La Liga preview: Can Real Madrid or Athletic Bilbao overtake Barcelona?
On the face of it, the Spanish Super Cup suggested this season might be different. Barcelona, who won the treble of league, Copa del Rey and Champions League last season, was beaten 4–0 in the first leg by Athletic Bilbao and, back at the Camp Nou, managed only a 1–1 as it attempted the impossible task of overturning that deficit. Is Barça in crisis, could Athletic mount a serious challenge, is this the year when Spain becomes more than a two and a half horse race?
While there are doubts about Barça's defensive capacity, its defeat in the first leg was largely the result of scheduling issues, the farcical situation that saw it play in the European Super Cup against Sevilla in Tbilisi last Tuesday night, getting back to Spain at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning and having to play in the Spanish Super Cup on Friday night. Neymar had mumps and other key players—Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique—were left on the bench. Barça fell behind to a preposterous goal scored from the halfway line by Mikel San Jose, but then looked comfortable when it suddenly collapsed, Aritz Aduriz scoring a hat-trick in 14 minutes. To suggest there was something freakish about the scoreline is not to diminish Athletic’s achievement, but to think that Barcelona is as vulnerable as 4–0 suggests would be misguided.
Rather it begins the season as favorite to win the league again, the forward line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez unparalleled in Spain or anywhere else—perhaps ever. That said, with Pedro departed, it is a little short of attacking cover. Aleix Vidal, who was bought principally as a possible long-term replacement for Dani Alves, could attack from the flanks, but nether he nor Arda Turan, the other big summer signing will be available until January because of Barcelona’s transfer ban. Turan, should ease the burden on Iniesta, who is 31 and perhaps beginning to slow down.
The more immediate concern for Barça, though, is the defense. It wasn’t only against Athletic that it looked leaky. 4–1 up against Sevilla in Tbilisi, it was pegged back to 4–4 and won only in extra-time—the winner coming from Pedro, a final reminder of his usefulness as a Plan B. Perhaps it was just early-season teething, but there is clearly work to be done. Still, with the addition of Arda Turan and Aleix, this Barça squad probably has even more depth than last year.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, start with the familiar background rumblings of discontent. This is the job Rafa Benitez always wanted, but he arrives amid widespread skepticism and with the politicking that so often destabilizes the club even more virulent than usual. Gareth Bale, it seems, will take a central role this season, although whether that’s because it’s the best position for him or to settle presidential demands that his record signing is more prominent is unclear.
The tactical issue of how to fit so many stars into the same side: Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, Isco, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Asier Illaramendi, Jese and the new signing Mateo Kovacic are an impossible constellation. Even with some players operating out of position, some are going to be left out, and that is never good for morale. The irony is that, in Benitez, Madrid has appointed a manager who is tactically meticulous and guilty at times of control freakery—he won’t just leave the players to get on with it. That will almost certainly at some point lead to friction—and video has already leaked out of Ronaldo abusing Benitez after he ruled out a goal he’d scored in a training game.
Those potential weaknesses perhaps create an opportunity for Atletico, which looks far more balanced than it was last season. The return of Filipe Luis solves the left-back problem, while Jackson Martinez adds pace to the forward line. The loss of Arda Turan, though, will hurt—not just for his ability, but for what his move signifies about the economic realities of Spanish football.
Those realities make it hard to be optimistic about the chances of Sevilla, despite its superb performances in the Europa League over the past two seasons. Yevhen Konoplyanka is perhaps the most exciting of their nine signings, but the loss of Carlos Bacca and Aleix Vidal means that the season begins in flux.
Valencia and Real Sociedad—perhaps even Athletic—have the capacity to mount a challenge for Champions League qualification if they can find an early rhythm and stay relatively free of injuries, but the thought of them mounting a title challenge is laughable. In terms of the title, this season is about whether Barça can retain the hunger and form of last season, what happens with Benitez at Madrid and, perhaps, whether a reinvigorated Atletico can take advantage of any slips. But really, this looks like Barça's to lose.