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  • There's no more Cristiano Ronaldo, but there is plenty of intrigue in La Liga this season, as Barcelona looks to repeat under a challenge from the usual suspects and eager clubs looking to crack the upper echelon.
By Luis Miguel Echegaray
August 14, 2018

For a second straight summer, La Liga is dealing with the aftermath of losing one of its most talented and marketable superstars, but its teams aren't coming close to standing pat.

A year after Neymar bolted Barcelona for PSG and weeks after Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus, it's been a busy offseason for teams in Spain's top division, with La Liga clubs investing nearly €700 million, including transfer fees and annual contracts, on players. The number will almost certainly rise, given that the transfer window doesn't close until Aug. 31, and given that Real Madrid has yet to replace the Ronaldo with an attacking superstar.

While the usual suspects (Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid) make up for almost half of the league's spending, having brought in players such as Malcom (Barcelona), Thomas Lemar (Atletico Madrid) and Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal and Real Betis look to crash the top-three party with transfers of their own. 

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the table, newly promoted Huesca prepares for its first campaign in La Liga.

Here are the major talking points ahead of the 2018-2019 season in Spain's top flight.

Barcelona stays the favorite

Despite losing legendary midfielder Andres Iniesta, Ernesto Valverde’s side starts the campaign as favorite to retain the league title. This summer, Barça conducted plenty of business by reconfiguring the squad and trimming its underperformers. Players such as Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Gerard Deulofeu and Aleix Vidal added depth at Camp Nou, but didn't really give anything extra when needed, especially during busy periods when the club was forced to play in league, cup and UEFA tournaments. It could be argued that Mina, who arrived last summer, wasn't given the proper time to prove his worth, but he's already been replaced with the signing of Clement Lenglet from Sevilla. Paulinho, who moved back to China, was a key piece in his one season at Barcelona, but his replacement, Arturo Vidal, is arguably a more complete midfielder. It all depends on the veteran's fitness, but if he stays healthy, then Vidal should deliver.

Elsewhere, Malcom and Rafinha provide more clout in the middle and wide areas, but the biggest talking point is Arthur, the ex-Gremio star who has been given the No. 8 shirt this season–a symbol of confidence from his manager.  There are comparisons being made to Iniesta, as the 21-year-old Brazilian captivated fans this preseason with his vision and ability to move the ball with simplicity. Time will tell if he can make it count in Europe, but as far as Valverde is concerned, Arthur is ready. 

As Lionel Messi takes over as club captain, it seems as if the Blaugrana–who nearly went the whole 2017-18 domestic campaign undefeated and already have the Spanish Super Cup in tow–will retain the title, but, just like with Manchester City, the chief goal is to win the Champions League.

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The battle for Madrid (and the league)

Real Madrid begins life in the league without Ronaldo and with a new manager, Julen Lopetegui, hoping to adjust to a new philosophy and not only retain the Champions League title, but also deliver a league trophy for its fans. Despite the change in personnel, however, Lucas Vazquez believes the team's objectives never change.

"I think Real Madrid's identity stays the same. In the end, our goals are to fight and give it our all," he told SI.com. "While it's true some things may change when you have a new manager, we still want to do our best and win as many titles as possible."

The obvious focus is now on Gareth Bale, who has had a tremendous preseason. After his sensational bicycle kick goal in the Champions League final, Bale has the opportunity to command the spotlight left behind by the Juventus-bound Ronaldo.

"It's been very good so far with the new manager," Bale told SI.com. "Obviously we've been working very hard, but training has been very enjoyable and we've had some good results. It's been very good with the new boss. Just anxiously waiting to start the season."

If we can take anything from the summer, we should see Lopetegui starting Bale on the right wing of a three-headed attacking midfield that also includes Marco Asensio and Isco, but with a lot of freedom to run and alter his movement. It will be interesting to see how much 18-year-old Vinicius Junior plays. His talent is undeniable, but the team has to be careful and not overwhelm the attacker with the pressures of playing for Madrid too soon. Though, judging by his summer performance, he seems more than ready.   

Courtois's arrival will take undoubtedly take headlines as well, as Keylor Navas will fight for his place with the Belgian star. Lopetegui faces a dilemma on who to start in the UEFA Super Cup on Wednesday, but more importantly, how will the manager deal with the rotation if Navas stays with Los Blancos? 

