Friday, August 13, 2010

La Liga 2010/11 Preview: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona vs. the Rest

The new Primera League kicks off in less than two weeks with a real case of  a "What have you done for me lately" vibe running through it. Spain may be World and European Champions but that is old news and the focus now moves from international to domestic. Barcelona and a new look Real Madrid are set out to battle it out, once again, for the hearts and minds of the Iberian Peninsula.

The differences between club and country came to the fore as Spain prepared to take on Mexico in the Azteca Stadium.
Andoni Zubizuereta, Barcelona's new Sporting Director, questioned the wisdom of including the vast Barcelona contingent in Vicente Del Bosque's squad calling the call up's as "an extraordinary negative set of circumstances" for his club to deal with as they get ready for the Spanish Super Cup match with Sevilla just three days later.
FIFA's timing in arranging an international friendly window in the opening week of many of the worlds leagues has to be questioned but the way in which Real Madrid and Barcelona questioned their own country, ordained as World Champions just 30 days previous, is another debate entirely.
Quite rightly, the footballing world will focus on La Liga this year like never before.
Barcelona and Real Madrid dominated the league last season like never before. Valencia finished third, a distant 28 points behind the champions, and have moved significantly backwards with the sales of David Villa and David Silva to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively.
Sevilla have also lost their best player, Adriano, also to Barcelona, and has effectively gone backwards. Meaning that Barcelona have stripped their nearest rivals of their best talents and moved further ahead while Real Madrid, under Jose Mourinho, have also strengthened significantly.
That leaves Mallorca as possible top four contenders, but no. The club have changed hands in something like a game of pass the parcel over the last couple of years and due to their financial problems UEFA refused to grant the club a license to compete in European competition on July 22.  The loss of Mario Suarez Mata to Atletico Madrid will hit the club hard and he will be difficult to replace.
Getafe are another team who has lost their best players, Pedro Leon and Soldado, and have yet to bring in anyone of note.
All that leaves Atletico Madrid as probably the only team who could challenge Barcelona's and Real Madrid's dominance.
The club who finished ninth last year have brought in Fran Merida from Arsenal, once thought of as the heir apparent to Cesc Fabregas, Filipe from Deportivo La Coruna, and Suarez from Real Mallorca.
The most important news is that they have managed, so far, to hold onto the best player in the world, Diego Forlan.
In years gone by holding onto a player like Forlan would have been beyond the means of Atletico Madrid but his age and profile and combined beautifully for the Madrid based club.
At 31, the twice winner of Europe's Golden Boot, is too old to attract the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, or Barcelona while his location protects him from Real Madrid coming in and taking him across the city.
All that means is that Real Madrid and Barcelona should be stronger than ever while all their rivals, bar Atletico Madrid, have been weakened.
The title chase will boil down to whoever holds their nerves before and after the Champions League games and with Jose Mourinho already stating that anything less than a Champions League victory would be a disaster for the club it looks as if Los Blancos may be focusing on Europe over the league.
Team Previews:
Almeria: 1000/1
Juan Manuel Lillo will have a very tough job ahead of him this year. After finishing a highly credible 13th having finished 11th and 8th in the two seasons previous it looks as this year will be a tough one. Chico, Chisma, and Soriano have all moved on with only Danish defender Michael Jakobsen from Aalborg coming in.
Athletic Bilbao: 250/1
The club are always one of the great stories of Spanish football, but as ever, they are hamstrung by their own transfer restrictions. The club only signs players from the Basque region.
With that in mind only one real player has come in, Mikael San Jose Dominguez. The ex-Liverpool central defender enjoyed a productive season on loan at Bilbao last term clocking up 30 games and three goals. His performances enticed Joaquin Caporras to sign the player on a long term permanent deal and so he becomes the latest Basque region player to join their ranks.
The big news in Bilbao though is that Fernando Llorente has decided to stay with the club after a number of eye catching cameos during Spain's World Cup triumph. If they can keep hold of the hit-man then Bilbao are definite top four contenders.
Atletico Madrid: 33/1
Quique Sanchez Flores is one of the most respected coaches in Spanish football and the club are still on something of a high after winning the Europa League last season. They have added quality during the summer and have not lost one of their stars. Forlan, Aguero, Simao, and Antonio Reyes have all stayed at the Vicente Calderon and are justified fourth favourites for the title.
Barcelona: 8/11
Having won the league in his last two seasons Pep Guardiola will be looking to make another milestone in his short and incredibly successful career.
David Villa has come in as the player to give La Blaugrana the plan-b that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unable to provide last season. While Adriano has come in to bolster the resources in defence and midfield on both sides of the pitch.
However, the big story of the summer was Cesc Fabregas' on and off transfer back "home." The move is off for at least one more year and it would come as no surprise to see the Arsenal midfielder joined by Fernando Torres in a Barcelona jersey next year.
