Season Preview (Part 2) – La Liga Title

Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated proceedings in La Liga over the last decade and it is unlikely that the hegemony will be broken in the 13/14 season. Only Villareal in 07/08 and the title winning Valencia side in 03/04 have broken the duopoly with intermittent challenges from Sevilla under the guidance of Juande Ramos and Diego Simeones’s Atletico Madrid last season. The latter admirably maintained a challenge to Real Madrid for a large part of the season but couldn’t sustain the relentless winning form of the big 2. The subsequent loss of Radamel Falcao to Monaco will make that effort difficult to repeat in the new campaign.

Real Madrid are hoping to recapture the form of 2 seasons ago when Jose Mourinho wrestled the trophy from the exceptional Pep Guardiola Barcelona side. It took a 100 point total that year to win the league but poor early season form last year ended any hope of back-to-back titles. Numerous reasons were put forward to explain this. Mourinho himself pointed at a lack of hunger for some of the losses and there can be no doubt that he founded it hard to maintain the motivation and spirit of the squad. Cliques in the camp and the difficult relationship between the manager and some of the Spanish players further damaged morale and made it difficult to maintain a challenge to Barcelona.

Los Blancos have invested heavily in youthful Spanish players, with the arrivals of the silky wide midfielder Isco from Malaga, the Basque defensive midfielder Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad, and former youth player Dani Carvajal from Leverkusen. It is likely that Gareth Bale will also arrive from Tottenham to complete their summer signings. New Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti has the task of reenergise the squad and mould the players into a cohesive unit. Mourinho’s team had been criticised for being defensive and being over-reliant on the counter attack and one would imagine that Ancelotti will be more proactive in his approach.

Varane and Ramos will most likely form a central defensive partnership in front of Iker Casillas flanked by Marcelo and either Arbeloa/Carvajal. From midfield up it is less predictable. It would appear that Illaramendi is the long term replacement for Alonso and it will be interesting to see who features most in the deep midfield role. Alonso has a brilliant passing range but is not the most mobile and at 31 is not getting any quicker. Illarmendi was key to Real Sociedad’s fourth place finish last year and was also influential for the victorious Spanish U-21 team at the summer’s European Championship. Modric, Khediera, Ozil and Kaka will fill the other central midfield positions. Ronaldo will feature one of the attacking midfield roles with Di Maria, Isco and possible Bale vying for the remaining spots. Benzema and academy players Morata and Jese will provide the striking options.

Barcelona have been struggling with injuries and the ageing of key players. Puyol is 35 and only appeared in 13 league games last season. Xavi is now 33 and can’t play as many games as he once did. In addition Eric Abidal has moved to Monaco, David Villa to Atletico Madrid and Thiago to Bayern Munich. So far the only notable addition has been that of the mercurial Brazilian Neymar.

So how much is left in the Barcelona tank? After last season’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich it was labelled the end of an era. This is probably overdramatizing things as any team with Messi and Neymar will surely mount a serious league title charge. Whether this will be good enough at the elite European level is another matter. Certainly Barcelona struggled without Messi last season and they have become reliant on the dynamic Argentinean for goals and assists. Neymar should alleviate some of the ‘Messi Dependencia’ but there are also some other areas of concern.

In central defence Barcelona have struggled for height and power and have leaked a lot of goals from set pieces. As discussed above Puyol is unlikely to feature much so reinforcements are required for Barcelona to be competitive in the bigger matches during the season. The other key matter for Tata Martino to consider is the intensive high pressure strategy that Barcelona were able to apply under Pep Guardiola. This has been lacking since his departure and they have looked somewhat brittle over the last 12 months. The weakness was not fully tested in the league last year as the league was virtually wrapped up by the end of November and the team did not come under and genuine pressure from Real Madrid at any stage.

Tata Martino is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa and is thus eager to win the ball back high up the pitch. It will be interesting to see can be apply the style of play that was so impressive in the Guardiola era. It is a step-up for the Argentinean manager but he has carved out an impressive record with the Paraguayan national  team and latterly Newell’s Old Boys who be guided to  Argentine title in the Torneo final in the season past as well as reaching the Copa Libertadores semi-final, where they were unlucky to bow out to eventual  winners Athletico Mineiro.

Verdict:

Overall Madrid are building a new team and Barcelona are trying to rekindle the form of the Guardiola years and both will do so under new management. Madrid have arguably strengthened more but if Messi and Neymar stay injury free they should be able to accumulate the required points to win the 2013/14 renewal of La Liga.

Champions: Barcelona

Runners-up: Real Madrid

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