La Liga makes its long-awaited return on Friday with an intriguing season opener between Malaga and Sevilla. To be sure, Malaga, though no longer the team it once was under now-Manchester City coach Manuel Pellegrini, is always tough to beat at home, though Unai Emery’s men will certainly want the three points, as the Andalucian club’s home opener the following weekend is against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
That contest will be especially fascinating because both teams have seen more changes to their squads than either Real Madrid, which has mostly bought supporting players in the off-season, and Barcelona, which is seeing out its second consecutive transfer window ban for breaking FIFA rules regarding signing minors between 2009 and 2013.
Sevilla’s most significant departures have been striker Carlos Bacca (AC Milan) and winger Aleix Vidal (Barcelona), but it looks to have replaced them well if the UEFA Super Cup performances of Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund) and the highly-rated Yevhen Konoplyanka (Dnipro) in the 5-4 extra-time loss to Barca on Aug 11 are anything to judge by.
More importantly, the Andalucian club has thus far kept its spine in tact, with its wonderful midfield trio of Vicente Iborra, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Ever Banega staying put, although Krychowiak continues to be linked with a move to Arsenal. Sevilla fans will no doubt be boosted by the news that Iborra on Thursday signed a new five-year deal with the club, which could convince his defensive midfield partner Krychowiak to stay. If not, former Stoke City midfielder Steven Nzonzi could step into the role if the Pole departs.
By many accounts, Atletico Madrid has had a fantastic summer transfer window. While Simeone has dispensed with the likes of Arda Turan (Barcelona), Miranda (Inter Milan), Mario Suarez (Fiorentina) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), he has replaced them with some fantastic young talent in the shape of center-back Stefan Savic (Fiorentina), winger Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco (Monaco) and striker Jackson Martinez (FC Porto). Also coming back to the club are Filipe Luis (Chelsea) at left-back—a real problem spot for Atleti last season—and the highly-touted 20-year-old attacking midfielder Oliver Torres, who was on loan at Porto last season.
Crucially, Simeone has been able to hold onto his core, too, which includes central defensive pairing Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, playmaker Koke and forward Antoine Griezmann -- although the latter has been linked with a possible big money move to Premier League giants Chelsea or Manchester United before the end of the transfer window. With the additions of Ferreira-Carrasco and Oliver, in particular, Simeone might be tempted to cash in on the Frenchman.
To be sure, of Spain’s big clubs, Sevilla and Atleti have made the most interesting moves this summer, but this being La Liga, no league preview is complete without a rundown of the perennial title race between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Because of its transfer ban, defending champ Barca has bought in just two players in Turan and Vidal, but they won’t be available for games until January. The Catalan treble winner has lost Xavi (Al Sadd), Martin Montoya (Inter Milan), and recently, Pedro (Chelsea). While Vidal and Turan are the obvious replacements for Montoya and Xavi, there isn’t really a logical replacement for super-sub Pedro, who, many pundits agree was for years the best 12th-man in the world. One of either Munir, Rafinha or Sandro will have to step up this season if Pedro is not to be missed -- especially if Lionel Messi, Neymar or Luis Suarez falls injured for any amount of time.
Indeed, depth could be a problem, and Barca doesn’t have the easiest of schedules for the remainder of 2015, either, as Athletic, Atletico, Sevilla, Real Madrid and Valencia are all away in the first half of the season. Moreover, the first two of those clashes come at a time when Barca will be without defensive rock Gerard Pique, who is suspended for four games for insulting a linesman during the second-leg of its Spanish Super Cup loss to Athletic Bilbao. His probable replacement, Jeremy Mathieu, has looked out of sorts in the UEFA Super Cup win and Spanish Super Cup loss. With a thin squad and some tough games ahead, Barca’s title defense going into the second half may not be so straightforward.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, has brought in a pair of central midfielders in the form of Casemiro (a loanee at FC Porto last season) and youngster Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), who will likely provide defensive cover for the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. The Spanish giant has also brought in goalkeeper Kiko Casilla (Espanyol), forward Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal) and right-back Danilo (Porto). Of the new outfield players, Danilo is likely to see the most playing time. Real’s significant departures have been Iker Casillas (Porto), Sami Khedira (Juventus) and Javier Hernandez (Manchester United).
The big news in Madrid is of course a new coach in Rafael Benitez and, perhaps, a new system. The Spaniard, a former Valencia, Liverpool and Napoli manager, has won things wherever he’s been, but he’s never had a job this big. It will be interesting to see how he deals with the politics of life alongside the polarizing figure of Real President Florentino Perez
On the field, Benitez’s mandate has been to play Gareth Bale in a more central role, just behind the striker. If Karim Benzema leaves for Arsenal, that striker might just be Cristiano Ronaldo. Given their problems with each other last season, something about that feels wrong. They both want to play in a free role, but it seems that Bale is the one who has been granted that this season. According to reports, this move has come straight from the top. How will Cristiano react?
If Benitez can somehow harmonize this group, Real could easily challenge for the title this season, but any off-field discord can and usually does find its way onto the field. Managing the big egos in this squad will be the main issue for Benitez and Real.
So, who will win La Liga this season? To be honest, Off The Post has no clue on this one, which is why he expects it to be fun to watch. Depending on how the rest of the transfer window plays out, you can expect this campaign to be a three-horse race with Atleti challenging much further than it did last season. Sevilla should be strong enough to edge past young, inexperienced Valencia for the other UCL place. Also, expect interesting newcomers Real Betis, Las Palmas and Sporting Gijon to survive, just barely, with Eibar, Levante and Deportivo dropping down.