85 years ago a ball, or what possibly resembled one, was kicked off from the center circle officially introducing Spanish club football to the world. Now in its 86th edition, La Liga is back and stronger than ever. Maybe no other league on the planet can boast more top shelf talent than what Spain has to offer, with arguably three of the strongest sides in the world calling the Iberian peninsula home -- Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. You are guaranteed to have your breath taken away weekly and if last season proved anything, it was that Spain is also still the king of European competitions. La Liga sides have won the last three Champions League (Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 1) and Europa League titles (Sevilla 3), while Atletico have reached 2 of the last 3 UCL finals, as well. According to Sporting Intelligence, when it comes to two-legged European ties against non-Spanish clubs, La Liga’s record is an absurd 45-4.
The Ballón d’Or winner will almost certainly be a La Liga player, just as he has been for the last seven years. The Golden boot winner has been a La Liga player for the last eight. The World Cup’s top scorer, James Rodríguez, is in Spain (for now) and so is the top scorer and player of the tournament from Euro 2016, Antoine Griezmann. Barcelona won their 24th La Liga title last year under second year coach Luis Enrique and will most certainly go into the season again as a prohibitive favorite, but that won’t stop the other 19 clubs from vigorously trying to snatch their crown. So, gentlemen, wash that champagne out of your hair and toss out the confetti, because new hopes and campaigns are upon us. With that, let’s take a look at what to expect in España this season.
Different season, same story.
For the sixth time in the past eight years Barcelona brought the La Liga title back to the cava soaked party in the Plaça de Catalunya. On top of that, the Catalans did the league double, beating Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, while also winning the FIFA Club World Cup and the European Super Cup, taking their overall trophy count to four for the season. The attacking ferocity of Barcelona in the final third was once again the highlight of the campaign for most Blaugrana fans, as Barca scored a staggering 112 goals in the league last season – averaging almost 3 goals a game. 40 of them were scored by striker Luis Suarez, who became the first player, not named Messi or Ronaldo, to win the Pichichi award since Diego Forlan won it in 2009.
After an early October loss away at Sevilla, Barcelona went on an astonishing 39 match unbeaten streak in all competitions – a run which saw them open up a massive 12 point lead over their nearest league rivals in March. The streak included a 4-0 slaughtering of Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season, as Luis Suarez and Neymar ran riot at the Santiago Bernabeu, forcing the PA system to blast the club anthem at the end of the match to drown out chants from the blood-thirsty crowd for President Florentino Perez to resign.
Still, all was not rainbows and unicorns.
Barcelona let a two goal lead slip to draw 2-2 against Villarreal at El Madrigal in late March to drop their first points in the league since early January. Possibly overwhelmed by the passing away of club legend Johan Cruyff, Barcelona lost at home to Real Madrid in the second Clasico of the season, as arch-nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo put away the winner in the 85th minute playing with 10 men. Subsequent defeats to Real Sociedad and Valencia in early April saw Barcelona’s lead at the top of the table cut to zero points and left them with absolutely no margin for error. With a complete collapse looking almost inevitable, Barca went on an end-of-season run that saw them win their final 5 games, scoring 24 goals in the process to seal their 24th La Liga crown.
This summer Barca has reinforced itself by making a concerted effort to bring in youthful legs, packed with skill and, even more to prove. Excluding Jasper, all of the players brought in are 23 years old or younger, highlighted by the uber-talented Andre Gomes of Portugal. This past year at Valencia was a bit of a disappointment, but if he can regain his form from two years ago, Barca got a steal. Club legend Dani Alves has departed and questions still remain at right-back. Tactically a midfielder, Sergi Roberto is the front-runner to start, while flop signing Aleix Vidal will attempt to push him for minutes.
Still, barring a catastrophic injury, Barca possess the world's most fearsome attack with Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Until someone can pry the trophy from their dead, lifeless fingers, they are favorites.
Key Players In: Paco Alcacer, Jasper Cillessen, Lucas Digne, Samuel Umtiti, Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes
Key Players Out: Dani Alves, Marc Bartra, Sandro Ramirez, Adriano, Thomas Vermaelen, Claudio Bravo
What a difference a summer makes.
