Well, it’s another season—or if you think the Super Cups are preseason, then it is almost another season—and that means we can look forward to some 760 matches between this coming Friday when Malaga hosts Sevilla and the final match fixture some time in May. Or possibly June. Or it could be never since the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP) continue to fight about money and authority. And maybe there’s some personal animosity between RFEF President Ángel María Villar and LFP President Javier Tebas that will get in the way of business “as usual” in Spain’s top flight.
Which, of course, is kind of the thing: we’ve recently learned what the schedule is until September 26, but that’s hardly enough to book tickets if you’re traveling in the winter or even if you live nearby and want to plan anything more than a few weeks ahead. So that’s nice. But leaving aside the tenuous nature of the Spanish football association’s tenuous grasp on calendars, we’re in for what could be a treat of a season. So, let’s have at it:
This season is going to be full of mischief. I’m sure that 114 points will win it, but less than that and I don’t know. The reigning champions just got smashed 4-0 away to last year’s 7th placed team and then drew 1-1 at home. They’ll face off again in the first weekend in a match that will either lift the stormy clouds from over the Camp Nou or cause them to rain hellfire and maybe a few white handkerchiefs. After the first fixture of the season. Who are we, Arsenal fans? The other major movers and shakers in the league offloaded some talent (Miranda, Khedira) and brought in some others (Jackson Martinez, Mateo Kovacic); Sevilla beefed up on a lesser scale (Immobile, Krohn-Deli, Rami, among others), but are still looking stronger for their moves, while Valencia looks to be treading a little bit of water and may yet lose Otamendi this summer. Further down the table, Villarreal is hoping they got a bargain in 10 million euro man Roberto Soldado while possibly even further down Real Sociedad nabbed Jonathas and a couple of loanees. All the at the bottom (or probably, anyway), Las Palmas has spent just shy of 2 million euros, or enough to buy one of Arda Turan’s shoes. Preferably the one still on his foot rather than that wayward other one, but hey, Las Palmas might take that too.
Oh and Real Madrid also got Rafa Benitez, which is either brilliant or insane. I’m not sure yet, which maybe tells you something or maybe tells you nothing.
Title defenses are not easy, no matter if they seem it from this perspective, when I’ve assigned them a slew of victories (2 clasico wins!). They’re messy affairs and no doubt there will be ups and downs before some sort of rhythm is found and the team comes together for a final push through to the trophy. It’s not that they’re so much better than everyone else than it is that they are already most of a team with a style of play they are comfortable with; they shouldn’t have to settle quite as much as last year, though early season jitters are obviously going to play a factor in team selection from here on out.
Runners Up: Atletico de Madrid
There are lots of reason to put Atleti 3rd, including wondering how many matches they’ll last before some strange internal implosion causes Fernando Torres to literally split into pieces while he run down the field. Oh and also internal locker room issues could easily derail their season since Simeone is so intense. But then again, Simeone is so intense (and just a good coach) that that is just as likely to not happen and for them to contest every ball of every match all season long. I think they’ll beat Madrid twice again this year, which will go a long ways toward insuring Barcelona wins the title and vaults Atleti above their crosstown rivals again. A legitimate question is whether they can replace Arda Turan or if that hole in their midfield will cause them to unravel. Their preseason form suggests no, but that is not a great indicator of things to come.
Third: Real Madrid
Still directly into the Champions League, Madrid will probably be angry at the world for a while regardless. They’ve invested less than usual (or at least it feels that way—Kovacic puts their totals at over 80 million euros for the summer), but have upgraded at right back with Danilo, brought back Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez to fill their bench, and have nabbed up and coming players Marco Asensio and Jesus Vallejo, the latter of whom is staying on loan at Zaragoza through this season. What will matter more than personnel is whether the team buys into Rafa Benitez’s system and whether Rafa Benitez can find a system that he wants to stick with. His track record in La Liga is quite good, but it has been some years since he was the force he was in 2005. That is not to downplay Napoli’s Coppa Italia win or Chelsea’s Europa League win under his tutelage, but it is to suggest that winning La Liga this year would be an outrageous achievement in his first season. Even a decent run in the Champions League should be viewed positively given the institutional insanity and fan base expectations he must deal with. I doubt Ancelotti misses it at all.
