La Liga is back on our screens from this weekend and the season ahead will be an interesting one with Barcelona having a new manager, Lionel Messi ready to set new records, Cristiano Ronaldo aiming to match him once again, Jose Mourinho continuing in charge of Real Madrid after signing a new contract, old favourites returning to the league in Celta Vigo and Deportivo La Coruna and Messi and Ronaldo ….. oh I’ve already mentioned them haven’t I, still they are the main acts. Let’s have a look at what is in store this year.
Real Madrid (11/12 – 1st)
The champions last season haven’t made too many changes this year and have decided the best approach is to get their players to sign new deals. We have seen a number of new long term contracts signed at the club by the likes of Angel Di Maria, Alvaro Arbeloa and Raul Albiol and they haven’t signed a single player as yet only letting a couple of squad players leave. They will have to prove that they can again see off the threat of their Catalan rivals and key to that will be the continued form of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xavi Alonso who are all key to their play creatively. The aforementioned Di Maria is crucial to the shape of the team when they are at their best going forward also. It appears that Sergio Ramos will continue in central defence this season alongside Pepe and the core of the side is now very settled although rumours persist that Lassana Diarra may leave before the end of this transfer window.
Mourinho will have one big eye on the UEFA Champions League this season and the defeat on penalties to Bayern Munich last year was clearly a moment he will not want to relive but they will go in this season as one of the favourites for that tournament. One man expected to join in the coming days is Luka Modric who would slot into any midfield easily and add a lot of creativity.
Barcelona (11/12 – 2nd)
So after dominating Spanish football, and to a large extent European football, for a number of years Barcelona are now the chasers this campaign rather than the chased. With a new manager in Tito Vilanova installed at the helm but a squad we are all familiar with he has only added Alex Song from Arsenal and the extremely impressive left back Jordi Alba from Valencia with Seydou Keita leaving to move to China. Again all eyes will be on Lionel Messi and he is inevitably crucial to their prospect of reclaiming the La Liga title this year although it is an important season for the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Thiago Alcantara and Isaac Cuenca as the Catalans are continuing with their policy of having a small squad compared to their big rivals.
Their young players will have a chance to impress again this season and having worked in the clubs youth system the manager will no doubt maintain the formula that has seen them do so well over recent years. The signing of Song to be reintroduced to Cesc Fabregas in the midfield will be interesting and may be seen as a sign that Xavi’s time as a main man at the club on the pitch is coming to an end. They will no doubt delight us again with their style this season but trophies are what they will be looking for come May.
Malaga (11/12 – 4th)
After grabbing the final Champions League place last season this should have been the year that Malaga pushed on and looked at being the team to challenge the top two as far as they could but that is no more than a pipe dream now with their financiers pulling out ahead of this season and they are looking to sell wherever they can. It’s a shame as they were looking impressive with the likes of Santi Cazorla, Joris Mathijsen and Jose Rondon but those players and more have now left the club and replacements will not be coming in and there is likely to be a focus on young players. They have a chance to get to the group stages of the Champions League but need to win their play off match against Panathanaikos which will be difficult.
Valencia (11/12 – 3rd)
Valencia have now finished third in three consecutive seasons and now under the guidance of Mauricio Pellegrino they have gone through a summer of much change in the squad with several players both in and out. They have had this process for a number of years now with big name departures like David Silva and David Villa and this summer has seen big departures with Aritz Aduriz moving to Athletic Bilboa, Alba moving to Barcelona, Mehmet Topal moving back to his homeland and some squad players released. On the plus side new names in the squad include winger Andres Guardardo, Nelson Valdez formerly of Hercules, Fernando Gago, right back Joao Pereira and the exciting Sergio Canales.
So a new look team may take time to gel but they again look favourites for third place and will no doubt cause problems for the big two at the Mestalla. They will be looking to improve also on their exploits in recent years in the Champions League. Roberto Soldado will be looked at to provide the goals again.
Athletic Bilbao (11/12 – 10th)
Marcelo Bielsa’s team won so many plaudits last season for their performances in the cup competitions both domestically and in Europe however they ended up without a trophy and their league campaign tailed off as they were tiring towards the end of the season. One fear heading into this season was that the big sides around Europe would come in for their star names and that appears to be happening with both Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez looking likely to move in the coming days. They will continue to entertain and play good football, which Bielsa team doesn’t, and the likes of Ander Herrera, Oscar de Marcos, Markel Susaeta and the hugely impressive Iker Munain should thrive this season.
Atletico Madrid (11/12 – 5th)
Perhaps the most interesting team heading into the new season are Atletico Madrid who seemed to grow as the last campaign went on with manager Diego Simeone making a great impression and seeming to have the players on board from the start of his stewardship. His signings in the new season include Emre, the former Newcastle United midfielder, and Cristian Rodriguez from Porto with the main exits being Alvaro Domingues to Borussia Monchengladbach and Eduardo Salvio to Benfica.
As always seems to be the case with Atletico they have such exciting attacking talents with Radamel Falcao, Arda Turan and Adrian Lopez of whom much is expected this season. I watched Lopez during the Under 21 European Championships last summer and have been impressed with his progress since, this is a big season for him and the club with 4th place a realistic goal for the first time in many years.
Others to Watch
Of the newly promoted sides Celta Vigo appear best placed to finish high up the table if they can stick to the principles that got them promoted which were organisation and an impressive work ethic. Levante finished in 6th last term and will again be led by the impressive manager Juan Martinez and the robust Sergio Ballesteros at the back, they will do very well to match last season. Another team to keep an eye on will be Sevilla who have recruited the impressive Alberto Botia in defence and Diego Lopez in goal from relegated Villareal, they need to improve on last seasons disappointing 9th place finish under the former Getafe manager Michel.
Sky’s coverage of Spanish football is almost better than their Premier League coverage and in fact the analysis is almost always better with current and former players and managers regularly appearing on the show. The excellent Guillem Balague, Terry Gibson, Gerry Armstrong and Graham Hunter appear regularly on matchdays and on the Revista de la Liga highlights show which always mixes analysis and light hearted chat well. Scott Minto hosts the majority of the shows and whilst he had big boots to fill in Mark Bolton’s he has done a solid job. Sky’s excellent Spanish product and the quality of the pictures from Spain make it easy to follow and many peoples staple viewing on Sunday evenings especially.
If you are a fan of Spanish football on Sky Sports and want to submit reviews of games you have watched for the blog get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.