After a short summer, exacerbated by the fact that it was sandwiched between World and European Cups, La Liga is set to kick off again! The biggest storyline will of course be whether or not Barca can continue their world dominating form or if Real Madrid, now slightly removed from a trophy-less season, can return to the heights they reached near the end of 2014. There are set to be legitimate challenges from Atletico, Sevilla, and Valencia, with plenty of drama across the mid and lower sections of the table, as well. Without further ado, let’s preview the 2015-2016 season of La Liga through the lens of Jornada 1. All times are in CET:
Fri. 21 AUG
Malaga v. Sevilla 20:30
The season kicks off on Friday night with the recently crowned Europa League Champions visiting the sweltering heat of Southern Anadlusia to face-off against mid-table stalwart Malaga. Sevilla had a successful Liga campaign, mainly fighting Villareal and Valencia for the final UCL spot throughout the year before tailing off at the stretch end and closely missing out. But, again, they won the Europa League (again) and will be the fifth team representing Spain in this year’s version of the best continental cup tournament in Europe.
Malaga finished in the top 10 after flirting with the top 6 for much of the first half of last season. They had some punch in attack last year, but the summer saw departures of nearly all the key offensive players. Samuel and Samu were snatched up by Villareal, while Juanmi has traveled to England to play for Southampton. Nordin Amrabat will join permanently from Galatasaray after a successful loan spell where he contributed to 10 goals in Liga. Croatian prospect Duje Cop will join on loan from Italy after failing to settle with Cagliari, and young winger Adnane Tignadouni joins after scoring 14 for NAC Breda last campaign.
Defensively they will be anchored by their best player, midfielder Ignacio Camacho.They have depth across the back with keeper Carlos Kameni making a return to form last season, as well. Malaga should be a very competent top half club again this season, but it is not likely they will have enough firepower to breach the top 6, though they should be right there with Athletic Bilbao, Celta Vigo, and Villareal.
Sevilla are looking to build off of a very-Sevilla like season that included finishing 5th, winning the Europa league, selling off some of their more successful players, and bringing in a crop of great value signings. Like I said, just another year at Sevilla FC. Also returning are the two maestros, Unai Emery and Monchi, who have dedicated themselves to challenging the best of Liga and Europe for a spot at the head table.
Notably, Carlos Bacca is gone, but as Sevilla typically do, they made several shrewd signings to bolster attack including Mariano, Gael Kakuta and Yevhen Knoplyanka. Ciro Immobile has also joined, and though he never fit in at Dortmund, he is only one year removed from a 22 goal campaign in Serie A. Most impressive, however, is the deep and talented midfield they have built over the last few years. Steven N'zonzi will join the already talented group of Ever Banega, Vincente Iborra, and Grzegorz Krychowiak, with Vitolo and Denis Suarez there to supplement. Krychowiak was an absolute steal at roughly 5m euro last season. He dominated Sevilla’s midfield as one of the best ball-winning mids in Europe and looks to return to form. I predict they will find a way to come in fifth in the league while finding their way back into Europa League after the group stage of the UCL, and of course, they will win it. They are Sevilla, after all. I expect them to win on opening night, with a chance of Malaga drawing.
Sat 22 AUG
Espanyol will be another of the handful of clubs challenging for a top half finish. They finished last season right in the 10 spot. However, they have lost Sergio Garcia, Lucas Vazquez and Kiko Casilla, their three most consistent high performers last term. Francesco Bardi of Inter joins on loan to replace Casilla. Real Madrid prospect Burgui also joins on loan and should stir up some excitement on the wing if he plays as advertised. Enzo Roco will join the backline on a loan from Elche, as well. They will look to straighten out the future of Thievy Bifouma (currently hasn’t reported to training), as the youngster comes back from a loan spell at Almeria where he performed well toward the end of the season, as well as in the African Cup. Otherwise, Espanyol don’t have much to replace the two aforementioned attackers.
Getafe found themselves outside of relegation when the dust settled, but not by much, and they may be facing another battle to stay out of the Segunda division. Mostly, the problem was scoring goals, and that is not an issue that has been adequately addressed. However, as they do most every year, they have brought on a number of loan signings in order to bolster the squad and give depth. Getafe could find themselves making some surprising challenges if the host of loan signings from Spain’s better clubs turns out well. The youngsters include midfield technician Alvaro Medran from Real Mardid, new Atletico signing Bernard Mensah (while retaining center-back Emiliano Velazquez for another year), and Moi Gomez from Villareal.
I expect Espanyol to start the season off with a win.
