Athletic over MALAGA
At the time of this write-up, Málaga's first-choice striker, and probable starter against Athletic, is Roque Santa Cruz. Much has been made of Los Boquerones' need for a dependable goal-scorer. And while I expect Husillos (Málaga's director of football) to find a player by September 1st, the club's inability to find any striker at this point is troublesome. Luis Alberto arrives on loan from Liverpool, and should help with the scoring output, but is not an out-and-out number "nine." Over the coarse of the summer, Málaga have been linked to various players, ranging from Rubén Castro (Real Betis), Thievy (Almería), and Kike (Middlesbrough). While I think Husillos has done a phenomenal job (Ochoa, Rosales, Alberto, Horta, etc), it is imperative the club find a target man for Javi Gracia, else 14-15 could conclude as it did under Schuster.
As for Athletic, while Ander Herrera's departure will affect Valverde's side significantly, it also allows an opportunity for Athletic's biggest transfer in 2013, Beñat, to prove his worth. The former Betis man arrived in Bilbao with expectations that were not met. Beñat struggled with fitness issues (of which were apparent at Betis as well, but covered up somewhat by Pepe Mel's system), and was ostracized under Valverde due to his poor defensive contribution. Beñat was criticized heavily by Basque press, who were disappointed in what was supposed to be a return to glory at San Mamés. If Athletic are to replicate their 13-14 form, Beñat must improve, or Athletic risk falling out of Champion's League contention.
Málaga 0 Athletic 1
SEVILLA draw with Valencia
After almost an entire year of posturing from Bankia (the creditor that controlled Valencia's debt), Peter Lim finally took ownership of Valencia after purchasing 70% of club shares. In short, Lim's plan is to buy the club's debt (worth roughly €220m), invest heavily in player transfers, and finish the Nou Mestalla. To the delight of Che fans, Lim started on his promise to invest in players before Valencia's foundation even accepted his proposal. An influx of Benfica players (Rodrigo, Cancelo, André Gomes, and likely Enzo Pérez), coupled with Zuculini (Manchester City), Mustafi (Sampdoria), Otamendi (Porto), Orbán (Bordeaux), and Rodrigo de Paul (Racing Club) makes for quite the formidable roster. I won't exhaust this write-up with an analysis of Lim's acquisitions, but following what is the second-largest takeover in the history of football, you might be inclined to say La Liga went from a two-team sh*t league to an EPL-style "Big Four" in the span of a few months.
Sevilla 1 Valencia 1
GRANADA over Deportivo de la Coruña
Youssef El-Arabi spoke recently about the differences Lucas Alcaraz, and new manager Joaquín Caparrós. For starters, Caparrós' usage of a second striker should benefit El-Arabi, who sometimes felt overburdened in Alcaraz' 4-5-1. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, El-Arabi commented on what some Spaniards are calling Caparrósismo; that is, a certain spirit that's emanating around Granada, not dissimilar to the Cholista buzz created by Diego Simeone at Atlético. Most can agree that this Granada squad underachieved immensely under Alcaraz. Considering that the club passed on several high-profile names, including Pepe Mel, Michael Laudrup, Roberto Carlos, and Paco Jémez, to acquire Caparrós' services, the Seville-born manager would do well to get off to a good start against a Deportivo side that hasn't won at Los Cármenes since 1964.
Granada 2 Deportivo de la Coruña 1
ALMERIA draw Espanyol
On Saturday, Francisco will manage his 39th game for Almería in Spain's top-flight, surpassing Unai Emery for most all-time at the club. This is a nice achievement for La Liga's second-youngest manager (Arrasate has him beat by 34 days). Emery, of course, got Almería promoted in 06-07, and finished 8th in the club's first ever Primera season, but left for Valencia the following year. I quite like Francisco, but the loss of their two best creative players --- Suso and Aleix Vidal -- will be difficult to overcome. The club did well to reinforce their front-line, acquiring two strikers with La Liga experience in Thievy and Tomer Hemed, but the signing I'm perhaps most intrigued about is Quique, who scored 24 goals for Guadalajara in his first-ever Segunda season. Hemed, by comparison, only mustered 2 goals in 24 appearances for Mallorca last season. Every year a player from Segunda joins a mid/bottom table La Liga side, and contributes significantly to their survival. Quique, while not an out-and-out striker, just might be my bet, as his dynamism is desperately needed in Francisco's counter-attack system.
Almería 1 Espanyol 1
Real Sociedad over EIBAR
Is there a more feel-good story in 2014 than Eibar, a tiny town in the province of Gipuzkoa, who's population is less than the capacity of 15 of the 20 Primera grounds? Eibar has spent five out of the last eight seasons in Spain's third division, but after consecutive promotions, now find themselves playing alongside European juggernauts, Barcelona and Real Madrid. This despite Javier Tebas' attempt to relegate Eibar back to Segunda B should they not raise the required funds, a notion of which would baffle most fans, if unaware of how the LFP operates. Eibar's story quickly took off around social networks (and with the help of a certain Sid Lowe, of course), as thousands of fans rallied to help Eibar increase their share value, by making donations of at least €50m, and becoming minority shareholders (with a neat little plaque to prove it). This is why we love football, isn't it? This sport was born in Spain in 1871 via British troops fighting in the Carlist War. 141 years later, it's refreshing to know that certain sentiments of good-nature still exist, in what is otherwise a rather corrupt, money-grubbing war between ourselves and the game that we love.
