FFT's Spanish expert Tim Stannard begins his look ahead to the new La Liga season...
It still feels peculiar writing the words, but this is a season that sees Atlético Madrid defending the league title and Barcelona struggling to find a new destiny. At least Real Madrid did the decent thing by splurging stacks of cash on some new fancy playthings for Florentino Pérez.
These three will be duking it out for the title – a refreshing change on a mere two – but there is a whole lot more to play for in the futuristic, space-age La Liga 2014/15. Race you to the hover cars... or simply check out part one of the Big Season Preview.
In La Liga Loca’s failing memory, the blog predicted a gloomy season ending in relegation for Almería last year. Although the club was only a point away from the drop zone in the end, the campaign was barely fraught under then-newbie coach Francisco Rodríguez.
This season won't exactly be a cushy hammock of ham for them, but they've signed well: an astute acquisition of dependable striker Tomer Hemed from Mallorca, and the more-than-a-little-mad Thievy Bifouma in a messy move from Espanyol. Both arrivals suggest that the team has the rumblings of goals up front, which will certainly be enough to ease them to 16th or thereabouts.
As with the curious case of Real Sociedad last season, an awful lot hinges on whether the Basque side make it to the Champions League group stages. Napoli were a horrible side to draw in the qualifiers, and a lot will depend on how draining a potential European grind will be.
Although Ander Herrera was the latest big-name departure to follow the farewell-waving of Fernando Llorente and Javier Martínez, the club’s plump midfield is still very well stocked: Beñat Etxebarria, Óscar de Marcos, Ibai Gómez, Markel Susaeta and Mikel Rico are all still knocking about. This group will need to be a multi-tasking posse, and are expected to come up with a few goals too; Athletic have a bunch of money in the bank but almost no worthy Basque targets out there to knock in the net-ripplers.
LLL must admit that Diego Simeone has done a better job than the blog would have done in the transfer market. Although, given the blog would have plumped for Javier Arizmendi and Paul Mariner leading the line for the Vicente Calderón club, that wasn’t too big of an ask for the Argentine.
A front four of Mario Mandzukic, Koke, Arda Turan and the wonderful Antoine Griezmann is as good as last year’s side in the blog’s humble opinion, mainly due to the latter's acquisition from Real Sociedad. The spine of the team is also still in place, with Diego Gódin and Miranda in the centre of defence, and Mario Suárez and Gabi working like industrious bees in front.
Of course, the loss of Thibaut Courtois is going to be a whopper, but Atlético have had a lot of success in replacing keepers before (as with strikers). There looks set to be some strong competition between Jan Oblak and Miguel Moyá to take the Belgian's place. LLL is going to stick its neck out and say that Simeone’s “match-by-match” approach is going to bear fruit again, and squeeze the current league champions into second spot – which would still be a wondrous year.
It’s time for LLL to put its trousers on the line and predict a really, really, really rotten year for Barcelona. Worse than last season. Oh yes. We are talking losing twice to Getafe, here.
Barça will still probably end up third and always be in the title hunt, but the vibe will not be a pleasant one. Rather like the next year or two for Spain, Barcelona are going to be thrashing about for ideas when looking for a tiki-taka replacement, and Luis Enrique may not have the cool, calm and thoughtful temperament for the job. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone does – aside from Marcelo Bielsa, perhaps – but the whole sanity thing is an issue there.
The goalkeeping position is still open, with Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen duking it out. The absence of Carles Puyol’s perm and presence will be noticeable. Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué are simply not the footballers they once were through age and girth, respectively. The two new centre-back replacements are mere squad-fillers, and Xavi has his eyes on MLS. Leo Messi might be in an almighty post-World Cup funk, and the combination of Neymar, Messi and Luis Suárez looks like a classic Real Madrid notion of fitting a tactical system around some Galacticos, all very different to the philosophy and success of the past few seasons.
With the aforementioned Luis Enrique now dreaming the Impossible Dream at Barcelona, Celta Vigo reached out to former player and bit of a firebrand, Eduardo Berizzo, to take over in Galicia. The Argentine has proven coaching success in his home country with O’Higgins, as well as an understanding of the coastal club's fishy feel to give reason for reasonable optimism for Celta this season.
The loss of Rafinha to Barcelona and goalkeeper Yoel to Valencia will not help matters in Vigo, but there is enough juice in Celta’s tank to finish lower mid-table, an area of the league which will probably see about a dozen much-of-a-muchness clubs hanging about like hoodlums sipping 7-Up in a 1980s Kettering youth club.
LA LIGA LOCA'S BIG SEASON PREVIEW
Cordoba, Deportivo, Eibar, Elche, Espanyol
Getafe, Granada, Levante, Malago, Rayo Vallecano
Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal