2015-16 La Liga Season Preview: The Contenders

With the 2015-16 Spanish league season kicking off this weekend, we preview the road ahead for La Liga’s 20 sides. In the first instalment of our La Liga Season Preview we look at the contenders: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

For the first time in a decade, in the last four seasons we’ve had three different champions. It followed nine years dominated by Barcelona, who won six league titles, with Real putting a title-winning challenge together on three occasions. Valencia’s 2004-05 team led by Rafa Benitez was the last side to win prior to the domination of the big two, and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid broke up the dominance in 2013-14. Last season, despite an absolute rollercoaster ride for Luis Enrique, Barcelona returned to the summit.

The 2014-15 season felt like a return to the old ways, with Barca finishing two points ahead of Real, and Atleti 14 points adrift of their city rivals – finishing the year fighting for the guaranteed Champions League spot with Valencia and Sevilla rather than the biggest prize.

The final standings of last season don’t accurately reflect the ebb and flow of the league, however, as it wasn’t simply a two-horse race from the start.

It was dubbed La Liga por todos – a league for all – in October last year, when five sides were separated by two points at the top of the table, with Sevilla level with Barcelona in first place. Of course, the challenge of Sevilla, Valencia and defending champions Atleti didn’t continue and, eventually, Barca and Real pulled away, but it was one of the most exciting starts to a season in a long time – and if the season before taught us anything, it would be wise to not write off any of the top Spanish sides too quickly.

In saying that though, Sevilla and Valencia managed their terrific starts to the season without Champions League football – and with the latter not involved in European competition altogether. This season, they will both be involved in Europe’s elite club competition, with Valencia snatching fourth place in the league and Sevilla gaining entry via a win in the Europa League. With that in mind – despite both possessing exciting, young sides and two very impressive managers – a title challenge will probably be a bridge too far.

It will likely come down to the three sides that have won the last four titles.

Barcelona are, of course, the defending champions, having won the title on the penultimate day of the season at the Vicente Calderon – coincidentally a role reversal of the season previous where Atleti won it at the Camp Nou. It was a perfect start to 2014-15 for the Catalans, with Claudio Bravo keeping eight consecutive clean sheets to begin the campaign before losing 3-1 to Real in the first Clasico of the season, which left them equal-top with Sevilla a quarter of the way through. That result sparked a turn for the Blaugrana however, who made it back to back losses when manager Luis Enrique faced his former side Celta Vigo which saw them drop to fourth in the clasificacion.

Despite winning five of the next seven matches, the axe appeared to be hanging dangerously above Lucho and the often hyperbolic Spanish press declared Barcelona in crisis while Real went on a record-breaking 12-match winning streak to sit atop the league standings. It wouldn’t last, though, as Enrique’s side dropped points only three times in the second half of the season (one loss and two draws) to capitalise on a new year slump from Los Blancos and take a crucial three points in the return Clasico to regain the advantage and eventually claim the title. They added a couple of cherries on top with wins in the Copa Del Rey over Athletic Bilbao and in the Champions League against Juventus.

Repeating a treble season is near on impossible, and with other circumstances surrounding Barcelona it looks even more so.

Despite Xavi’s role being decreased over the last two years, the loss of one of the club’s greatest ever players – and arguably the best midfielder of his generation – will no doubt have an effect on the squad. He came in and out of the side at vital times in all three competitions last term, and though the midfield three of Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic functioned excellently, in Xavi they’ve lost a quality option to rotate through the midfield.

Pedro scored an extra-time winner in the European Super Cup, but it may be his last goal for Barcelona.
Pedro scored an extra-time winner in the European Super Cup, but it may be his last goal for Barcelona.

Likely following Xavi out the Camp Nou exit is Pedro, who has been linked with a move away for the last few months and a deal with Chelsea is rumoured to be close to completion. If the World Cup winner does leave during the summer window, Barca will have lost both their first midfielder and their first forward/winger off the bench.

The transfer ban – or registration ban, rather – that they’re currently serving has limited their ability to replace the outgoing players. The club have made two signings in Arda Turan from Atletico Madrid and Aleix Vidal from Sevilla, though they cannot be registered until January 1st. Arda will play mostly as a central midfielder but can also play out wide, and while Vidal was expected to challenge Dani Alves at right-back there is a chance he’ll play on the wing if Pedro does indeed leave. But, with those two unavailable until the new year, the club has been forced to promote from within, with the likes of Munir, Alen Halilovic and Sandro making the step up from Barca B and expected to feature in the matchday 18 semi-regularly.

