[LA LIGA PREVIEW]Spain's La Liga made a strong case as the top league in Europe during 2011-12. Five of the eight semifinalists for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League came from Spain’s Primera Division.
HEAVYWEIGHTS.Real Madrid and Barcelona should remain the two best teams in the world, and this will once again be reflected at the top of La Liga.
Real Madrid toppled Barcelona for the first time since 2008 to win its 32nd La Liga title in record-setting fashion -- it set all-time records for wins (32) and points in a season (100) and its 121 goals were 14 more than the previous La Liga record.
But it's now gone 10 years without hoisting a European championship -- an eternity for a club that has won a record nine European Cup titles -- so “La Decima” will be squarely in Real Madrid’s sights this season.
Jose Mourinho initially sounded interested in making multiple moves, but Real Madrid was uncharacteristically quiet on the transfer market until Wednesday with reports that it was about to finalize an agreement for Croatia international Luka Modric with the deal being valued at $40 million. The self-dubbed “Special One,” Mourinho, became the first coach to ever win the English, Italian and Spanish leagues, and earlier this week said he could now be referred to as “The Only One”, in honor of this achievement.
Modric may find it hard to crack a starting XI full of gifted attackers, as Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria, Mesut Oziland Cristiano Ronaldo all seemed to be guaranteed starting spots, with the only real competition being between Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain at striker.
Real Madrid did look a little tired against Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League semifinals and may want to involve more players in league games to keep its starters fresh at year’s end.
Barcelona doesn’t appear to be embracing major changes either. It let Pep Guardiolafavorite Seydou Keita leave for China, then signed Euro 2012 standout Jordi Alba at left back.
Barca will hope for a healthier campaign from David Villa and Carles Puyol. Both missed Euro 2012 and are looking to return to full fitness. Several other players missed time last year with minor injuries as Guardiola rarely had a full squad to choose from.
The biggest change for either team involves Guardiola's departure from Barcelona. He had a spectacular career as a player and in his four years as Barca’s coach led it to 14 trophies, including three La Liga championships and two Champions League titles.
Assistant Tito Vilanova takes over for Guardiola at Barcelona. Vilanova handled tactics for Guardiola so you wouldn’t expect a big shift there. He came up as a Barca youth player, assisted Guardiola throughout his entire coaching career and has a good relationship with the Barcelona players.
The fall could decide the race for the 2012 Ballon d’Or:
Ronaldo improved on 2010-11, when he became the first player to score 40 goals in La Liga, by finishing 2011-12 with 46 goals in the league and 60 goals in all competitions.
Those accomplishments would normally make Ronaldo a cinch to win the Ballon d’Or, but the Pichichi for Spain’s top scorer, went to Lionel Messi thanks to his astonishing 50 goals, and he finished with 73 goals in all competitions, both were records.
(Click here for video of all of Messi's 73 goals.)
NEXT IN LINE.Valencia represents the best of the next tier of Spanish teams. It has been able to sell its stars and still finish near the top of the standings.
Facing debt issues in 2010, Valencia sold David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mataover two years but still finished third the last two seasons. Now Jordi Alba heads to Barca.
Valencia's fans will tell you its is no small club, with six La Liga titles to its name, and it continues to invest wisely, signing Joao Pereira from Sporting Lisbon and Mexico's Andres Guardadofrom Deportivo Coruna, each for less than $6 million.
Valencia made it to the semifinals of the Copa del Rey and Europa League in 2012 and will look to win one of those competitions this year, or at least make some noise in Champions League play.
In 2010, Malaga finished 17th in La Liga. But after the season, it realized the dream of many small clubs in Europe these days when a foreign billionaire with money to burn, Qatari Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani, bought the club. Malaga brought in Manuel Pellegrini as coach, and this longtime laughing stock began stockpiling players.
Malaga finished 11th in 2011 and jumped to fourth in 2012, qualifying for the Champions League preliminaries for the first time in its history. No player was influential than last year’s big-money transfer Santi Cazorla, who was brought in from Villarreal for $26 million.
But Malaga’s fans woke up to a nightmare this summer as Al-Thani announced plans to pay down the debt the club has accumulated. It sold promising striker Salomon Rondon to Russia's Rubin Kazan for $11 million. Even worse, Cazorla was sold to Arsenal for $25 million after an outstanding season. Pellegrini has vowed to stay on as coach, but more players are said to be on their way out.
Atletico Madrid had an up-and-down season but still finished fifth in La Liga. Atletico won the Europa League, but it rarely seemed a threat to its counterparts at Real or Barcelona as it had often been in years past. Atletico’s proud tradition includes nine La Liga titles but only one since 1977.
Atletico fans are worried about hanging on to prized Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who scored 24 goals in his first season in Spain.
OUTSIDER TO WATCH.Athletic Bilbao generated a lot of excitement last season, especially for a club that finished 10th in its domestic league and didn’t win a trophy. It earned a La Liga draw in the rain with Barcelona, won its Europa League group and dominated both legs of a quarterfinal home-and-home series with Manchester United on its way to the Europa League final.
Athletic also made the final of the Copa del Rey as Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa’s team played an exciting, and direct, brand of soccer led by defensive midfielder Javi Martinez, dynamic young winger Iker Muniain and huge forward Fernando Llorente.
The 27-year-old Llorente has only one year left on his contract and let it be known he’d like to move on to a larger club involved in Champions League play, but Athletic is holding firm to a huge release clause, rumored to be $44 million. It has a long-standing policy of only signing Basque players so it can’t often replace stars, regardless of monies coming in.
PROMOTION/RELEGATION.The most notable team to go down was Villarreal, which had been in the First Division since 2001 and finished second in 2008, ahead of Barcelona. The Yellow Submarine finished fourth in 2011 -- which qualified them for the Champions League last fall -- before its 18th-place finish saw them relegated.
Sporting Gijon and Racing Santander also went down, while Segunda Division champion Deportivo Coruna, Celta and Valladolid were promoted.