The first round of the Spanish La Liga has been postponed, giving teams one more week to prepare for one of the toughest competitions in world football, so we now take a look at the title contenders and teams hoping to clinch the two remaining Champions League berth, with the first two obviously reserved for Barca and Real. Important information on the mid table sides and relegation strugglers will be available in part 2 and part 3 of our season preview, while you should also check out English Premier League Season Preview, German Bundesliga Season Preview, Italian Serie A Season Preview and French Ligue 1 Season Preview.
Having won La Liga and Champions League titles in great style last term, Barcelona are looking to remain the dominant force in European and Spanish football, and the Catalans look to be in for another successful season. The Spanish giants have produced quite a coup by signing Alexis Sanchez from Udinese, while Cesc Fabregas has finally returned home, making Pep Guardiola’s side one of the strongest in the history of world football. With so many quality players on the pitch as well as on the bench, Barcelona remain the team to beat, with their 5:4 aggregate win over Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup proving los Merengues are still some way off the required quality to match the Catalans. Big strength in depth is something that will make Barcelona even stronger than last term and that is likely to help them remain successful on all fronts. Even though the upcoming La Liga campaign will not be a walk in the park for Barca, I believe the Catalans will lift the league title once again.
Last season: Champions
Important arrivals: Alexis Sanchez (Udinese), Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal).
Important departures: Nolito (Benfica), Bojan Krkic (Roma), Oriol Romeu (Chelsea), Jeffren (Sporting Lisbon), Gabriel Milito (Independiente).
Probable starting line-up (4-3-3): Valdes – Dani Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal – Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta – Sanchez, Messi, Villa.
Pick: Barcelona to win La Liga title
Even though Real failed to lift the league title last term, Jose Mourinho has done a great job in his first season at Santiago Bernabeu as the Portuguese helped the team significantly close the gap behind Barca, which was evident in every El Clasico last term. Los Blancos managed to pip Barca to the Copa del Rey trophy, while doing pretty well in La Liga and Champions League, so their fans clearly have something to cheer about. Real have again splashed the cash to try and reinforce the squad, this time on Fabio Coentrao and Nuri Sahin, but while los Merengues are expected to mount a serious title challenge, they don’t look capable of matching what is probably the best Barca side ever. Another easy second-place finish is the best Real can do in La Liga this term.
Last season: 2nd
Important arrivals: Fabio Coentrao (Benfica), Nuri Sahin (Borussia Dortmund), Hamit Altintop (Bayern Munich), Jose Callejon (Espanyol), Raphael Varane (Lens).
Important departures: Sergio Canales (Valencia), Ezequiel Garay (Benfica), Pablo Sarabia (Getafe).
Probable starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Casillas – Ramos, Carvalho, Pepe, Coentrao – Alonso, Khedira – Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo – Benzema.
Pick: Real Madrid to score most goals in La Liga
Valencia were expected to have major problems last season after selling key players David Villa and David Silva in the summer, but the whole team managed to compensate for the important departures and los Che produced a major coup by finishing just behind Barcelona and Real. Their Champions League campaign ended with a defeat to Schalke, but last season was, nonetheless, very successful for the Mestalla outfit. Los Che have now signed a lot of quality players in Sergio Canales, Pablo Piatti, Adil Rami, Diego Alves and Dani Parejo, but they have stayed without Juan Manuel Mata and Joaquin. Unai Emery will again have to do some rebuilding, but having done that very successfully last season, he can be trusted to do something similar this term. After easily achieving a top 4 finish last term, Valencia are likely to face a much tougher task this season, but I believe they will manage to clinch one of the Champions League berths.
Important arrivals: Sergio Canales (Real Madrid), Pablo Piatti (Almeria), Adil Rami (Lille), Diego Alves (Almeria), Dani Parejo (Getafe).
Important departures: Juan Manuel Mata (Chelsea), Joaquin (Malaga), Alejandro Dominguez (River Plate), Isco (Malaga), Manuel Fernandes (Besiktas).
Probable starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Diego Alves – Miguel, Rami, Costa, Mathieu – Banega, Albelda – Hernandez, Parejo, Piatti – Soldado.