While there’s no doubting the potential of the three aforementioned, outside the first XI Barcelona look a little light in terms of depth in order to challenge on all fronts – particularly when compared to rivals Real. Throw in the fact that they conceded eight goals in two matches in their first competitive games of the season (beating Sevilla 5-4 in the European Super Cup and losing the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup 4-0 to Athletic Bilbao) in addition to Gerard Pique facing a four-match suspension following the return leg against Athletic – and Neymar still out of action with mumps – it’s far from an ideal lead-in to the opening weekend. Any injuries (or suspensions) to key players early on could prove very costly if Real and Atleti hit the ground running. There’s also a December trip to Japan for the Club World Cup to consider, which will mean even more fixture congestion and more miles on the clock (which is worrying considering the South American contingent, minus Suarez, were involved in the Copa America in the summer). It will take something special – for the second season on the bounce – for Luis Enrique to take his side back to back.

In contrast to Barcelona, Real Madrid have strengthened and have more in terms of squad depth, though they’re still yet to make a big splash in the transfer market. Danilo has joined from Porto to add competition at full-back, and youngsters Jesus Vallejo and Marco Asensio have both signed on before being loaned out, but the big signing of the summer – expected to be David De Gea – is still yet to take place. Kiko Casilla has joined and may begin the season as the no. 1, but with De Gea left out of Manchester United’s matchday 18 on the opening two weekends of the Premier League season, it seems it will just be a matter of time before he joins.

Similarly to the Blaugrana though, they will also be without a club legend in goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who left the club in what seemed to be a less than amicable manner, going in the opposite direction to Danilo. With De Gea expected to arrive though, not only will Real have replaced the former captain, it will be a considerable upgrade.

David De Gea is expected to join Real Madrid and take the no 1 shirt vacated by Iker Casillas.
David De Gea is expected to join Real Madrid and take the no. 1 shirt vacated by Iker Casillas.

Goalkeeper is the only position they could have conceivably upgraded, too. With the front three of Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo (second only to Messi, Neymar and Suarez at Barcelona) supported by a midfield three of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and one of James Rodriguez or Isco – and Sergio Ramos signing a new contract despite interest from Manchester United – there was no need for wholesale changes following the arrival of new manager Rafael Benitez.

Benitez has, presumably, been brought in due to his reputation as an organiser and one of Europe’s top tacticians in the customary Real tradition of replacing the previous manager with someone on the opposite end of the managerial spectrum. It appears he’s also been tasked with getting more out of Gareth Bale, who suffered a dip last year in what could be considered a case of Second Season Syndrome. During pre-season Benitez has experimented with a fluid front four of Benzema, Bale, Ronaldo and Isco (before James linked up with the squad in China) featuring a lot of positional interchanges, which could prove a nightmare to defend.

Ronaldo’s form slump in January last season – which coincided with the team’s poor run of results – proved crucial in the title race, so if Bale can rekindle his form from his last season at Tottenham and first year at Real, as well as becoming more influential in games rather than isolated on the flank like he was at times last season, Real may not be so dependent on the Ballon d’Or winner.

The other issue which hurt Real’s season was the lack of rotation under Carlo Ancelotti. With injuries to Luka Modric and a lack of midfield cover with Asier Illarramendi not favoured by the Italian, Casemiro out on loan and Sami Khedira suffering his own injury problems, Toni Kroos was overworked in the centre of the park. Essentially building attacks from deep while also being the water-carrier for the flair-based players ahead, the German looked knackered as the season entered the business end, and he finished the season making 55 appearances in all competitions. That goes some way in explaining the almost surprise signing of Inter’s Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic, who, as a versatile central midfielder capable of playing in all three lines, is expected to be rotated with Kroos and Modric.

Add in Lucas Silva and the return of Casemiro and Denis Cheryshev from loans, Jese’s return from injury and the signing of Lucas Vazquez from Espanyol, and it’s hard to argue that Real Madrid don’t have the deepest, most complete and balanced squad in the division – and with “Rotating Rafa” at the helm, they may have the man who can make it work.

It’s unlikely that all of the above will remain at the club come the closure of the transfer window, but the advantage Real have over Barcelona in being able to deal with injuries, keep players fresh and rotate through the Champions League group stage could prove to be crucial. La Liga is often decided by very small margins.