Deportivo La Coruna v. Real Sociedad 18:30
Depor stayed afloat in La Liga by tie-breaker after finishing with 35 points, same as Granada and Eibar (though Elche’s drop due to financial issues would have made it a moot point). They hope to stay further ahead of the drop this season, signing experienced players Fernando Navarro (center-back) and Cani (winger) on free transfers. They also added Pedro Mosquera to the midfield, and Luis Alberto and Fede Cartabia on loan. The latter two could provide some punch, but Depor will also lose two of their best performers from last season, midfielder Celso Borges and leading scorer Lucas Perez. The attack should not be lacking, but defense could be an issue.
Real Sociedad will finally get the full David Moyes experience after his mid-season move saw ups and downs through the end of 2015. Notably, all of the first team is returning. They also picked up Bruma from Galatarasay and young center back Diego Reyes from Porto. Jonathas came over from Elche and is expected to form a solid striker partnership with Carlos Vela. RSD were neatly organized but lacked the ability to create and finish in the final third, so this should go some way towards fixing that. However, I think they will still be lucky to get any higher on the table than 10th given the level of competition in Liga.
I see either a draw or a one goal win for Depor.
Atletico Madrid v. Las Palmas 18:30
Atletico lost some first team regulars, but gained some proven veterans and explosive youngsters. Going out are Arda Turan, Mario Mandzukic, Joao Miranda, and Mario Suarez. Coming in are former Porto man Jackson Martinez, Villareal starlet Luciano Vietto, and AS Monaco’s Belgian wonderkid Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco. This should inject a good amount of attacking speed and technique to Atletico’s already stout midfield/defense, and if this were a game of Football Manager I would feel good about my chances with this group of signings. Antoine Griezmann looks primed to become one of the biggest young stars in European football following a breakout 2014, while the progression of talented center-back Gimenez will be interesting to follow. In the end, they are unlikely to catch anyone off guard or challenge Real Madrid or Barcelona for first in La Liga. They conceded the second least goals last season behind Barcelona, but their 67 goal total will have to be improved if they want to challenge. They are hoping the new players can work with Griezmann to get that number higher in 2015. There will certainly be a lot of competition for spots, and they should be able to compete in every tournament they play with the added depth.
Las Palmas will make their first appearance in the top flight in 14 years on this day. They made it up after winning the playoff, and were then able to retain most of their key players and sign some loanees. Sergio Araujo will join permanently from Boca Juniors after a fantastic season in the Segunda Division last year (24 goals, league leader). Jonathan Viera and Alfredo Ortuno will also stay on this season. Many will take Las Palmas as an automatic relegation squad, but I think they look primed to make a spirited challenge in the bottom half of the table.
ATM to win comfortably here.
Rayo Vallecano v. Valencia 22:30
Rayo is always a fun squad under Paco Jimenez with their expansive playing style, though they could not tempt Alberto Bueno (lead scorer, 17 Liga goals) to sign a new contract and lost him on a free transfer to Porto. They are taking on former Man Utd player Bebe as a loanee after a rather drab year at Cordoba where he didn’t score any goals. However, they did pick up Patrick Ebert, who flamed out in Russia after creating/scoring 21 goals in 36 appearances for Valladolid the year prior. Rayo should stick around the middle-to-lower portions of the table throughout the year, always throwing caution to the wind and never compromising their style for a couple of extra points here and there (take note, BPL minnows).
Valencia put on a masterful campaign and showed that Nuno and Peter Lim are serious about challenging the elite of Europe. Valencia only lost 5 matches last term, second only to league champion Barcelona. Mustafi and Otamendi, if they are kept together, will once again be one of the most stout defensive lines in Europe, with Alves putting in fine performances as ‘keeper, also. If Otamendi is truly on his way to Manchester, as reports suggest, it will be a major blow to the squad, even if they get Mandala on loan from it. I have to assume that the club is fighting hard to keep him, as they are hoping to break the top three hegemony, but the player has ambitions, too, and it seems almost certain he will leave now. Gaya continues to develop into one of the most exciting wingbacks in football, while former loanees Gomes, Negredo and Rodrigo have all been brought on permanently. With an eye to the future, they’ve also signed very talented youngsters Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali. Parejo, Gomes, and Feghouli are all back, and if talented young striker Paco Alcacer can continue to develop and get more goals it will go a long way in making Valencia a threat to stay ahead of Sevilla and possibly challenge Atletico for third. With the extra games in Europe it will be seen if they have the depth to compete all year, however.
Valencia should have enough to win away from home in Jornada One, but Rayo did force them into a draw at the Vallecas last season.
