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Spanish La Liga

La Liga Season Preview – Can Atletico defend their crown?

The English Premier League season kicked off last week and saw drama, quality and excitement. This weekend, it is the turn of the Spanish top flight to begin a season which should also see some drama, quality and excitement. Last season was a historic one in the Iberian country. Atletico De Madrid managed to win the ‘two team league’ and defy all the odds. Only a late Sergio Ramos header prevented the Colchoneros from winning a first Champions League.

Title Race

But, can Atletico Madrid defend their title? They have had a busy summer of business. Some good, some bad. Having sold Diego Costa and Felipe Luis to Chelsea where, incidentally, they will meet with former Atletico loanee Thibaut Cortois; Adrian Lopez was shipped off to Porto and there are rumours that Diego Godin will be going to a new look Bayern Munich. However, Atletico have bought well; Mario Mandzukic being a fantastic coup. His goal record for Bayern Munich, one of the best teams in the world speaks for itself: 25 goals last season. The Madrid based outfit have bought Miguel Moya and Jan Oblak to fight for the goalkeeping position. Antoinne Griezzmann has been one of the standout players in the Spanish league over the last few seasons and will add a dimension to the team that David Villa never could. With Koke at the helm, and a squad playing at the same intensity as last season, it is naïve to rule out the underdogs completely.

Barcelona, having just been placed under a transfer embargo meaning they cannot buy any player until 2016 have spent a lot of money in this summer transfer window; nearing £130, and they still have ten days left to continue that spending. One key man they have added is not a player, however, it is their new manager Luis Enrique. His time managing Roma would not give much confidence to any Barcelona fan, but his time at Celta last season was impressive. The big signing this season is Suarez, that cannot be rivalled, but Ivan Rakitic is a very astute one. The Croat who has shone at Sevilla in the last three seasons, including, but certainly not limited to, their Europa League victory last season. The midfielder epitomises versatility. He can play in numerous positions: defensive midfield, attacking midfield, right back or on the wing.  Two important captures are the centre backs. It has long been documented that the club, if they wanted to emulate Pep Guardiola’s team, needed proper centre-backs, not Javier Mascherano.

Real Madrid’s summer signings in quantity do not come near to rivals Atletico Madrid and Barceloana, but they do in quality. James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas impressed in the World Cup. The Colombian, James, helped Colombia finish as high as they did. Toni Kroos is now a World Cup winner and this can only be good for his confidence. Keylor Navas was outstanding for Levante last season and it should come as no surprise that he is moving to Real Madrid. Gareth Bale, obviously, did not play in the World Cup, but after a good debut season with los blancos and with a pre-season under his belt, football fans can expect to see a lot more from the Welsh wizard this season. Over pre-season it has been noted that the club have been missing a number 9. Fortunately they have Benzema. Having sold Alvaro Morata, perhaps Real Madrid need one more striker (such as Falcao) or hope that Jese Rodriguez recovers from his devastating injury. If either of these happens, expect a Champions League and La Liga fight.

Champions League places

There are also three teams who have a very realistic opportunity of finishing in that 4th and final Champions League spot. They are Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and Valencia.

Athletic Bilbao, although sold Ander Herrera will be there or there abouts. Three days ago Bilbao took to the field against Italian giants Napoli in their own backyard. Against a team full to the brim of talent; Callejon, Hamsik, Higuain to name but a few. Although they have a lot less experience than their Italian counterparts, Bilbao took their own game to the Estadio San Paulo and they managed a credible 1-1 draw including that elusive away goal. History can be made at the New San Mames on Tuesday when the Basque team will be hoping to make the Champions League group stages. If they are to have a successful season, then the midfield trio of Ander Itturaspe, Mikel Riko and Benat will have to perform consistently.

Sevilla, having won the Europa League last season, and for the third time in nearly a decade, should have a lot of confidence. Although the departure of the aforementioned Ivan Rakitic will serve as a disappointment, the Andalusian based team, have an exciting front three: Delafeu, Denis Suarez, Carlos Bacca alongside a decent midfield including new signing Ever Banega. Their goalkeeper, Beto, has been a revelation over the last two seasons also Dela, Europa League exploits. If Federico Fazio goes to Tottenham, it shall be upsetting for Sevilla, but they can cope with losing big players.

