Has LaLiga ever been this open? Barcelona are wounded, having lost Lionel Messi; Real Madrid are re-energised with Carlo Ancelotti in charge. Atletico Madrid are the reigning champions and Sevilla look strong, too. LaLigaTV pundit and Spanish football encyclopaedia Graham Hunter certainly agrees.
"I don’t think there’s a team outside of Atletico, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Sevilla that can win it," he said, speaking exclusively to FFT after the first round of games, which saw all four heavyweights register three points.
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So which way does Graham see the season going? Who are the players to watch? Whatever happens, LaLiga could see the most competitive title race in Europe's top five leagues...
Sevilla are the outsiders' bet. The Andalusian outfit have former national boss Julen Lopetegui at the helm and talent that the Premier League have kept tabs on, in the likes of Jules Kounde and Youssef En-Nesyri. Graham reckons they could be in for a good season - and if they manage to sign a goalscorer to get them scrappy poacher's goals, they might be on for something even more surprising.
"If Sevilla manage to keep Jules Kounde and sign a striker - which I’m convinced they need - then they could be dark horses," Graham assesses. "I think they need one of those strikers who scores when the ball comes off his arse or whatever. Whether he scores 15 or 22, they’re punchy goals that turn draws into wins, defeats into draws. So I’m thinking about the types of players that we’ve seen in recent seasons, some of whom have played for Sevilla, Carlos Bacca, Wissam Ben Yedder, Kevin Gameiro, Javier Saviola in the past for other clubs or a Chicharito.
"Up front with Luuk De Jong, the Dutchman, it’s playing a certain brand of football. And then, Youssef En-Nesyri, he’s a Mustang and I make no bones about the fact that a Premier League club phoned me in the winter market of last season to ask me details, because they were right in there with a bid. En-Nesyri has got things that can make him reasonably special I think - not world-class but pretty special.
"So good coach, very good squad, the fans being back for Sevilla will make as much difference as pretty much any club. I wanted to see them as genuine contenders who could challenge for a first title since 1945/46."
Carlo Ancelotti is back at the Bernabeu. A coup such as Carlo is great for LaLiga, says Graham - and should Los Blancos bring another certain superstar to Spain, who knows what might happen?
"Now, I think if Real Madrid were to buy Kylian Mbappe… I think that elevates them to possible champions because I did not have them as champions," Graham reckons. "A month ago it was about 5% possible that Mbappe would leave. But with Leo Messi arriving and Mbappe being worth nothing this time next year (his contract expires in 2022), it’s a live subject. In certain conditions, I see Madrid as title-winners with Mbappe.
"And I’m thrilled to have Ancelotti back. I’m thrilled to have a man like that coaching in this country because although he’s different to Zinedine Zidane, he’s like Zidane in that he oozes class, he oozes knowhow and he brings history to the club. I like people of depth; it’s always brilliant to see coaches who blow the cobwebs away, who are new and who are aggressive and talent. That’s equally sexy.
"But what you get when you have an era of Ronald Koeman, Ancelotti and Cholo Simeone coaching at the top, is that they’ve all got diversity of background. I think that adds a lot to the influence of where they give interviews. You’ll see each of them opening up to the media of different countries - and therefore you’ll learn a lot more about them."
Champions Atletico Madrid look their usual resolute selves already. The big question is whether Diego Simeone can buck the trend of a lifetime and get his side to improve on a title-winning season.
"Atleti are not only really punchy but still really motivated," says Graham. "They haven’t retained the title for 70 years. There have been good eras within that time but there’s a reason they don’t usually retain the title. Last time they retained the title, they dropped 12 points and 10 goals and finished third. I don’t think it’s fair to call them shoo-ins - but they’re at least as good as last season.
"Diego Simeone is really excited about Rodrigo De Paul. Really excited. To see a manager of that shrewdness being obsessed with getting De Paul - and he was obsessed - he fought like a tiger to get him. I know, factually, that United really wanted Kieran Trippier and Trippier said, ‘If you agree a price, then I’ll come,’ but Trippier’s got one year left of his deal. There’s a clause that if Trippier plays X number of games - which Cholo will give him - then a second year triggers automatically. Atleti didn’t treat the price like it was a one-year deal. They put a ridiculous buyout clause on him because they didn’t want to let him go.
"They see him as vital - if they retain him, they would be all the more confident about keeping the title. And they’re trying to get another goalscorer. They trying to get a goalscorer of the characteristics that Sevilla want."
Barcelona's problems have been well-documented - but with the captaincy falling from Lionel Messi to Sergio Busquets, Graham surmises that we could well see a grittier Barca this season than we have in recent times: a Barcelona with an underdog spirit, prepared to prove everyone wrong in the face of adversity.
"Barcelona seem to have taken this tag of being lame dogs - whereas I don’t think they are," Graham says. "They’re a little bit short in one or two areas but they’ve got a monstrous amount of talent.
"And I think they’ve got this genuine mentality, a rebellious nature amongst three-quarters of that squad, which will be saying, ‘Bollocks to the crisis, to everyone who says we can’t win the title, that we’ll fall flat on our faces without Messi’. I think there’s a real aggressive rebel spirit there that means it’s a proper four-horse race."
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