The big two have become the big three. Atletico Madrid’s remarkable league triumph last year broke a dynasty that had been standing since 2004 and perhaps announced a new era of domination in Spanish football with the Champions League runners up looking like the only team that can really challenge the El Clasico pairing over the course of the coming season.
Three points separated the top three last year with Diego Godin’s header denying Barcelona the title and fiving Atletico a first successes since 1996 in La Liga, and it would be no surprise to see the three at least as closely matched again.
Atletico are expected to fall away with last year’s striking sensation Diego Costa, top goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and left back Flipe Luis having left to join Chelsea, but Predictions of a simple falback into third may prove to be premature. In place of Diego Costa Diego Simeone has bought Mario Manduzkic from Bayern Munich, a player who looks every inch an ideal like for like replacement in both size and stature, along with boasting the same ability to bring others into play like Costa did so regularly last season and his heading ability also makes him an ideal target for others, and a record of 33 goals in 54 games offers encouragement that he can go some way to filling the notable boots left by Costa.
While there hasn’t been a replacement found for Luis – Cristian Ansaldi might not reach the same heights despite a wealth of experience for Rubin Kazan – Jan Oblak had impressed a great deal for Benfica before his move and he can go some way towards filling in the gap between the posts left by Courtois.
The other major singing of the summer, Antoine Grizemann looks to be one of the captures of the season based on 4 outstanding seasons for Real Socidedad and a rise through to France’s starting XI. The Frenchman – who boasts obvious skill and pace – brings a new dimension to the squad, with his pace on the left a new attacking factor that can help supplement the loss of Costa as well as Mandzukic.
Elsewhere, they have been no major departures – with the likes of Koke and Arda Turan vitally staying in midfleld – while Juanfran, Godin, Thiago, and Raul Garcia started the Champions League final last year against Real Madrid. With few of their players having had a hard summer in Brazil energy levels shouldn’t be an issue and they make great appeal to go close to retaining their title and even more appeal on the handicap receiving 16 points from Real and 15 from Barcelona; The season before their title win they were 11 points clear of fourth and they should be upto maintaining a gap of around about the same distance on whoever finishes fourth this time around.
City rivals Real Madrid had the title in their hands (albeit one balanced on a knife edge) heading into the run in last season but faded worst out the title contenders – in the first three weeks of May they failed to win a game – although nobody at the Bernabeu would have given a damn after they won the holy grail of La Decmina, denying City rivals Atletico Madrid after lasting the better during extra time, scoring a mind boggling 41 goals; And for good measure they then thrashed those City rivals on their way to winning an El Clasico final to land the King’s Cup final.
Madrid’s new galactios era shows no signs of stopping with the arrival of James Rodriguez, fresh from a fine World Cup with Colombia, is yet another boost to their attacking riches, and Toni Kroos played a starring role for Germany on their way to the World Cup.
Kroos’s arrival should considerably ease the burdens of a long season’s football on Kabi Alonso, while Rodriguez’s ability to play the 10 role is likely to be a key asset. Costa Rican keeper Keyor Navas starred for Levante last season before proving to be a World Cup hero, although he will do well to match the heroics of the outgoing Diego Lopez.
Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira are supposedly outgoing – the latter has asked to leave the door is open and while the German’s presence may not be missed, Angel Di Maria changed things in first leg of the Supercopa against rivals Altetico in the midweek and ended the season with 17 assists – 4 more than Koke of Atletico Madrid for comparison, an impressive tally in just 27 appearances (7 of them off the bench) and his likely withdrawal has to be considered in the grand scheme of things even with Bale, Ronaldo and Benezema the most fearsome strikeforce in world football last season.
Madrid lost the title in conceding the most games of the title chasers last season – 38 – but were only three points behind at the end and it looks set to be another nail biter between them and Barcelona.
The Catalans had their worst season since the beginning of the Guardiola era when landing no trophies but at the end of the day they finished level on points with their rivals and were one goal away from taking a last day decider.
Tata Martino’s one year stint didn’t work out but much better is expected of Luis Enrique, another former player who while being light on experience, showed promise when leading Celta to ninth in just his first season in La Liga, a campaign which removes lingering doubts about his failure at Roma two seasons ago.
The arrival of Luis Suarez has dominated and captured the headlines from the beginning of the World Cup – and yes, before the third bite – right through to the summer and while he should prove to be a tremendous addition to a finely balanced frontline to match Madrid’s, that may not be the most important change at Camp Nou over the summer.
The Uruguayan will only be available from October the 26th – which just happens to be the first Clasico of the season – and for all purposes isn’t likely to decide the title given the metronomic consistency of the big three, although he should combine with Messi and Neymar to make a front three equal to Real Madrid’s star studded lineup.
