Exodus and Return: 2013-14 La Liga Preview

You can come out now, it’s over. Only this time, it’s not to witness the sun.

We have finally reached the end of the worst summer in the recent history of La Liga. For five years now, there has been a gradual exodus of the best players in that ‘other La Liga’ – the eighteen teams incapable of financially competing with the behemoths of Real Madrid and Barcelona, either to the Big Two themselves or abroad, usually to England. This off-season, the dam broke, with seventy players leaving La Liga, many of them the biggest stars outside of the Big Two. Radamel Falcao? Gone to Monaco. Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas? Gone to Manchester.  Valencia superstar Roberto Soldado? Gone to Tottenham, joining David Villa, David Silva, Jordi Alba, and Juan Mata in the long line of top players forced to leave the debt-ridden club. Fernando Llorente? Gone to Juventus. Malaga have suffered the worst of all, losing DeMichelis, Isco (Real Madrid), Joaquin (Fiorentina), and Toulalan (AS Monaco) as Sheikh Al-Thani’s moribund project continues to unravel. On the Euro 2008-winning team, there were thirteen players plying their trade in La Liga outside of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Today? One: David Villa at Atletico Madrid, and even he was part of Barcelona’s lineup until July. Poor financial management and the staggering inequality between the Big Two and the rest of the league have taken their toll.

Despite all of that, there is plenty to be excited about in the upcoming La Liga season. Both Barcelona and Madrid have strengthened immensely: the Catalan giants splurged $60M on Brazilian superstar Neymar, while Real Madrid have brought in Isco from Malaga, Asier Illaramendi from Real Sociedad (the long-term successor to Xabi Alonso), and brought back Carvahal after a successful season at Bayer Leverkusen. That’s before you consider their insane, misguided bids for Gareth Bale (a bid largely driven by marketing potential rather than actual footballing needs. Looks like Florentino Perez wasn’t done with stupid transfers after all). Athletic Bilbao look set to recover from their dismal final season under Marcelo Bielsa, and have arguably had the best transfer season outside of the Big Two. European runs for Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad, Valencia, and Real Betis are also possibly on the cards. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some predictions and previews for the upcoming La Liga season, as well as the potential for Spanish teams in Europe.

The League Title

    In terms of predictability, nothing rivals guessing who will take the top two spots in La Liga. Madrid were beaten by fifteen points last season as Barcelona tied the record for most points accumulated in a single season (100, set by Real Madrid the year before).In some senses, they have endured similar summers. Both have had coaching changes: Real Madrid have swapped the combative and divisive qualities of Jose Mourinho for the calm and assurance of former AC Milan, Chelsea, and PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti. His calm, cool, and effective style of man and media-management will be a breath of fresh air after Mourinho’s constant battles with Marca and Iker Casillas. Barcelona’s circumstances are more tragic, with Tito Vilanova stepping down as coach to resume a third battle with throat cancer. He was replaced by Gerardo Martino, the former coach of Paraguay and Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys, a protégé of Marcelo Bielsa, and a believer in intense, high-pressure attacking football meshed with defensive pragmatism and a smart reliance on youth talent for rotation. Both sides have heavily upgraded their attack too: Barcelona bought Neymar before his incredible performance at the 2013 Confederations Cup, and provided he gets on the highlight reel more often for goals than dives, he’ll pay huge dividends. Real Madrid bought Isco and Illaramendi, giving them depth in midfield that they’ve been lacking ever since Kaka decided to stop being anything anywhere near to “world class” and start seeing how many injuries he could accumulate in a single season. Both have also offloaded some excesses, with an eye to rebuilding through their academies. Real Madrid offloaded Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon, and Gonzalo Higuain (all to Napoli), in order to give Raphael Varane and youth-team striker Morata more time to play. David Villa was shown the exit door at Barcelona, as was Thiago Alcantara, which is a weird saga in and of itself – a  mix of bad squad rotation, appalling man management, personal spats between the former coach and current president, and a level of boneheadedness in contract creation not seen since Florentino Perez decided not to give Makalele a raise in 2003.

