Who is the better signing, Neymar or Gareth Bale?
LUIS: Neymar. While he lacks experience in Europe, he is a phenomenal talent. Doubt about his attitude now seem either unfounded our outdated, as he's been received positively by the fans and the locker room for his humility. "He's a very calm person," Lionel Messi said - a key endorsement. And it's true he's a bit green, but don't forget the massive pressure a player is under when he wears the green-and-yellow of Brazil. The Libertadores and the Brasileirao are not exactly minor competitions either. Bale is similarly an incredibly talented player, but there's no getting away from two things: his position and his pricetag. Either he or Cristiano Ronaldo will have to move from the left-wing position they occupied last year. That's feasible but maybe not optimal. It's not his fault, but Gareth Bale will be expected to live up to a €100 million transfer fee. Even assistant coach Zinedine Zidane called the fee "incomprehensible." It was not a dig at the Welshman's talents, rather a judgement on the massive pile of money Madrid had to fork up.
DENNIS: Obviously this question won’t be truly or definitively answered for years, but in terms of sheer economics and timing I would say that Barcelona did better business by signing Neymar. The Brazilian starlet was signed very early in the window, with far less drama and grueling speculation, and was able not only to get fit in the preseason—but, more importantly, to become acclimated to his teammates and the tactical style of new his coach. Gareth Bale, through little fault of his own, was afforded none of these things and thus is starting at a marked disadvantage relative to Neymar. To add further context, Bale hasn't played a single meaningful minute since May, while Neymar gained a tremendous level of confidence by starring in Brazil’s galvanizing victory in this past summer’s Confederations Cup. Bale didn't have a preseason and will need to bolster his fitness levels, acclimate to his new teammates as well as adapt to a new culture and a new reality as the World’s Most Expensive Player. The tendency will be for him to rush onto the pitch, putting himself at increased risk for the sort of hamstring difficulties that are already plaguing him. Due to his late arrival, it is also unclear how Carlo Ancelotti will deploy Bale and it could take some time for the Italian tactician to figure how to best utilize him.
Who will win La Liga?
DENNIS: Very few things separate these two sides, but I predict that Real Madrid will ultimately win La Liga this year. Primarily because I believe that from top-to-bottom they have a stronger, deeper roster. Barcelona’s opening day demolition of a hapless Levante squad aside, the Catalans looked surprisingly vulnerable against Malaga and largely uninspiring against a really good Atletico side over two legs in the Supercopa. The vulnerabilities in the center of their defense were exploited by Valencia and I think over the course of the season this weakness will ultimately cost them just enough points for Madrid to reclaim the Primera Division. I also think, that again in what essentially amounts to a battle of inches between these two squads, Carlo Ancelotti’s varied experience and lengthy history of coaching throughout Europe will prove decisive, providing Madrid with just enough of an advantage to pass their bitter rivals.
LUIS: La Liga has been rotating for the past few years, but I think Barcelona is still the team to beat. Last year, they left Real Madrid in the dust and if Carles Puyol can put in yet another year and Leo Messi can outshine everyone for yet another year, my money is that the trophy will remain in Catalonia. Of course, much can happen and I would not be surprised in the least if Real Madrid recuperated the title again. I don't think Atletico Madrid have the depth to win, but they will make a good run again.
Who has a tougher job, Tata Martino or Carlo Ancelotti?
LUIS: Both have unique and difficult jobs, but if I had to pick, Martino. Martino has no prior experience in Europe - but again, he has managed at the World Cup and Libertadores. He's done great things for Paraguay, helping them repeatedly punch above their weight, and Newell's Old Boys, whom he's guided from national also-rans to continental powers. This is a bigger role though, and some level of adjustment is expected. This is complicated further because he arrived late in the offseason due to Tito Vilanova's unexpected and unfortunate exit. Being Real Madrid manager is never easy, but the cool and experienced Ancelotti may be the right man for the job. He will have to somehow accommodate Ronaldo and Bale, while justifying the exit of Ozil. All the while, he has to keep the egos in check, the same egos that Jose Mourinho ultimately could not control. The thing that shades it for me is that Ancelotti had more time to prepare.
DENNIS: This is probably the toughest question to answer, as both men inherit legendary global brands oozing with the talent and expectations to win trophies immediately. I’d guess that Martino will receive a little more patience and leeway from the Barcelona board than Ancelotti will receive from Madrid’s due to his relative inexperience in Europe. Ancelotti’s experience at the highest echelons of European football is precisely what will likely earn him less leeway from a Madrid administration and fan base absolutely desperate to secure La Decima. I actually think that Ancelotti has a harder job tactically, particularly with the 11th hour arrival of Gareth Bale and subsequent departure of Mesut Ozil. Whatever plans he may have had in mind at the close of the preseason would certainly have to been altered, at least slightly, by this new reality. This doesn’t even take into account the pending reintegration of players like Asier Illarramendi, Raphael Varane and Xabi Alonso. Ancelotti has many decisions to make and his long-term future depends on how many of those he gets right. In contrast, Martino inherited a far more stable and fixed squad that has had more time to cohere.
That's it for today, but stay tuned! There will be a second part to this preview coming later on. For the moment, be sure to visit Managing Madrid. Also, if you'd like more updates you can follow Luis's Twitter or Dennis's Twitter.