Last season saw one of the most gripping title races in LaLiga for some years – although it took an almighty stumble from Barcelona to make it happen.
Luis Enrique’s side surrendered a nine-point gap at the top after four games without a win across March and April, and only a flawless record across the final five matches kept them a point clear of Real Madrid and three above Atletico Madrid.
The 2016-17 campaign looks unlikely to break the mould of the recent three-horse races, though Madrid are in some trouble before a ball has even been kicked. Injuries to star players and a stark lack of transfer activity has left them in real danger of falling behind any early pace set by the champions or their city rivals.
Is it folly to write off the Champions League and UEFA Super Cup holders? Can anyone else upset the order at the top? Here, we look at the state of play as Spain’s top flight gets underway…
But for some last-minute collapses and the width of the woodwork, Atletico Madrid would have celebrated their greatest ever season in 2015-16.
Beginning with a 1-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu on February 27, Diego Simeone’s side went on a stunning run of form, winning 11 of their last 13 league games to haul in at least some of Barcelona’s lead.
However, late goals in shock 2-1 defeats to Sporting Gijon and Levante put paid to their title hopes, while a second Champions League final defeat in three years to Real Madrid came after Antoine Griezmann and Juanfran hit the frame of the goal with respective penalties.
The agony of those failures almost pushed Simeone to the exit door at the Vicente Calderon. As ever, his redoubtable will to win… well, won.
“I never spoke with the feeling I would leave Atletico. It’s very difficult to explain what I felt,” he said, looking back at the loss to Madrid in Milan.
“For me it was a death, and I needed to grieve. And I did it where I was. Now, I’m ready for whatever comes.”
If a famous double was a bridge too far last season, Simeone has set about closing that gap with a renewed determination. Nico Gaitan and Kevin Gameiro have arrived for a combined outlay of close to €57million, while Sime Vrsaljko has bolstered an already formidable back line.
More importantly, Griezmann looks set for at least one more season at the Calderon despite displaying form last term that saw him earn a nomination for the UEFA Best Player prize, ahead of Lionel Messi, no less.
Atleti’s pre-season has been far from pristine – they lost to Melbourne Victory in July – but they have a kind start to the league campaign, with matches against Alaves and Leganes first up this month. By the time they visit the champions on September 21, they could already have a narrow advantage. This time, it might work in their favour.
“I think that we begin the season as the team to beat,” Luis Enrique said recently. Don’t they always?
Barcelona survived the mother of all blips – by their standards, at least – to cling on to the league title last term despite a voracious chase from the Madrid clubs in the final few weeks.
A Copa del Rey triumph followed to hand Luis Enrique his second domestic double in two seasons, but the former midfielder has set about adding to his squad to prevent any such slump threatening his medal collection again.
Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne have bolstered the defensive options, adding versatility and youth to a back line blighted by injuries to Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu last term. Vermaelen has now moved on to Roma.
Similarly, while the signings of midfielders Andre Gomes and former youth prospect Denis Suarez have been deemed superfluous by some, they represent investment in promising younger players who can fulfil a variety of roles in Luis Enrique’s system.
It’s been far from a perfect market, though. Dani Alves’ departure for Juventus has robbed the dressing room of a leading figure, while the pursuit of a “pure striker” – a type of player long sought by the coach – is bordering dangerously close on the embarrassing.
Gameiro and Luciano Vietto were courted before joining Atletico and Sevilla respectively, Lucas Perez and Mario Mandzukic rumours were shot down, and the latest pursuit of Paco Alcacer has drawn a defiant riposte from the Valencia hierarchy, who are determined not to sell another leading player to Barca.
There is still the goalkeeping dilemma, too. After Marc-Andre ter Stegen looked likely to move on, the Germany international is now the favourite for the number one spot this season, as rumours swirl that Claudio Bravo is bound for Manchester City.
