placed upon him. A follower of Bielsa, Pochettino’s Espanyol will continue to press and play a high defensive line in their favoured 4-2-3-1 system but the enthusiasm of youth needs tempered with experience. Capdevila will help but an inconsistent season with highs and lows await.

Real Sociedad have a first choice team that could spring a few surprises this term. Good acquisitions have been made in the form of Jose Angel, Chori Castro and Carlos Vela adding to the existing talent of Inigo Martinez and Antoine Griezmann. Much will rest upon the shoulders of coach Montanier to coax the best from his youthful charges. Xavi Prieto provides the experience in central midfielder. The squad, as with so many others in La Liga, is light on numbers but a finish in the top ten is a realistic possibility. An opening day visit to the Camp Nou faces Sociedad.

Getafe have moved quietly along during pre-season. Ustari has left but Moya joins permanently from Mallorca. The departure of Cata Diaz should be partially offset by Xavi Torres joining and providing the drive and determination needed from central midfield. Lafita joins up from Zaragoza and coach Luis Garcia will hope that a fit Pedro Leon can join him in midfield to provide some creativity for the Madrid side which never quite materialised last season. As with so many teams in La Liga, the margins between safety and a relegation fight could be determined by navigating the remainder of the transfer window. Getafe are no different and will hope to retain the services of Miku who appears to be interesting a number of sides.

Real Zaragoza if they can build upon last season’s miraculous run which saved them from relegation, should find safety much earlier. This season will be a further test of the cojones of Manolo Jimenez. A number of players arrive at La Romareda notably Glenn Loovens, Apono and Romaric but the onus will still be on Helder Postiga to score the goals that propel Zaragoza up the table with combative Aranda struggling along in single figures.

Joaquin Caparros begins his first full season with the Islanders of Mallorca having lost defender Ivan Ramis to Wigan. Mallorca have the unwanted distinction of signing the petenial underachiever that is Javier Arizmendi. Don’t expect much from him this season but pacy winger Nsue could finally make the breakthrough and establish himself.

With confirmation that Pellegrini is staying at La Roselada, Malaga should be able to hover around the mid-table area even allowing for the departure of their best players thus far. Cazorla, Rondon and Mathijsen have all gone and speculation surrounds the future of Monreal, Toulalan and Joaquin. Should the situation deteriorate further still as the transfer window approaches, they may slip into the bottom half of the table. Despite needing the revenue from the Champions League, avoiding the additional games may prove beneficial for the increasingly small squad. The nightmare scenario for the club would be replication of the toils of Villarreal last season in the Champions League allied to deteriorating league form.

The Reyno de Navarra will once more require to be a stronghold for Osasuna judging by recent transfer activity. Key players in Nekonuam, Lekic and Raul Garcia (loan ending) have all left and replacements of a lower quality have been brought in. Mendilibar remains in charge and the high defensive line and direct style of play will be in evidence once more. If Nino continues to start as the central striker though, the system may need to be tempered slightly as a target man is essential for it to work.

Real Betis will hope to push on towards mid table safety from the outset this season. Montero and Santa Cruz may have departed but Joel Campbell arrives on loan from Arsenal and the likes of Ruben Perez have joined from Getafe whilst Paulao has made last season’s loan move permanent. As ever, the key player for Betis will be Benat. Retaining the talented midfielder at the club will be crucial. The resolve of Betis may be tested as the transfer window draws to a close particularly if Athletic need to strengthen and have cash to burn.

Predicted Final Standings

Barcelona

Real Madrid

Valencia

Atletico Madrid

Sevilla

Athletic Bilbao

Real Socidad

Getafe

Malaga

Real Betis

Deportivo

Osasuna

Mallorca

Real Zaragoza

Espanyol

Levante

Rayo Vallecano

Granada

Celta Vigo

Valladolid

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4 Responses to La Liga Season Preview

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