The 2015/16 edition of the Spanish Liga is shaping up to be just as interesting and enthralling as previous seasons. There will be twists and turns; sub-plots within sub-plots, and all the thrills and spills that you associate with the best league in the world, La Liga.
This is a guide to the title contenders, European hopefuls and those looking to stave off the threat of relegation.
BBVA Spanish La Liga 2015/16 Season Preview
Carlo Ancelotti’s exit as manager of Real Madrid heralded the arrival of Rafael Benitez from Napoli. This was vastly underwhelming for most fans of Los Blancos, but with the President not having a stand-out candidate (or personal favourite) under consideration, the appointment of Benitez could make some sense.
Having been a former academy coach at Real Madrid, and with links to the club as a player at juvenile level, he is likely to have been very honoured to be asked to be the manager of such an illustrious club; especially one that is close to his heart. He is also likely to want to please the President, albeit without being just a ‘yes’ man to Perez. As shown previously, he is a passionate coach who is not afraid to make hard decisions with big players; just ask John Terry.
Real Madrid have taken steps to refine the squad. Iker Casillas and Sami Khedira have left the Bernabeu, with Kiko Casilla, Carlos Casemiro, and Danilo coming into replace them. The key relationship will be that of Benitez and superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Initial pre-season reports have suggested clashes between the two, with Ronaldo not appearing to be in favour of Benitez’s training methods.
Barcelona, despite their transfer ban, have continued to sign players with regularity. Turkish playmaker Arda Turan arrived from Atletico Madrid along with Aleix Vidal from Sevilla. Both, under the terms of the FIFA sanctions on Barca, are not allowed to play for the club until January 2016.
The Presidential elections dominated the summer, with existing interim President Josep Bartomeu being elected permanent President, ahead of three other hopefuls including ex-chief, Joan Laporte.
Following last season’s treble, the pressure is on Luis Enrique to maintain the focus and desire of his squad. For players who have won it all, some of this must come from within, but in the latter days of Pep Guardiola’s reign, some of the senior players did admit afterwards to have lacked motivation. This is always a concern for a coach managing a playing squad with so much combined success, but with a rejuvenated Lionel Messi, and with club legend Xavi Hernandez leaving for Qatar, there is space for new player-led leadership of the squad.
New players such as Sandro Ramirez and Munir have been promoted from Barca B to the first team, although there are still long-term concerns over the talent coming through the ranks. Many youth players have started to seek opportunities elsewhere with Gerard Deleofeu and Martin Montoya leaving to further their careers, whilst Stoke City have acquired winger Moha.
Barcelona appear well-equipped to have another tilt at the domestic and European treble, although there is some lack of experience in the squad past the first 15 or 16 players.
The European Super Cup is already securely in the trophy cabinet after an excellent game against Sevilla was eventually won 5-4 in extra time, the Andalusians coming back from 4-1 down to draw level at 90 minutes.
A 5-1 aggregate loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Supercopa will be written off as a squad learning experience for Luis Enrique, who used the games as an opportunity to test some of his squad ahead of the new season.
Best Of The Rest
With Nicholas Otamendi leaving Valencia for Manchester City, the task of repeating last season’s fourth place has become slightly harder. Although spending nearly €70 million on players, Valencia have mainly increased their stock of midfielders and forwards. Andre Gomes, Joao Cancelo and Rodrigo have all arrived from Portuguese side Benfica, with youngster Santi Mina joining from fellow La Liga outfit Celta Vigo. The only significant departure for Los Che is that of Victor Ruiz leaving for Villarreal. Talented but injury prone Zakaria Bakkali arrived on a free transfer from Dutch team PSV Eindhoven and is worth keeping an eye on.
Villarreal have been busy in the transfer market signing seven new players. This has been balanced equally by letting seven go, including Gio Dos Santos who left to play in the United States for LA Galaxy. A major coup is the arrival of Tottenham Hotspur striker Roberto Soldado.
The former Valencia man struggled in London but his stock remained protected in Spain, where he was a six yard box predator. This deal, costing only €10m, represents value for money for Villarreal, especially when considering Atletico Madrid paid The Yellow Submarine €20m for Luciano Vietto. Vietto only scored 12 in La Liga last term, whilst in the season before leaving for Spurs, Soldado notched up 24 goals in 32 games. Having only turned 30 in May, Soldado could still provide plenty of firepower to Villarreal, who will no doubt want to close the gap between themselves and Sevilla; 16 points separating the teams in fifth and sixth last season.
