If La Liga’s your bag then it’s already clear you know your football and you know that, technically, tactically and trophy-wise it’s the best league in the world – by far. But if you like the increasing tendency for the survival of the fittest, rather than the survival of the richest, this promises to be the season for you.
- Athletic Club have already ripped into Barcelona putting five past them in the Supercup.
- Valencia humbled both Madrid and Atlético last season
- Real Sociedad beat each of the ‘big three’ last term
- Atleti defeated Madrid in the Copa final of 2013, won the title in 2014 and performed historically well against Los Blancos over the last twelve months. Four ‘derbi’ wins
- Atleti can consider they cost Madrid title in that Barça won by just two points last May.
- Positions three, four and five were separated by a single point each time.
- Barça lost at home to both Málaga and Celta
There is ferocious competition – it’s just that such competition, allied to mega-budgets, has forced some absolute excellence out of Madrid and Barcelona over recent years. Four Champions League titles between the clubs since 2009 is testimony to that. Frankly, La Liga’s clubs cope better with doing battle against these two than the rest of Europe does.
But while it’s not realistic to ask Sevilla or Valencia to win the title I think Atleti may be back. Or at least they look as threatening, well-organized, balanced and goal-hungry as in winning the title in 2013/14. What Cholo Simeone needs is a wee bit of help from the big two.
Madrid are in the hands of a serial winner. No-one should doubt that IF he’s not undercut by his own employers, IF he’s not caught up in a PR war between Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, IF he doesn’t fall out chronically with the aggressive, quixotic, fair-weather friends of the Madrid media then Rafa Benítez’ talent, added to Los Blanco’s playing resources, could feasibly make them either Spanish or European champions.
But you get my theme? Look at the list of man-traps waiting for him there – and that’s just a sample. It’s a botch-up not to have signed David De Gea by now – Madrid conceded 17 more goals than the champions last season. Can they lock the door this time? Stocking Benítez’s two man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 – will come from Kroos, Modric, Kovacic, Casemiro. Powerful. But the front four? There’s the potential for disharmony, confusion and problems. How to fit in Ronaldo, Bale, Isco, James, Benzema, Lucas Vazquez, Cheryshev, Jesé?
“We have to reach the decisive part of the season attacking and winning games” Benítez said the other day. Madrid fans want that now. In working out your bets you may want to factor in that Los Blancos won ONCE against the rest of the top four in the league. Goal aggregate 8-13 against.
Barcelona have the talent to win another treble – but do they have the desire or depth of squad? Resources diminished by the FIFA ban [Vidal and Arda can’t play till January and won’t be sent out on loan] they’ve also lost Xavi, Pedro and Montoya. That’s 104 appearances and thirteen goals which can only be replaced by B-team guys and the now-fit Vermaelen. Piqué’s ban means he misses the first four matches. Luis Enrique squeezed every single drop of concentration, effort, intensity and talent from his squad – even hurdled a mini crisis when he went head-to-head with Leo Messi in early January. But can he repeat that?
Will Benitez have the same kind of in-squad help from anyone that ‘Lucho’ got from Xavi? [Correct answer: no] Thus, can Atleti sneak in and rob the family silver? If the market closes and they have kept Antoine Griezmann and he’s paired with Jackson Martínez and Luciano Vietto with El Niño Torres showing them what playing for the Colchoneros really means then … possibly.
What a league where it’s Messi-Suárez-Neymar v Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo v Griezmann-Jackson-Vietto! No three-club strikeforces in any country in the world will outscore that lot cumulatively. Atleti can’t be considered outright favourites. But dark horses? Yes.
- Able to work in lower profile
- Superb coach
- Diego Godín settled and committed,
- Two top keepers
- Talent, youth and huge experience in midfield
- A deep squad –
- A winning mentality.
Last season, before they re-stocked, I worried this might be Atleti’s first trophy-less season since 2008/2009 [which other club around Europe can boast that astonishing record?] Not so sure now. Goalscoring? The eye is always drawn to the Messi v Ronaldo battle – barring injuries they should split the top two positions. But I think the gap will narrow.
Both Suárez and Neymar look capable of increasing their tallies [without misfortune the Uruguayan will have over two months extra via which to do that compared to last season] Messi is much more focussed on trophies than scoring records and, as such, might increase his ‘assist’ tally. Not a suggestion I’d make about CR7.
Benítez wants Benzema to: ‘…break the 25 goal barrier’, while both Jackson Martínez and Griezmann have all the equipment to exceed 30 goals in all competitions. Who’d be a goalie?
I’m backing Athletic for the Copa [five Cup finals reached since 2009], Marco Asensio to be the stand-out ‘revelation’ of the season, Sporting and Betis to fight it out for fans of the season … but what of David Moyes and La Real?
Shorter on goals than Danny De Vito is on centimetres this is, finally, a squad and an XI which should be competitive. But things haven’t yet ‘clicked’. Bruma’s wing-pace, the goal potential of Carlos Vela and Jonathas, Pardo’s control of midfield organisation. Moyes made them work their socks off in pre-season. But La Real couldn’t score.
They’ll should be much more robust, much less likely to be powder-puff away from Anoeta. And if things do ‘click’ they’ll fight for a Europa League place. But as Samuel Eto’o once said: ‘Goals! They are like rats up a drainpipe if you chase after them – you’ve just got to wait and let them come in their own time. Right now, La Real could do with a rat-catcher.
Happy season punters.
- Neville Southall: Everton shouldn’t sell Stones to Chelsea for any price if the club has any ambition
- Let Bray Wanderers pay for your summer: The Seasiders have put the most cash in your pocket in the League of Ireland this season
- Arsenal v Liverpool: Expect more Capital Punishment for the Reds and back this 8/1 shot on Monday night