Preview of the 2018-19 La Liga Season: Real in a post-Ronaldo World, Barcelona looking to repeat as champions and more..

For a second consecutive summer, La Liga has to come to terms with losing a generational player and one of their most viable talents. A year after Neymar Jr.’s blockbuster transfer to Ligue 1, Cristiano Ronaldo forced his way out of Real Madrid to join the Old Lady. This has been an eventful summer for the top flight of Spanish Football. Nearly a quarter of a billion Euros were spent on players in the form of transfer fees and player contracts. This number could come closer to the ten figure value given that Spanish clubs still have two weeks to acquire new players. And still, Real Madrid have steered away from the “Galacticos” mantra that by not yet splurging the money to replace Cristiano Ronaldo. The exclusive trifecta of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico are responsible for nearly fifty percent of the league spending. With each teams marquee signings being Malcom (Barcelona), Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), and Thomas Lemar (Atletico Madrid). The likes of Sevilla, Valencia, and even Real Betis have exceeded expectations by breaking their budgets to challenge for La Liga’s last Champions League spot. At the other end of the spectrum; Rayo Vallencano, Real Valladolid join Huesca who will make their maiden La Liga campaign. Here are the big talking points in the look ahead to the upcoming season.

Barcelona are still the favorites to win it all

With 3-4 odds to win La Liga, it is no wonder that Barça are the overwhelming favorites to repeat as champions. They lost a club legend in Andres Iniesta, who has started a new chapter in his football career with Japanese side Vissel Kobe. Valverde’s side has been refurbished as Barcelona tinkered and trimmed their squad to give them a roster that was capable of repeating of La Liga champions and make a deep run into the Champions League. Alexis Vidal, Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes and Gerard Deulofeu are all valuable squad players none of them have showed the ability to cement a spot on Valverde’s starting XI. Mina may the pick of the lot, given that Gerard Pique and Thomas Vermaelen have declined with age. But, the young Colombian center back has already been replaced by Sevilla’s Clement Lenglet despite joining the club at the beginning of the calendar year. He know calls Goodison Park his home. After a surprising comeback on the European stage, Paulinho has moved back to China. He was a vital cog in Barça rather thin midfield. He is replaced by Chilean veteran, Arturo Vidal. He might be on the wrong side of 30, but the midfielder is a much more capable and well-rounded that player that Paulinho could ever hope to be. Should he stay healthy, he will have a major impact as the current title holders look to compete on multiple fronts.   

The likes of Malcom and Rafinha look to bolster a midfield that bolster a Barça midfield in a post Xavi and Iniesta era. That being said, they are role-players at best. The young Arthur is the biggest talking point in the middle of the park. The fledgling Brazilian was awarded the No. 8 (that was previously worn by Iniesta) and shows the trust and backing from the club. The 21 year old may well indeed be the heir apparent to the diminutive maestro. So far, he has shown the vision and dribbling to be long-term starter with Barça. Only time will tell is he is capable of leading a team to domestic and European glory. As far as Valverde is concerned for this season, he has a more than adequate replacement for his former captain. The armband for Barcelona now is in the hands of Lionel Messi. The Rosario native was the architect of their nearly unbeaten 2017-18 La Liga season. After a comfortable Spanish Super Cup win, winning an 8th league title in 11 seasons may just be their bread and butter. The Blaugrana have retained much of their squad and upgraded in their weaker areas. Their main goal for this season is to win the Champions League after a few disappointing European runs.  

The fight for second?

Real Madrid begin a new chapter in their club history after nine illustrious seasons with Cristiano Ronaldo. Club legend Zinedine Zidane has also left the club after leading The Meringues to three straight Champions League titles. Now, Julen Lopetegui is at the helm of the club. He has to adjust to a new group of players while also trying to implement his own philosophy. The Spaniard is in charge of a club with an impatient fan base and an even more tenacious President in Florentino Perez. He has a short leash with team that demands titles.  

The keys of the club are now with Gareth Bale. Much of the past 18 months was marred with injuries and long stretches were he rusted on the bench. While he has always been linked with a move away from the Spanish capital, it was the more likely that he would force a transfer given that he has an apprehensive relationship with then manager Zizou. Ever since he single handedly won Real Madrid the Champions League final in May (with his highlight play being a sensational bicycle kick), the Welshman now commands the spotlight. He now has a manager that he already begun to build a good rapport with. If were to take anything from this shortened summer; it is that we likely to see a three pronged attack featuring Gareth Bale on the wings with Asensio and Isco having free reign in the middle of the park. Another player who is going to see a bigger role and increased playtime is Vinicius Junior. The 18 year old forward is supremely talented and there is no denying it. Nonetheless, the team will have to be careful with his development and overwhelm the young Brazilian with the burden of leading The Meringues frontline. He is a handy alternative to Benzema because of his pace and mobility. 

Regardless, the headlines have all been stolen by the arrival of Courtois. This has put Keylor Navas on the chopping block. The veteran Colombian is very well the best keeper in the world that no team seems to want. Time and again he has come with a spectacular saves to keep Madrid in the hunt for their three Champions League titles. Either Courtois is already become Madrid’s keeper from here on out or Lopetegui has to find a way to rotate between the two before he can find a suitor for Keylor Navas.

