Sevilla vs Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

Barcelona somehow managed to leave the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday with their 100% record still intact. Two late goals secured the three points in a thrilling 3-2 win that left hosts Sevilla empty handed and removed their unbeaten record in the league this season.

Setting the result aside, there were positives and negatives for both managers to ponder as the season progresses.

Line Ups

Michel kept faith with the same starting eleven that had defeated Real Madrid and then Deportivo La Coruna in the previous two league games.

Sevilla Starting Line Up

Tito Vilanova made three changes to the side that defeated Granada reinstating Xavi to the starting line up in place of Thiago. At left back, Jordi Alba replaced the injured Adriano whilst Pedro started in place of Villa on the left wing.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

There have been a number of subtle changes to the manner in which Barcelona are playing this season under Vilanova and these are discussed below.

Opening Phase

Michel adopted broadly the same shape that had proven successful against Real Madrid.

Navas offered width and pace on the right whilst Trochowski tucked in on the left providing support to the midfield centrally. The diagonal pass to Navas was a feature of Sevilla’s play for the entire game and it helped curb Alba’s attacking enthusiasm.

Was Pedro stationed on the left wing in the first half to provide additional defensive cover to Alba against the pairing of Navas and Cicinho?

Trochowski’s positioning offered Alves the ability to push on during transitions with Trochowski caught infield but this seldom occurred. Barcelona were slow in possession, often choosing the correct passing option but making the decision to slowly. Consequently, Sevilla were normally able to regain shape and structure with Medel and Maduro congesting the centre of the pitch directly in front of the centre back pairing.

As they did so successfully against Real Madrid, Sevilla sought to hold a high line, aiding the congestion in the middle of the pitch.

When Barcelona were able to increase the tempo of the game, their combination play presented problems for the hosts and a number of half chances were created, typically through the trio of Xavi, Messi and Cesc.

Barcelona Shape & Defensive Frailty

The first noticeable difference for Barcelona this season is the shape of the side. Whilst the various TV and media sources still use graphics displaying Barcelona as lining up in their usual 4-3-3, on the pitch it’s somewhat different.

Messi moves deeper now into a classic No10 position on the pitch and is more or less laterally aligned with the most advanced of Barcelona’s midfielders. Last night this was Cesc. With Xavi operating slightly deeper alongside Busquets, it’s not unusual to see the two wide players being positioned furthest forward. In this respect, Barcelona often now resemble a loose 4-2-2-2.

The essential aspects of the system, as adopted by Barcelona, are that the wide players must drive in diagonally when required to provide the central focal point of the attack. When Messi moves very deep, there is an onus on Xavi to drive forward into space. Whether Xavi can sustain such a role over a long season remains to be seen. Also worth consideration is Busquets now moves slightly further forward in games, offering less potential cover to the defence.

Sevilla’ opening goal arose when Song needlessly challenge Negredo for a ball in the Sevilla half. Rakitic collected the loose ball and was already ahead of Busquets eliminating him from this phase of play. Medel received a pass in the right hand channel and was allowed to shoot without being pressed, his deflected shot collected by Trochowski who fired home despite Dani Alves being in close proximity. Alves, lazily, made no attempt to close him down, almost inviting the shot. Song, meanwhile, was unable to recover his position in this moment.

There were further episodes of Barcelona being disorgansied and not communicating properly in defence. A few moments later, Song and Busquets almost collided when they contested the same aerial ball despite no Sevilla player being close by.

The defensive confusion reached a peak in the 36th minute when four defenders pursued Navas as he ran diagonally from right to left. Nobody tracked Negredo as he made the opposite run from left to right. When Rakitic released him, Negredo’s shot from the edge of the penalty area went just wide.

The decision not to purchase another centre back in the summer has been highlighted by injuries to Pique and Puyol simultaneously. Individually Busquets, Mascherano and Song are all options for centre back alongside an established central defender. With any two used in a pairing however, there is a lack of awareness and communication.

Where to Play Messi

The development of Messi has seen him move from a right winger to a central striker to his current deployment in the false 9 role but increasingly Messi starts in a deep position and advances rather than starting in an advanced position and dropping deep. Messi is now functioning more like a classic No10.

The heat map below shows Messi’s positioning against Sevilla.

Messi Heat Map vs Sevilla                                                    http://www.squawka.com

Messi is now starting deep and advancing but opponents have realised this and with no central striker for Barcelona, defences can push high, congest the central area and squeeze the space between defence and midfield. How do Barcelona counter this?