While brilliant in attack Barcelona’s defence has oft proven to be the weak point and with Carlos Puyol now moving on the arrivals of Thomas Vermalen and Jeremy Mathieu may not be people’s idea of world class defences – Vermalen will take time to come to form and is not the player he promised to be two years ago, while Mathieu has cost a frightful amount of money for a 30 year old down the French pecking order – but both crucially fill a gap that was all too bare last season with Marc Batra still not established as a first team regular.
Whilst the two defensive additions may underwhelm, a goalkeeping selection of Chile’s Claudio Bravo and the extremely promising Ter Stergen is a massive upgrade on Valdez and Pinto, an important area to consider given the impact that Diego Lopez and Thibaut Courtois had throughought last season.
The other major addition of what has been a busy summer – Barcelona having circumvented the CAS transfer ban by signing players before the appeal was rejected – is the hugely promising Croat Ivan Rakitic, who shone as Sevilla claimed the Europa League (being man of the match in the final) last season and finished fifth in the league, with 11 assists and 12 goals the driving force behind a sensational campaign. With Xavi on the downgrade after a fabulous career, he will need to step straight into the side but should fit like a glove and looks to be an ideal long term replacement of a different style.
While Madrid arguably have the deeper reserves of top class players – Isco and Asier Illramendi are surplus to requirements and the likes of Nacho Fernandez Jese would be headline makers elsewhere – barely a hair’s breadth separated them last year and it’s likely that a set of 4 games and the tightest of margins is set to separate the two and neither makes appeal at the outright prices over a nine month season. Instead, back Real on the handicap to go with the Madrid pairing; While the big two have strengthened their squads, a number of the chasing pack in behind have lost key players to them or gone overseas, making the likelihood of the gap between fourth and the top three increasing – It was 17 points and above last year but that could increase.
Athletic Bilbao took the honours to be fourth last season and while they are not the easiest to rate – their Champions League qualifier against Napoli is finely balanced ahead of the home leg at the San Mames – they do make appeal for a bold bid whatever happens.
They have lost Ander Herrera to Manchester United but suffered no other serious departures – unlike some other contenders – while the arrival of Borja Viguera is a fascinating addition if he can show the form he did from two impressive Seguda seasons with Aritz Aduriz a quality frontman but a 33 year old with groin issues nevertheless.
Elsewhere, the same side that ended last year 7 points clear in fourth remains pretty much unchanged and holding onto Iker Munain was a fantastic boost for the season ahead and while Europa League football would be a drag on their prospects of a successive top 4 finish it is something that at least 2 of their rivals have to deal with and they are fairly priced at 11/4.
Villarreal have also performed well in the transfer market with last season’s no.1 Sergio Asenjo having joined permanently from Atletico Madrid and the extremely promising Javier Espinosa having come from Luciano Vietto in the summer, while Mateo Musacchio should improve following a fine debut season at the back; Former Barcelona centreback Jonathan Dos Santos is waiting in the wings.
Ikechukwu Uche, who top scorered last season in the league – fresh from a non World Cup summer with Nigeria – and Giovanni Dos Santos provide plenty of firepower going forward while Bruno Soriano, Manu Trigueros, and Thomas Pina all excelled and there’s no reason for them to regress this season and with only Jeremy Perbet having left they look at least as strong as last season.
Perbet is far less important to Villarreal than several other players to depart from their rivals and that may prove the key. Valencia’s takeover to Peter Lim is tremendously exciting but the results may not be instant and the losses of Ever Banega to Barcelona and Juan Bernat to Bayern Munich are big holes in the defence to miss out on and the loss of Ever Bangea to Sevilla is also a key blow. A raft of Portuguese arrivals from Benfica’s fire sale all bring promise but they may not cover for the key departures.
Sevilla will badly struggle to replace Ivan Raktic’s outgoing to Barcelona – he was arguably La Liga’s most influential player outside of the top 3 – and the loss of Alberto Moreno is likely to be very keenly felt – Iago Aspas has potential but will struggle to come close to making the gap; Socidedad were seventh but have now lost Antoine Grizemann to Ateltico Madrid and Claudio Bravo to Barcelona.
1 pt each/way Atletico Madrid (14/1 Coral)
1 pt each/way Real Madrid on h’cap (scr) (16/1 Sportingbet)
1 pt each/way Altetico Madrid +14 on h’cap (16/1 Sportingbet)
1 pt Athletic Bilbao to finish in top 4 (11/4 Bet365, 888Sport)
1 pt Villarreal to finish in top 4 (8/1 Bet365, Bwin)