Following the 2014-15 trophyless campaign, the summer months provided a script of drama written straight from Days of Our Lives. The ever popular Carlo Ancelotti was sacked and replaced with yawn, Rafa Benitez. Club icon Iker Casillas was disposed of like last week’s newspaper and brought to tears at his farewell news conference. For weeks another icon, Sergio Ramos, threatened to leave for Manchester United if he didn’t receive a more lucrative contract before the club finally caved to his demands after an ugly back-and-forth in the press. David De Gea looked like he was on his way from Manchester United, for the transfer to only collapse in the final hour because of a faulty fax machine (people still use those?) in the Bernabeu offices. This summer? You could hear a pin drop.
Real’s only genuine dip into the transfer market has been to bring Alvaro Morata back. He will offer competition to Karim Benzema, and at the very least, provide a serviceable back-up that was desperately missing all of last year. All eyes will also be on how Zinedine Zidane’s first full season as manager will go. His incredible Champions League triumph just 5 months into the job following Rafael Benitez’s uninspiring reign has been deemed lucky by many, but the Frenchmen proved his acumen in the league as well, finishing just a mere point behind winners Barcelona, including a 2-1 triumph at the Camp Nou.
The Champions League is the trophy that has come to define Los Merengues and, with two wins in three years, all is well on that front. But domestically, it's been an entirely different story. With just three crowns in the last 13 years, Madrid are in the midst of their worst league run since the 1930’s. New emphasis has been placed organizationally on the league this year and getting off to a fast start will be imperative. There will surely be bumps in the road and the health of their major stars is something to monitor throughout the season but, if Zidane can manage the squad correctly and keep everyone somewhat satisfied, Madrid should have no problem contending for the League crown.
Key Players In: Alvaro Morata, Marco Asensio, Fabio Coentrao
Key Players Out: Denis Cheryshev, Jesé Rodriguez, Álvaro Arbeloa
Just when you thought they had maxed out all of their potential, they continue to amaze. Atleti once again defied their skeptics and proved the bookies wrong. They fought all the way to the end in La Liga and marched past Barcelona and Bayern to get to the Champions League final. Although they ended up broken hearted and empty handed, Atleti gained respect. No only from the die-hards that watch La Liga week-in and week-out but also from the casual fan.
Now, Atleti must regroup and shake off the crushing memories of a second consecutive UCL final defeat. To do so, they have brought in some shiny new toys to bolster an attack that too often last season couldn’t match their defensive capabilities. Kevin Gameiro was purchased from Sevilla, a major victory for Simeone, holding off Barcelona to his signature in the process. It was even more imperative once priority targets Diego Costa and Edison Cavani proved out of reach. Nico Gaitán comes in to add creative depth, while Sime Vrsaljko is a versatile defender that can fill-in when needed and provide some much needed rest to Juanfran or Filipe Luis.
Atleti remain a side built for two-legged European games, and should remain one of the most feared on the continent in this regard, but Simeone believes he now has the depth and the talent to challenge on all fronts. Another Ballon D’Or worthy season is crucial from Antoine Griezmann and Gamiero will be expected to match his goal output from the season prior at Sevilla. A slow start to the campaign, including two draws against newly promoted sides, have already put Atleti 4 points adrift of Barcelona and Real Madrid. League titles may not be won in August but they can most certainly be lost.
Key Players In: Nico Gaitan, Sime Vrsaljko, Kévin Gameiro
Key Players Out: Borja Bastón, Luciano Vietto, Leo Baptistão, Matías Kranevitter, Oliver Torres
On The Hot Seat
James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
Will he or won't he go? That's the question everyone's asking in regards to the Colombian's future. For now he's safe but knowing what the future holds is anyone's guess. It's almost inconceivable, considering what a hit he was in his debut season, scoring 13 goals and dishing out 13 assists in 29 games. But much like Gareth Bale, he fell victim to the sophomore slump. His numbers plummeted to 7 goals and 8 assists in 26 games, and he failed to gain the confidence of new manager Zinedine Zidane, often time relegated to spot duty in the second half or a rare start against bottom feeders of the league. With his mental condition in question and Isco and Marco Asensio nipping at his heels, the future of a once glittering prospect is in question.