This squad is good. I think it’s going to put together a few serious runs throughout the season and they’ll end up qualifying for the Champions League. They may have given up 5 goals to Barcelona and 6 goals to Roma in their latest matches and they may have even lost to Brighton and Hove Albion on August 2 (1-0!), but they still looked rather impressive for long spells in the UEFA Super Cup (I didn’t watch the Roma match) and they should be force to be reckoned with, especially since I’m predicting…
Fifth: Valencia. Los Che are always good, but something doesn’t quite sit right with me this season.
- Athletic Bilbao
- Real Sociedad
- Celta Vigo
- Real Betis
- Sporting Gijon
- Rayo Vallecano
- Deportivo La Coruña
- Las Palmas
Pichichi: Cristiano Ronaldo (50)
Most Assists: Lionel Messi (30)
Most Goals (Team): Barcelona (112)
Fewest Goals (Team): Las Palmas (25)
Most Clean Sheets: Atletico Madrid (19)
Best Signing: Jackson Martinez
Worst Signing: Alvaro Negredo
Copa del Rey Champions: Real Madrid
Ever since this season’s Liga schedule has been released, Pep Guardiola’s 2009/10 squad has fluttered in and out of my mind. I’ve never been overtly nostalgic for el míster; indeed, the endless Pep comparisons of these last years were only trumped in tiresomeness by the almost equal amount of voices telling people to stop with the endless Pep comparisons. Nevertheless, 2009/10 has been on my mind as of late and as far as club achievements go, that grueling motherfucker of a season should be placed upon an olympic mountain.
Let’s be clear about one thing: no team can RE-treble three titles. Not going to happen and I don’t care if you have 25 Messi’s in your squad. To win everything, pick yourselves up and achieve even half of the previous season’s success is a remarkable accomplishment and in some ways even more impressive than the previously attained triplet of trophies.
So how did they do it? With new players who significantly changed the way the team played is how. The club brought in a striker who was unstoppable throughout the first half of the season in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Busquets and Pedro broke through the ranks, relegating an in his prime Yaya and a suddenly over the hill Henry to the bench. Victor Valdes had perhaps his best season ever and Abidal firmly established himself as one of the world’s top defenders. And let’s not forget that Messi, off the back of his first Ballon d’Or winning campaign somehow became even better that year.
Now we we are six years, or I should say four league titles, two copas and two champions league trophies later and, according to sound bites and press snippets, the team is still hungry. Whether that hunger will translate into glory remains to be seen. Unlike six years ago, there are no new players until January and during the first half of the season, the schedule is one of the most brutal in recent memory. The first seven matches are:
Athletic Bilbao, away
Malaga, at home
Atletico Madrid, away
Celta de Vigo, away
Las Palmas, home
If we make it through this stretch without dropping too many points, we still have to travel to the Bernabeu and the Mestalla. Of course, the advantage is that we play the return fixtures at home during the second half of the season. Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal will be cleared to play in January which shows a stretch of relatively easy fixtures (minus away at Espanyol) to gain rhythm, starting with a home game against Real Betis Balompié. Until then, Luis Enrique needs to rotate to keep his players from burning out. Fans the world over looked at our 0-4 loss in San Mamés last week and cried the squad that won a treble last year doesn’t have any depth….
Think about that last sentence…
Just because you lose a preseason game during which you start with seven tired squad players against a highly motivated opponent that scores every shot they take, does not mean that the team doesn’t have any depth. Rotate cleverly, and Rafinha, Bartra and Mathieu will do just fine. Pedro will probably still leave, but either one of Munir or Sandro might yet surprise you. Perhaps both. I won’t hold my hand in the fire for Sergi Roberto, but he did mostly fine in the games he played last year.
So here are my league predictions:
Not Barça. If you think all of the above matters, you’re wrong. There is not a burning chance in fire-loving hell that FC Barcelona can wear blue shorts and a Catalan flag-inspired shirt and win la Liga. Wearing blaugrana, Pedro gets a yellow card for trying to take the ball from a keeper who tried to hide it underneath his arms while lying in the back of his own goal. If you think referees are against us now, imagine with players dressed as esteladas. The shirts will bring the club more money than ever, but will cost the team points.