Eibar 0 Real Sociedad 2
BARCELONA over Elche
Elche's 25-year absence from the Primera División ended two seasons ago, as Los Franjiverdes made their long-awaited return to the top-flight. Though Escribá's side's permanence was not secured until a 0-0 draw with Barcelona in Jornada 37, it was a favorable end to Elche's season, and an opportunity for club chairman, José Sepulcre, to fulfill his promise to increase funds for players transfers. While the losses of Rubén Pérez, Carlos Sánchez, and Javi Márquez will be difficult to overcome, Elche's new sporting director, Victor Orta, has done a half-decent job to rebuild.
Barcelona, likewise, have experienced a roster overhaul, not dissimilar to the one that occurred in 2008. Regardless of what you think of the club's administrative issues, if I went over my "summer checklist," I'd be inclined to say Barcelona's thumb-sucking joke of a sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, has done an apt job to acquire players tailored to how Luis Enrique wants to play. This, for me, is key, in terms of my evaluation of Barcelona's offseason. While a player like Thomas Vermaelan hardly excites me, at least Enrique has four center-backs on his roster, a luxury Tata Martino did not have (erm...among other things). Mathieu represents that damn near mythical left-footed central-defender. Rakitić adds physicality and mobility to central-midfield, not to mention superior positional play. And Luis Suárez is, well, Luis Suárez, arguably the best striker in the world.
Sure the club faces an impending two window transfer ban, so a player like Marco Reus or Juan Cuadrado would be nice. But when you make as many mistakes as the Rosell/Bartomeau administration did, then spend almost €150m on Suárez and Neymar in consecutive summers, that "perfect summer" that Culés want is just not possible. So sit back, and enjoy the this season for what it's going to be. Barcelona may not win Champion's League, nor La Liga for that matter, but I can't remember the last time I was so uncertain going into a season. That, if for nothing else, is kind of exciting.
Barcelona 3 Elche 0
CELTA DE VIGO over Getafe
I spent all of last season's praising Madroa, Celta's youth academy, as you'd be hard-pressed to find a cantera (among non-traditional powerhouses) in Spain as impressive as the one in Vigo. While many of Celta's highest-rated prospects (Yelko Pina, David Costas, Rubén Blanco, etc) aren't quite ready for regular first-team action, new manager Eduardo Berizzo has a plethora of talent to work with. Last season's 9th-pace finish will be difficult to replicate due to the departure of Luis Enrique, not to mention Rafinha, but it allows for other players to step up. Notably, Nolito, who scored a career-best 14 goals last season, while also improving his defense. If Berizzo can get that same production out of Nolito, this team can challenge for a European position. At Balaídos, I don't think Contra's side stand a chance, who've failed to acquire a dependable goal-scorer, and of which could be their downfall come May.
Celta de Vigo 2 Getafe 1
Villarreal over LEVANTE
In what will be the second derbi in La Liga's opening match-round, Levante look to get off to a good start in what will be their fifth consecutive Primera season. That's quite the feat for a club that, prior to 2010, had only played five top-flight seasons in their 105-year existence. Interestingly, in seven matches against Villarreal at Ciutat de Valencia, Los Granotes have only won once. Mind you, most of these matches took place from 2005-2010, a period of unprecedented success for Villarreal. Last season, Villarreal put three past Keylor Navas en route to a 0-3 away win, one of many away wins for Los Submarinos in what was a spectacular return to La Liga. While Levante have essentially retained their entire starting XI, bar Navas, I somewhat doubt new manager José Mendilibar's ability to replicate the success of his predecessors. Villarreal have, rather quietly, had a fantastic summer, and should ease to a victory against their cross-town rivals.
Levante 0 Villarreal 2
REAL MADRID over Córdoba
Of the three teams promoted, Córdoba are, arguably, the most well-equipped to secure their permanence. Albert Ferrer, otherwise known as Chapi, made some interesting comments recently on style of play and tactical influences. Ferrer, of course, is Catalan, and spent over a decade playing right-back for Barcelona, and was a key member of the famous Cruyff-led Dream Team. In 2010, he was appointed manager of Eredivisie side, Vitesse, but was relieved from his duties after one season, after narrowly escaping relegation.
Ferrer's preferred template is a possession-based 4-3-3, but due to squad limitations, he was unable to implement that at Córdoba last season. Instead he used tactical concepts,i.e., defend and counter, of which he picked up from his time at Chelsea. But Ferrer has been outspoken about his admiration for the accomplishments of Luis Enrique and Paco Jémez, considering a similar lack of resources. If Ferrer can provide anything remotely resembling Rayo's kamikaze football, Córdoba will be quite the entertaining side to watch. Whether Los Blanquiverdes can avoid relegation remains to be seen, but they are a certainly a team to keep an eye on.
Real Madrid 3 Córdoba 0
Atlético de Madrid over RAYO VALLECANO
I'm not the first person to suggest that what Atlético did last season might just be the greatest achievement in modern football. In utter Breaking Bad style, Simeone's side defied certain systematic certainties en route to their first La Liga title in 18 years. During that last match-day, I was at a pub in Oakland, California, wearing my 10-11 Barcelona kit, and in full support of the club that I love. But amidst the Senyeras and Cant del Barça chants, I couldn't help but half-root for the season-long underdogs that were Atlético Madrid. When that final whistle blew, all around the Camp Nou Barcelona fans started chanting "Atléti, Atléti." As a born-and-bred Culé with an acute interest in all-things Spain, I'm not ashamed to say I did the same. Atlético achieved the impossible that night. And it was truly something to behold.
Rayo Vallecano 0 Atlético de Madrid 2