Alexandre Pato (Villarreal)
I know what your’e thinking, and yes, this is the same Pato that once lit Serie A up as a pimply faced teenager for AC Milan. It’s been a strange and depressing last 6 years for “the duck”. Two injury plagued years in Milan saw the Brazilian seemingly quarantined to his native country, where he featured for both Corinthians and Sao Paulo with little to no fanfare. When given another opportunity in Europe, a disastrous loan stint at Chelsea didn’t help either, where he only featured twice, scoring 1 goal, in almost 4 months. Still, Villarreal saw enough in him to give the Brazilian a chance by signing him as the primary back-up to striker Roberto Soldado. But only one week into his new surroundings, Soldado would tear up his knee and his manager, Marcelino, would be fired. With little other choice, new manager Fran Escribá gave Pato a starting nod in the Champions League qualifier against Monaco and he repaid his faith with a goal. It was a good start for Pato, but his performances since have only reinvigorated old questions if the player is finished. He must take advantage of this opportunity If he wants any chance of reclaiming his once elite standing in the world of football.
Peter Lim (Valencia CF owner)
Valencia’s massive debt problems have been public knowledge for quite a while now, So when Singapore billionaire, Peter Lim, took over a 70% ownership stake in 2014, most Valencia supporters were beyond excited. It started off well enough with a 4th place finish that season, culminating in them qualifying for the play-off round of the Champions League the following year.
From there, things only went downhill.
The summer saw Valencia spend £122.19m on new signings but most were all flops. The following season Los Che finished a disappointing 12th in the table, all the while sacking two managers -- one of whom, Gary Neville, had no prior managerial experience. This summer, Valencia were forced to make-up for all of their mistakes and have a full blown fire sale. Players like Paco Alcácer, Shkodran Mustafi and André Gomes were shipped off with little in the way of reinforcements brought in. After losing their first two games of this new season for the first time since 1999, the negative noise is reaching a fevered pitch around this once proud club. If things don’t turn around soon, Lim could be in store for an all-out mutiny.
Players to Watch
Cristiano Ronaldo / Lionel Messi (Real Madrid / Barcelona)
You knew it was coming didn’t you? The world’s greatest two players are debated more than Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton.
No matter where your allegiances lie, you must admit that we are witnessing two of the greatest players to ever grace the pitch. They both return on the back of very different summers. While Ronaldo won Euro 2016 with Portugal, Messi announced his retirement from international football as Argentina were again beaten by Chile on penalties in the Copa America final. Ronaldo is now the strong favourite for the 2016 Ballon d'Or but the ginger beard man will be eager to get back in the conversation, with his master-class against Betis a convincing start. The two won’t meet until December’s Clasico, but their battle to end the debate of best player in the world rages on weekly.
Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)
He’s a quick, modern, versatile left-footed forward with an eye for goal and, not many players on planet earth had a better footballing year than the Frenchmen. Griez lightning bagged 33 goals while dishing out 7 assists across all competitions, leading his Atléti side to another Champions League final in the process. He then guided France to the Euro 2016 final, winning the tournament’s best player award and the Golden Boot as its top scorer. All of these accolades led him to the UEFA Best Player stage in Monaco with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Unfortunately, like the two finals before it, Griezmann came up short.
Earlier this summer, when asked about Ronaldo and Messi: "I want to eat at their table," Griezmann told The Guardian. "I want to get as close as possible to their level and win titles. My objective is to be among the best."
The ambition and confidence are obviously there but with it also raises the fame and expectations. The pressure has already seemed to have gotten to Griezmann early in the season after their draw against Leganes: "If we continue like this we are only going to fight to avoid the drop." His comments did not go over well at all in the dressing room and tempers are boiling to the surface. If Antoine truly wants to upgrade his table from the Ruth Chris to a Michelin star he must keep his composure and lead this team; their season depends on it.
Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao)
If you were to look up athletes that aged like a fine wine, Aduriz would be the poster boy. Fresh off a call-up to Spain’s Euro 2016 squad, the towering striker, who will turn 36 in February, just continues to improve. Having never scored more than 12 La Liga goals in a single season when he joined the Basque side from Valencia in 2012, his tally has consistently risen each and every year: 14, 16, 18 and 20. He has been the top scoring Spaniard in each of the last two La Liga seasons, and his overall total of 36 goals in 55 games last season was by far the highest of his two-decade long career. The old man was instrumental in Athletic’s 5th place finish in the table last term, so he will be counted on for a similar output this year if they are to take the next step and compete for a spot in the Champions League.
Under the Radar
Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad)
Like much of La Real before him, 19 year old Mikel Oyarzabal struggled under the management of the now departed David Moyes. New boss Eusebio Sacristán immediately saw the promise in the left-winger, giving him the consistent minutes that he so desperately craved. Mikel would go on to make 16 starts in La Liga, scoring six goals and providing one assist. With Carlos Vela now looking more interested in drinking a Corona in Puerto Vallarta than playing any actual Fútbol, the San Sebastian youth-product could make the city and, the club, his own.
Marco Asensio (Real Madrid)
Ok, so maybe to most ardent La Liga supporters Asensio is anything but under the radar, so please excuse me. But for the rest of the world -- start paying attention. Asensio returns to the Spanish capital after an extremely impressive loan stint with RCD Espanyol. The 20-year-old made 33 starts for Los Periquitos, racking up 11 assists and four goals, all for a club that didn’t provide much in the way of talent around him. It was initially believed that the Spaniard may go out on loan again, but his pre-season form has impressed Zidane so much that not only will he stay, but he could be pushing James Rodriguez out of the club in the process. Vicente Del Bosque has lauded him as the “greatest talent there is in Spain”, and his stunning goal against Sevilla and sublime chip at Sociedad provided just a small glimpse into what he may become.
Santi Mina (Valencia CF)
As the fire sale at the Mestalla continues with seemingly everything being engulfed in it, there remains one shiny sliver of hope. Santi Mina, The 20-year-old Spaniard, was signed for €10 million from Celta last summer, but was unable to seal a regular place in the line-up under Nuno, Gary Neville and then current boss, Pako Ayestarán. So far this year? A completely different story. Through 2 matches, Santi has played 179 of a possible 180 minutes and has scored 2 goals in the league, already half the total (4) he bagged all of last year. The Spaniard is a throw-back striker -- Quick movement inside the box, excellent spacial awareness and a natural instinct for goalscoring. With the departure of Alcacer, Valencia will need Santi to step up more now than ever -- their La Liga fate could depend on it.
Other Musings and Random Thoughts
- Osasuna are back up after a 2-year absence, making it five Basque teams in the Primera for the first time. Their notoriously unfriendly stadium, El Sadr, comes with them, hostile to any visitor from all of Spain’s autonomous regions, politics and history be damned.
- Granada are under new Chinese ownership, and new management too. Paco Jemez stays in the top-flight after his Rayo was relegated and comes with his Wall Street suits, outlandish rants, and wide, wide open football.
- A ruling comes into effect this season that decrees that if the stand opposite the main TV camera during televised games is not full to 75% capacity, then fines will be finding their way to the plush mahogany desk of the offending club. Instead of more affordable ticket prices or the altering of kickoff times that run close to when discotheques open their doors, the league has opted for illusions, believable or not.
- Under Eduardo Berizzo, Celta play some of the most attractive attacking football the league has to offer (remember their 4-1 torching of Barcelona in Vigo?). The loss of Nolito stings, but the club responded with the shrewd signings of Pionte Sisto and Giuseppe Rossi. Although they have managed 0 points through two games, their performance at the Bernabéu was an encouraging sign.
La Liga - Real Madrid
Copa Del Rey - Barcelona
Champions League qualifiers - Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla
Relegation - Leganés, Deportivo Alavés, Osasuna
Biggest surprise - Las Palmas
Biggest disappointment - Valencia