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Across town, you'd be wise not to sleep on Atletico Madrid. Once the Antoine Griezmann drama was settled earlier this summer with "La Decisión," Diego Simeone's squad went to work in the transfer market. If we were to judge the season on paper alone, it seems as if Atleti could give Barcelona a bigger headache than Real this season.

Gelson Martins, who arrived on a free transfer from Sporting in Portugal, is a dangerous winger who in many ways fits Simeone's counterattacking system. Rodri, Antonio Adán and Nehuen Perez also joined the team, but it's Thomas Lemar who can really help this season. The 22-year-old French attacking star, who was part of Didier Deschamps' World Cup-winning squad, joined the Spanish club from Monaco for a reported €60 million and will replace the production of Yannick Carrasco, who alongside Nicolas Gaitan, left the club for China. Lemar is extremely veratile, able to play anywhere across the midfield and will fit nicely inside Simeone's 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 preferred formations. Nikola Kalinic, the Croatian striker who moved from AC Milan, is also a good addition. 

The question remains: Can Real or Atleti dethrone Barcelona?   

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The party crashers 

Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla and Real Betis have aspirations of crashing the elite's party, and judging by the moves made this summer, it seems as if Marcelino's Valencia is the likeliest of the bunch to do so. Having finished fourth and only three points behind Real Madrid in 2017-2018, Valencia is poised to make noise. The addition of Michy Batshuayi on loan is an astute one, while the signings of Kevin Gameiro and Russia World Cup hero Denis Cheryshev (who returns on loan after a previous stint with the club) and potential signing of Goncalo Guedes–who starred on loan at Valencia last season–adds even more firepower into the mix.

Aside from being part of the greatest unveiling of a player signing ever, it will be interesting to see how Santi Cazorla's return fits with Villarreal.

Meanwhile, Real Betis, which was one of six teams that defeated Real Madrid last season but conceded the most goals out of any team that wasn't relegated, used the window to bring in more defensive players such as Portugal midfielder William Carvalho and Sidnei, who moved from Deportivo la Coruña after being relegated. 

Sevilla suffered similar problems as Betis, conceding too many goals and losing 14 matches last season. This will be an interesting time for the team, as its new manager, Pablo Machín, led Girona to La Liga promotion in 2016-2017 and guided the club to an impressive 10th-place finish last season, the best performance by a promoted club in the last 23 years. Losing midfield stalwart and World Cup winner Steven N'Zonzi to Roma won't help, though.

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VAR

After making its debut during last Sunday’s Supercopa de España between Barcelona and Sevilla in Tangier, La Liga will implement video assistant referees for the first time.

According to Spain's football federation (RFEF), league referees have taken on intense training in order to prepare for VAR, hoping to learn from the failures and successes from this summer's World Cup in Russia.

Some of La Liga's stars were heavily involved in VAR decisions at the World Cup, and now they'll compete on a weekly basis with the added technology.

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Intrigue at the bottom

At risk of not falling behind before the season even gets going, the newly promoted teams (Rayo Vallecano, Huesca, Real Valladolid) have been active in the transfer window, mainly taking advantage of loan signings as they get ready for the top flight. Peruvians now have to reasons to love Vallecano. First, the team's kit is almost identical to that of the national team, and second, Luis Advincula, who had an impressive World Cup with Peru, joins Vallecano on loan from Tigres. Labeled as one of the fastest–if not, the fastest–player in the world, Advincula's unveiling brought a frenzy of Peruvian players in Madrid.

After four years of playing in the second division, Real Valladolid returns to La Liga thanks to Sergio Gonzalez, who was synonymous with Deportivo La Coruña as a player. But the biggest story is Huesca, who plays in the top division for the first time in the club's history. It doesn't arrive without controversy, as it announced the loan signing of Ruben Semedo, the Portuguese player from Villarreal who was released from jail last month. Semedo was sent to prison after his alleged involvement in a violent kidnapping–one that brought attempted murder charges–but after posting €30,000 for bail, the 24-year-old was released.

His future was uncertain after Villarreal suspended him without salary–that is, until Huesca came knocking. 

The club's sporting director Emilio Vega believes a change in scenery will do him well, and he'll have no issues adapting. 

"This club and city is different and special," he said. "He will have no problems adapting. It's a very calm environment. It's a very hospitable city and this club is like a family. It will be very good for him. What we are looking to give him is tranquility so that he can perform at his best level."

Let's hope for his sake, the club and the town that he is not mistaken.

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