Yeah, that would be us. Or third even. See all the above. But that’s okay. Our winter acquisitions will have six months of training to acclimatize, so if Luis Enrique paces his team just right, it might not be a league or domestic cup title that gets repeated…
The biggest struggle for Barça in 2015 will be to avoid relegation.
My heavens, the defense is letting in goals like Caga Tio poops presents, and the taxicab that little No. 10 kid is waiting for still hasn’t shown up, which in no way impedes his continuing to wait for it. And what in the unvarnished HELL is Xavi doing farting around on the right hand side of the pitch, and what has he done with Dani Alves? Because that dude over there defending like … well … a midfielder isn’t making anyone happy.
Making matters worse is that the team has all the depth of a puddle of worm piss, and no coach. On the up side, when Barça is relegated and Barça B wins promotion, the future will be able to kick the crap out of the past.
Okay, seriously. The buzzword for this season will be uncertainty. Everyone has gotten stronger, including Barça, a team that won 50 out of 60 matches last season. I can’t even begin to get a head around that one. And although there have been portents of doom prophesied by people proposing pre-season-parsed prognostications, it’s worth a look at what actually happened.
Last season, Barça’s pre-season was 4 matches, all in Europe. This pre-season found the team jetting around to the U.S., then to Georgia, then back to Spain to contest the SuperCopa, with only a weekend between matches. This is involving a team whose biggest stars had Copa America and the subsequent extended vacations in their legs, etc.
In other words, pre-season was something that the team was trying to survive, rather than thrive in. The SuperCopa brought giddiness and massive celebrations to Athletic Bilbao, and I am really happy for them, though seriously bummed that they didn’t bust out the barge.
But the uncertainty that manifested itself in a tie that culers were expecting to be a walk in the park will translate into a fraught Liga that will be won by the lowest points total since the 87 grabbed by the first (think about that … more than one treble winning side) treble-winning side. Four silly mistakes later, and the tie was effectively over.
That SuperCopa has no bearing on what is going to happen in the season, but the matches between Athletic and Sevilla demonstrate that there will be no walkovers among the Top 10 this year. Every team from La Real to Atleti has strengthened, with this latter having enjoyed the best transfer summer I have ever seen from a Liga side, maybe any side.
Two struggles will face Barça this season, in mileage and complacency. When Jeremy Mathieu looked at Aduriz get that ball in shooting position and couldn’t be arsed to move his ass to at least try, when Sergi Roberto gave up the turnover that resulted in an Athletic goal because Alves and Messi just stood there watching … Barça is a team that last season understood that work would bring success. Hard, unstinting work for every minute of the match for as long as it was in question.
The reason it is so difficult for teams to repeat is because everybody else is hungry, all hungrier than the defending champions. It’s unavoidable. If Barça can successfully keep from becoming complacent, a Liga repeat is conceivable. If they can’t, third place would not be out of the question.
Yes, third place. Why? Because Atleti has fixed all the problems that caused them to lay a massive goose egg against Barça last season, adding talents such as Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto. Oliver Torres is back, as is Filipe Luis, to fix their wing attacking weaknesses without detracting from other parts of the team. It is a formidable group that wouldn’t surprise anyone if it won Liga this season.
Expect Sevilla and Valencia to be nosing around the other European spots this season, but nobody else has really improved enough to challenge them. Real Madrid made its biggest summer signing in Rafa Benitez, a cold-hearted pragmatist who will do the things that his predecessor didn’t, such as rotation, rotation, rotation.
RM tailed off because key players started breaking. The losses of James Rodriguez and Luca Modric really damaged the team, along with the struggles of Gareth Bale and Ronaldo to find mutually compatible working space. Benitez will take care of all that, making the necessary moves to both vault his team up the standings and also shorten his tenure at the club, because nobody will like him when all is said and done.
Mileage is the other question, extra matches and travel that wear on a team’s legs. The biggest problem with Barça isn’t that it doesn’t have depth, but rather that the quality of its XI is so high. There has been lots of speculation about the team’s depth over this pre-season, but something that only a few have correctly sussed is that when you have the likes of Iniesta, Neymar, Messi and Suarez, not to mention Pique and Busquets, there isn’t a like-quality replacement period, much less one who would be happy sitting on the bench.
