La Liga Season Preview: The Battle for Europe

The second part of our La Liga Season Preview is here, as Mark Houston goes through the Spanish sides who will be competing for the European places in 2015-16: Sevilla, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal, Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo and Malaga.

With the top three proving they’re essentially a cut above the rest in both domestic and European performances – though in the end Atleti only just beat out Valencia and Sevilla for third place – there’s a group of teams that will be fighting what could be a very interesting battle for European qualification.

It’s funny what a lick of paint can do. Valencia had come off an eighth-placed finish in 2013-14 and it looked a long and daunting task to break out of mid-table and re-establish themselves as a Spanish force again. But a new owner, a new manager and a cheeky face-lift for the Mestalla seemed to do just the trick.

The Valencia fans were galvanised behind a youthful side led by a young manager, and their early form only heightened the excitement as a quarter of the way through the season they were still in the title race, ahead of Barcelona. Nuno had his side playing a very German/English style of play in a, well, very Spanish league, and their fast, vertical, counter-attacking play brought the best out of their young core and earned national team call ups for the likes of Paco Alcacer and Rodrigo, who was on loan from Benfica but has signed permanently in the summer. As expected, it didn’t last forever, and they tailed off towards the end of the season but maintained a fourth place lead over Sevilla, which they cemented on the final day to qualify for the Champions League playoff rounds.

They’ve also added Alvaro Negredo permanently (as they were required to as part of the deal with Manchester City), though “The Beast” only managed five goals in 30 underwhelming league appearances last season. While he likely won’t start, he can be an excellent, different option to have for a team that will be welcoming Champions League nights back to the city, and if he can recapture his early Man City form, he could prove a surprise star this season. If he continues his poor form from last campaign – or if they can find a buyer – they do still have hot prospect Santi Mina to slot into the forward line after signing from Celta Vigo for roughly €10m.

Also joined is Aussie goalkeeper Maty Ryan, who has deputised for the injured Diego Alves impressively already this season, making a couple of very good saves in their 3-1 win over AS Monaco in their Champions League playoff. If Ryan can raise his game like many Australian pundits think he can, then he will give Nuno a very difficult decision to make once Alves returns to fitness.

Nicolas Otamendi will be difficult to replace, but the €42m they received from Man City should make finding another centre-back to slot in beside Shkodran Mustafi a little easier. There are rumours of Ezequial Garay joining from Zenit St Petersburg but there’s nothing concrete at this stage. Regardless, with solid goalkeeping stocks, continued good form from Sofiane Feghouli and Dani Parejo in midfield and a technical, energetic forward line, you wouldn’t be criticised for thinking the Nuno revolution has only just begun.

Nuno Espirito Santo has revived Valencia, and the aggressive style of play has awoken the Mestalla faithful.
Nuno Espirito Santo has revived Valencia, and the aggressive style of play has awoken the Mestalla faithful.

Meanwhile, Sevilla are a few years ahead in their own program seeking to establish themselves as a European force, and back-to-back Europa League triumphs have put Europe on notice as they enter the Champions League thanks to the extra spot offered to the second-tier competition winners.

The return to Europe’s premier competition has the potential to affect their league form, but considering they’ve fielded strong sides in the last two Europa League campaigns, Unai Emery is very comfortable rotating his side and fighting on two fronts; and that could give them the edge over Valencia for fourth spot this time around.

The departure of Carlos Bacca for AC Milan will certainly hurt, though. The Colombian scored 20 league goals last season – and 14 the year before – while also making decisive contributions on their European runs. They’ve added Ciro Immobile to replace the Colombian though, and after a disappointing first year in Germany, the Italian will be out to prove his breakout year at Torino was no fluke.

They’ve also lost Aleix Vidal to Barcelona, and rumours surround Grzegorz Krychowiak, but the additions of Gael Kakuta, Mariano, Steven N’Zonzi, Adil Rami, Michael Krohn-Dehli, and, most notably, Yehven Konoplyanka should hold the squad in good stead for the upcoming campaign – if they can contribute right away. Fortunately, Konoplyanka already has, scoring Sevilla’s fourth goal to bring them back level in the UEFA Super Cup final against Barcelona – where they eventually lost in extra-time. Scoring four against the league’s best defence last season is no mean feat, and if they can take that kind of ruthlessness in attack and self-belief to fight back into 2015-16, then they could even be pushing for top three.

