Last season in La Liga, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid stunned many onlookers by winning the league title and only being seconds away from a stunning Champions League victory against city rivals Real Madrid.
Madrid’s last gasp equaliser and subsequent 4-1 win in extra time heralded a changing of the guard at Atletico with several key players moving on from the club and new faces brought in to replace them.
While Diego Simeone’s men may still provide a formidable challenge this season, most experts in Spain agree that the sweeping changes at Atletico, plus their current financial predicament, means that this year it will be a race between Barcelona and Real Madrid for both La Liga and possibly, the Champions League too.
So with La Liga’s season starting, which out of the two giants are likely to come out of the 2014-2015 season on top? Let’s take a closer look at each team.
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Managed by Luis Enrique
Goalkeepers: Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Jordi Masip
Defenders: Martin Moya, Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra, Jordi Alba, Adriano, Dani Alves, Thomas Vermaelen, Jeremy Mathieu
Midfielders: Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Rafinha, Javier Mascherano, Alex Song, Sergi
Attackers: Pedro, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Neymar
Once a player at the club, new Barcelona manager Luis Enrique has had a tricky few months in the manager’s role at the Nou Camp. With Carlos Puyol retiring and Victor Valdes leaving the club, he has had to move quickly to replace two key men at the club.
As a result, two new goalkeepers (ter Stegen and Bravo) and two new defenders (Vermaelen and Mathieu) have joined the club and while the goalkeeping situation seems to have improved, defensively Barcelona still don’t look, on paper at least, a particularly solid defensive unit.
Much will depend on how Vermaelen fits in to the team and whether Enrique persists in playing Javier Mascherano as a centre half, when he is clearly not as comfortable in that role as he is in a more natural defensive central midfield position. While Barcelona may have potential problems on paper defensively, they are stacked with talent going forward.
Eight high quality midfielder will likely compete for just three places in the team each week. Even the sale of players like Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez hasn’t hurt Barcelona’s attacking qualities too greatly. Ivan Rakitic will prove to be a shrewd signing from Sevilla, while Luis Suarez is the biggest signing of the summer and the prospect of a Messi, Suarez and Neymar three-pronged attack will have Barcelona fans expecting great things of the team this season.
On paper, that is an attack that can worry any team in the world if on song, but it remains to be seen if this trio of South American superstars can knit together into an effective unit. Barcelona fans better hope that they can because without them, this is a team that doesn’t quite have the strength in depth of their main rivals, Real Madrid.
Managed by Carlo Ancelotti
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas, Keylor Navas, Pacheco
Defenders: Raphael Varane, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Fabio Coentrao, Marco, Daniel Carvajal, Alvaro Arbeloa, Nacho Fernandez
Midfielders: Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Angel Di Maria, Isco, Asier Illarramendi
Attackers: Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Jese
Winning the Spanish Cup and the Champions League rescued Real’s season somewhat but Carlo Ancelotti will know that the clubs demanding fans will be expecting a 33rd League Title this season, as well as a strong defence of their Champions League title.
In defensive terms, there have been no new arrivals at Real this pre-season, but the goalkeeping situation has become much clearer with Diego Lopez having now left the club leaving Iker Casillas back as the number 1 choice.
The hugely impressive Keylor Navas, who shone for Levante last season as well as Costa Rica at the World Cup, will be a more than able deputy and should push Casillas very hard for a place in the team. If not signing any defensive players may be viewed as a poor decision by Ancelotti, it is fair to say that Real do have better strength in depth than their main rivals in defence with the likes of Varane, Carvajal and Nacho Fernandez expected to mature into genuine contenders for a place in the first team.
Despite being La Liga’s top scorers with 104 goals last season, Real have invested in creative, attacking midfielders this summer, most notably signing Toni Kroos from Bayern Munich and one of the star’s of the World Cup, James Rodriguez from AS Monaco. That may be supplemented by the sale of one or two players. Notably Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira who have both been strongly linked with a move away from the club this summer.
In attack, Real only have Karim Benzema as a natural striker (though they have been strongly linked with a loan move for Radamel Falcao) but Cristiano Ronaldo and indeed Gareth Bale have also spent time as a central striker, while Jese will see more action from the bench now that Alvaro Morata has been sold to Juventus.
In all, Ancelotti has fine-tuned, rather than radically altered his team from last season and he has made some astute signings. The question is, will they be enough to see off what is likely to be a strong Barcelona challenge?
This really is an exciting season ahead in La Liga, full of unknowns.
Can Barcelona cope for the first couple of months of the season without Neymar (injured) and Suarez (banned)? Will Lionel Messi rediscover his very best form and how will Luis Enrique’s new look Barcelona team shape up defensively after being found out several times over the last two years, notably by Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich?
For Real, the question is whether their new players can make the difference they need to close the small gap on Atletico and Barcelona at the top of the table. If they can, and Real’s collective team effort pays dividends, then they could well be set for another great season.
It is a real clash of footballing cultures; Barcelona look somewhat weak defensively but on paper, have without doubt the most exciting attack in world football. Real however, look to have a by far stronger team in all areas as well as the individual flair and brilliance of key players such as Ronaldo and Bale.
Will individual brilliance triumph over a more team-centred ethos? Well in the last few years, the team centered ethos has been the winner with Bayern Munich and Germany both proving that a real team ethic can lead to huge success.
For me, that means that I believe Real just have the edge, but what cannot be doubted is that the new season looks like being one of the most exciting in La Liga history with all of the world’s top five or six players likely plying their trade at Spain’s top two clubs.