A week after football action kicked off with the Premier League and Ligue 1, it is time for the Spanish football season to start. After a disastrous pre-season for Real Madrid, there remains a big question mark over whether Los Blancos would be able to challenge the reigning champions Barcelona or endure another disastrous domestic season.
While Barca, Real and Atletico Madrid are favourites to be the top contenders, Valencia, Sevilla and Real Betis are expected to compete for a top-four finish in the 2019/20 season.
Biggest contenders this year
Lionel Messi’s side had a near-perfect season, finishing 11 points ahead of second-placed Atletico. The Catalonia club has only grown stronger in domestic competitions, winning eight league titles in 11 years and four out of five Copa del Reys, even though Champions League glory has eluded them since 2015.
Ernesto Valverde’s side, who are eyeing third back-to-back La Liga title, continue to be the favourites this year, with their campaign fuelled by the addition of Antoine Griezmann in the fourth-most expensive transfer in the world. The defending champions are, however, set to be without their captain and ‘Messiah’ Messi due to a muscle injury when they begin their title defence away to Athletic Bilbao on Friday.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid have had a busy transfer season, with coach Zinedine Zidane attempting to build a team that can bounce back from two back-to-back embarrassing domestic campaigns. Even though Zidane’s return as the manager has not been able to ensure the side a decent pre-season, the club has no option but to put their faith in the man who led them to three successive Champions League titles.
Madrid host easy fixtures against Valladolid, Levante, Osasuna and Granada at the start of the season. Wins in these games could help restore some lost confidence before they start their European camapaign, where they have a reputation of upping their game.
If there is one phrase that describes Atletico Madrid the best, it is ‘so close yet so far’. Atletico finished second in the Spanish league in the last two seasons. They finished runners-up in Champions League in the 2014 and 2016 seasons. Despite the departure of Griezmann, Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez and Rodrigo Hernandez, Atletico will be hoping that this is finally their year.
Even though Atletico do not boast the strongest of the squads, they still have one of the most passionate managers in Diego Simeone. Atletico, however, suffered a major setback at the start of the season with forward Diego Costa sustaining a thigh injury during a pre-season friendly against Juventus.
Big changes in the league this year
With the Champions League and Europa League finals becoming an all-English affair, the Spanish sides spent big during the transfer window to reassert themselves on the bigger stage. La Liga clubs spent more than €1.5 billion so far, with Benfica striker Joao Felix being the biggest buy by Atletico in this transfer window.
Other major transfers include Atletico’s Griezmann for €120m by Barca and Eden Hazard’s move to Real Madrid from Chelsea for approximately €100m. Dutch wonder-kid Frenkie de Jong arrives from Champions League semi-finalists Ajax to Barca for €75m, and Marcos Llorente from Real Madrid moves to Atletico are among the other major investments.
There have been a handful of movements away from the three major clubs as well including Malcom, Andre Gomes from Barca, Lucas Hernandez, Diego Godin from Atletico and Mateo Kovacic, Dani Ceballos from Real.
The Spanish transfer window is still open. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have their eye on Neymar, who is rumoured to be returning to Spain. Most of the transfer gossip in Spain revolved around Gareth Bale, with Zidane publicly claiming he was waiting for his departure.
New players to watch out for
There are some exciting, young players in La Liga to watch out for this year. To start with, the biggest signing this season is 19-year old Joao Felix, who is expected to fill the void left by Griezmann. He will be expected to ease some of the pressure on Alvaro Morata and Costa.
All Madridista eyes will be on Hazard, who finally got his dream move to Madrid from Chelsea this year. He is being touted as the man to fill the void left by star footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018. Both Vinicius Junior and Luka Jovic are early in their careers. The 21-year-old Jovic, however, could be an exciting find, having scored 17 goals and provided five assists in 32 Bundesliga appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt last season. He scored 10 goals and had one assist in 14 appearances in the Europa League.
Santiago Bernabeu also welcomes 24-year-old Frenchman Ferland Mendy. But with Mendy injured, Zidane will have to continue to rely heavily on captain Sergio Ramos.
Barca’s new arrival de Jong made headlines last season thanks to his heroics with Ajax. The 22-year old will be a breath of fresh air for the ageing midfield of the Catalans.
Arsenal target and former Lyon star, Nabil Fekir, has been roped in by Real Betis. The 26-year old Fekir netted nine times and set up seven goals in Ligue 1 last season.
Champions League contenders
Even though Zidane has a lot of work to do, Real Madrid are always strong contenders when it comes to their favourite competition. The departure of Ronaldo saw the 13-time champions getting knocked out in the Round of 16 in the 2018-19 season. But they will be hoping things will be different with Hazard joining and a potential move by Neymar.
Meanwhile, five-time European champions Barcelona have fallen short in the continent’s premier club competition in recent seasons, and will be hoping for a strong European campaign. Lionel Messi has already made it clear that they will leave not spare any effort. “It’s hard to say something after last season, but I don’t regret anything. But I have no doubt that together we are going to fight again for everything. We won eight League titles in 11 years. We do not give it the value it deserves but over the years we will see how difficult it was. This club fights for everything and this year will be no different,” he said.
With nine signings and having spent over £200m in the transfer window, Atletico also pose a big threat. Simeone’s side will not only be strong this season but also desperate for glory after finishing runners-up three times in the Champions League and European Cup.