La Liga preview: Who can catch treble winners Barcelona?
Status quo was restored in La Liga last season, as Barcelona baffled, brutalised and besieged all in front of them; a terrorising trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez heavily responsible for inflicting numerous heavy defeats on opponents as the Catalans convincingly triumphed with a treble.
Luis Enrique’s eminence endured in his first season as manager of Barca from when he was last there as player, though his biggest test comes this season. Under his stewardship, the club are odds-on at 8/13 with Coral to retain their title, though missed out on the Spanish Super Cup with a shock loss to Athletic Bilbao, and will have to do so without fielding any of their new signings until January.
Arda Turan sprung from the ‘mattress-makers’ in the summer, joining from Atletico Madrid, while right-sided player Aleix Vidal swapped Sevilla for the overtures of the Nou Camp.
Speaking of those sides, Atleti are 16/1 and the Bathtubs 66/1 to win the league; Diego Simeone’s side searching for a second title in three years. Their activity and will to impose themselves in the transfer window, suggests retribution resonates around the Vicente Calderon cauldron.
Rescuing Filipe Luis from his Chelsea nightmare will have proved pivotal in filling a gaping hole left by his departure, though other subtle signings solidify their case in a quantitative quest for silverware. Jackson Martinez, plucked from Porto, arrives with a sublime scoring record and formidable European pedigree, making Mario Mandzukic’s exit to Juventus just a footnote.
Last season alone combative Colombia international Martinez chalked up 21 league goals, though his seven strikes in eight Champions League games is a return certainly in line with Atletico’s aspirations. Luciano Vietto is a prodigious talent and can follow in former star Sergio Aguero’s shoes, while Fernando Torres is simply enjoying life back at his hometown club.
Sevilla provide more of an argument for a top four finish, on offer at 13/8, though the back-to-back winners of the Europa League will be looking to make a mark in Europe’s elite club competition this time around. Achieving all this is something they must do without previously prolific poacher Carlos Bacca, who secured a San Siro switch to AC Milan.
Italy international Ciro Immobile, loaned in from Borussia Dortmund, presents an interesting option in attack. Much depends on how much supply and guile he gets from Ukraine attacker Yevhen Konoplyanka, who has an abundance of ability and is another one to watch.
For Real Madrid, it is now or never. Two seasons without winning La Liga can be deemed with definiteness as failure. They are 13/8 to bring the title back to the Bernabeu, though in new coach Rafa Benitez they have a manager who has done it with Valencia.
There has been little change for Los Blancos this summer. Right back Danilo was brought in from Porto, while they also activated goalkeeper Kiko Casilla’s buy-back clause, which saw the 28-year-old end his five-year tenure at Espanyol.
Real icon Iker Casillas saw his lifelong attachment to the club severed, and it will be interesting to see whether near namesake Casilla or Costa Rica keeper Keylor Navas establishes themselves as first-choice stopper now he’s gone to Porto. Defensive rock Sergio Ramos has also resisted overtures from Manchester United to commit his future to Madrid.
Croatia playmaker Mateo Kovacic also comes in to help cover compatriot Luka Modric, who is increasingly injury-prone, while the David De Gea debate rumbles on. Sami Khedira’s departure will not be felt as impressive Brazil anchorman Casemiro is back from a hugely encouraging loan spell with Porto; between him and compatriot Lucas Silva there is more than enough cover.
Valencia continue to build themselves up as a hotbed for young talent. Star centre back Nicolas Otamendi appears on his way out of the Mestalla, though. Such losses are more than compensated for by clever recruitment of exciting attackers Zakaria Bakkali, who was let go by Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, and Santi Mina, from provincial overachievers Celta Vigo.
Backed by billionaire investor Peter Lim, European resurgence remains high on Los Che’s agenda, but they must get through a tricky play-off tie against Monaco to cement their Champions League return.
After a 14-year absence from the Spanish top-flight, Las Palmas of Gran Canaria will mount a challenge to stay there for the considerable future, with Argentine Sergio Araujo one to watch, while former La Liga heavyweights Real Betis are back. And they mean business.
Rafael van der Vaart, Juan Manuel Vargas and Heiko Westermen were all high-profile, though perhaps more astonishingly free transfers, in the summer, while former Malaga man Francisco Portillo’s paltry £1m fee represents a bargain.
Progress is the key descriptor for Villarreal this season, meanwhile, after the departures of Vietto and Mexico marksman Giovani dos Santos, so the scoring burden may now rest on new signing Roberto Soldado. The former Spurs flop needs to resurrect his career and rediscover his deadly penalty box poaching instincts last demonstrated in La Liga with Valencia following a tumultuous time at Tottenham.
Athletic Bilbao’s dominant domestic Super Cup display against Barca was impressive, though may gloss over glaring holes in their team. Veteran striker Aritz Aduriz cannot compete consistently at this level and intensity and for a club who relies proudly on solely Basque players, pickings in the transfer market are somewhat slim.
When he returns from a long injury layoff later in the campaign, Bilbao must be wary of relying too heavily on 22-year-old Iker Muniain to score goals and are 8/1 to breach the top four.
David Moyes will hope for gradual improvement in charge of Real Sociedad, who still hope to complete the signing of Asier Illarramendi, while their high-profile recruits so far are Brazilian forward Jonathas, Portuguese winger Bruma and Mexico international defender Diego Reyes.