Spanish La Liga Preview

The Spanish Primera Division kicks off this Friday.  The season kicked off with a bang as Athletic Club Bilbao shocked Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg and then 1-1 in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup.   This is Athletic Bilbao’s first trophy in 31 years. They exposed Barcelona and looked great over the two legs.  Will we have a new champion in La Liga?  Barcelona has won 5 of the last 7 La Liga crowns.

Title Contenders

We have to start with the defending champions Barcelona.  They will again be favorites this season despite the rocky start.  The club is still one of the best sides in the world, but it will be an interesting start to the season.  Since last season’s end we have seen club legend Xavi and their plan B, Pedro, leave.  The team is off to a shaky start, giving up 9 goals in the first 3 games.  What does Barcelona have? The best front 3 in the world. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar were amazing towards the end of last season and a big reason why they won the treble for the second time in the club’s history.  They also have Andres Iniesta who is the best midfielder in the world.  The team has made some additions in Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, but they cannot play until January due to a transfer ban.  Their biggest rival will be Real Madrid this season.   Real Madrid begins their first campaign under Rafa Benitez.  The former Liverpool, Valencia, and Chelsea manager brings a wealth of experience and knowledge back to his home.  He has won just about everything as a manager but can he handle the top job in Madrid? He will have to handle the egos of Bale and Ronaldo, and get the best out of both of them if he is to dethrone the Catalans.  Lastly, Atletico Madrid has rearmed and is looking to make another run at the title.  Diego Simeone has done some amazing business this summer and added a lot of speed and quality to his side.  Look for them to push the big 2 this whole season and possibly steal the title back.  In the last 7 years, Barcelona has won 5 titles, Atleti 1, and Real 1.

Promoted Sides

Real Betis – This team returns to the top flight after a one-year absence.  Real Betis is the second team in Sevilla.  They won the Segunda Division last season.   Despite winning the league, they have been busy this summer as they look to stay up this year.  They have brought in some big names as well such as Cristiano Piccini (Fiorentina), Francisco Portillo (Malaga), Foued Kadir (Marseille), Juan Manuel Vargas (Fiorentina), German Pezzella (River Plate), and Rafael van der Vaart (Hamburg).  While Rafa will get the headlines, it will be Pezzella, Vargas, and Piccini who will have to make the difference in defense.  Their manger is a familiar name in Pepe Mel.  Mel was manager of Betis from 2010-2013 before he was let go and then took over West Bromwich Albion.  Their top scorer will be Ruben Castro as he looks to lead the team for the 4th year in a row.  A young player to watch is Dani Ceballos. One thing that I can say is that the atmosphere at the Estadio Benito Villamarin will be amazing all season

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Sporting Gijon – This team from Asturias will hope for an extended stay in the top flight of Spanish football after they finished in second place in the Segunda Division last season.  This team is in really a bad financial situation.  Due to this, they have not been able to sign any players this summer.  Despite this, they have brought in former Barcelona youth player, Antonio Sanabria on loan from Roma.  The player to watch is Miguel Angel Guerrero.  Guerrero led the team last year with 11 goals.  Last season this team managed to only lose two games all season, but they lost Ivan Hernandez to retirement.  The 35 year old was the leader of the team as they only allowed 27 goals last season.  His loss will be huge on the team.  Aberlardo Fernandez will have a lot of work to do and will struggle with his young squad.

Las Palmas – The Yellows are the last promoted team that is located on the Canary Islands.  Last year they finished in 4th place in the Segunda Division and won promotion via the playoff.  They are returning to the Primera for the second time since 2000, in which they stayed up for two years before going back down.  They then spent two years in the second tier and then two years in the third tier.  Following 9 years in the Segunda Division, they are back and want to stay.  The big addition this summer has been making Sergio Araujo a permanent signing following his time on loan from Boca Juniors.  The striker scored 25 goals last season for Las Palmas and the Canary Islanders will hope this continues.  They also added Javi Varas in goal and Javier Garrido to sure up their defense.  Paco Herrara will try to keep Las Palmas up, but he may struggle.

