Barcelona went on holiday last May in buoyant mood after their superstar strike trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez had fired the team to the treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey titles.
But three months later Barca begin the defence of their Spanish title in less fine fettle. First they almost blew a 4-1 lead in the European Supercup against Sevilla in early August, although Pedro Rodriguez’s extra-winner spared their blushes that time.
That should have been warning enough for Messi and company, but they then got embarrassed 5-1 by Athletic Bilbao over two legs in the Spanish Supercopa. Those poor performances really showed how the Fifa-imposed transfer ban is now beginning to hurt badly. Coach Luis Enrique really needs to add some fresh blood, but summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal will spend the next six months watching from the stands. Which makes even more problematic Pedro’s departure this week for Chelsea.
Speaking after the Supercopa defeat, Luis Enrique accepted a busy pre-season schedule had not been ideal preparation, but said he was still confident of retaining the title.
“La Liga has not started yet, and it seems we are carrying a weight on our shoulders,” he said. “It will be a closely contested La Liga season, I see my team convinced they can do it. We want to keep making our fans happy and being the reference point for everyone.”
That said, Barca start the season by returning to Bilbao on Sunday night, and have another difficult away trip to Atletico Madrid in week three. Centre-back Gerard Pique is suspended for both those games, having insulted a linesman during the Supercopa second leg. As so often at the Camp Nou, fans and pundits are looking to Messi to rise above the distractions and pull the team along with him.
It’s also been a rocky enough summer at Real Madrid. First, club president Florentino Perez sacked coach Carlo Ancelotti without being able to explain why. Long-serving captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas’s exit was also handled badly. Centre-back Sergio Ramos was then able to use Casillas’s exit and interest from Manchester United to win his duel of nerve with Perez and secure a bumper pay rise.
None of this has makes any easier the job of new Los Blancos coach Rafa Benitez. A Real fan, youth player and assistant coach, Benitez is clearly delighted to have the top job at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, but his task does not look easy.
Perez has spent almost €100 million on new players — but none of the arrivals make the first XI any better. An apparent attempt to bring in David De Gea from United as Casillas’ replacement has not [as yet] worked out, while even €30 million signings Mateo Kovacic and Danilo are not really ‘galactico’ class.
Rafa has promised the exciting football demanded by the Bernabeu fans, but doubts remain. His cautious tactics and famous rotation policy may or may not be accepted by superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. The now 30-year-old Ronaldo has featured little in pre-season due to a back issue, while Bale has been talking loudly about how he wants to play number 10 and have control of the attack.
Madrid have not sparkled in their warm-up games, but only conceded two goals in seven outings on commercially mandated trips to China, Australia, Germany and Norway. Speaking after Tuesday’s underwhelming 2-1 win over Galatasaray back at the Bernabeu, Benitez admitted his team were not yet where he wanted them.
“We need to improve, we made some chances, had some good play, but we lacked control,” he said. “There were lots of positives from pre-season, but we have plenty of margin for improvement.”
It’s now just one La Liga title in the last seven years for Madrid, so the pressure is on. Should the team not click from day one, it will be interesting to see who bears the brunt of the criticism — Rafa, Florentino, Cristiano or Gareth.
Atletico Madrid will again be the third force in Spain, even if a repeat of their fantastic title win from two seasons ago looks improbable. Super-intense coach Diego Simeone has exciting new attackers in Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto and Rafael Correa, to add to last year’s top-scorer Antoine Griezmann, so his team could well play with surprising flair this term.
Sevilla showed against Barca in the Supercup they are a match for anyone — although coach Unai Emery must now balance La Liga commitments with the demands of the Champions League, working again with a much-changed squad after his best players were sold during the summer.
Valencia should also be in both those competitions — and could suffer as owner Peter Lim has been surprisingly inactive in the transfer window, and team leader and centre-back Nicolas Otamendi left this week for Manchester City.
At the other end, newly promoted Las Palmas and Sporting Gijon look likely to struggle, with Eibar and Deportivo La Coruna also among the probable relegation candidates.
Getafe will surprise, with impressive ex-Elche coach Fran Escriba at the helm, while Dutch international Rafael Van der Vaart is an exciting signing for back in the big time Real Betis.
There’s English interest with former Everton colleagues David Moyes [at Real Sociedad] and Phil Neville [at Valencia] now in La Liga. Ex-Premier League players Roberto Soldado [Villarreal], Iago Aspas [Celta Vigo] and Felipe Luis [Atletico] are all returning to Spain with points to prove. But, as ever, the focus will be on the superstars at the top of the table. Will Messi and Barca continue last season’s form, and the blaugrana family remain united? Can Ronaldo return to his best, and Rafa change his spots? We’ll start to find out from this weekend.