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Graham Hunter exclusive: Why La Liga is a two-horse race – but there may be a Cup in the new-look Atletico

Despite Atlético's heroics last season, Barcelona or Real Madrid will be crowned champions as the Spanish League kicks off this weekend.

by Graham Hunter | August 20, 2014

So the joke goes: an anteater walks into a bar wearing an Atlético Madrid scarf and the barman says to him: Why the long odds?.

You can take 14/1 off Paddy Power for los Rojiblancos to defend their title and while it’s probably common sense to offer them as third favourites against the vastly reinforced Barcelona and Madrid – those odds for a defending champion is an unusual sight.

Particularly after the club splurged it’s greatest ever outlay on a single transfer binge – touching €98m gross once the delayed operation for Ángel Correa (whose heart anomaly needs to be defined and corrected) is completed.

Moreover,  this club, in recent years, must be in the top three of world football for spotting the right players, whether expensive, cheap or free, to be affordable, the right ‘fit’, winners and with a major sell-on value.

They have a fabulous track record over the last four or five years. Fabulous.

Thibaut-Courtois-800

To put flesh on this summer’s bones, manager Diego Simeone has added exciting French winger/second striker Antoine ‘Greased Lightning’ Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic, Correa, Benfica keeper Jan Oblak, Mexican striker Raúl Jimenéz, back-up keeper Miguel Ángel Moya and flying wing-back Guillherme Siqueira.

Of the 14 departures the most significant are Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois (above), Filipe Luis, Diego Ribas and David Villa.

Putting the squeeze on …

Simeone (below) justifiably enjoys the reputation of a man-manager who is able to squeeze every last drop of attitude and commitment out of his footballers – something which may be handy with Mandzukic.

As such it’s feasible that he can handle the impact of this hemorrhage / transfusion operation of players in and out more quickly and more successfully than most.

The age and quality of their recruits plus the block of important footballers who’ve been retained (Miranda, Godín, Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Raúl Garcia for example) suggests that there might be a trophy in Atlético.

Also that they should be capable of doing some damage to the ‘big two’ in one-on-one situations. But the title? No.

diego simeone, atletico madrid manager

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To me the key is that Atlético won La Liga by a hairsbreadth last season.

Twelve single goal wins (18 across all competitions), clinching the title on the last day at the Camp Nou where just one more goal from Barcelona, in a weak season, would have given them the crown. Hairsbreadth.

Throughout the season they were constantly in debt to Costa for those single-goal victories – winners against Milan, Madrid, Levante and Athletic in Europe, La Liga and the Copa Del Rey are examples. Equally, Courtois saved them over and over and over again.

Up for the Cup …

Good luck to the armada of new strikers and to goalkeeper Oblak.

But it’s just not feasible for them to reproduce what Simeone has lost in a season when there’s been the disruption of 23 moves either in or out. Last summer I tipped Simeone’s lot as likely title winners.

Trust me again when I say nothing better than a cup competition this time around.

Barcelona-800

So, who else outside Los Rojiblancos MIGHT do damage to Madrid and Barça?

Last season was a finger in the eye to the ‘disengage brain and open mouth’ pundits who know nothing about La Liga. ‘Not competitive, two horse blah, blah, yawn, halfwit comment…’ was too often the stereotypical comment.

Beyond Atlético winning the title, Madrid and Barcelona lost points home and away to Levante, Real Sociedad, Granada, Getafe, Elche, Villarreal, Sevilla and Celta Vigo while the clubs who took points off BOTH the big two were Athletic, Osasuna, Valencia and Valladolid.

So 13 clubs were able to trip the big two up. Competitive.

Sadly, I believe, things have changed. Most weeks I’ll go into more depth about the individual clubs who catch the eye in La Liga but suffice to say now: Osasuna and Valladolid have been relegated, Levante, Getafe, Real Sociedad, Athletic, Sevilla, Celta, Atlético have all lost either their best or second best player and/or their manager.

Ronaldo celebrates

Elche and Granada might be around a similar level but won’t be putting their life savings on taking major scalps again while it’s arguable that Villarreal and Valencia might be more competitive this time around.

Madrid and Barcelona will inevitably slip up here and there but I’m convinced that, this season, it actually is a one v one battle to succeed 2014 champions Atlético.

You can follow Graham Hunter on Twitter @BumperGraham

 

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