La Liga Preview: Title race between Real Madrid and Barca; others battling for Europe


Madrid, Aug 8

La Liga kicks off in Spain next weekend with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona expected to battle it out once again for the title, while Atletico Madrid hope to be in the hunt and a handful of teams harbour ambitions of qualifying for Europe. The presence of the FIFA World Cup finals in the middle of the season raises questions over how the big teams with most players in Qatar could suffer from tiredness of a cramped fixture schedule and lack of a mid-season break that other teams will have, but their greater squad depths should compensate.

Real Madrid were the best team in La Liga last season and have added to midfield and defence with the arrival of Antonio Rudiger and Aurelien Tchouameni. Rudiger's arrival will add further speed and power to an already mean back line, while Tchouameni's signing continues the policy of renewing the midfield, as Tony Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro are another season older, Xinhua reports.

Bearing that in mind, the team expects Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga to play bigger roles this season.

Much of last season's success was down to Thibaut Courtois, who was excellent in goal, while Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema scored the goals.

Benzema will be 35 the day after the World Cup final and the club needs to sign a back-up striker, but Vinicius should continue to progress and Rodrygo also showed last season that he too is improving as an exciting force in attack.

Much has been made of Barcelona's financial problems, but despite debts of around 1,300 million euros, the club has been active in the transfer market after selling off assets such as an important percentage of TV revenue.

Whether or not mortgaging the 'family silver' is a sustainable long-term plan, it has allowed the club to strengthen considerably, with the arrival of Robert Lewandowski, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Frank Kessie and Raphinha, and Marcos Alonso also likely to arrive soon.

Add to that Ousmane Dembele penning a new deal, Mirlem Pjanic's return from loan and the return to full fitness for teenage stars, Ansu Fati and Pedri and Barca could even be considered to be title favourites this time around, especially considering they still finished second after last season's chaotic campaign.

Atletico Madrid will hope their tried and tested recipe of keeping things tight and poaching key goals, that was worked so well in 10 years with Diego Simeone at the helm, will continue to do so and there is no reason to think it won't.

Although Luis Suarez has gone, Alvaro Morata's return from Juventus (if he remains at the club) should give more energy in attack, where Matheus Cunha should continue to progress and Antoine Griezmann will also contribute pace and energy.

Axel Witsel brings experience and discipline in midfield and Nahuel Molina will improve matters at right back, but it's hard to see Atletico mounting a serious title charge.

Sevilla threatened and then faded last season and the loss of central defenders Kounde and Diego Carlos won't help coach Julen Lopetegui, although the signing of Isco on a free transfer from Real Madrid should bring in more creativity.

There were signs of restlessness from the fans as Sevilla faded last season and Lopetegui needs a good start to the season, otherwise it could be a difficult campaign.

Elsewhere, Betis remain a balanced side under Manuel Pellegrini and winger Luiz Henrique looks like an interesting signing, but with the Europa League and also a trip to Saudi Arabia in the Spanish Supercup, a packed fixture list could be a real problem for last season's Copa del Rey winners.

Real Sociedad face similar fixture problems to Betis and the jury is out on whether the new attacking duo of Take Kubo, Brais Mendez and Mohamed Ali Cho is an upgrade on Adnan Januzaj, Portu and Alexander Sorloth, especially with club captain Mikel Oyarzabal still recovering from a long-term knee injury.

Villarreal finished seventh last season, with their campaign hampered by too many draws, but nobody should forget Unai Emery's men got to the semifinals of the Champions League and that took its toll domestically.

Emery is unlikely to give as much importance to the Conference League as he did the Champions, and Villarreal have added wisely to a balanced squad. If striker Gerard Moreno stays fit, they are definite candidates for a top-four place.

Finally, the return of Ernesto Valverde for a third spell as coach should revitalize Athletic Club Bilbao, who once again will put their faith in home-grown talent such as Oihan Sancet, Nico Williams, Asier Villalibre and Oier Zarraga as they look to end a five-year absence from Europe.


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