For this year, Barcelon are once again the team to best but Real Madrid will run them closer than ever before. Pep Guardiola will have it all to do as he tries to motivate his team against the ultimate motivator, Jose Mourinho. With the only stumbling block for Guardiola being how do you motivate players that have won everything the game has to offer while Jose will have the easier task of motivating players who haven't won anything in years.
Deportivo La Coruna: 400/1
Nobody in and nobody out might not actually be the worst thing to have happened to Deportivo during the summer. Everyone above them have arguably been weakened so the mid-table club could move up the table, slightly.
Espanyol: 400/1
The shadow of Daniel Jarque still looms over the club after their captain died from sudden death syndrome last summer. But the tribute by Andres Iniesta to his friend after he scored the winning goal in the World Cup final has allowed the city, and the team, to gain some sense of closure.
Having moved into the Estadi Cornella-El Prat last season the Barcelona based club are set up perfectly to consolidate themselves as a European football side in the coming years. Mauricio Pocchettino is still cutting his teeth as a manager but has done a decent job so far and will be looking to improve upon last seasons 11th placed finish.
Getafe: 500/1
Ex-Spanish international Michel only took over the club in April 2009 with the club firmly entrenched in a relegation battle. A last day of the season win helped keep Getafe in the top flight and last season he followed that up by guiding the Azulones to a highly credible 6th placed finish.
Everybody's favourite second team last year due to their swashbuckling attacking style Getafe may find it difficult to make a repeat performance. Having lost their two best players in Pedro Leon, who moved to Real Madrid, and Soldado, who moved to arch rivals Valencia. Getafe and Michel will have it all to do if they are to make a repeat of last seasons success.
Hercules: 1500/1
The team with the greatest name in domestic football returned to the top echelons of Spanish football in the most dramatic way possible last season. Losing 1-0, in their penultimate game, at halftime, to Rayo Vallecano, the little team from Valencia were out of the promotion race.
But a second half comeback from Esteban Vigo's men saw them claw their way back into the promotion race with a 2-1 win. Meaning that Betis'  last day 4-0 win over Levante and better goal difference over Hercules was cancelled out in the head to head and Hercules were promoted.
The two major signings of Aguilar from Udinese and Fritzler from Lanus won't really make too much of a difference as far as the league is concerned and Hercules will go into battle on the first day of the season against Athletic Bilbao as firm favourites to go straight back down.
Levante: 1500/1
Over the last six years Levante have been something of a yo-yo club as far as La Liga is concerned. Up and down almost every other season the pressure of the situation almost came to a head in 2008 when the clubs players went on strike in the prospect of not being paid.
That situation was repaired when La Liga officials met with the team, who were owed €18 million in unpaid wages, and offered them a friendly against a best of the best La Liga selection with all takings going to Levante's players.
It didn't stop them being relegated though. This time they are back up under new owners, but don't have the kind of money the club needs to avoid a relegation battle.
Malaga: 750/1
Survival on the final day of the season thanks to a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid was just about everything the Malaga squad deserved after a hard fought season.
That might change somewhat after Sheikh Abdullah of the ruling family in Qatari purchased the club. With money bound to be pumped in and with Malaga enjoying a deep penetration into Britain through the regions links it looks as if the future is bright for the little club.
No signings and no sales, again is not as bad as it sounds. They will however flirt with disaster once again but should finish a little more comfortably than last year.
Real Mallorca: 500/1
Where does Michael Laudrup start?
Real Mallorca were in the promised land of the Champions League as the final seconds ticked down on the final day of the season only for Rodri at Sevilla to score an injury time winner and send Laudrup's squad into the less lucrative Europa League.
However, following the clubs failure to attain the riches on show in Europe's main competition the club slipped into administration and then UEFA banned them from competing in the Europa League too.
The sales of Adruiz and Borja Valero will hit the club hard but the club should consolidate under the new ownership of Lorenc Serra Ferrer.
Osasuna: 750/1
Jose Antonio Camacho is one of the Spanish games great managerial characters. His preference at using what many refer to as agricultural tactics make Los Rojillos a tough prospect for any team.
Over the past ten years the club have become as much as part of the La Liga set up as Real Madrid or Barcelona, albeit at a lower level. Their record over the last ten years has seen them finish anywhere from 4th in 2005/06 to 17th in 2007/08 with an average of a highly respectable 12th overall.
Racing Santander: 750/1
Santander have been part of the Primera League every year since 1993 with the exception of 2001/02 in which they were promoted straight back up.
The club usually found themselves in the lower midtable up until 2006 when years of experience and planning at the highest level began to make dividends with respective 10th, 6th, and 12th league placings before last years drop to 16th.
