La Liga Review: Season of surprises for title contenders Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico
Just two weeks ago football experts were tipping Barcelona for another domestic clean sweep and a decent crack at becoming the first team in the modern era to retain the Champions League in its current format.Embed from Getty Images
Winning 50 games out of 60 on the way to acquiring the treble, and with your front three scoring 122 of your 175 goals in the process, would lend itself to such predictions. That was before the Catalans showed their human side (again) and conceded eight goals in two games; the first time such an occurrence has happened in 65 years.
Gone was the dream of another sextuple – Athletic Club de Bilbao showing the rest of La Liga and Europe exactly how to play the supposed ‘best team in the world’ – although order was restored as the two met in the opening fixture of La Liga, with Barca edging the hosts 0-1.
A few days previously, Sevilla had come within a whisker of one of the greatest football comebacks of all time, succumbing only to Pedro Rodriguez’s parting gift in extra-time.
Despite the disappointment of another loss to the Catalans, Unai Emery would have been delighted with the nous and work ethic of his new signings Ciro Immobile, Michael Krohn-Dehli and Yevhen Konoplyanka – all of whom will make a splash in the league this season.
Indeed, both of Barca’s early cup opponents have injected a healthy dose of reality into Luis Enrique’s aspirations. Even the best can be neutralised if tactics are intelligent, well thought-out and fulfilled to the letter.
It helps if the defence goes on its holidays for a few days too, of course! With no strength in depth from a failing La Masia, Barcelona have problems all of a sudden.
What of Real Madrid and neighbours Atletico? The latter certainly can’t be discounted again this season, after some stunning summer purchases and a decent 1-0 win to start the season against Las Palmas.
Luciano Vietto has been prised from Villarreal and will form a new-look strike force alongside ex-Porto marksman Jackson Martinez.
The Rojiblancos have the knack of always buying quality to replace their outgoing players and Diego Simeone has worked the market to perfection yet again. The Argentine will be confident of a decent showing across all competitions and – the loss of Arda Turan aside – Atleti look well set in all areas.
Real have been quiet by comparison. Mateo Kovacic is a late, unnecessary purchase from Inter Milan, unless the young diamond has been bought with the future in mind or Isco is being sent packing.
There can’t be another credible explanation for a midfielder that won’t take the place of countryman Luka Modric, Toni Kroos or James Rodriguez for a while yet – although none of them were able to break the deadlock for Real against Sporting, the two teams playing out a 0-0 draw.
Sergio Ramos surprised absolutely no-one by signing a new contract with the club. The ruse that he was ever going to leave to join Manchester United a smokescreen cleverly worked by both player and agent.
It might have left a bad taste in Louis van Gaal’s mouth but not quite as much as the thought of Los Blancos taking his first-choice keeper to the Spanish capital, not a week after he had banished his reserve keeper to the reserves.
Nuno Santo’s Valencia side suffered from the loss of the excellent Nicolas Otamendi, with a disappointing goalless draw with Rayo Vallecano; but they too have a strong and well-rounded squad.
Regardless of whether they are able to knock out Monaco and reach the Champions League proper, there is enough quality in that Los Che outfit to make another dent in the aspirations of the supposed Spanish superpowers this season.
They were just a Sergio Busquets 95th-minute winner away from denying Barca the three points which would have seen Real take last season’s title on the head-to-head record. Yes, it was that close!
Meanwhile, David Moyes has brought in Jonathas from Elche, which is a super signing for the Basques, and held Deportivo La Coruna to a goalless draw. While even promoted Real Betis – who drew 1-1 at home with Villarreal – have secured the services of Rafael van der Vaart.
There have already been a few surprises in pre-season. It’s likely there will be a fair few more at both ends of the table. La Liga is back!
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