The 2013-14 La Liga season successfully busted up some of the duopoly in Spain’s Primera Division. This is a good thing. As entertaining as the Barcelona-Real Madrid arms race is and always will be, you need plucky underdogs too. Without them, we would just be watching Barca and Real duke it out for Spanish supremacy until the end of time. Authentic suspense and excitement comes from upsets, or at least smaller clubs’ fanbases believing they have some semblance of a shot to win the league. With Atletico Madrid’s inspiring, sustained run en route to a La Liga title (and almost a Champions League one as well), we were treated to a new kid on the block who wasn’t afraid of the big boys.
Of course, only months later their roster was raided by the big boys. Mostly a Russian billionaire, to be exact. Still, it feels like manager Diego Simeone is the type of motivator that can squeeze results out of a lesser lineup. We’d better hope so, because with last season being the first since 2007-08 that Real and Barca didn’t finish 1-2, those teams have fully reloaded and are bent on restoring order in Spain.
On the outskirts, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla are looking to keep the revolution going. Bilbao finished comfortably fourth, while fifth-place Sevilla celebrated a Europa League title. With so much success in the European competitions, it’s good times for La Liga fans, as they have a legitimate claim to the best league in the world. But will this wave of semi-parity continue, or will the duopoly return? Read on, and I’ll tell you the answer.
1) Real Madrid
At a certain point when enough talent is jammed into one team, do intangible words like “chemistry” and “teamwork” just go out the window? Real Madrid keep getting closer and closer to finding out. After last season saw them pick up the Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies, you didn’t expect them to sit still, did you? They went out and snatched two of the biggest stars of World Cup 2014, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. This leaves midfielder Angel Di Maria in an awkward position, especially since his league-leading 17 assists and all-around excellent play last season was more than significant to Real’s success. He’s currently rumored to leave for Manchester United.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti has to balance all of this, which he’s proven he’s quite good at. Although the challenge remains to find the right spot for all of his immensely talented parts. His 4-3-3 will not be able to house all of his attacking riches, which means we will be seeing players with insane skill level (like Di Maria or Kroos or Isco) coming off the bench. Scoring goals shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but keeping them out of their own net could be. The defense looked vulnerable much of last season and no improvements were made. Levante keeper Keylor Navas was brought in, however, and if he can keep his hot streak going from this summer as Costa Rica’s keeper, Real could be in much better shape. All in all, the talent is too much deny for them not to win La Liga this time.
Blaugrana haven’t won a trophy in a full year and boy, are they clearly tired of not winning trophies. After finishing second in the league and the Copa del Rey, Barca decided to stock up for this campaign like great footballers are going out of style. Despite owning two of the best few attacking players on the planet, they felt it necessary to bring in another. Ex-Liverpool man Luis Suarez will make an impact (positive or negative) immediately when he returns. He’s a huge upgrade over Alexis Sanchez (who jetted to Arsenal) and will only open things up more for Messi/Neymar. While also losing Cesc Fabregas, Barca decided to poach Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla to shore up the midfield.
The defense is also a bit shaky at Camp Nou, especially with the loss of Barca legend Puyol. Former Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen has been signed to mixed reviews from analysts and fans alike. And similar to Real, they have brought in keeper assistance as well. Young German Marc-Andre ter Stegen and long-time Real Sociedad netminder Claudio Bravo will see time in the goal this season. The fact remains that this team is aging though, and with another new coach the continuity that led to their dominance has been interrupted again. I think Real comfortably wins the league and Barcelona just tries to improve enough throughout the season to make a run at the Champions League title.
3) Atletico Madrid
So I didn’t go out on too scary of a ledge when picking those two teams to go 1-2, but it’s just difficult to see how this Atletico team will defend their title after spending most of their summer scrambling to keep the players that won said title. Chelsea called “take-back-sies” on 22-year-old Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois, while also nabbing Atletico’s star striker Diego Costa and their experienced left back Filipe Luis. Their other striker, David Villa, packed his bags for a franchise that hadn’t even played a game yet (New York City FC).
It wasn’t all bad, though. They held onto some of the valuable pieces that were heavily involved in last season’s triumphs. Many of their prospects this season will fall on midfielders Koke, Turan, and captain Gabi to direct this team where it needs to go. Then there are the two big hauls for the offense. Ex-Bayern forward Mario Mandzukic has arrived and will be eager to show he can be the target no. 9 after a good-not-great stint in Munich. Young Frenchman Antoine Griezmann grew up in the Real Sociedad youth system and made 179 appearances for the senior squad before he was signed by Atletico. He was mighty impressive during the World Cup and many are projecting him as a future La Liga star. His 16 goals and 3.2 shots per game last season (fourth behind Ronaldo, Messi, and Bale) suggests he has that potential.
Atletico could challenge Barca for that second spot, but only letting in 26 goals all of last season was the main reason they won it all. Without star keeper Courtois, they will definitely concede more than that. The defense will still be stout under Simeone though, and with an in-sync offense firing, they could threaten once again.