There are new faces galore in the nation’s dugouts, from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom. Five of the top six teams in the Spanish league last season have switched coach, with Gerardo Martino taking over at Barcelona, Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, Jagoba Arrasate at Real Sociedad, Miroslav Djukic at Valencia, and Bernd Schuster at Malaga.
The Spanish top-flight clubs have a variety of reasons for hiring new leaders to guide their teams through the 83rd La Liga season, and the trend is not confined to the biggest clubs. The financial crisis and government-imposed austerity measures have significantly affected the transfer market in Spain, so good head coaches have become more valuable than ever. Their task will be to reinvent the league on a sustainable basis, because the cash-strapped clubs simply no longer have the money to bring in proven stars by the dozen.
Fresh dimension to long-running duel
Even at Barça and Real, the prevailing mood is one of change. Jose Mourinho’s exit from Madrid became inevitable, but Tito Vilanova's departure from Barcelona was unexpected. Whatever, it means a fresh dimension to the head-to-head duel between the traditional big two. Ancelotti and Martino will seek to open a new chapter for their teams and calm frayed nerves in both camps. If each can keep the peace at his club and manage the heavy burden of expectation, the meetings between the teams spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi promise to be a spectacular celebrations of football.
There is precious little to suggest a serious challenge to the stranglehold exerted by the men from the capital and the Catalans. In fact, the gulf in class between the big two and the rest may well have widened again this year. Barcelona and Madrid have claimed 25 of the last 29 league titles between them, and only the foolish, naive or wildly optimistic opposing fan would bet against one of the pair making it 26 out of 30 this term.
At his unveiling, El Tata Martino made no secret of his mission: “Not winning a trophy would be a failure." His counterpart at Real opened on a slightly less ambitious note: “Our goal is to play good football." However, Ancelotti is also a realist, as he immediately acknowledged: “The club has to succeed in all competitions, especially the league and the Champions League. We'll do the best we can." The wily Italian and master of strategy is clearly looking forward to his new job: “This is the best squad I've ever had. I'm satisfied. We have a young, good and strong team."
That's not really anything to complain about, some of his fellow coaches may have thought. “Cheque-book management is easy, but we’re going to do it with ideas and ingenuity," said new Levante coach Joaquin Caparros at the start of pre-season.
Caparros’ jibe was of course directed at Barça and Real, because although the pair have been relatively restrained in the transfer market by their own standards, the Catalans have still brought in Neymar, arguably the most sought-after young forward in the world, and Madrid have added Isco and Illarramendi to an already star-studded squad. The rest of the league has by and large looked on helplessly as their star names pack their bags and leave. Once renowned for its volume of imports, Spanish football seems to have become a net exporter.
FC Sevilla duo Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo long ago left for Manchester City. Valencia’s Roberto Soldado is headed for Tottenham Hotspur. Fernando Llorente has exchanged Athletic Bilbao for Turin giants Juventus. Radamel Falcao is now a Monaco player, although Diego "Cholo" Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have at least made up for the loss by bringing in not one but two goalscorers, proven hitman David Villa and the promising Leo Baptistao.
The other league
San Sebastian-based Real Sociedad, last season's surprise package, have opted to stay with the tried and trusted. Despite the challenge of returning to European competition, Sociedad have made the fewest changes of any top-flight club. The only new faces so far are Swiss striker Haris Seferovic and coach Arrasate. The real conundrum will be compensating for the loss of Illarramendi and Joseba Llorente.
Espanyol and Sevilla both took corrective action midway through last season and installed new coaches. The move paid off for both clubs. Javier Aguirre not only saved Espanyol when they already looked doomed to relegation, but at one stage even took them to within striking range of a place in Europe.
For his part, Unai Emery galvanised Sevilla into a winning unit. However, it all starts again from scratch this term with a fundamentally new squad, as no fewer than 13 players have left the club over the summer. The coach remains undeterred: “The prize for us is Europe, and we'll do everything we can to make sure this Sevilla never leaves Europe. I'm expecting my team to go for it, with tight and aggressive defence, huge commitment in the tackle, and plenty of character on the ball in attack. I want us to challenge our opponents with our immense drive."
As for Athletic Bilbao, it is nothing less than the start of a new era for the tradition-rich club. New coach Ernesto Valverde has taken over from Marcelo Bielsa, and the club has a brand-new stadium next to the site of the legendary San Mames, which has been closed and razed to the ground. The Lions must now attempt to carry over the intimidating atmosphere and reputation from their former Catedral to their new ground.
The new faces in the top flight are FC Villarreal, UD Almeria and FC Elche. It is highly likely they will be involved in the battle against relegation which, just like last season, is certain to concern more teams than the race for silverware.
The generally stricken finances of the Spanish clubs and the consequent need to fall back on home-grown players means that a championship once designated the ‘League of Stars’ has a radically different feel this season. But even in the post-Mourinho era, La Liga still boasts two glittering jewels, in the shape of the world's best players Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Let the curtain rise and the games begin!