Barcelona need a reference point in attack. This does not necessarily mean a traditional No9 but they need someone in that role to occupy the opponent’s central defenders. This role is no longer performed by Messi.

Last night, this meant it was Cesc who moved forward into the No9 role but there were also times when Xavi, Pedro and Sanchez all broke into central positions to perform that duty. Both goals from Cesc were examples of this. In each case he was already ahead of Messi when either moving onto or receiving the ball.

Barcelona More Direct?

Have Barcelona become a little more direct this season under Vilanova?

Last season Barcelona averaged 17 crosses per game. With six games played so far, they are averaging 19 crosses per game. Last night this figure increased substantially as they attempted 29 crosses into the Sevilla box. Only 8 were successful.

Barcelona Cross vs Sevilla                                                     http://www.squawka.com

With such a small team physically, unless the cross is exceptionally accurate or the penalty area is sparsely populated, Barcelona are going to win few aerial duels in their opponents penalty area.

Furthermore, a notable recent development has been the gradual increase in the number of long kicks / passes by Valdes in goal. The table below shows Valdes distributing the ball on 19 occasions, only 12 of which were successful. By kicking longer, more often, Valdes reduces the risk of a misplaced pass to a team mate in a dangerous area of the pitch. The exact type of pass which led to goals against Real Madrid over the past two seasons.

Valdes Passes                                                                               http://www.squawka.com

The converse of this is that it enables opponents to regain possession more frequently thus increasing the pressure on Barcelona’s somewhat fragile defence.

Second Half

Barcelona struggled at times during the first half due to Sevilla’s set up and also because they lacked intensity in their own play. Too often the ball was passed correctly but too slowly allowing Sevilla to regroup.  This altered in the second half as they began to play at a higher tempo and with greater width, both full backs now moving forward particularly Alba on the left. With Sevilla tiring, Xavi began to receive more space to pass and dictate the tempo.

The most significant development in the second half however was not a tactical move by either side. It was arguably the sending off of Gary Medel. It’s difficult to see how Sevilla would have lost the game had Medel remained on the pitch. Both of Barcelona’s late goals emerged in the central area which had been protected partly by Medel. On both occasions, Messi had time to lay off a pass to a team mate.

With only 10 men, Sevilla inevitably fell deeper and had less of an opportunity to break with nobody remaining high up the pitch.

Sevilla Substitutions

Michel made three substitutions against Barcelona. Rakitic, Trochowski and Negredo were all replaced with the introduction of Kondogbia, Manu and Luna.

The same three players were withdrawn against Real Madrid and the same three players were introduced. Whilst Manu was introduced due to injury to Trochowski midway through the first half, the other substitutions were reactive as Michel sought to hold on for victory.

Following the dismissal of Medel, the tiring and more attack minded Rakitic was replaced by Kondogbia to provide greater defensive stability and energy in the centre of the pitch.

In the 80th minute Negredo was replaced by the defensive Luna in response to Vilanova’s attacking gamble to remove Alves for Villa. Luna moved to the left side of midfield and Manu moved, notionally, to the central striking position as Sevilla were now operating along the lines of a 4-4-1.

In both games against Madrid and Barcelona, Sevilla have been tactically sound with Michel reacting to developments on the sidelines astutely.

Creativity and Workrate

Sevilla look different this season. With stories emerging of Michel having a more harmonious dressing room, the results can be seen on the pitch. The team have creativity and flair but are prepared to work extremely hard too, particularly the attacking players in the team.

In two key games, Rakitic has been asked to close down the opposition’s main midfield playmaker, Alonso for Madrid and Xavi for Barcelona whilst simultaneously being the most advanced midfield player for his own side. The Croatian has managed to perform both tasks but understandably tired in both games and was substituted.

There have been similar performances too from Trochowski, Negredo and Navas especially. Each player performing their defensive duties with a tremendous worth ethic earning the right to then launch attacking moves.

Conclusions

Barcelona, as is normal, dominated possession. With 624 successful passes form 731 attempted compared against Sevilla’s 212 successful passes form 297 attempted. The ability to convert that possession into goals however proved a touch more difficult as a highly organised Sevilla side came very close to successive home victories over the big two.

Amongst the host of positive points arising from the game from a Sevilla perspective, two issues will leave Michel disappointed. The loss of two late goals and the dismissal of Gary Medel. Irrespective of whether the red card was correct or not, the Chilean should know better than to confront an opponent in such an aggressive fashion forcing the referee to make a decision.