While Sevilla and Valencia seem a notch above the rest of the chasing pack, the remaining Europa League spots (if one isn’t allocated via the Copa Del Rey) are well and truly up for grabs. Athletic Bilbao have picked up where they left off last season, dismantling Barcelona 4-0 at the San Mames before earning a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp to claim the Spanish Super Cup – their first trophy in more than three decades.

The evergreen 34-year-old, Aritz Aduriz, will be vital to Athletic’s campaign.

2014-15 was a season of two halves for Los Leones, and Ernesto Valverde was fortunate to escape the sack by Christmas, but thereafter they turned their season right around (perhaps because they were knocked out of the Champions League) and finished the season strongly in eighth and make their way to the Copa final. A continuation of that form is just what they need, and, perhaps even more importantly, a fit Aritz Aduriz could hold the key to their European aspirations. The journeyman netted a hat-trick against Barca and has scored more than 15 goals in each of the last three seasons, but he can’t carry the burden on his own. Iñaki Williams, Iker Muniain and Unai Lopez are all positioned to make a leap forward in terms of their end product, and former striker Fernando Llorente is supposedly available for €10m… A return to the club could be just what the doctor ordered.

Basque rivals Real Sociedad also started slowly before the appointment of David Moyes steadied the ship (as all good British managers do) and saw them finish comfortably in mid-table. Jonathas is the key addition this off-season after the Brazilian excelled for Elche last campaign. Moyes will likely build the attack around Jonathas and Carlos Vela (who scored 10 goals and added four assists in all competitions) and the squad will also benefit from not having wholesale changes.

They still seem some way off the rest however, and they still don’t really have a replacement for Antoine Griezmann. They could surprise, but a steady rebuild seems the obvious route for this season to take.

Villarreal on the other hand look somewhat better placed to contest for fourth or fifth, though the Yellow Submarine did finish a massive 16 points off fifth-placed Sevilla last term. And closing down that gap will be difficult. Matteo Musacchio is coming off a long injury layoff and is expected back in mid-September, while star man last season Luciano Vietto has left for Atletico Madrid. Roberto Soldado has come in for a €16m fee, and the former Spanish international will be out to prove he’s still one of Spain’s top marksman after a terrible time spent in North London (and his unveiling wasn’t pretty either).

They’ve also had the loans of Denis Cheryshev and Victor Ruiz end, and Giovani Dos Santos has left for Major League Soccer in the United States. With some significant squad changes, it’s going to be difficult to maintain their position, particularly with the teams who finished below them looking to improve.

That brings us to the dark horses Celta Vigo and Malaga. Malaga of course were in the Champions League only a few short years ago, but those highs were quickly replaced by the lows of a gutted squad and European bans. They were always there or thereabouts last season in terms of European qualification, sitting no lower than seventh for 26 consecutive weeks, but they couldn’t hang on as Celta Vigo and Athletic finished stronger and they dropped to ninth on the final day.

Speaking of Celta, they’ve continued their progression since the managerial reign of Luis Enrique under Eduardo Berizzo, and they even knocked off the former coach’s new side Barcelona last season, which started a sequence of events that almost saw Lucho sacked.

The Galician side play an attacking brand of football, and they created the fourth most shots per game (13.1) and had the third best pass completion (79.6%) in La Liga last season. Like Rayo Vallecano, they’re an example that with limited resources you can still play front-foot football and get results. Their key man will again be Nolito, who scored 13 goals and made 13 assists in the league last season, but they’ll also welcome back local hero Iago Aspas, who scored 23 league goals in his last season with Os Celticos. If they fire again, and continue to take points off some of the bigger sides, they might just have enough to pip Villarreal or Athletic for sixth place.

Much like the bottom half of the table, nothing is certain in La Liga, and this season’s contest for Europe could be just as exciting as the title race.

The Blog FC predicted finish:
4th Sevilla
5th Valencia
6th Athletic Bilbao
7th Villarreal
8th Celta Vigo
9th Real Sociedad
10th Malaga

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.