Wily Simeone and Atletico can steal Real Madrid's thunder

Most of the noise in Spanish football this summer was generated by superstars Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo — with the former leaving Barcelona for Paris Saint Germain, and the latter staying [for the moment at least] at Real Madrid.

Wily Simeone and Atletico can steal Real Madrid's thunder

Neymar’s shock world record €222 million exit from Barcelona to PSG showed that even La Liga’s biggest clubs were unable to stop top players leaving.

Other big names to pack their bags include Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez, and Danilo who left Madrid for Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City respectively.

Many smaller outfits could not resist offers from outside either — Sevilla lost midfielder Vicente Iborra to Leicester, forward Sandro Ramirez left Malaga for Everton, throw-back playmaker Roque Mesa joined Swansea from Las Palmas and centre-half Florian Lejeune moved from Eibar to Newcastle. In total, there have already been over 500 transfers among La Liga’s 20 clubs, with just eight having spent more than they have taken in.

Amid all this movement, stability could prove very useful, with an unlikely beneficiary. Atletico Madrid are usually a selling club, and had expected to lose Antoine Griezmann to Manchester United for €100 million this summer. But with Atletico unable to buy a replacement due to a Fifa-imposed transfer ban, coach Diego Simeone

persuaded the Frenchman to stay one more year.

Fellow widely-sought after stars Koke, Saul Niguez, and Jan Oblak also committed their futures to Atletico. Meanwhile, youngsters and squad players unused by Simeone last year have been sold for a total of €70 million — enough money to secure both Spain winger Vitolo and Chelsea striker Diego Costa to arrive to strengthen the team next January.

“The club has made a big effort to keep the team together,” said Simeone yesterday. “Players among the best in La Liga have chosen to stay here. What some might see as a weakness [the transfer ban] can be a positive, as we know each other and know what we want.”

The biggest unknown for

Simeone’s side surrounds their new 68,000-seater Wanda Metropolitano ground. With work still continuing at the former municipal athletics facility, La Liga have reversed some early fixtures so it will not be required until September 16. If the impressive modern stadium’s atmosphere can quickly match that of their former Vicente Calderon home, Atletico look well set.

Madrid had been expecting a quiet off-season, until Ronaldo’s tantrum when he was charged with tax fraud. The Portuguese is also set to miss the first four La Liga games after pushing the referee when sent off for diving in last weekend’s Supercopa at Barcelona. The temperamental Portuguese claims to still feel “persecuted” within Spain, and speculation over his future won’t go away.

Madrid have the deepest squad, but have taken a risk by moving on high quality back-ups Morata, Danilo, James and Pepe, replacing them with promising but unproven Theo Hernandez, Jesus Vallejo, Dani Ceballos, and Borja Mayoral. The biggest impact could come from emerging superstar Marco Asensio, still just 21, but already challenging galacticos Gareth Bale and Ronaldo for a first-team spot.

Ronaldo apart, everyone at the Bernabeu is feeling buoyant, especially after the 5-1 aggregate win over Barca in the Supercopa. Coach Zidane Zidane was more cautious on Wednesday night. “There’ll be no euphoria now,” he said. “We can enjoy this moment, but we know this will be long and difficult. Last year we won La Liga on the final day, and this year we’ll have to fight until the end again.”

The mood at the Camp Nou was anything but euphoric, even before this week’s awful terrorist attack on the Catalan capital. Barca’s beleaguered board have not dealt well with losing Neymar, and underwhelming signings in little-known right-back Nelson Semedo and ex-Tottenham midfielder Paulinho have only increased frustration around the club.

New coach Ernesto Valverde has his work cut out already, even if Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele arrive from Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund before the transfer window closes. Cup competitions might be Barca’s best bet for success although a total meltdown leading to snap presidential elections is a possibility, especially if blaugrana talisman Lionel Messi does not soon sign a new contract.

“In football, difficulties always arrive at some point,” Valverde said on Wednesday at the Bernabeu.

“Some things that happened pre-season have affected the team’s balance. We must work to correct that.”

Last year’s fourth placed finishers Sevilla have as usual been wheeling and dealing, although without wily former sporting director Monchi, who left for Roma. Incoming coach Eduardo Berizzo has seven new arrivals, but his squad looks weaker than last term. Other sides with new coaches include Valencia, Athletic

Bilbao, and Celta Vigo, who will battle for Europa League qualfication spots.

If stability is all-important, then Villarreal could be

potential surprise title challengers. Underrated coach Fran Escriba kept his job, and they are the division’s biggest net spenders this summer.

Forward Enes Unal [ex-Manchester City], centre-back Ruben Semedo [Sporting Gijon] and midfielder Pablo Fornals [Malaga] are all under 23 and potentially exciting signings, while proven goalscorer Carlos Bacca has been loaned from AC Milan.

Best to watch may be Real Betis — where highly-rated tactician Quique Setien has nine new players and a lot of expectation to deal with. Setien’s old team Las Palmas, and perennial basket-cases Malaga, both look likely to struggle amid off-pitch turmoil.

Most interesting among the promoted sides is Girona, playing their first ever Primera Division season. Their part-owner is well connected agent Pere Guardiola, brother of Man City manager Pep, who has sent four promising youngsters on loan to the Catalan club.

Although predictions are always difficult in the topsy-turvy world of Spanish football, most local pundits are backing Zidane’s Madrid for their first back-to-back titles in a decade. But Simeone and Griezmann could upset the neighbours in what is likely to be a farewell season for both at Atletico.

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