5 Major Storylines to watch this season

  1. How will Real Madrid lineup in this season? – With Rafa Bentiez, Real Madrid will look to be more structured and defensive.  How will this work with Ronaldo and Bale in the side.  The starting back four seems pretty set to me.  Marcelo on the right with Coentro as back up. A combination of Sergio Ramos, Pepe, and Raphael Varane in the center.  Lastly, the team brought in a new right back in Danilo who will compete with Dani Carvajal.  For me, the big question is who plays in the holding midfield roles.  Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will most likely start the season there, but look for Casemiro, Luacs Silva and new signing Mateo Kovacic to get a chance.  Then comes the big question.  The world seems to think that Rafa will play with a 4-2-3-1.  If he does then who is his striker and who are the attacking three?  Will Ronaldo be on the left or the number 9?  Will Bale get to play in the center just behind the striker?  How much will we see Isco? James? Jese?  What about Benzema?  Will he still be with the team?  Lastly we come to the goalkeeper.  Right now Real Madrid has Keylor Navas as their starting goal and are looking to add another goalkeeper this summer having already brought in Kiko Casilla.  They no long have San Iker in goal, so who will it be?
  2. Will Barcelona miss Xavi and Pedro? – Due to the transfer ban, Barcelona is not allowed to add players until January.  While they have already signed Aleix Vidal from Sevilla and Arda Turan from Atletico Madrid, these players will only be allowed to train with the team and cannot play in any competitive matches.  So now that two crucial players from last season have left this summer, will Barcelona miss not having them on the team?  I think they will miss Pedro, as he looks set to sign with Chelsea.  This is an exceptional footballer who has been a vital part of the team.  He has been there since 2008 after coming up in the youth system.  He has won just about every trophy he can.  They will no doubt miss Xavi, as he has been a leader and inspirational force at the club.  He will truly be missed.  Both of these players are leaving behind large gaps and it is clear that the club, and fans, will miss them.  It will be more about how the team can cope with their absences.
  3. Will any of the promoted sides stay for more than 1 season? – This season, I only see one team remaining up in the Primera Division.  Sporting Gijon is in major financial trouble, Las Palmas is too young.  Real Betis should stay up in La Liga since they are a side with lots of experience and talent.  Look for Betis to possibly even push for midtable.
  4. Can Atletico win the title? – Without a doubt, Atletico Madrid have had the best summer.  The team has almost a perfect balance and is the kind of team Diego Simeone would dream up.  He is two deep at just about every position and will be able to make deep runs for all three trophies this season.  In defense, they added Stefan Savic to go with Deigo Godin, and Jose Gimenez.  Filipe Luis has returned to the squad where he was fantastic two years ago.  They brought in midfielder Yannick Carrasco from Monaco.  Finally, they brought in Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto to reshape their front line.  Luciano Vietto was one of the best strikers in La Liga last season and is one of the top young forwards in the world.  Look for this reshaped Atletico Madrid to challenge for the top spot but come just short.
  5. Who will finish in fourth place? – With the top three spots in Spain taken by the big three clubs, the question remains which team will take the final Champions League spot.  Last season it was Valencia.  They finished just 1 point above Sevilla.  Sevilla will also play in the Champions League since they won the Europa League last year.  It looks to be a battle between these two teams, but could Athletic Bilbao use their preseason triumph as a catalyst?  Is Villarreal ready to make a comeback?  Sevilla, Valencia, and Villarreal all spent big as they hope to make it in the top four.  Sevilla have brought in Ciro Immobile, Steven N’Zonzi, Adil Rami, and Michael Krohn-Dehli.  Valencia brought in Zakaria Bakkali, Joao Cancelo, Matthew Ryan, and Andre Gomes.  Villarreal have brought in Leo Baptistao, Victor Ruiz, and Roberto Soldado.  It should be a great race for fourth place this season.

5 Key Additions

  1. Luciano Vietto (Atletico Madrid) – This 21 year old Argentine might be the best purchase of the summer.  Last season, Vietto scored 20 goals in all competitions including 8 in the Europa League.  He has a ton of experience for a young player and will be perfect in Simeone’s system.
  2. Jackson Martinez (Atletico Madrid) – This dynamic striker will look to get Atletico Madrid going this season as he brings his 32 goals in 41 appearances last season to the Vicente Calderon.
  3. Danilo (Real Madrid) – This right back joins Real Madrid and will greatly improve the right side of their team.  He is one of the best young right backs in the world and will get the chance to show how good he is this year.
  4. Aleix Vidal (Barcelona) – While we will have to wait until January to see Vidal, this speedy right wing back could be the replacement for Pedro and give Barcelona a new option on the right side of the field.
  5. Rafael van der Vaart (Real Betis) – Could van der Vaart resurrect his career in the Andalusian capital?  This creative midfielder will try to help the club stay up for more than a year.

While there is still a ways to go in the transfer market, here are five players to watch who could be on the move and really make an impact either leaving or coming to a top team.

  1. David de Gea (Manchester United to Real Madrid) – Is there anywhere else to start?  This has been the top story all summer and with United missing out on Pedro, the red devils may want to hold on to their world class keeper.
  2. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid to Chelsea) – This moved was tipped to happen as Chelsea are off to a rough start.  However, with Pedro on his way to London this move may not happen.
  3. Nolito (Celta Vigo to Barcelona) – The Spanish international could move to Barcelona if the Catalans come calling.  He might be the replacement for Pedro.  He would not be allowed to play until January however.
  4. Gregorz Krychowiak (Sevilla to Arsenal) – The Polish central midfielder was very impressive in his first season in Andalusia.  However, he might be on his way out as Arsenal is lining up a move for the player.
  5. Nicolas Otamendi (Valencia to Manchester City) – When you read this, the deal might be done but as it is not currently finalized, this will be a big move for Manchester City. Otamendi is a world class center back and could form a great partnership with Vincent Kompany.

Like I mentioned in the last blog, this season I will be having a good friend of mine, James, making some predictions this season and will be giving his insight on some of the big games.

Top 4 Predictions

Mine – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Sevilla

James – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla

Relegation Predictions

Mine – Eibar, Las Palmas, Sporting Gijon

James – Real Betis, Sporting Gijon, Grenada

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