On the final day of the 2013/14 LaLiga season, Atlético Madrid travelled to the Camp Nou and drew 1-1 with Barcelona to win the title, a feat Diego Simeone later admitted was “almost impossible”. Now, as the Argentine prepares for the 2018/19 LaLiga campaign, the idea of Los Rojiblancos topping the table at the end of the final round doesn’t sound so outlandish. For some, it even sounds likely.
When Atlético took to the Camp Nou pitch that afternoon in May 2014, they did so with a starting XI that cost €45m, less than half the fee Barça had paid Santos for Neymar the previous summer. This year, though, the capital city club have forked out over €100m on quality players like Thomas Lemar, Rodri, Santiago Arias and Gelson Martins. On top of that, they’re keeping their world-class coach Simeone, their world-class goalkeeper Jan Oblak, their world-class back line, their world-class No.7 Antoine Griezmann and their world-class centre-forward Diego Costa.
Given all of this, there is a growing sense in Spain of Atlético being in with a great chance of winning another league title.
Part of this feeling has to do with how strong Atleti look and how they’ll feel more comfortable at their new stadium this year than last when they had just moved in. But the sense of the title being there for the taking also has a lot to do with the perceptions of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Barcelona should be considered the favourites for the title after winning it last year by such a convincing margin – 14 points ahead of Atlético and 17 points ahead of Real Madrid – and, for most, they are. However, there were some doubts over Barcelona’s performances under Ernesto Valverde last year. “They have more success than they have good play,” journalist Pablo Egea wrote. “Only Lionel Messi or Andrés Iniesta have the ability to play the final pass and only the wonderful moments from the former have made up for the attacking breakdowns,” added Alex Delmás.
This year, of course, Barça won’t even have Iniesta, who is already playing his football in Japan. New midfield arrivals have come in, such as Arthur and Malcom, while Philippe Coutinho was signed in January and will complete his first full season in Catalonia, but there are concerns in certain areas. Luis Suárez has hinted that a decline is forthcoming if it hasn’t started already, Ousmane Dembélé didn’t win many admirers in his first season at the club and Barcelona’s right-back debate remains too. If Barcelona did earn more points than their play deserved last year and if their 2018/19 tally falls from last season’s 93 points, then the door really could be opened for someone else.
Could that someone else be Real Madrid? Currently, Los Blancos look to be the biggest wild card in this three-horse race, as they enter a new era following the exits of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Julen Lopetegui has taken over as a coach and there are many reasons to believe he is the right man for the job, from his knowledge of the club’s Spanish players – and they have a lot of them, with almost half the Real Madrid squad being Spanish – to his ability to make most players better.
The Champions League is by far the most important trophy in Real Madrid’s view, evidenced by their three consecutive triumphs, but the fact they’ve won just two league championships in the past decade must irk the fanbase and they’ll surely take LaLiga more seriously than they did last year, when they almost seemed to throw in the towel at Christmas. If they do and if there is a renewed sense of purpose at the club, then maybe they can top the table come May.
The European battle
Besides the title race, the 2018/19 LaLiga season promises to be exciting because of the battle for Europe. With fourth place now guaranteeing a spot in the Champions League group stage, the prize for being the best of the rest is great and the contest should be close.
Six different clubs have finished in fourth place over the past eight seasons so Valencia will have their work cut out if they are to retain it after securing Champions League qualification last year. Those midweek European nights could take their toll on a fairly thin squad and it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see Los Che slip down the table slightly.
Who could take their place if so? Well, Villarreal is always there or thereabouts and have spent significant money in this summer’s transfer market. Real Betis showed very promising signs under Quique Setién last season on their way to sixth and many expect them to take another step forward. Their city rivals Sevilla can never be ruled out either, even if they’ve just had a massive squad overhaul as they continue to try to adjust to life after Monchi. Then there are the two big Basque clubs, Real Sociedad and Athletic, who will expect to fight for Europa League qualification while dreaming of fourth.
The fight to avoid the drop
At the other end of the table, all eyes will be on the newly promoted sides of Huesca, Rayo Vallecano and Real Valladolid. Given that all three are in the bottom five in terms of transfer spending so far, it’s likely that they’ll have three of the weakest squads in the division and will surely all be involved in the relegation battle.
Another club to watch out for is Leganés, a minnow of Spanish professional football preparing for just their third ever season in the top flight. Their recent success owed so much to coach Asier Garitano, who left for Real Sociedad in the summer. Former Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino has come in, but it remains to be seen if he can pull off Garitano-esque miracles.
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