La Liga is back and there have been a lot of changes. Eight of the league’s twenty teams have new managers; four of them finished in the top 10 last season. While some players have left their teams or the league entirely, some others have come in. The most notable departure was Neymar’s for a staggering world record fee. Last season’s most fouled player has packed his bags and headed to Paris. No matter where your loyalties lie, one has to admit that the league will be missing one hell of a world class player.
The only team without a local derby this season would be Las Palmas, unlike last season when there were three teams like that. There are four Basque & four Madrid teams, three Andalusian, three Catalonian & three Valencian teams, as well as two Galician teams. It is set to be a passion-filled season of great rivalries.
Almost every season, at least one newly-promoted side shock everyone by punching above their weight all season. Who will do that this time? My answer is…Not Getafe. Levante have had an incredible summer of good signing after good signing while Girona notably signed Stuani. In spite of these, expect all three to be involved in the relegation fight for most of the season.
Alaves have lost the inimitable Mauricio Pellegrino, who took them to the first final in their history and a 9th-place finish last season despite being newly-promoted then. They have also lost loanees Theo and Marcos Llorente who returned to Madrid as well as Kiko Femenia who joined Watford. New manager Luis Zubeldía has a lot of work to do to keep them in the top division. They lost 15 players and signed 16. That is sure to affect stability. It is a recipe for disaster. On the bright side, they signed one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe; Antonio Sivera, from Valencia Mestalla. They also signed Burgui, who was very good at Sporting Gijon, on loan from Real Madrid. Perhaps the signing of young Zidane will also be a boost. Who knows?
In their first ever season in La Liga, Leganes managed to stay up last season, finishing 17th. It was a fine effort but it might not be sufficient this year. Expect them to swim in those muddy relegation waters. Will it drown them? It remains to be seen. The good news is that they still have the exciting Alexander Szymanowski. The signing of Ezequiel Muñoz from Genoa was a brilliant move. Him and fellow countryman Mantovani will be key to them remaining in the top flight this season, with David Timor doing a proper job in midfield. Manager Asier Garitano definitely has the tools he needs to keep them up.
Malaga are in trouble, the key departures are too many. They have sold their entire spine! Vice-Captain (who wore the armband more than the actual captain) Camacho joined Wolfsburg. His midfield buddy Fornals returned to Villarreal for 12m Euros. Their top scorer last season, Sandro, joined Everton. The other bloke who used to get them goals, Charles, left for Eibar. Diego Llorente’s loan finished and he left for Real Sociedad from Madrid. Both goalkeepers, Ochoa and Kameni, left. The only star they have left is Juanpi and he can’t do it alone. Despite signing Borja Baston, the squad still looks very weak. Michel might not make it to December from the look of things. Expect them to be deep in the relegation battle and they just might lose it.
Battle for European Places
This battle will likely go down to the wire. There are nine teams expected to fight for the four available Champions League spots; Sevilla, Villarreal, Athletic Club, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Espanyol and Real Sociedad. Of these nine, three are expected to be strong title contenders so the remaining six will likely fight for the last remaining slot. The rest will spill over into the Europa League positions.
Athletic Club lost Valverde to Barcelona and club legend José Ángel Ziganda has come in to replace him. Kike Sola is back from his fruitless loan at Numancia and Aduriz is still scoring (he has already scored 3 goals in the Europa league!). There is no new exciting thing about Athletic Club but they are a tough side to go up against. Despite the managerial change, more of the same can be expected from them and they will be battling hard to make it to the Champions League.
Sevilla lost three key players; Vitolo, Iborra and Mariano. However, they have bought well. Kjaer should be a fine addition, Ever Banega is back after his Italian adventure, club legend Jesus Navas is also back and Nolito has joined from Man City. Corchia is a brilliant signing and there’s also Argentine international, Guido Pizarro, as well as Luis Muriel. All their signings have been good and they look very strong. Despite welcoming a new manager, expect them to be up there. Berrizzo knows the terrain and has everything he needs to deliver while doing better than last season in the Champions League.
Eusebio’s Real Sociedad will be looking to continue their fine form from last season. They never fell below 7th from the ninth La Liga gameweek till the end of the season. They ended up 6th with an impressive 64 points, just 8 points off the 4th Champions League spot. The addition of Januzaj might be a masterstroke, if he finds himself again. Diego Llorente has also joined from Real Madrid to strengthen the defence. Yuri Berchiche, who joined PSG, will be a big miss. In spite of that, they will definitely be fighting harder for a Champions League spot this time around.
Enes Ünal, Carlos Bacca, Pablo Fornals, Ruben Semedo. These are some of the new additions to Villarreal. All could prove to be excellent signings. Not even Mateo Musacchio’s departure to AC Milan will dampen that. Fran Escribá has done brilliantly since replacing Marcelino and he will be looking to go one better than last season’s 5th place finish. They look ready for the battle for Champions League positions and they have a great squad for it. Bacca, especially, should score a good number of goals and Ünal is also likely to shine too. He is an immense talent.
Quique Sánchez Flores has built a solid team at Espanyol. Since taking over, the club have become harder to face. Despite their slow start last season, they managed to remain in the top half for much of the season, even going on a run of consecutive clean sheets. Piatti has been signed on a permanent deal from Valencia, as expected. Him and Moreno are the life of their attack. They can be lethal when they want to be. Granero has also joined from Real Sociedad and that could prove to be shrewd business. Caicedo’s exit should not be much of a problem for them with the likes of Vázquez and Léo Baptistão around. A second season with more stability should be better than the last for Flores. A Europa League spot might be the realistic target but never say never. Espanyol might just aim higher and become one of the contenders for a Champions League spot.
