La Liga is constantly referred to, sometimes in a derogatory manner, as a two horse race; and it is widely accepted that the gap between Barcelona/Real Madrid and all the rest is an ever widening one. However, there are numerous instances littered throughout the storied past of the Spanish league where an unfancied member of the chasing pack broke free and upset the apple cart somewhat. At the beginning of the previous decade, Rafa Benitez' Valencia excelled on both the domestic and European stages, while 'Super Depor' made La Coruña the smallest city ever to parade a La Liga Championship. Further back, an Athletic Bilbao side led and characterised by their hard as nails centre back Andoni Goikoetxea (whom Barca fans may remember as the Butcher of Bilbao responsible for Diego Maradona's horrific broken ankle), did the double during the 80s; while their fellow Basques from Sociedad retained the title before them. And during Real Madrid's golden era of the 1960s, only Atletico proved capable of breaking the domination of their cross city rivals.
A team other than one of the clasico two triumphing may be hard to picture, but these sides' names etched in the history books show it can be done. In today's Liga, below the top two, there is a clear group of clubs who will be up there or thereabouts at the end of the season. Going into the strike-delayed new season, all of them would probably settle for a 3rd or 4th place finish and the Champions League berth that arrives with it. But, with a bit of luck along the way, could one of these pretenders break away to become a genuine contender to end the ongoing 7 year duopoly?
Valencia - With the ink not yet dry on the headlines surrounding Juan Mata's departure to Chelsea, it would be easy to call Valencia a selling club. Mata joins David Villa, David Silva, and Raul Albiol as big names who have departed the club at probably below market value in recent seasons. However, to refer to them as such is to overlook just how well they have spent this summer; and while Mata's loss on one hand is a blow to Unai Emery's outfit, it should also force them yet further under the radar.
Pablo Piatti of Almeria was a shining light on the league's worst side and has now found his level after an €8m move, while Real Madrid's Sergio Canales comes in on a long term loan remaining one of Spanish football's brightest young talents despite a year spent frozen out by Jose Mourinho. Throw in Getafe's highly touted Dani Parejo for a bargain €6m, one of the league's best keepers in Diego Alves, and French international centre back Adil Rami from Lille, and in my opinion Valencia have combined value and quality to put together the best group of new recruits in the league this summer. With around €27m arriving in exchange for Mata's signature, Emery could potentially bring in another 2 or 3 new players to an already formidable looking team.
Last season saw Los Che regularly mix things up both tactically and in terms of personnel, but with a more stable tactical base coupled with young stars taking the next step in their careers and progressing to new heights, the Mestalla side could be a couple of wins against Barcelona and Madrid from challenging for a Championship with a young coach every bit as sharp and motivated to win as Benitez was.
Villarreal - Coming into the summer, it seemed inevitable that Giuseppe Rossi was to depart the confines of one of the smallest media markets in Spain for the bright lights of the Camp Nou or the new Juventus Arena. Instead, the American-born goal poacher has opted to stay (for the time being at least) and his blossoming partnership with Nilmar allows El Submarino Amarillo to boast a forward line of enviable pace and profligacy. Even an elite central defensive partnership such as Puyol and Pique have significant reason to fear a pairing which accounted for 50 goals and 13 assists in all competitions last season, and is going from strength to strength. Two strikers capable of such goalscoring feats is certainly an ideal groundwork upon which a successful team can be constructed.
The Castellon club have made limited forays into the transfer market, snapping up underrated winger Javier Camunas from Osasuna and spending €7.5m on Columbian international defender Cristián Zapata. Beating Arsenal and Liverpool to his signature suggests Zapata will offer something fresh to an average defence, however, early signs were not encouraging in midweek as sheer idiocy from Zapata in his own box gifted a goal and a late 1-0 win to Odense in the Champions League qualifying round. For them to have any chance of mounting a challenge they must hope that his worst is already behind him and that he can solidify a defensive unit that looked well organised but physically and aerially vulnerable at times last year, especially from set pieces. Overturning the deficit from that away leg and gaining the financial and on-field benefits that come with top level European competition is also essential.
Villarreal play a beautiful style of tiki-taka passing blended with counter attacking efficiency, and always ensure that a 25000 packed house at El Madrigal get value for their money and great entertainment. However, with the loss of winger Santi Cazorla to big spenders Malaga, a big piece of their attacking puzzle is missing. Still, with talented playmaker Borja Valero and a goal supply as reliable as any other in Spain, Villarreal remain a force to be reckoned with and a team that will always give the top two a tough time when they lock horns, especially in their bear pit of a home ground. Consolidation of a Champions League place, though, would mark a successful season, despite the ambitions of boss Juan Carlos Garrido for more than that.
Atletico de Madrid - Having lost their two biggest stars to the cheque-books of Mancunian clubs, you would imagine that it would take something truly special to create a buzz around the Vicente Calderon these days. Yet that is exactly what one man is doing: the club's record €40m purchase - #9 Radamel Falcao. As the only 'galactico' type signing in the Spanish capital this year, the ex Porto man has been thrust into the spotlight and, so far, so good; declaring his arrival to be at "one of the World's biggest clubs". While that may be slight hyperbole, Falcao's fee is far from exaggerated due to his incredible strike rate of 72 goals in his past 2 seasons in Portugal. His attacking instincts and usage of space are exceptional, while despite his average stature, his aerial threat is immediately up there with Fernando Llorente as among the most formidable in Spain. The South American must be an automatic Pichichi forerunner and an ideal replacement for former club icon Sergio Aguero, with a combination of pace and power that will have opposition defenders literally quaking in their boots.
Atletico's summer spree of €68m gives them a total exceeding any other side in the league. Zaragoza's inspirational leader and Atletico cantera product Gabi, Turkish playmaker Arda Turan, and ex-Chelsea midfielder Tiago (making his loan spell permanent) amongst others will be strutting their stuff in the red and white shirts of a team that looked in dire need of new blood during their last, flat, campaign. With a host of new arrivals, and Diego Forlan looking set to leave, Atletico have turned over a new leaf and have a side that looks genuinely able to compete with the teams they have spent recent decades in the shade of; with even more reinforcements rumoured, such as Espanyol's main goalscoring threat Daniel Osvaldo. Experienced coach Gregorio Manzano completes the new arrivals, returning to manage at the club he left for Malaga in 2004.
As with any side bringing in a lot of new faces, Manzano faces the tough task of immediately creating a team spirit and willingness of strangers to work for each other and buy into a collective ethos for the club. If he can do so whilst simultaneously trimming the fat from a relatively large squad, results could follow with immediacy. Falcao has seemingly been on a constant rich vein of goalscoring form and, repeating the heroics he has shown in Portugal time and time again that he's capable of, could probably carry the club to Champions League football on his own; re-enacting Forlan's exploits during the 2008/09 season in which he accounted for 32 league goals. Furthermore, if the frequent lapses in concentration which characterised last season for them (4-0 down at half time against Hercules comes to mind) can disappear under new management, a top 2 breakthrough not seen since their 1996 title winning season could prove, as new recruit Turan puts it, not "impossible".
And that's exactly the attitude that these sides, and those (the likes of Malaga, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao) chasing them, need to take. If they believe the hype of Real Madrid and Barcelona, they will crumble at the sight of Ronaldo and Messi. However, if they are able to work as hard as they possibly can and use all resources available to them, they'll create an 'us against the world mentality', and the stranglehold could be broken. It may seem unrealistic, but as these 3 teams and those below them must believe, it is not unachievable.
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