If this performance level can be maintained, Sevilla will surely be contesting the Champions League positions at the end of the season as once again the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan becomes an inhospitable venue for opponents.

Barcelona have now won their opening six league games of the season. Only on one occasion have they won the first six league games and not secured the league title.

Yet defensive frailties persist and there is the feeling that the team are not yet operating at maximum. With Benfica and Real Madrid coming up in the next seven days, the reports of Puyol traveling with the squad to Lisbon will raise hopes.

For despite the six wins, there is still much for Vilanova to ponder.

Advertisements

Sevilla vs Real Madrid: Tactical Analysis

Real Madrid arrived at the Sanchez Pizjuan in the unusual position of being below Sevilla in La Liga. They remained below their hosts as they departed too with a 1-0 defeat condemning the Madrid side to their worst league start in over a decade.

On their two previous visits, the title holders had emphatically defeated their host’s with comprehensive 6-2 victories yet the Andalusian team displayed an intensity and workrate for the whole game which Madrid failed to match and as a result were unable to impose themselves.

Line Ups

Michel made one change from the side which drew 0-0 away to Rayo Vallecano prior to the international break.

Manu was removed from the team to be replaced by Maduro, a clear indication of the need for increased defensive stability from Sevilla.

Sevilla Starting Line Up

Mourinho started with the anticipated side. Marcelo continues at left back in place of the suspended Coentrao. Modric started on the bench once more.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

The Madrid shape was their customary 4-2-3-1 with Higuain once more preferred to Benzema as the lone striker.

Sevilla Approach

From the opening minutes of this game, it was apparent how Sevilla were going to play. Their approach was going to be fast, direct and in the face of their opponents. The passing statistics bear witness to this approach. Sevilla made 241 successful passes from an attempted 361 passes. With pass accuracy of just 66% and overall possession of just 42%. Sevilla did not require possession to hurt Madrid. They retained shape, competed and sought Negredo and the increasingly important Navas for penetration at the earliest opportunity.

Sevilla set up in a 4-2-3-1 with some important points to note. The “2” stayed very central and close to the centre backs, Maduro playing deeper than Medel.

Upfield, Rakitic was deployed centrally with Trochowski very narrow on the left and supporting his colleague in the centre. This contrasted sharply with Jesus Navas on the right who provided width and pace with the intention of supporting Negredo in the striking role.

The full backs adopted similar roles. Cicinho looked to get forward and support Navas whereas Navarro stayed deep, aware that he had no direct cover in front of him.

The early part of the game was punctured with fouls, there was 14 in the opening 30 minutes. This stop start nature suited Sevilla as it prevented Madrid from finding any semblance of fluency in their play and it continued for much of the game although the number of fouls committed tailed off.

Sevilla Fouls vs Real Madrid                                                     http://www.squawka.com

The fouls were also being committed high up the pitch, away from the Sevilla penalty area. The rojiblancos were holding a relatively high line and squeezing the play in the centre of the pitch, suffocating their opponents. Ronaldo only had two opportunities to shoot at goal from a free kick during the game.

In the opening 25minutes of the match, Ronaldo, Higuain and Ozil were all fouled in aerial challenges around the halfway line. Sevilla had laid down a marker.

Sevilla collected three cautions, two of which were for fouls committed in their opponents half of the pitch. The third yellow card arose from the confrontation between Navarro and Higuain.

The Goal

The only goal of the game was scored in the 1st minute. Sevilla had begun the game at a very high tempo and Casillas had already been called into action before the home side gained the first corner of the match. With some atrocious defending, the ball was allowed to drop in the centre of the penalty area around 8 yards out where the oncoming Trochowski met it on the half volley. Higuain was supposed to be marking Trochowski but allowed his opponent to run off him.

Madrid Problems

Madrid allowed themselves to get drawn into a scrap with Sevilla instead of focussing upon building the play. Despite having 58% possession, Madrid only made 466 successful passes from an attempted 576. With just 80% pass accuracy, los blancos were not passing the ball enough and too often passing was sloppy and misplaced. Everything was rushed and increasingly they went long and to the wings, unable to pick their way through the centre of the pitch. Madrid made 38 successful long passes but a further 28 attempted long passes were unsuccessful.

Madrid seemed to be troubled by the intensity of the Sevilla play and the starting line up could be questioned. With the oft quoted “FIFA Virus” brought into vogue following the international break, should Mourinho have rotated the team?

Di Maria and Ozil looked well off the pace. Of course, when it comes to rotation, Mourinho is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Rotate the team and suffer defeat and he would have been lambasted for not selecting his strongest team.

Despite Sevilla adopting a relatively high offside line, Madrid seldom tested this with forward runs and through balls were in short supply:-

Real Madrid Through Balls vs Sevilla                                   http://www.squawka.com

Xabi Alonso

The Sevilla midfield pairing of Trochoski, but principally Rakitic, worked extremely hard to close Xabi Alonso down and prevent him from constructing play from Madrid.

Teams in the past have demonstrated that Madrid are much less of an attacking threat if you can reduce the effectiveness of Alonso. It’s the Basque playmaker who knits the play together for Madrid. Without him, the team can sometimes appear broken, split into a defensive and an offensive unit. Alonso binds them together. It’s the main reason that firstly Sahin and now Modric was acquired. To provide an alternative to Alonso whom Madrid rely heavily upon and reduce his burden.

Xabi Alonso Passes vs Sevilla                                                http://www.squawka.com

Alonso was operating deep and made only 72 passes during the game. With the central area of the pitch clogged by Sevilla, Alonso was forced to go wide with his passing. HIs lack of mobility is also an issue and whilst his defensive performance was still sound, he could not instigate sufficient levels of creative play for Madrid.

Substitutions

Mourinho made two substitutions at half time with the removal of the ineffective Di Maria and Ozil, replaced by Benzema and Modric.

The introduction of Modric saw Madrid revert to a 4-3-3 with a midfield trio of Alonso, Khedira and Modric. This should have provided Madrid with the strength and craft to meet and surpass the challenge from Sevilla. For a brief spell after half time, Modric was making passes and linking play well but it soon fell away.

Modric Passes vs Sevilla                                                             http://www.squawka.com

Similar to Alonso above, too much of Modric’s work was in relatively deep areas and not in an advanced area of the pitch. When Rakitic was replaced with Manu, the space Modric was enjoying as his fellow Croatian tired, was removed.

Michel made three substitutions in the second half, all of which were reactionary to those made by his opposite number.

Michel’s first substitution saw Manu come on for the tiring, and already cautioned, Rakitic to fulfil the same role – pack the centre of the pitch and disrupt Madrid.

Mourinho made his final substitution in the 65th minute when Arbeloa was withdrawn and Callejon entered. This switch required Khedira to become an auxiliary right back and Callejon playing on the right wing. Mourinho would have been comfortable with such a move given that Trochowski had operated so centrally during the game and Sevilla had offered little attacking threat from the left.

Michel made yet another reactive substitution to counter this just 4 minutes later. Negredo was replaced by the left sided defender Luna. Manu now occupied the striking berth with Trochowski in the centre and Luna moved across to the left to provide support for Navarro against Callejon.

Sevilla’s final change was the replacement of Trochowski with Kondogbia in the 81st minute as Michel took the “what we have, we hold” approach, strengthening the centre of the pitch in anticipation of one last push from Madrid which never quite materialised.

Mourinho’s Criticism

Following the game, Jose Mourinho was scathing in his post match criticism of the side.

In response to the poor first half showing, Mourinho confirmed he “only changed two early in the game” but wanted to “change seven”

Perhaps what will concern the Madrid faithful more than anything is his assertion that:-

“What worries me most is that right now … I don’t have a team”

Yet whilst Mourinho was highly critical, he did not exclude himself from that noting that there was “not a lot of players with their heads in their work, that’s my fault”

With an important Champions League game against Man City in midweek, Madrid need to bounce back quickly to prevent the poor form descending into a crisis.

Conclusion

A well deserved victory for Sevilla as they stop a run of seven consecutive defeats to Madrid in all competitions and secure their first league victory since a 2-1 success in October 2009. They retain their undefeated record in the league but the commitment and workrate shown by his players will arguably be the most pleasing aspect for Michel. There are signs that Sevilla are once more moving in the correct direction after a few disappointing seasons.

For Madrid, a 17 league game unbeaten run away from home has ended with successive away defeats.

There is not time for the players to sulk as they have an important Champions League tie against Manchester City awaiting. It’s difficult to envisage Madrid playing so poorly once more but there does appear to be a certain lethargy about the squad. Should this persist, it may raise questions about the pre-season tour in the USA.

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