Valencia finally got something right. They hired their most experienced La Liga manager since Ranieri in 2004. Marcelino Garcia Toral is just what they need to get back to where they belong. The last two seasons have been largely forgettable, just short of being disasters, and it seems owner Peter Lim has learnt some valuable lessons. Regardless, their transfer business so far has left much to be desired. They have faced a lot of difficulty getting Marcelino the players he wants. Young Serbian star Nemanja Maksimović has joined on a free transfer from Astana, Murillo from Inter Milan, Gabriel Paulista from Arsenal and the impressive ‘Buffon-backup’ Neto has been signed from Juventus. Expect some more signings before the window closes, like Kondogbia. There’s also talk of Marcos Llorente joining as well as a winger and probably a striker.
As usual, there have been many exits. Captain Enzo Perez has returned to his native Argentina, same as Diego Alves to Brazil. Maty Ryan’s gone to Brighton, Bakkali’s on loan at Deportivo and Negredo is in Turkey. Cancelo seems to be heading to Inter while Garay could also be on his way out. Their season will depend largely on how their transfer business goes in the coming days. Regardless, the club will be looking to the likes of Parejo, Soler and Zaza for inspiration all season. A good season would be them getting a Europa League spot. As far-fetched as it sounds, considering how the last two seasons have gone, Valencia should be considered contenders for a Champions League spot as well. They certainly have the squad for it and, on their day, they can match almost any team – as shown in their games against Real Madrid last season. What they have lacked is consistency and stability. These are things Marcelino looks set to bring back. Expect their return to the top very soon.
It looks like the usual contenders will again be contending for La Liga this season; Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Sevilla may have had a chance to build on last season’s performance to, perhaps, contend too but Jorge Sampaoli left this summer. New manager Eduardo Berrizzo is a great replacement but it remains to be seen how quickly he adapts and gets them firing. That effectively rules them out, most likely.
Champions Real Madrid are the team to beat. Coming off a double winning season, they have picked up where they left off last year by easily dispatching Manchester United and thrashing Barcelona (over two legs) in their two Super Cup ties. It’s not just the results that make them scary, it’s the manner in which they did it. In the second leg of that Super Cup tie, they started the game without Ronaldo, Bale, Isco and Casemiro and completely dominated Barcelona. If that is anything to go by, then one must consider them overwhelming favourites to win the title.
Their transfer business has been impressive too, the addition of Theo as a backup for Marcelo and European U-21 Player of the Tournament Dani Ceballos has been excellent. Vallejo has also been brought back to replace Pepe who joined Besiktas. Marcos Llorente, who has been linked with a move to Valencia, is also another important addition if he stays. Their squad depth is scary, just like it was last season. Despite currently serving a 5-game ban, expect Ronaldo to influence key games this season like he did last season. Above all, Zidane has got them playing great football and the team seems to be able to face all kinds of opponents.
FC Barcelona have had a torrid summer. They went from chasing Verratti, who is the most natural Xavi replacement anywhere in Europe, to losing Neymar in a Khelaifi counter-attack. That completely ruined their transfer window plans and put them under pressure. Despite having 222m of the Neymar money to spend, signing a replacement has proven to be very difficult as every club knows they have that money and wants a large chunk of it. It was expected. They should have hurriedly replaced Neymar once they knew he was leaving for sure. Even worse, they have signed Tottenham Flop Paulinho for 40m from the Chinese League. This signing led to fans calling for the resignation of club president Bartomeu (good luck with that). It isn’t that Paulinho is a bad player, he is just does not seem to be good enough for Barcelona. When did a club like Barcelona even start spending big on players from the Chinese league? The difference in quality is so massive no matter what his form over there was and Paulinho is 29 years old. He also isn’t the midfield controller they so badly need. Even worse, they got absolutely embarrassed by Real Madrid over 2 legs in the Super Cup.
In spite of all these, talk of Barcelona’s demise seem a bit premature. As long as they have Lionel Messi, they remain a force. If they somehow land Ousmane Dembele, their frontline will become lethal again. New manager Valverde has proven over time to be an astute manager who knows how to adapt and bring the best out of his players. Nelson Semedo is also a brilliant addition. The spine might be winding down but they still remain a force. More than anything, beating Lionel Messi over a 38-game season is a very difficult task.
Atletico Madrid have taken part in the funniest football saga of the summer. Despite being banned from signing players, they somehow managed to embarrass and piss off Sevilla at the same time. Their pursuit of Vitolo, a player whom Simeone admires a lot, was full of drama that went on and on. One minute Sevilla announced that he was signing a new contract, the next minute he was on his way to Atletico with a stop-over in the Canary Islands. The former Las Palmas player returned home to prepare for his move to Atletico in January. Clause paid, game over. Sevilla threatened to sue everybody. On the flip side, they were dealt a huge blow when Theo decided he wanted to go to the other side of Madrid.
The ban brought its blessings. Keeping Griezmann for another season is the main one. The squad remains largely the same and Simeone might be ready to properly challenge for the title again. The arrival of Vitolo in January will be a boost.
(In no particular order)
CL Qualifiers – Villarreal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico. (In no particular order)
UEL Qualifiers – Sevilla, Valencia, Athletic Club
Relegation – Malaga, Leganes, Getafe
Champions – Real Madrid
Best Young Player – Carlos Soler/Marco Asensio
Top Scorer – Lionel Messi
Best Goalkeeper – Jan Oblak
First manager to be fired/to resign – Michel
Most Assists – Isco
– Valencia finish 3rd.
– Isco is Player of the Season.
– Sevilla/Athletic Club get relegated.
– Parejo finishes with the most assists in the league.
Written by Astorre S. Cerebronè
Twitter – @Cerebrone