Big two shoot-out on cards

Atletico Madrid shocked maybe even themselves by breaking the big two’s grip on the La Liga title for the first time since 2004, but still the 2014/15 La Liga season will likely be another shoot-out between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Big two shoot-out on cards

Even Atletico’s own coach Diego Simeone this week said it was impossible for his side to repeat last term’s achievement.

“I do not like to lie to the people,” Simeone said. “One thing is clear: we cannot compete with Madrid and Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic [Bilbao]. Our objective is third place. We are a new team.”

Simeone has lost three key players to Chelsea this summer (Diego Costa, Felipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois), making his job even more difficult. Some decent looking replacements

Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezmann have been signed, and the team’s hunger and aggression looked undimmed in this week’s Supercopa meetings with Real Madrid, but ‘El Cholo’ is probably correct.

Atletico’s achievement last season was an unrepeatable once-off.

Especially as Madrid and Barca have reacted to being embarrassed by spending almost €300m between them this summer. Blancos president Florentino Perez signed two new galacticos in World Cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, while Barca went even further to bring in Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and a selection of risky-looking goalkeeping and defensive options.

New blaugrana coach Luis Enrique has promised more intensity and work rate from his team ahead of their first outing at home to Elche tomorrow evening, which should be easier to achieve than fitting Suarez (once his ban ends), Lionel Messi and Neymar into one XI. Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti also has a selection puzzle ahead of his opener against Cordoba on Monday evening, but is possibly more worried about Cristiano Ronaldo’s ongoing fitness issues.

Elsewhere La Liga’s other 17 clubs do not know whether to laugh or cry at the ‘problems’ faced by Atletico, Real and Barca. This summer again saw many middle-ranking sides lose their best players — including Ander Herrera moving from Athletic to Man United, Barca taking Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla, Atletico nicking Griezmann from Real Sociedad, and Madrid bringing in Keylor Navas from Levante.

This means most coaches are currently looking at new rosters containing numerous loan and free transfers, and wondering how to fit the new pieces together. Sevilla’s incoming players look interesting — including on-loan Barca kids Gerard Deulofeu and Denis Suarez — so they might well finish fourth under the canny stewardship of Unai Emery. Most controversial is Valencia — where Singapore businessman Peter Lim and Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes have brought in a host of new players in third-party deals which should come under some scrutiny.

The happiest story could be at tiny Eibar, with last season’s Segunda champions set for a first ever season in the top flight amid much goodwill. Also promoted Cordoba should struggle despite the astute management of ex-Barca and Chelsea right-back Albert Ferrer. Deportivo La Coruna look to have a squad capable of mid-table on their return to La Primera.

Surprise relegation candidates could include Malaga — who were in the Champions League just two seasons ago but have again lost key players this summer. Levante might also struggle with Navas gone and experienced coach Joaquin Caparros having jumped ship for relatively richer Granada. The general balance means at least that many La Liga games are hard to predict, as Caparros said yesterday.

“All the [smaller] teams are equal,” the former Sevilla, Athletic, Villarreal, Deportivo and Mallorca boss said. “Apart from the teams from the Royal Mint we are all the same.”

The situation in Spain’s Segunda Division is even worse – with the opening fixtures in doubt right up until Thursday’s court ruling that financial basket case Murcia could legally be forced down to the third tier. Barring more legal issues that also gets under way today — with the favourites including Real Betis, Mallorca and Real Zaragoza, who all have their own debt problems.

Further off-field issues are sure to arise as the season goes on. Barca are taking Fifa to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over a looming transfer ban. Madrid are battling the European Commission over a controversial land deal which looked to Brussels like illegal state aid.

But for most fans such matters are forgotten once Messi, Ronaldo and company run out. Madrid start the campaign as slight favourites, but predictions should wait until Suarez returns for the season’s first Clasico on October 26.

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