Having only lost out on Champions League football by one point, double Europa League winners Sevilla have continued their recent tradition of investing in well-scouted youth talent. Director of Football Monchi — potentially the best at his job in world football — has been back on form with his signings in the last couple of years, with this summer’s acquisitions looking to be good again.
Ciro Immobile joins on loan from Borussia Dortmund, whilst Yehven Konoplyanka, Steven Nzonzi, Adil Rami and Gael Kakuta look to be great additions to an already talented squad. The outlay on these players has been move than covered by Carlos Bacca’s transfer to AC Milan; the Italian club paying €30m for his services. The other significant departure from the Andalucían club is right-back Aleix Vidal’s transfer to FC Barcelona.
Atlético Madrid have looked to reinforce their squad after a slightly disappointing defence of their La Liga crown. Whilst it was always going to prove difficult to fend off the Clasico superpowers for a second consecutive year, Atleti finished only two points above fifth-placed Sevilla, and a whopping 16 points behind champions Barcelona.
Big business has been done with striker Mario Mandzukic leaving for Italy after only one season in La Liga. His replacement is powerhouse Colombian forward Jackson Martinez. Having scored 67 goals in 90 appearances for FC Porto, he follows in the footsteps of fellow Colombian Radamel Falcao to make the move from FC Porto to Atlético Madrid. Atleti’s boss, Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone, must certainly be hoping that Martinez makes a similar impression to that of Falcao. Vietto arriving from Villarreal, as well as (at present) retaining Frenchman Antoine Griezmann gives Atlético lots of options in attack. In defence they have re-signed Filipe Luis from Chelsea. This should provide them with better stability at the back, something which the title-winning season in 2013-2014 was built upon.
The loss of Arda Turan to Barcelona will hurt Atleti, as the Turkish playmaker was a big hit with the fans. The arrivals of Vietto and Martinez should result in more goals, whilst club legend, Fernando Torres, provides the back up striking option.
Their transfer policy does suggest that Atlético Madrid may continue with their tactical plans from last season, consisting of quick transitions into counter attacks when possible, or alternatively crossing the ball from out wide when facing teams playing with a deeper defensive line.
Elche’s enforced relegation to the BBVA Segunda division due to financial mismanagement – they failed to pay both their players and their taxes to the Spanish government – meant a reprieve for SD Eibar. The smallest club ever to play in the Spanish top flight had finished in 18th place, level on points with both Granada and Deportivo La Coruña, but despite having a better goal difference, they lost out due to the head-to-head rule adopted in Spanish football.
This season there are a number of contenders for the drop with no fewer than six teams as relegation candidates. Newly promoted Las Palmas, Sporting Gijon and Real Betis, join Eibar, Granada and Deportivo are favourites for relegation. Betis are likely to be the best equipped of the promoted teams by virtue of their top-flight experience, having bounced straight back up as champions following relegation the previous season.
As usual, expect Levante, Getafe, Espanyol and Rayo Vallecano likely to find enough teams below them, and stave off the threat of relegation for another year. Rayo have done well to keep manager Paco Jemez, who was a target for English club Brentford due to their swashbuckling style of play. A Rayo Vallecano fixture is rarely dull.
2015-2016 La Liga Predictions:
The collective squad of Real Madrid appears stronger than that of arch-rivals Barcelona. New signing from Inter Milan Matteo Kovacic teaming up with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the middle of the park does give Benitez options in attack. Kovacic’s arrival frees Isco and James Rodriguez to play further up the pitch in support of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale.
The key will be the form and – more importantly – the happiness of Ronaldo. His goals helped Real Madrid to set a good pace last season. Only the excellent late run from Barcelona and the March Clasico defeat resulted in the title slipping from their grasp.
Squad depth is something that Barcelona lack. In midfield they can boast Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets. Arda Turan will provide a bit of bite and skill, as well as being able to occupy a wide midfield berth; and the fitness of Messi, Neymar and Suarez will be vital, as it appears Pedro is edging ever closer to the exit door.
There is little cover of real quality; forwards Munir and Sandro Ramirez are 19 and 20 years of age respectively, and judging by his performances so far this season defender Jeremy Mathieu doesn’t look like repeating the form that made Barcelona splash out to prise him from Valencia just 12 months ago.
Lionel Messi has been on a tremendous run of form after his eight-month-lull during 2014, and a full season of Luis Suarez should ensure that Barcelona outscore all their rivals.
The title race will be closely contested and there is not much to split Barcelona and Real Madrid. Harmony in the dressing rooms rather than the quality on show, may ultimately be the deciding factor.
Champions: Real Madrid
Champions League: Atlético Madrid, Valencia
Relegation: SD Eibar, Las Palmas, Sporting Gijon