Why this is the season La Liga's chasing pack can scare Barça and Real Madrid
“¡Hay liga!” went the call when Atletico Madrid edged their way to the La Liga title in 2013/14. “There is a league!” Not one league for Barcelona and Real Madrid, and another for the rest, but one single competitive league. Last year saw a return to the infamous duopoly. Barca topped the Primera with 94 points, two clear of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, and you had to traipse 14 points down the table to come across the next closest title challengers.
Luis Enrique’s side are the gleaming tip of the iceberg, proudly breaking the surface of the water, but there is danger lurking in La Liga’s depths.
Still, that’s no reason to despair. Only two points separated third and fifth place with Atletico, Valencia and Sevilla all clearing 75 points in their battle for European football. Look back to 2013/14 and you’ll see Sevilla racking up 63 points, with Valencia on a meagre 49. The rest are getting better. Barcelona will be looking to retain the title, with the bewildering trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez in tandem again, but there have been interesting movements below. Luis Enrique’s side are the gleaming tip of the iceberg, proudly breaking the surface of the water, but there is danger lurking in La Liga’s depths.
After seeing his side narrowly clambering into third place last season, Diego Simeone has been clear about Atletico’s aims. Pre-season talk has been that of development and evolution. Mario Mandzukic has been replaced by Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto. The Croatian’s physical, battling presence, immobile in comparison with the likes of Vietto and Antoine Griezmann, has been replaced by options capable of playing with greater dynamism. Belgian winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco showcases pace, flair and work rate as Simeone looks to shift Atleti’s philosophy towards quick breaks and regular chances from open play.
In January, the Argentine coach stood firm: “We’re not going to change our identity or our essence… we’re only interested in the way we play.” Fast forward to Atleti’s recent tour of Asia and he is now reading from a different song sheet: “We had the intention of trying another system different to what we always play… the team is growing, we are looking for alternatives – we play with a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.” Full-back Filipe Luis, having returned to Atleti, has admitted he needs time to readjust to Simeone’s ideas. This isn’t the same team he left merely a season ago. While two tenacious banks of four might still be the answer in big games, a spring-loaded front three with pacey wide options looks to be Simeone’s go-to for winnable fixtures. Rather than sitting back and preying on set-piece opportunities, Atleti are gearing up to go for the jugular.
A year on from Valencia uploading Nuno Santo Espirito’s first words as their coach to their official YouTube channel, only one comment is present: “I am scared because I don’t know of him, but I wish him the best.” Such feedback represented the majority of the club’s fan base. But a lot can change over 365 days, with the identity and philosophy of their manager now at the forefront of the club’s image.
Valencia have solidified an already competitive squad during the summer months, but Nuno’s men have something that transcends the physical. “I think today we’ve earned the right to believe in ourselves,” the Portuguese coach declared at a press conference back in December 2014. “We can believe that anything is possible, that we have answers when a game is going against us and that we can achieve success.” Belief is the word, the motto, the mantra.
From the start of 2015 until the end of the season, Valencia remained unbeaten at home in La Liga, even managing a 2-1 win over Real Madrid and a 3-1 victory over Sevilla. On the road, however, Nuno has been unable to inspire the same sense of invincibility that saw the Mestalla become a fortress, although a 2-2 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu in their penultimate away game of the season offers promise.
We can believe that anything is possible, that we have answers when a game is going against us and that we can achieve success.
Just one thing is missing: goals. Dani Parejo was the club’s top scorer last season, contributing 12 goals from midfield, while Paco Alcacer netted 11 up front. Alvaro Negredo has been bought for an obligatory €30m from Manchester City, but Valencia’s best way forward revolves around giving Alcacer the service required to justify future call-ups to the Spanish national side. Despite the departure of Nicolas Otamendi, the club have held onto Andre Gomes and Shkodran Mustafi, while snapping up interesting wide options in the form of Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali, meaning Los Che are a 20-goal attacking contribution away from unsettling the big two.
In the build-up to Barcelona’s presidential elections, potential candidate Agusti Benedito got in touch with Sevilla sporting director Monchi. Benedito asked Monchi if he wanted to join his campaign, to call the shots at Barça. The answer was no.
The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was even more of a fortress than Valencia's Mestalla last season, with only a 3-2 defeat to Real Madrid blotting a near-pristine copybook.
Los Nervionenses already have a promising foundation in place and Unai Emery is known as a hard taskmaster in the search for perfection. After signing a new contract this summer, the former Spartak Moscow and Valencia coach spoke of the “heart and motor” that will drive his men towards success. Desire and industry. Carlos Bacca is a huge loss for the southerners, as is Aleix Vidal to Barcelona. Fortunately for Sevilla, their combined departures commanded around €50m. Monchi has added midfield muscle and craft in the shape of Stoke’s Steven N’Zonzi and Celta Vigo’s Michael Krohn-Dehli respectively, while Dnipro’s Yevhen Konoplyanka offers work rate and dribbling ability out wide.
What should not be forgotten is Sevilla’s home form last season. The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was even more of a fortress than the Mestalla, with only a 3-2 defeat to Real Madrid blotting a near-pristine copybook. Champions Barça were held to a 2-2 draw, with Emery’s hawk-like attention to detail tripping up even the most in-form opponents.
While they may not boast the star names of their rivals, Sevilla have assembled a well-balanced, committed squad. Sergio Escudero and Mariano reinforce the full-back areas, while teenage striker Juan Munoz has racked up a handful of goals in pre-season. Adil Rami offers another option at centre-back, but the bulk of Emery’s personnel remains unchanged.
Ciro Immobile, on loan from Dortmund after a disappointing spell in Germany, will offer industry if nothing else, although it’s worth bearing in mind that the Italy international scored 22 goals in 33 Serie A games for Torino in 2013/14. This season also provides a great chance for Kevin Gameiro to take a starring role after the Frenchman netted an impressive eight goals in only 930 minutes of La Liga football last season.
Without huge sums of cash to splash around, Sevilla’s more methodical approach to transfers sets them up as the organised underdogs of the Champions League race. Their squad is filled with players with a point to prove: N’Zonzi has always believed himself above mid-table Premier League slogging, while Konoplyanka will look to dispel the myth that Ukrainian football is little more than the Brazilians of Shakhtar Donetsk; Immobile has a post-Dortmund hangover to shake, while Gameiro lived in Bacca’s shadow for the entirety of last season.
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On paper, Barcelona and Real Madrid come into yet another La Liga season as clear favourites – and few would bet against them. But character, belief and myriad other factors don’t come into that equation. Madrid have ongoing political rumblings to contend with and a coach in Rafael Benitez who has underwhelmed since he made Liverpool competitive for a spell. Barcelona face the eternal dilemma of keeping up motivation among players who’ve won everything there is to win. So it stands to reason that the big two will afford themselves the odd nervous glance in the rear-view mirror as Spain prepares for the big kick-off.