Across the other side of the capital Atletico Madrid have been re-shaping their squad to line up what could be another tilt at the title. They had a strong, if not completely convincing, start last season before eventually fading and having to settle for third place. The squad had key players ripped out in the summer window following their title win and Champions League final loss, with Diego Costa and Filipe Luis moving to Chelsea while goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois joined them at his parent club. As has been the case for many years though, Atleti found a way to replace the goals of their departing no. 9 with Bayern’s Mario Mandzukic coming in alongside Real Soceidad’s French flyer Antoine Griezmann and the pair notched 34 league goals between them.

Despite functioning relatively well together, it just wasn’t quite good enough for Los Colchoneros. Mandzukic’s lack of pace limited the amount of open-play opportunities the side created in their counter-attacking style, and they perhaps became too dependent on the solidity of their back four to keep clean sheets while their set-piece routines created chances at the other end. Simeone has moved early to rectify this however, with Mandzukic shipped out to Juventus while Luciano Vietto, Jackson Martinez and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco have come in to add plenty of speed alongside Griezmann to their frontline.

Griezmann was superb in his first season in the capital, scoring 25 goals in 54 appearances.
Griezmann was superb in his first season in the capital, scoring 25 goals in 54 appearances.

The loss of Turan to Barcelona will hurt, but with the new additions to the squad we may see a change in shape from Simeone too. Two of Martinez, Vietto and Carrasco could play in a front three with Griezmann, with Koke expected to move into the centre of midfield (finally) in a switch from the 4-4-2 that has become synonymous with the Rojiblancos under the Argentine’s stewardship. Oliver Torres has returned from a loan spell in Portugal where he played his first full season of first-team football, featuring in 40 matches for Porto across all competitions, and will add some more vibrancy to the midfield alongside Koke, Gabi, Tiago and Saul Ñiguez – with Mario Suarez departing for Fiorentina.

Miranda has also left for Italy (joining Inter on loan) and his departure will pave the way for an all-Uruguayan partnership at the back, with rising star Jose Maria Gimenez expected to start alongside compatriot and captain Diego Godin. Filipe Luis has re-joined the club after an anticlimactic year in London to round out what should be one of Europe’s most staunch defences (with Juanfran continuing at right-back and Stefan Savic joining from Fiorentina to add depth).

While they were 16 points off the pace last season and have seen some significant squad changes, Atleti look far better prepared than they were last season with a more balanced squad that is tailor-made for Simeone’s style. Another stand-out campaign from Griezmann, Koke’s berth in centre midfield and the pace added up front might just see Atleti pushing for the title and make another deep run in the Champions League. You could even argue they’re in a better position to challenge than the current champions.

Transfers:

Barcelona
Ins: Arda Turan (Atletico Madrid), Aleix Vidal (Sevilla) – both cannot be registered until 1 January 2016.
Outs: Xavi, Ibrahim Afellay (Free Transfer), Adama Traore (Aston Villa), Gerard Deulofeu (Everton), Martin Montoya (Internazionale).

Real Madrid
Ins: Kiko Casilla (Espanyol), Danilo (FC Porto), Jesus Vallejo (Real Zaragoza, loaned back), Marco Asensio (Mallorca), Lucas Vazquez (Espanyol), Casemiro, Denis Cheryshev (End of Loan).
Outs: Iker Casillas, Sami Khedira, Fernando Pacheco (Free Transfer), Javier Hernandez (End of Loan).

Atletico Madrid
Ins: Jackson Martinez (FC Porto), Stefan Savic (Fiorentina), Yannick Ferreira Carrasco (Monaco), Luciano Vietto (Villarreal), Filipe Luis (Chelsea), Bernard Mensah (Vitoria Guimaraes), Oliver Torres (End of Loan).
Outs: Arda Turan (Barcelona), Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Mario Suarez (Fiorentina), Raul Jimenez (Benfica), Miranda (Internazionale, Loan), Leo Baptistao (Villarreal, Loan), Bernard Mensah (Getafe, Loan), Emiliano Insua, Cristian Rodriguez (Free Transfer).

The Blog FC predicted finish:
1st Real Madrid
2nd Atletico Madrid
3rd Barcelona

About Mark Houston 86 Articles
Mark is an editor of The Blog FC and has also contributed to other sport and music sites. He predominantly writes about La Liga but also follows Europe's other top leagues and the local A-League. There's a special place in his heart for bearded deep-lying playmakers and he's a proud member of the Goalkeepers Union.