SUN 23 AUG
Athletic Club v. Barcelona 18:30
And here we go. Athletic Club will have a lot of confidence for this match given their recent win in the Spanish Super Cup (Zorionak, Bilbao - that's congratulations in Basque according to Google). Though they are still dealing with injuries to two of their best players, Inaki Williams and Iker Munian, which does not bode well for the immediate future. They will return with a competitive top-half table club that progressed as the year went on last term. Aymeric Laporte remains the biggest asset and brightest future star on the team, though they’ve also signed right back Eniko Boveda and Gorka Elustundo from Real Sociedad.
Now for the fun stuff. I don’t think that I need to get into details here, as we’ve all been closely dissecting and discussing all of the club’s moves all summer long. We will need to see which Masia graduates will make their name, how Luisito will do with a full season, when Aleix and Arda are able to contribute, and what will happen to Pedro (looking more likely that he leaves every day). It will be an awesome season and we will challenge for every trophy imaginable. Messi will continue wrecking the lives of anyone who tries to turn and defend him with their back to goal, Neymar will somehow keep getting better, players like Busquets and Alba will continue to be world class without the recognition they deserve, Rakitic will still be a steal, and Dani Alves will cut his hair in a really strange way at some point. With all that being said, check out some of the stats from last year’s club and get pumped for the new season:
-The goal differential of +89 was the highest ever in La Liga.
-Barcelona became the first club to complete a Treble twice, and now have a record 5 European doubles (League + UCL), and a Spanish record sixth domestic double.
-The winning percentage, 83.3% was the highest in club history and they became the first Spanish club to win 50 official games in a single season, while also becoming the first Spanish club to keep 33 clean sheets in a single season.
-Barcelona set club records for away games won (23), away goals scored (78), and away clean sheets (17).
-Barcelona became the first club to ever reach 200 clean sheets in the history of European competitions.
It goes on and on like this for a while, so I will leave it at that, but as you can see Barcelona hit new highs on both offense and defense and became an unstoppable machine capable of fluidly changing between possession based tiki-taka passing and full on fast paced counter-attacking. It was one of the most breath-taking seasons I have ever seen. Of course, there is the chance that it is an outlier, as issues such as health, focus, and plain old luck tend to bring teams back to earth after such a fantastic year. However, there is also the possibility that this is just the new normal for this revamped Barca squad and last season was not an outlier at all. Of course, these highs will be hard to match, but cules should expect Barcelona to be extremely competitive in every match they play, making this a wholly special time to be a fan of the club. And regardless, they have the best player on the planet, possibly ever. They will start with a win in week one. The roller coaster Euro Super Cup and embarrassing Spanish Super Cup are symptoms of a short offseason, the inevitable loss of focus, and lack of fitness/sharpness. This is still the club that produced the above-mentioned stats and their world-class players haven't forgotten how to play together overnight. Of course, the Blaugrana will not always be in world dominating form as they were at the end of the 2015 season, and that season also had its share of controversy and low moments, so it is best to take things with a grain of salt, be patient, and hope for the best. Let's not forget to support the club, stay consolidated, and don't let the setbacks make us irrational about the club. They will start Liga with a win in week one.
Sporting Gijon v. Real Madrd 20:30
Gijon comes up to the Primera division after a Segunda campaign that saw them concede only two losses on the entire year. Relying on little more than defensive solidarity, they scraped their way up the ladder with 19 draws on the season. Naturally then, center back pairing of Bernardo Espinosa and Luis Hernandez are the standouts on the team and will be the main proponents of Gijon staying afloat. Otherwise, the squad does have good young talent. Carlos Castro, all of 20 years of age, scored 9 last term, while wingers Jony and Pablo Perez are also solid prospects. The average age of the team is only 23, so they will have to rely on that fighting spirit more than experience. It will likely be a long year for Gijon in the top division, especially given their first opponent.
All cules relished last season not only for the Barcelona treble, but also enjoyed the struggles of Real Madrid, which saw them end the season with only a few minor trophies and plenty of in-fighting. Ancelloti, for all of his strengths, will be replaced by a coach that many Madridistas hope can make up for the previous coach’s shortcomings. For all intents and purposes, Rafa Benitez does look set to implement more rotations, more balance, and more reliance on youth products. It is true that Real Madrid is a place where the stars typically rule the roost, but much like Barcelona under an unflinching Luis Enrique last year, will Benitez be able to put his foot down and not bend to pressures of the fans, media, and board when things aren’t perfect? If Ronaldo doesn’t buy in, can Rafa convince him to follow his plans?
