La Liga: another season of two-team dominance
Real Madrid and Barcelona aren’t expected to face much competition
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La Liga has the two best players in the world. Some will argue that La Liga has the two best clubs in Real Madrid and Barcelona.
There is something about Spain’s Premier League and its nighttime kick-offs—Real’s white standing out against the dark skyline and Barcelona’s stars shining brighter in the floodlights. The glitter of La Liga is even more evident when compared to England’s Premier League, with games in Britain shrouded in rain, snow and dark, ominous grey clouds.
But there is one jarring absence in La Liga—unpredictability. Nine out of the last 10 seasons have been won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona. They’ve won 57 titles between them—out of a total of 86 La Liga seasons. The two teams combined have also finished 47 seasons as runners-up.
Seldom do Real and Barca let anyone else win. Atlético Madrid pipped both the sides in 2013-14 and Valencia did it in 2003-04. The gap between those achievements was a decade. While it is always a welcome sight to see a third team lift the league title, it’s safe to say that they’re not going to let it happen this year.
But the best of the rest may still be able to stop a one-two finish for Real and Barca in the tournament starting Friday. Sevilla, Atlético, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia are the names that come to mind. Malaga did spring a few surprises but time flies fast in football—their dream Champions League quarter-final appearance feels like yesterday but was actually in 2013.
Valencia are in disarray, virtually a selling club with no talent to replace those who leave. Bilbao can throw up the odd result but they are not associated with consistency.
Villarreal are worth keeping an eye on because of their performances last season (fifth) and so are Sociedad, because of their clutch of youngsters. But both clubs have seen 10 players leave and three come in. Adnan Januzaj from Manchester United and Diego Llorente from Real Madrid should add much needed quality to a Sociedad team which finished sixth in 2016-17.
This leaves Sevilla and Atlético to try and topple the Real-Barca dominance. Atlético under Diego Simeone are always a joy to watch. They will entertain but will also frustrate. Keeping their best players has been a huge challenge but they have managed to do so—relying on the loyalty of their stars to keep the engine running.
Highly rated Saúl Ñíguez just signed a nine-year contract and Antoine Griezmann decided to stay, saying it would just be wrong to leave in a year when Atlético are banned from making any signings.
They will hope that Diego Costa signs in January—he wore an Atlético shirt in an Instagram story recently and his employers Chelsea have already started the new English Premier League (EPL) season without him. But it’s hard to see Atlético bettering their third-place finish from last season without injecting new blood.
Sevilla are the underrated beast. They were in the hunt for trophies last season before Leicester City ended their run in the Champions League, demoralizing them so much that they could win only four out of their 11 remaining games. They’ve lost some stars though—the loan tenures of Samir Nasri, Luciano Vietto and Stevan Jovetić, lent to other teams, have all ended. Vitolo was sold to Atlético (but won’t play for his new club till their transfer ban ends). These four were responsible for 26 goals and 23 assists last campaign.
But Sevilla made a few canny signings. Striker Luis Muriel has joined from Sampdoria and Simon Kjær is an excellent addition in defence. Éver Banega will hold midfield and Nolito—who is raring to go after a torrid season with Manchester City—will add width.
All this, however, only goes to confirm why Barcelona and Real Madrid are so all-conquering in La Liga. The former lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in a staggering transfer but are looking at Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé as replacements for the Brazilian. Coutinho has reportedly handed in a transfer request to Liverpool and Dembélé has skipped training sessions in revolt against Dortmund’s reluctance to sell their star. A double-signing could work like balm after Neymar’s exit.
Paulinho’s signing is almost done as well—he’s coming in to Barcelona from the Chinese Super League and will add bite to a midfield that looked jaded last season. Ivan Rakitić and André Gomes need to do more and take the pressure off the ever-so-brilliant Andrés Iniesta.
Barcelona have probably finally sorted out their right-back troubles, after Dani Alves left in 2016, by signing Nélson Semedo. The Portuguese, just 23, made 93 tackles and set up six goals for Benfica last season. But Barcelona’s most important signing is their new coach Ernesto Valverde—a man who has worked wonders with smaller clubs and believes in the Barca way, having played under the great Johan Cruyff.
Real Madrid are still outright favourites. They’ve retained their BBC attack (Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, who is currently serving a five-match suspension) while witnessing Barca’s MSN (Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Neymar) being broken up despite their record 116-goal effort last season.
Zinedine Zidane has let Álvaro Morata, Pepe, Fábio Coentrão, Danilo and James Rodriguez leave and hasn’t opted to sign any Galácticos this season. Instead, he’s gone for Theo Hernández, Dani Ceballos and Jesús Vallejo—names that won’t sell a lot of shirts but players who will certainly aid in what promises to be another cracking season. Zidane did the unthinkable when Real became the first club to defend the Champions League title and commands the respect of the giant egos in their dressing room.
This season will be more about Barcelona moving back to their roots and Real Madrid trying to convince the football world that they’re invincible, ruthless and still the biggest and best club in the world.
This La Liga will again be about goals, dives, the cult of Zidane against the tactical nous of Valverde. It’ll again be about Messi vs Ronaldo.
It’ll again be about El Clásicos. It’ll be about the total domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.