So yeah, things are going to tail off when Rafinha replaces Iniesta, just as they did when his brother replaced Xavi. Those are legends you’re talking about. Barça has depth. Barça also has a chasm in quality between the XI and the rest of the folks, players good enough to start for many a team in the world.
Barça has evinced a system this pre-season so far, which has served the team well when the stars have gone out or been unavailable. This was clearest against Sevilla and Chelsea, as subs came and went and the team played the same, something that will be important if Enrique is to use the same degree of rotation that found his team fresh at the business end of the season. Surviving until January will be huge.
In the transfer market the team has added Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, but neither player will be available until the transfer ban ends in January. If Barça can hang around until then, expect a stretch run that will be able to take full advantage of the things those players bring to the team, most notably high-quality depth. Taking out Iniesta and putting in Turan loses you that ultimate bit of magic, but his quality is still sufficiently high. Vidal is essentially a right-sided Alba, which creates all sorts of tactical possibilities and flourishes.
But tired legs break. Barça was incredibly lucky last season in the low number of injuries. Its XI was pretty much always available. There’s a lot more mileage in player legs, which will affect muscle flexibility and hydration. Injuries could be a problem this season, given all the travel and extra matches. That means injuries.
From this seat, none of the gloom and doom that is flying about in pre-season holds water. The injury question will be a larger worry. If Barça can stay relatively clean until January when the team gets significantly stronger with a pair of additions, the Liga is well within reach. But it’s so hard to see that happening. So let’s break it down:
Atletico de Madrid: They have been doing absolutely everything right, while their glamor-boy rivals have been acting like jet setters. Over the long haul of an intense Liga season, those fresher legs and an incredibly deep squad will make the difference. Atleti don’t have superstars, but the graph plot of their overall quality, position to position, is pretty much a Bayernesque flat line, rather than the shark’s tooth pattern that the Barça graph would represent.
FC Barcelona: A couple of key injuries will turn those wins of last season into the draws of this season. The team will see more buses, more teams’ absolute best games and more difficulties. On the up side, I think that Barça will be the first team in a long time to repeat as Champions League winner, so be consoled by that.
The other thing I wonder about is the Capita, nothing against Iniesta. Puyol did things like stop players from dancing after goals, yelled at teammates to focus, etc. He was a strong captain who took no guff. Would Messi have neck-grabbed that Roma player, would Pique have speculated about his defecatory habits to an official with Puyol around? No. Little things like that can, over the course of the season, make a difference. Something to watch.
Real Madrid: They have added depth, but not difference-making talent. Their potentially biggest transfer, Rafa Benitez, will allow them to hit the ground running but breaking in a new coach in an environment like that won’t be the best thing. It could all change at the first glimpse of a pouting superstar. There is also the Benzema vs Ronaldo complexity, because 9 is the best spot for Ronaldo these days, from my view, with Bale unleashed and Rodriguez as well. If Benitez can manage to do that successfully, they could win the Liga.
The culerverse is in pretty desperate shape right now. There are even some who are pleased that Barça didn’t win the SuperCopa because Guardiola’s team was better, and now has the sextuple to prove it. But I would stack Enrique’s treble team against Guardiola’s any day of the week, and twice on Wednesdays.
Guardiola’s innovation meant that his team stomped the terra of a world that wasn’t ready for it, and that was a huge help. As the world got its mind around what that machine did, things became a bit more complex. Enrique’s team exists in a world that had figured out Guardiola’s Barça attack. It is also a team that isn’t playing all that differently than the first treble side, despite the protests of the theoreticians.
Getting it done against a world that knows and is ready for you to the tune of 50 wins from 60 matches is astounding. This pre-season, hot on the heels of the Copa America, was always going to be fraught. That first treble side battled a UEFA Super Cup played in Monaco, against Shakhtar. It was only the quality of the opponent that saved that team’s blushes, as Shakhtar gave all that Barça could handle, particularly coming off the demands of the Confederations Cup. But ultimately they lacked that last little bit of quality.
There was a week between Spanish SuperCopa legs, rather than two days. I quipped that Enrique’s team won the Treble Nobody Was Ready For, an observation more rueful than mirthful. Nobody trusts this Barça, and more’s the pity.
The team’s finish this season, rather than reflecting its quality and any shortcomings, will be more reflective of the fact that every team in football that could improve, felt it absolutely had to so that Barça wouldn’t kick its butt again this season.