Yet, as ever, the champions look largely imperious. A 4-0 pre-season hammering by Liverpool was a shock they neither expected nor forgot about, and they have already landed a trophy in the form of the Supercopa de Espana against Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla.
Indeed, Luis Enrique has described this squad as the best he has worked with as he prepares to launch a bid for a third title in a row – something they last achieved under Pep Guardiola in 2011.
“They’re like a team that has never won anything before,” Luis Enrique said. “They are hungry to win everything. This is a unique squad of players, I think.” Ominous signs indeed.
As they often did during his playing days, Real Madrid turned to Zinedine Zidane in January to offer some inspiration to haul them out of trouble.
The risky appointment of Rafael Benitez as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor had backfired spectacularly: they looked well out of the title race, and the 4-0 Clasico defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu was as horrible to watch for the home fans as Ronaldinho’s wondrously devastating display 10 years earlier.
Zizou changed all that. A first team with notorious egos bought into the Frenchman’s insistence on simple hard work to back up the talent. A run of 17 wins in 20 league games – including a 2-1 revenge win at Camp Nou – and a second Champions League triumph in three seasons followed.
Fast forward three months, and things no longer look so rosy. A confused transfer policy has seen Alvaro Morata’s return the only major piece of business for Madrid, who surprisingly baulked at the prospect of breaking the world transfer record once again to sign Paul Pogba.
The futures of Isco and James Rodriguez remain the subject of serious speculation, with neither having convinced Zidane of their suitability to his plans, yet there have been few signs of further reinforcements, save for sketchy rumours of a Cesc Fabregas bid.
The signs are not all bad, of course. Madrid won the UEFA Super Cup despite missing half of their first team, and there are still two weeks of the transfer window to go.
But Zidane knows the importance of having a fully fit and motivated team to face Real Sociedad on day one if he is to stop Barca and Atletico getting a clear head-start before the first derby on November 20, and the opening Clasico on December 4.
“We know that the LaLiga season is a very long one and that we’ve got to make a strong start,” he said after a pre-season humbling by Paris Saint-Germain.
“We’re still in the preparation phase and it’s to be expected that we’re lacking in some areas. We’ve got to work more and make things come as second nature, that’s something that will happen gradually.”
He knows he can’t be too patient, though. Four years without the title is a long time for Madrid and president Florentino Perez. He is unlikely to tolerate a fifth.
CAN ANYONE MAKE IT A ‘BIG FOUR’?
It’s been 12 years since Benitez took Valencia to a second title in three seasons, and the old order in Spain has been relatively unshaken since.
Atletico, of course, have established a firm ‘big three’ since Simeone’s arrival in 2011, but their solitary triumph in 2014 has been the only time that the trophy has not ended up in Barcelona or Real Madrid hands since Valencia’s last win.
Spain continues to set the standard on the continent. LaLiga sides have won six of the previous 11 Champions Leagues, including the last three, and eight of the last 13 Europa Leagues, the most recent three of which have gone to Sevilla.
Expecting a challenge from outside the established elite in the top flight – in the mould of Leicester City in the Premier League – remains unwise, however.
Sevilla’s historic Europa League achievements have come at the expense of strong league campaigns, with their away form especially letting them down. They failed to win a single league game on the road last season. Sampaoli, after another transfer window of change, can only do so much in his first year in charge.
Villarreal, who threatened a title tilt in 2008 under Manuel Pellegrini, have likewise struggled ever since to balance domestic and continental duties and finished 24 points behind Atletico last term. What’s more, the sudden and acrimonious departure of Marcelino has damaged their season before it has even begun.
Athletic Bilbao will challenge the top four again but lack the strength in depth to get the results against the very best when needed, and Valencia, despite accepting defeat in the Gary Neville experiment, are still going backwards at a worrying rate.
Sevilla and Athletic will most likely lead the way in the top three’s wake, but a shock first name on the redesigned trophy looks highly unlikely.
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