    On the whole, I give an advantage to Real Madrid, though this is largely down to Barcelona’s weaknesses. The state of their back line is a greater tragedy than Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth combined, with Carles Puyol likely to be in the midst of fighting his 400,000,000th knee surgery for quite some time. Gerard Pique’s downward spiral may well continue for ‘unknown reasons’ (damn you Shakira and your truthful hips!). Dani Alves and Jordi Alba continue to be excellent at bombing forward in attack but less stellar at doing the second half of a Fullback’s job (actual defending). With only Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano (not an actual CB) in reserve, it’s a defensive line that could fall apart with a few too many injuries. They have failed to buy a central defender this summer, while offloading Marc Muniesa (Stoke), Eric Abidal (AS Monaco. No one even start me on this), and Andreu Fontas (Celta Vigo). If Martino can rediscover Barcelona’s high-pressure game of the early portions of the Guardiola era, the tide could turn, and the Liga title will likely come down to a handful of points anyways. Madrid gets the edge, however, as they are more ready to adapt to things going wrong (injuries, freak goals) than Barcelona are.

European Spots

For the first time in a while, third place is also a lock, with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid being one of the few squads in La Liga that is not worse off than it was last season. True, they lost Radamel Falcao to AS Monaco for a staggering sum of money (only half of which they’ll see due to stupid rules permitting third-party ownership of players). However, they’ve spent the windfall well, bringing in David Villa from Barcelona who, despite being 31 and featuring only sporadically for Barca last season, is still an excellent forward who will provide them 20+ goals this year – something he’s done in ten of his last twelve seasons for club. Leo Baptistao was also brought in from Rayo Vallecano, while they also pulled a massive coup in extending GK Thibault Courtois’s loan from Chelsea for another season. Midfield youngsters Koke and Oliver Torres will continue to improve. Their defense looks solid (having claimed the Zarra trophy last season), their midfield is excellent, and their forward line is varied from experienced veterans (David Villa), young starlets (Baptistao and Adrian Lopez), and aggravators (Diego Costa, the nastiest on-pitch player in La Liga by a considerable margin). Last season they led Real Madrid for large portions of the season, but were eventually undone by the lack of squad depth. They’ve addressed that, and look to actually be stronger than they were last year, despite the departure of Falcao. The two-horse race is guaranteed, but if anyone – anybody – is capable of mounting a credible challenge to the duopoly, it’s Atletico Madrid.

4th, 5th, and 6th are the other guaranteed European spots (with the Copa Del Rey winner or 7th depending on who wins the Cup), and in all honesty it’s a crapshoot. In 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13, 4th finished closer to relegation than to the Liga winner. Given the fleecing of so many La Liga clubs, anything could happen.

Athletic Bilbao are one of the few clubs to have strengthened over the summer. Having lost their top players the previous summer (Javi Martinez in body, Fernando Llorente in mind), they could only go up. Marcelo Bielsa did not renew his contract, which is doubtless going to improve the club right off the bat. Bielsa’s incredible runs to the 2012 Europa League and Copa Del Rey Finals exhausted and demoralized the team, and they looked listless and out of gas the entirety of last season. Former Valencia coach Ernesto Valverde has been given his second spell in charge of the club, and their summer transfer window has been excellent considering the restrictions on the players they can sign. The coup of the summer was bringing Benat Extebarria in from Real Betis. Though not in the same league as Javi Martinez, he’s a good anchor-type midfielder who also excels at free kicks and will provide  them with that extra bit of skill in midfield. Bilbao leaked goals last season and lost Amorebieta to Fulham during the transfer window, but they’ve brought in a myriad of Basque defenders to give additional depth there: Mikel Balenziaga from Valladolid, Iago Herrerin back from Numancia, and Xabi Etxeita from Elche. Kike Sola also arrived from Osasuna to provide offensive cover to Aduriz and Iker Muniain, while Mikel Rico looks likely to complete a move soon from Granada. They don’t have to juggle the Europa or Champions League, and the losses incurred by Sevilla, Betis, and Valencia mean that they stand a good chance of gaining European competition for next season. I’ll be bold and tip them to take the fourth and final Champions League spot.

