La Liga’s seesaw: Can Real Madrid take home the title this year?
The new La Liga season kicked off this week with an extremely competitive title race set to take place. The English Premier League trumps it financially, but La Liga’s top five teams are inarguably better than their English counterparts, evident from the fact that they have won both UEFA Champions League (toughest European club competition) and Europa League (secondary European club football tournament) for the last two years. Moreover, five Spanish teams will probably feature in this year’s UCL, the most by any league in Europe.
Competition in La Liga boils down to three main teams – Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. The likes of Sevilla, Valencia and Bilbao will give them a run for their money, but are mostly expected to fight out for the fourth spot.
Last season’s all-conquering, treble-winning Barcelona is likely to win once again. Last year, they had the most miserly defence, creative midfield, and selfless attack. Importance of the attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (MSN) cannot be overstated, as their campaign will hinge on them. One of them always delivered in the last season and Barcelona fans will be hoping for a repeat this year.
Neymar will be missing some of the starting action due to mumps, and Pedro Rodriguez has left, so they will need the reserves to step up their game. Munir El Haddadi looks ready to plug the gap. Suarez links up nicely and is, without a doubt, one of the best forwards in the world right now. However, the form of Messi will be the most important factor for them.
Messi and Barca will probably win once again as despite the obvious brilliance of his team mates, he is the creative and attacking leader of the squad. Midfield is certainly dented due to Xavi Hernández's departure, as a player of his stature cannot be replaced immediately or ever arguably, but they have an able midfield in Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, and Sergio Busquets. The defence has shipped nine goals in the preseason and Luis Enrique needs to find a fix. Don’t be surprised if they end up winning once again. The squad will also be refreshed in January by the new signings i.e. Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal.
They were the dominant team for the first half of last season, as they had 22 consecutive wins, the highest ever in the recent decades and much better than the previous Spanish best of 18. However, their season fell away as the players were exhausted, particularly Toni Kroos. Moreover, key players such as Luka Modric and James Rodriguez, who had an extremely impressive first campaign, got injured.
With the new manager, Rafa Benitez, intent on employing a strong rotation policy, they are ready to back themselves for the title. A shift from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 is expected with Gareth Bale being the prime favourite to feature in the number 10 role, despite the presence of the proven number 10’s such as Modric, James Rodríguez, Kroos and Isco. They will either play the reigning Ballon D’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo or the Frenchman Karim Benzema as striker.
I believe that the former would be more favourable for them, as the way Ronaldo played last season is more comparable to a striker, and his poaching abilities are currently the best, proven by him receiving yet another Pichichi Award. Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic are set to be capable lieutenants in midfield with Isco leading the way, while Jese Rodriguez and Lucas Vázquez will be decent attacking replacements when needed.
Defence is very settled with goalkeeping being a concern, due to the De Gea transfer saga, but it should not be forgotten that current number one, Keylor Navas, was the La Liga goal keeper of the year in 2013-14.
The less illustrious neighbours of Real are the only team which can realistically challenge the duopoly of Real and Barcelona. The 2013/14 winners are back with an updated attacking force with Antoine Griezmann being supported by new signings of Luciano Vietto (12 goals last year) and Jackson Martinez (courted by the likes of Arsenal too).
Nevertheless, their capable midfield will be weakened by the departure of Arda Turan and Mario Suarez. Having said that, Koke, Gabi and Tiago Mendes can fight off any team on their day. Similarly, the defence has lost Joao Miranda this year, but Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin are more than enough for any attack, while being ably supported by Juanfran, and the returning of Filipe Luis. Diego Simeone’s team will be impressive throughout the year and will pound on any opportunity that becomes available if Real and Barca falter.
Mainly, we can expect a close title race between Real Madrid and Barcelona with Atletico being a close third. My money is on Real Madrid, as they do not only have better squad depth, but will also be hungrier for the title.