Santander are unlikely to find themselves in the relegation battle or in the hunt for Europe so mid table respectability looms again. Sergio Canales move to Real Madrid won't hit the club as much as it sounds as the prodigious youth only broke into Miguel Angel Portugal's team late on.
Real Madrid: 6/5
Jose Mourinho, Jose, The Special One, Florentino Perez...
The biggest transfer of the season was not that of a player it was the move of Mourinho from Internazionale to Real Madrid.
Within a couple of weeks Perez had realised what an outstanding manager he had signed after he and many others at Madrid were simply astounded at the Portuguese's 12 to 16 hour working days.
No stone has been left unturned at the Santiago Bernabeau and just to show how ruthless he can be, Mourinho has allowed two of the clubs longest and best serving players to leave on free transfers after he decided that their time was up.
Raul has gone to Schalke 04, while Guti was allowed to join Besiktas in Turkey and so endeth their 25 year careers in white. Thomas Metzelder was also allowed to return to Germany and Schalke after his less than impressive time at the club and so began Jose's newest reign.
Sergio Canales has joined from Santander but it is hard to see him figuring too much this year, Angel Di Maria has joined from Benfica and provides great width for the side, as does Pedro Leon. But Jose's best business so far has been to bring in Germany's powerful midfielder Sami Khedira for around £10 million.
Just to show how the purse strings have tightened at Madrid this summer, the club are currently in negotiations with Internazionale over Maicon. The clubs have agreed a fee but are disputing who should pay the Brazilian's compensation.
As ever Los Blancos will be in a two way spiral with Barcelona. It is almost impossible to call but one thing is guaranteed, the title race will be closer than last year.
Real Sociadad: 750/1
With only two foreign players on their books everybodies favourite Spanish team of the '80s are back in the big time after a two year sojourn in the lower reaches of the game.
The clubs mandate of signing as many Basque players as possible is still adhered to and they should just about avoid the relegation battle. Their one signing of Joseba Llorente from Villareal is a very good one but they will need more than him if they are to progress up the table.
Sevilla: 25/1
Luis Fabiano leaving is still a very real possibility for the team that finished fourth last season with the clubs manager Antonio Alvarez being quoted as the loss not being an unbearable one for the club.
That being said the club have rejected all offers during the summer with the latest being Marseille's rebuttal.
The arrivals of Dabo and Guarante will strengthen the squad but the loss of Adriano combined with the potential loss of Fabiano would be nothing short of disastrous for the club and their ambitions.
The pressure will be on Alvaro Negredo to up his performance levels and if he even reaches halfway towards his undoubted potential Sevilla will have another wonderful player on their books. Europe seems certain with a top four finish dependant on holding onto Fabiano.
Sporting Gijon: 1500/1
Sporting Gijon are many peoples favourites to go down but Manolo Preciado has arguably done the best transfer business in Spain this summer.
21-year-old Alberto Botia has joined from Barcelona after impressing in a loan deal last season while Sebastian Eguren has been brought in to bolster midfield from Villareal. However, in one of the shocks of the summer, Nacho Novo has joined on a free transfer from Rangers.
The Spanish centre forward is best known for his work in Scotland with Rangers and he may just be the player to give Gijon a dimension they were missing in tight games last year.
Valencia: 33/1
The third most supported team in Spain and one of the most supported teams in the world. Even with a sold out 75,000 Nou Mestalla on the way the club are deep in debt.
A report earlier this year estimated that the club were €450 million in the red after the disastrous presidency of Juan Soler.
David Villa and David Silva have departed with maybe more to follow. Despite all the doom and gloom bookmakers have Valencia almost guaranteed to make Europe and Unai Emery has the unenviable task of pulling everything together and making it right.
Villareal: 50/1
The Yellow Submarines have been one of the great success stories of European football over the last decade or so. Considering that the club has only spent 12 of it's 88 years as a club in the Primera League that is some feat.
Villareal will, once again, battle it out for the main European spots but could struggle as they have yet to replace many of the players they let go in the summer.
Borja Valero is the only incoming player while Robert Pires, Escudero, Ibagaza, and Joseba Llorente have all left the club. The early signs coming from the club is that more sales could be on the way and with it a tough period for the club.
Zaragoza only survived last year because of their expert dealing in the transfer loan market. When the chips were down the club brought in seven players and managed to avoid the drop. Six of those have gone back to their parent clubs although Contini has agreed a permanent deal after Zaragoza and Napoli agreed terms.
What all this adds up to is that Zaragoza could find themselves in the lower reaches of the league once again but should survive because worse teams than them are there.
Five Players to Watch:
Fran Merida (Atletico Madrid), Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Johnathan Dos Santos(Barcelona), Mehmet Topal (Valencia) 
1. Barcelona
2. Real Madrid
3. Atletico Madrid
4. Villareal
5. Valencia