    Valencia’s financial woes continued this summer, losing their best player for the fourth straight summer when Roberto Soldado’s buyout clause was meet by Tottenham Hotspur. His thirty goals last season will be difficult to replace, though swiping Helder Postiga from relegated Zaragoza. They also picked up midfielders Javi Fuego from Rayo Vallecano and Michel from cross-town rivals Levante to join Ever Banenga and Sergio Canales in the middle of the pitch. To a certain extent, the financial situation has stabilized, and Miroslav Djukic as coach will be an enormous stabilizing element. They’ve looked good in preseason games against AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Everton. They might possibly pip Bilbao to the final UCL spot – their financial state is so dependent on Champion’s League revenue that they’ll fight tooth-and-nail to get there. They’re a weakened squad but they’ll probably at least make a Europa League spot.

    The two Sevilla clubs and Real Sociedad are the others in contention for the final European spots. Though Real Sociedad lost Asier Illaramendi to Real Madrid and coach Philippe Montanier declined a renewal of his contract, their squad that so lit up the back half of La Liga last season remains largely intact. They’ve picked up Granero from QPR on loan, and Carlos Vela, Xabi Prieto, Claudio Bravo, and Inigo Martinez remain in the squad. Their former assistant coach is now in charge, and I expect them to remain reasonably strong. However, juggling the competing demands of La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and a run in either the Champions League or Europa League – depending on the outcome of their playoff round with Lyon next week – mean they could struggle at some points.

    Sevilla lost Negredo, Medel, and Jesus Navas to the Premier League, but only the first and third will really impact them. Medel is prone to badly-timed red cards and general on-field nastiness rivaled only by Pepe and Diego Costa in La Liga. In return, they’ve picked up Kevin Gameiro from Paris $t. Germain – an excellent forward replacement for Negredo (though he is injured for the first part of the season), plus a number of other young talents from Reading, Pacos de Ferreira, Racing Santander (whose free-fall has continued into Segunda B), and Steau Bucharest. They also have in Unai Emery one of the better and more consistent managers in La Liga (three straight 3rd-place finishes at Valencia despite the club being bankrupt). The squad has more depth than last year, is financially stable, and could very well mount a serious challenge for the final Champions League spot. Despite losing, they seem to have rebuilt well with the money they’ve made, and their Sporting Director is excellent at bargain buys. They’ll do well. Betis lost Benat and Canas to Athletic Bilbao and Swansea City, they’ve bought Xavi Torres from Getafe and gained players on-loan from Braga and AC Milan. Pepe Mel is a superb manager, and though I don’t expect them to be competing for the upper spots, they could pip someone to 7th in the event the Copa Del Rey goes to one of the big players.

The Rest and The Drop

    Unlike in the Premier League, where the relegation battle is typically settled fairly early (at least it was when QPR’s embarrassment to football was involved), La Liga’s relegation fights tend to go down to the last minute of the last day: in 2011-12, the names of the third team to be relegated changed five times in the last ninety minutes of the season.  This season is likely to be no different. Here’s a quick run-through of potential for relegation. Andreu Fontas and Rafinha Alcantara both joined from Barcelona’s B Team (the latter on a loan)

The Not-Drops

Villarreal: The Yellow Submarine are back where they belong after an abysmal 2011-12 and a 2012-13 that saw them finish just behind Elche in the Liga Adelante. Their relative financial stability and some excellent signings – Giovanni Dos Santos from Mallorca, Ferreira from Betis, and a smart loan for GK Ansejo from Atletico Madrid – mean that they will almost certainly stay up. It won’t be 2007-8 (when they took 2nd in La Liga under Manuel Pellegrini), but I predict that they’ll comfortably finish mid-table.

Granada: They’re owned by the President of Udinese Calcio – a club with perhaps the best Moneyball reputation in Europe, having finished 4th, 3rd, and 6th in the last three Italian leagues on a budget of pennies compared to Juventus and AC Milan. Just by virtue of the benefits of being part of that club network – loaned good players from Udinese to get them playing time, financial support if/when they need it – they’ll stay up. They’ve bought well from Rayo Vallecano and the now-relegated Deportivo la Coruna, and will look to improve on their 15th-place finish from last season.