That remains to be seen, but it does seem that the Spanish coach/waiter has gotten creative with his lineups, allowing Bale to play behind the striker and float in and out of the wings with Ronaldo and James, which should help put his stars in better positions to contribute. Bale should certainly have a better season if he is used correctly and gets touches, while the rest of the attackers and playmakers are already well established as one of the best groups in the world. As far as transfers, besides signing Danilo last year (which I can’t imagine was for any reason other than to keep him from Barcelona), RMD have done little. Recent signing Mateo Kovacic is a real coup and he should be a future star, but is unlikely to contribute to a packed midfield as it stands. Notably, they seem to be relying on in-house help such as Jese, Denis Cheryshev and other youth products. These players, specifically the two mentioned above, should add a ton of energy off the bench without complaints regarding playing time. It remains to be seen if some of the balance issues can be tweaked. Typically, a holding midfield duo of Kroos and Modric will work with lesser teams, but both are converted to that central/deep lying/holding midfield role and against some of the bigger squads their lack of size, strength, and defensive nous can lead to less than desired results. It is possible that some of the young prospects such as Illaramendi, Lucas Silva, and particularly Casemiro will fill this role, but again this relies on Benitez being able to put his foot down and bench much more established stars in order to fill a line-up with better balance.
Regardless, Madrid is obviously a world class team and should challenge in every competition in which they are involved. If Rafa can bring more balance, rotations, and creativity to the side it could be a very scary proposition for the rest of Europe. They will likely start the season by destroying Gijon, which should get the media and fans of Madrid really happy, at least for a week.
Levante v. Celta Vigo 22:00
Levante enter the season having battled hard to avoid relegation, their 14th place position belying the fact that they missed the drop by only two points. Main goal scoring threat David Barral has left and they will rely on some newcomers to do the heavy lifting, always a tricky proposition. New players represent some hope, with Nabil Ghilas on loan from Porto after another successful spell at Cordoba, with Deverson (Cologne), Ruben (Almeria) and Verza (Almeria) also joining. It will be a tough challenge to stay afloat, but they will certainly fight for it.
Eduardo Berizzo had a successful first term as head coach of Celta, steering them into an 8th place finish. However, they did lose important contributors (Michael Krohn-Dehli to Sevilla and Santi Mina to Valencia), mainly due to their own contract negligence, and need to make up for this in some way. Daniel Wass will help by joining the midfield from Evian, where he scored 8 times last season. The value signing could prove to be a huge bargain and go a long way in replacing his Danish compatriot. Most importantly, Iago Aspas and Nolito are still on the team. As long as that does not change, Celta should compete well and challenge for a Europa League spot. Both were fabulous at scoring and creating last season, and brought some true excitement to the proceedings.
I think Levante could put up a good fight this year, but the early matches may be difficult for them because of all the new blood on the squad. They are playing at home, but I would expect Celta to get the win.
Real Betis v. Villareal 22:30
The final match of Jornada One pits a top half performer against newly promoted Real Betis. Betis were clearly the class of Segunda A last season after falling out of the Primera the year prior, and look to prove themselves with the big boys this term. The signing of the experienced and highly capable Rafael van der Vaart could make this proposition a reality. Pepe Mel was brought back last December and the team lost only once since then, with Gonzalo Castro and Jorge Molina combining for 51 goals over the year, so they will have confidence. Foued Kadir and Didier Digard will join the midfield from Ligue 1, as well. Of all the newly promoted teams, Betis obviously has the most experience in Liga and should have the best chance of avoiding relegation. Also, the Sevilla Derby is back!
Villareal had a strong season, but will lose out on top performer Denis Cheryshev as the winger has returned to Mardid after his loan stint at El Madrigal. Further, they have lost exciting forward Luciano Vietto and will see Gio Dos Santos leave as well. Brazilian prospect Leo Baptistao has come on loan from Atletico, but other than that the squad looks short on strikers. Samuel and Samu come from Malaga and should add depth on the wings, which Villareal will obviously need with European competition once again on their schedule this season. Goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo returns after a great year between the sticks in 2014-2015, as well.
Villareal rode an impressive first half of the season to 6th place last term, but after Cheryshev got injured and consistency wavered, they had to hang on while Athletic did their best to catch them. I do not think they will be able to keep up with the top five teams this season due to lack of attacking options and losses of key players, plus the added stress of European competition. More so, Athletic Club, Malaga, and Celta Vigo should be very real threats to their sixth place position.
I’m going to say that playing at home, back in Liga, and with a strong squad that Betis wins this match or at least gets the draw.
Otherwise, let the best league in the world begin! Visca El Barca, Visca l’espectacle!