Ahead of the 2019/20 La Liga season — which kicks off tonight — Dermot Corrigan looks at the key storylines to follow in the months ahead
1. Valverde must keep everybody focused
The season kicks off tonight with champions Barcelona visiting Athletic Bilbao — and blaugrana coach Ernesto Valverde once more is dealing with a situation not all of his own making.
Low-key figure Valverde has won La Liga in each of his two years in the job, but a Champions League meltdown at Anfield followed by a Copa del Rey final defeat to Valencia almost saw him fired at the end of last season.
Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu opted against wielding the axe, then stretched financially over the summer to sign Antoine Griezmann for €120m and bring in €75m playmaker Frenkie De Jong from Ajax, while being unable to move on sore thumb, Philippe Coutinho.
Valverde seems happy with that, but not with the idea of his squad being disrupted at this late stage by the possible return of prodigal son Neymar from Paris Saint Germain, especially if it means losing not Coutinho but key squad members Ivan Rakitic or Samuel Umtiti. Although having Lionel Messi on board as captain means Barca begin as odds-on favourites for another title, the Argentine is well into his 30s, as are Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, and Gerard Pique. Keeping everybody fit, focused, and motivated week to week looks like a big challenge for Valverde, who is aiming for the first ‘three in a row’ since Pep Guardiola’s charges back in 2011.
2. Zidane v Florentino at the Bernabeu
Real Madrid began the summer with returning coach Zinedine Zidane talking of a ‘second project’ and rebuilding a squad which finished 19 points behind Barca last year. Eden Hazard soon arrived from Chelsea for €100m, but Zidane’s hopes of signing his fellow Frenchman Paul Pogba from Manchester United and finally selling unwanted Welshman Gareth Bale were frustrated.
Warm-up results have also been poor, with a 7-3 defeat to neighbours Atletico Madrid in the USA particularly embarrassing.
Zidane’s renewal project seems to have stalled completely, as symbolised by last season’s signature under-performer Marcelo, 31, being the most used player in pre-season.
This means mounting tensions already between Zidane and club president Florentino Perez, with Bernabeu insiders predicting further fireworks should money not forthcoming for Pogba suddenly be made available to pip Barca to signing Perez’s long-term obsession, Neymar.
3. Atletico’s new star Joao Felix
It was all doom and gloom around Atletico Madrid when Griezmann left in early-summer along with valuable youngsters Rodri (to Manchester City) and Lucas Hernandez (to Bayern Munich).
But the sensational impact of Griezmann’s replacement Joao Felix, a 19-year-old signed for €126m from Benfica, has lifted everyone at the Wanda Metropolitano.
The fresh-faced young Portuguese has dazzled with both his technical gifts and confident personality, and Atletico fans are no longer worrying whether he is worth the money — but instead are fretting how long they can hang on to a potential superstar. Rojiblanco coach Diego Simeone has also rebuilt his defence, which now includes England international Kieran Trippier at right-back. If both Barca and Madrid have below-par campaigns, Atletico could sneak in to take the title as they last did in 2013/14.
4. Lopetegui with another chance at Sevilla
La Liga’s most interesting managerial appointment has seen former Spain and Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui getting a chance to rebuild his reputation at Sevilla.
Also returning at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan is renowned sporting director Ramon ‘Monchi’ Rodriguez, who has wheeled and dealed as usual to sign 12 new players this summer. Lopetegui will have to quickly assemble a new look team from many diverse parts, but the stubborn Basque looks well placed to take the ‘best of the rest’ spot and finish fourth.
5. Off the pitch drama continues
Spanish football’s continual internal wrangling has seen a battle between league president Javier Tebas and his federation counterpart Luis Rubiales disrupt the big kick-off.
A judge ruled just last Friday that the season schedule agreed with broadcast partners for games on both Friday and Monday evenings should not stand, despite the backing of almost all Primera and Segunda clubs. That led to kick-off times, and even match dates, being hastily rearranged with supporters’ travel plans thrown into chaos.
Better news for Irish fans of Spanish football was last night’s 11th hour announcement that ITV4 would be broadcasting one La Liga game each matchday, starting with Athletic versus Barca tonight, and also a weekly highlights show wrapping up the best of all the action.