Big two lay down La Liga gauntlet
The thrilling Spanish Supercopa tie between Barcelona and Real Madrid could barely have been a more tantalising appetiser for the new season in La Liga, with all the signs suggesting the two behemoths are set to dominate proceedings once more. Though clearly an uphill task given Barça and Los Merengues' plethora of stars, could another team force their way into contention?
Also impacting on the intensity of the upcoming campaign is the suspension of the division’s first matchday due to a professional players’ strike. This will condense a calendar already squeezed by next summer’s UEFA EURO 2012, while also meaning that this season’s La Liga starts on matchday two.
The mission for Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola is to continue amassing silverware at the same phenomenal rate, as well as staying faithful to the club’s mouth-watering style of play. And though Los Azulgrana still look somewhat thin on the ground defensively, it is in midfield and attack where big-name reinforcements have been signed - in the shape of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.
The search for serious challengers for the Catalan giants’ crown is likely to begin and end with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. The only team to prevent their rivals sweeping the board last term, when beating Lionel Messi and Co in the final of the Copa del Rey, Real's Supercopa showings suggests they will again fight every inch of the way in 2011/12.
With a full season under Mourinho now under their collective belts, the Madrid machine is clearly well-oiled, as evidenced by the greater level of maturity, fluidity and ruthlessness shown in their recent displays. Boosted by quality signings in Turkish duo Hamit Altintop and Nuri Sahin and Portuguese flyer Fabio Coentrao, the capital club’s tussle with Barça could barely be tougher to call.
Part of the chasing pack are sure to be the likes of Valencia, Villarreal and Sevilla, who have done well to keep hold of most of their leading men over the summer and should again push for UEFA Champions League and Europa League berths. They may find, however, that their European commitments – plus the rhythm set by La Liga’s big two – tests their squad depth to its limit.
Atletico de Madrid, for their part, could well find their chances hampered by the departure of coach Quique Sanchez Flores and key men Sergio Aguero and David de Gea. Yet Los Colchoneros have brought in experienced supremo Gregorio Manzano to steady the ship, while they have spent big on Aguero’s replacement in Porto’s prolific Colombian striker Radamel Falcao.
Though they needed a late surge to avoid the drop last season, Malaga have splashed the cash in a bid to ensure they are battling at the other end of the table this time around. With a clutch of big-name performers now at his disposal, Manuel Pellegrini’s squad has the talent and experience to rock the La Liga boat.
Joining the top-flight fray are Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada, who, given the fact that last season a record 44 points were required to avoid the drop, will have to be at their best to avoid going straight back down. So while the demands at the very top are ever higher, with Barça claiming 96 and 99 points respectively to win the last two La Ligas, the contest lower down promises to be just as fiercely fought.
It seemed to have been on the cards forever, but Barcelona’s prodigal son Fabregas has finally returned to the Camp Nou after eight years at Arsenal. Given midfield rivals of the calibre of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Seydou Keita, he will not find an easy path into the starting XI, however, and he must also deal with the pressure of a huge price tag and equally massive expectations from the Culé faithful.
Barcelona and Madrid aside, the global financial crisis has made its presence felt on the number of star names joining La Liga sides this summer. Indeed, most clubs have done their shopping domestically, in the lower tiers or plucked youngsters from their youth systems in their determination to balance the books.
There is another notable exception in Malaga, who, backed by Sheikh Al Thani, has plunged headlong into the transfer market. Bolstering the Andalusian outfit are the likes of internationals Ruud van Nistelrooy, Joaquin, Santi Cazorla, Jeremy Toulalan, Nacho Monreal, Diego Buonanotte and Joris Mathijsen, an influx of established performers that has the Malaga support buzzing.
Players to watch
The new arrivals will of course be under the microscope, while Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will both be under pressure to repeat their phenomenal displays and form in front of goal from last term. However, we must not overlook the continued progression of up-and-coming youngsters such as Blaugrana midfielder Thiago Alcantara and fellow Spain youth international Sergio Canales.
The former was the star of his club’s pre-season campaign while the latter, who has been loaned to Valencia from Real Madrid, caught the eye at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia. Signed with much fanfare by Los Blancos just a year ago, can Canales rediscover the form he showed when bursting onto the scene at Racing Santander?
The last name on our list is not a player but a coach, the Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa, who has pitched up at Athletic Bilbao, a club famous for their policy of only using players from the greater Basque region. A pure football man and tactical mastermind, El Loco Bielsa is also every bit a character, which means both his side’s performances and his own media appearances are sure to be equally absorbing.