Getafe: The club with the least-into-it fans in Spain, where the stands typically contain more away supporters than home ones. Apart from losing Xavi Torres to Real Betis, they’ve basically stayed in the exact same place as last year. Improvement by other squads (most notably Bilbao and Sevilla) means they probably won’t finish 10th, but they probably won’t drop either. Consistency is sometimes a virtue, even if that means consistent mediocrity.

Celta de Vigo: Snagging Luis Enrique – the former coach of Barcelona B and Roma – was an absolute coup by Celta de Vigo. Though they lost their best player to Liverpool in form of Iago Aspas, Enrique has overseen a superb transfer window for the Galician side. CF Rafinha Alcantara (on-loan) and CB Andreu Fontas have both come in from Barcelona’s B Team, Charles has arrived from Almeria – where he was one of the top scorers in La Segunda last year. They’ve also gained the services of Nolito from Benfica and Jon Aurtenetxe from Athletic Bilbao on loan. Combined with Enrique’s managerial talents (he led Barcelona B to 3rd in the Second Division in 2010-11) they will likely be comfortably clear of the drop. Won’t challenge for Europe spots but will give some teams trouble.

The Might Drops

Rayo Vallecano: Paco Jemez is a superb coach, but Rayo will struggle just from the sheer volume of players that have gone elsewhere. Losing Javi Fuego (Valencia), Leo Baptistao (Atletico Madrid), and so many others means that they will struggle. I don’t think they’ll go down, but they certainly won’t repeat their 8th-place finish and will likely flirt with relegation for most of the season.

Real Valladolid: Though they bought GK Diego Marino from Villarreal, the loss of manager Miroslav Djukic to Valencia will be the biggest hit to them. His attacking style will be tough to replicate, and they struggled away from home last season. Could well go under.

Levante: After their Cinderella run in the Europa League last year (despite having a transfer budget smaller than most League One teams), Levante are in trouble this year. The club was rocked by accusations of match-fixing at the late end of last season, and have lost midfielder Michel to Valencia. Their back-line continues to age, with the combined ages of their goalkeeper and first-choice defenders exceeding 150. Joaquin Caporros is an excellent manager who it’s good to see back in the Premier League. What concerns me is where the goals will come from: their top scorer Obafemi Martins scampered off to Seattle Sounders in March last year, and they simply don’t have stars who can replace his form. After two astounding seasons in La Liga, Football’s Expendables could be set to drop this year.

Osasuna: Osasuna are perennial relegation-battlers, yet somehow always manage to pull one out and stay up. They’ve bought wide midfielder Miguel De Las Cuevas from Sporting Gijon (who was on-loan last season), but were enormously dependent on goals from key individuals last season. Put bluntly, the loss of Kike Sola to Athletic Bilbao will hurt them. They defend well, but have a similar problem to Levante. I just don’t know where the goals will come from.

Elche: They lost their top defender to Athletic Bilbao and are working on a limited budget.

The Will Drop(s)

Almeria: they barely scraped into the Primera division as is. They also lost their top goalscorer – Charles – to Celta de Vigo. They have spent money, but I expect them to struggle royally, and likely suffer the drop.

 

Table Prediction

1: Real Madrid (Winners, Champions’ League Group Stage)

2: FC Barcelona (Champions’ League Group Stage)

3: Atletico Madrid (Champions’ League Group Stage)

4: Athletic Bilbao (Champion’s League Playoff Round)

5: Sevilla (Europa League Group Stage)

6: Valencia (Europa League Playoff)

7: Real Sociedad (Europa League Qualifying)

8: Real Betis

9: Villarreal

10: RCD Espanyol

11: Malaga

12: Granada

13: Getafe

14: Celta de Vigo

15: Elche

16: Levante UD

17: Rayo Vallecano

18: Real Valladolid (Relegated)

19: Osasuna (Relegated)

20: Almeria (Relegated)

Top Scorers: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, David Villa.

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