On the other side of town, Atletico Madrid look to settle into their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. With 8-1 odds to win the La Liga, they are the one squad out of the Big Three in Spain with the least turnover. This could certainly pave the way for them to make a strong challenge for the title. The Griezmann drama was settled days before the World Cup in his LeBron knockoff named “La Decisión.” After deciding that he would continue to squat in Madrid, Simeone and Enrique Cerezo got to work in the transfer market. Given how this squad excelled last season on the defensive end, and with the additions of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins among others, they could be a greater threat to Barcelona than their city rivals.  

Martins came on a free transfer from Sporting Lisbon and is a lethal winger – a hard worker who can seamlessly slip into Simeone’s counterattacking style of play. Rodri, Adán, and Nehuen Perez were also all added to the team though they will all be bit-part players. The key signing who could be deciding factor in many of Atleti’s performances is Thomas Lemar. While the 22-year-old winger rarely featured in France’s World Cup-winning campaign, his is a dynamic winger who can provide a spark in a squad that can sometimes be one-dimensional. Lemar is an upgrade over the likes of Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan – both of whom now play in China. The Frenchmen can play on either wing in Simeone’s preferred 4-4-2 lineup or his alternative 4-3-3. Kalinic has also joined the club for AC Milan and may even be an overqualified backup for Diego Costa.  

Though the jury is still out if either Madrid club can dethrone Barça’s dominance on La Liga. The Blaugrana have been domestic champions in seven of the past ten seasons. Why would they not make it eight in eleven?

The Dark Horses

Four teams are going to fight it out for La Liga’s final Champions League spot. And it is going to be a bloodbath. Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal, and Real Betis. Valencia are the definite pick of the bunch after finishing three points behind Real Madrid. They spent much of the season in second place behind Barcelona before running out of steam in the closing weeks of La Liga. They are poised once again to crash the party. The addition of Michy Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea is vital for them if they are to distinguish themselves from the rest of the back. He is return from his short spell at Dortmund was outstanding. Seven goals and an assist in ten games. The Belgian striker will a longer run of games in Spain with Parejo and Denis Cheryshev providing him plenty of service in the final third. The Russian winger was a standout player during the World Cup and showed the world what he was capable of in the big stage. While the basis of one tournament should never be the make or break case for a player – he displayed a level of individual talent and brilliance of a player who can single handedly change the course of a match. He is already familiar with much of the squad after his previous stint with the club.

It will be intriguing to see how Santi Cazorla will look on his return to the football pitch. Injuries sidelined him during his latter years with the Gunners. Complications with his ankle injuries and subsequent surgery has severely hampered his career. He will now make his comeback and grace the field of the beautiful game for the club where he made his professional debut. Let’s not forget that he also had the greatest unveiling of any player ever. On the other end of the spectrum, Real Betis were one of six teams to have beaten Real Madrid last season. Though, they also conceded the most goals out of any La Liga team that was not relegated. They were productive in the transfer market and improved on the defensive end. The signing of Portuguese stalwart William Carvalho for relatively little is key to shore up midfield that has a gaping hole that is wide enough to fit two double-decker buses.  

Sevilla suffer from the same problem as Betis. Just a shear inability to prevent their opponents from opening the floodgates. This resulted in them losing 14 of their league games last season. But now, they have a new man who will steer the reigns. Pablo Machin led Girona to promotion two seasons ago before guiding them into the top half of the table last season. Losing Steven N’Zonzi will not help as the Frenchmen can be best exemplified as a wall in the middle of the park. Machin will institute defensive discipline into this side though it may not be enough to force them into the top 4.

VAR in La Liga

Video Assistant Referee made its Spanish debut during last Sunday’s Super Cup between Barcelona and Sevilla. According to the Spanish Football Federation, the leagues referees have undertaken the requisite training during the offseason to prepare them for the use of VAR. It was a success during the World Cup with few failures and little disturbance of play. That being said, many of the players in La Liga did not have the privilege of playing under the referral system during the World Cup and seeing how they adapt will be intriguing.  

The Newly Promoted Sides

To prevent from going back to the second division after only one season on top; Rayo Vallecano, Huesca, and Real Valladolid have all been busy in the summer. They have particularly taken advantage of loan signings given that they lack the financial muscle when compared to the rest of La Liga. Vallecano air may parallels to Peru. Their team kit is virtually identical to the Peruvian national team. The newly promoted team also brought in Luis Advincula (who led Peru to the World Cup) on loan from Tigres. He is one of the quickest players in the world and he joins a whole host of Peruvian players who have joined the Madrid based club. 

Valladolid return to La Liga after four years in the second division of Spanish Football. Sergio Gonzalez was the architect of his promotion with the former midfielder being best known for his exceptional tenure with Deportivo La Coruna. Huesca have all eyes on them with this being their debut appearance in the top flight of Spanish football. Though, their jubilation is stained with controversy. The club signed Ruben Semedo on loan from Villarreal after just been released from jail a few weeks ago. The Portuguese defender found was imprisoned for his alleged participation in a violent kidnapping that brought attempted murder charges to his name. He later posted €30,000 for bail and was subsequently released. His future in football was uncertain. Villarreal had suspended him without pay and it was likely that we would rot in the sidelines for months. That was until Huesca came and agreed to take him on loan. The club is optimistic that a change in scenery can him the young footballer pick himself back up and get a second chance with this career and with his life at large. Let us hope for his sake and for everyone around him that this move is a step in the right direction.   

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