Valencia CF, are a sleeping giant who have finally awoken. Since Unai Emery was at the helm, a series of failures in the Champions League and then a failure to even qualify for Europa, has seen the Spanish giants fall, but not for much longer. Peter Lim’s impending takeover should change that. Signings including Rodrigo and Mustafi added to a very talented squad, containing, for example, Paco Alcacer. Sofiane Feghouli can also have an outstanding season, now that the inconsistent Ever Banega has been shipped out.

Villarreal have an outside chance of a European spot next season. With talented players such as Gio, Uche, Cani and Bruno playing free-flowing football, it isn’t impossible. Last season saw the Yellow Submarine return to the Spanish top-flight and they managed to put a series of entertaining performances. However, Mussachio will be a loss if he goes to Tottenham. Villarreal should finish in the top ten, but they will have to raise their game to finish in the European places. With Europa League football this season, they will have to challenge on several fronts.

Real Sociedad had a disappointing campaign last season. At times it was very disappointing. The Champions League saw them finish rock bottom. With rookie manager Jagoba Arrasate having more experience this time, and no Champions League (but  yes Europa League) football distract them, they should finish in the top seven. Selling Antoinne Griezzmann was always inevitable, but with the signing of Esteban Granero and a team featuring Inigo Martinez, Ruben Pardo, Sergio Canales and Carlos Vela, the Basque side should be competitive.

Relegation Battle

Rayo Vallecano have had a turbulent summer, and that is an understatement. Having seen 18 departues and 18 arrivals Paco Jemez’s men need to gel quickly. Fortunately, Paco knows what he is doing, this is the ‘Roberto Martinez’s Wigan’ of La Liga. The arrival of Alejandro Pozuelo is a good one. Swansea fans never got to see him at anywhere near his potential and aslong as his attitude is reasonable, he will shine. The loan signing of Gael Kakuta shows their ability to spot young talent and develop, as proved with players such as Diego Costa, Michu and Leo Baptistao, who, by the way, has re-joined on loan. Some are doubting Rayo, but they should have more than enough to stay up.

Elche, played well at times last season but have seen Javi Marquez, Botia, Carles Gil, Fidel, Boakye and Fidel leave. The loan signing of Chelsea starletMario Pasalic should excite, though. A skilful midfielder who can pass the ball and has pace. Elche will no doubt be broiled into a relegation battle this season, but they, like Rayo, should have enough. It is the following three time that I worry for:

Cordoba are a newly-promoted side but have done quite well in the transfer market. If they are to survive the drop then Fede Cartabia and Fausto Rossi will no doubt play key roles. Both have previous La Liga experience. Fede, the tenacious winger on loan from Valencia has huge amounts of potential. It was a surprise to many that Valencia even let him go. Fausto Rossi, is on loan from Italian giants Juventus having been loaned last season to Real Valladolid.

Almeria were a newly promoted side last season, but, their key men, Suso and Rodrigo have left over the summer (Suso was only on loan from Liverpool anyway). This begs the question of where are the goals going to come from. The aficionados can only hope that on-loan Arsenal winger Wellington Silva and former Mallorca striker Tomer Hemed can score the goals that would keep them up.

Eibar are a great story, but many fear for them. The town has a population of 27000 and the stadium a mere capacity of 5000. It beats the Villarreal story. However, can Eibar be competitive and stay up? It is highly unlikely that their season will end up in anything other than relegation. But, one can only hope. Should they stay up, it will be one of the greatest stories over recent times.

So, La Liga begins tomorrow. Another season of goals, drama, excitement, unpredictability, and good football. Tonight sees Real Madrid play Atletico Madrid in the second leg of the first domestic honour of the season. The score from the first leg was 1-1 with goals from James Rodriguez and Raul Garcia. The upcoming season promises much, so, sit back, relax, and watch the drama unfold.