Prediction: Top 4 finish
Pick: Valencia to achieve top 4 finish
Villarreal managed to finish in top 4 last season despite big competition from sides like Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao, and they will be looking to do the same this term. The club were forced to sell one key player so as to balance the books and while Giuseppe Rossi was expected to leave, it was Santi Cazorla who made a big money move to Malaga and thus allowed the Yellow Submarine to keep hold of other star players. By the time Joan Capdevilla left the club he had already lost his place in the starting line-up, so his absence won’t be such a blow, while Cristian Zapata arrived from Udinese to reinforce the back line. In addition to the very good starting line-up, Villarreal now have a decent strength in depth, which should help them do well in both Champions League and La Liga. After keeping hold of Rossi, Valero and Nilmar, Villarreal look more than capable of another top 4 finish.
Last season: 4th
Important arrivals: Cristian Zapata (Udinese), Javier Camunas (Osasuna).
Important departures: Santi Cazorla (Malaga), Joan Capdevilla (Benfica), Jose Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Javier Matilla (Real Betis).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Diego Lopez – Angel Lopez, Zapata, Marchena, Catala – Valero, Bruno, Senna, Cani – Rossi, Nilmar.
Prediction: Top 4 finish
Pick: Villarreal to finish in top 4
Atletico Madrid have been trying to break into the top 4 for quite a while now and they are obviously hoping that this will be a breakthrough season for them. Los Colchoneros again boast a very good squad of players, especially after the captures of Falcao, Adrian Lopez, Silvio, Gabi and Arda Turan, but the departures of David De Gea, Kun Aguero and Tomas Ujfalusi will leave a big gap to fill. In addition to their traditional struggle to meet the expectations, Atletico Madrid face another big problem as the squad were completed just few days before the start of the season. Los Colchoneros will, therefore, need more time to gel than their rivals and that can cost them some precious points in the opening exchanges. On paper, Atletico have the team for top 4 finish, but I am pretty sure their performances on the pitch will leave a lot to be desired.
Last season: 7th
Important arrivals: Radamel Falcao Garcia (Porto), Arda Turan (Galatasaray), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea, loan), Tiago (Juventus), Adrian Lopez (Deportivo La Coruna), Gabi (Zaragoza), Silvio (Braga).
Important departures: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), David De Gea (Manchester United), Tomas Ujfalusi (Galatasaray), Raul Garcia (Osasuna, loan).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Joel – Solvio, Godin, Dominguez, Filipe Luis – Turan, Gabi, Tiago, Reyes – Falcao, Adrian.
Prediction: European qualification
Pick: Atletico Madrid to score more league goals than Athletic Bilbao
After missing out on the Champions League qualification by four points, Sevilla are hoping for a better season this term, and that is why the club have invested considerable funds into new players. Los Rojiblancos did stay without Didier Zokora and Diego Capel, but in came Emir Spahic, Coke, Martin Caceres, Manu and Trochowski, while Emiliano Armenteros returned to the club after scoring 20 goals on loan at Rayo Vallecano. The new players will obviously need some time to adapt to the new surroundings, and if coach Marcelino Garcia Toral manages to integrate them all without too many problems, Sevilla could enter the race for the top 4 finish. The Europa League campaign is likely to prevent them from showing all they’ve got in La Liga and that could ultimately end up costing them Champions League qualification.
Last season: 5th
Important arrivals: Piotr Trochowski (Hamburger SV), Manu del Moral (Getafe), Martin Caceres (Barcelona), Coke (Rayo Vallecano), Emir Spahic (Montpellier).
Important departures: Diego Capel (Sporting Lisbon), Didier Zokora (Trabzonspor).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Javi Varas – Caceres, Spahic, Escude, Navarro – Navas, Rakitic, Medel, Trochowski – Kanoute, Negredo.
Prediction: European qualification
Pick: Sevilla to finish above Malaga
The newly rich Malaga have done everything they could to create a squad capable of challenging for a top 4 finish, and in some other league that would prove enough, but not in La Liga. Even with Mathijsen, Toulalan, Van Nistelrooy, Monreal, Joquin, Isco and Cazorla in the side, los Boquerones will have major problems against top 6 sides, and club owner Abdulah Al-Thani will learn that money can’t buy success overnight the hard way. The team have shown a lot of potential in pre-season, which was only normal taking into account the amount of individual quality, but for the competition as strong as Spanish La Liga, Malaga will need to develop a real team spirit and dazzle their opponents with genuine team effort rather than by the individual quality of their players. Malaga should be able to clinch the final Europa League berth, but for anything more than that they will have to wait at least for another season.
Last season: 11th
Important arrivals: Joris Mathijsen, Ruud van Nistelrooy (both Hamburger SV), Jeremy Toulalan (Lyon), Nacho Monreal (Osasuna), Sergio Sanchez (Sevilla), Joaquin, Isco (both Valencia), Santi Cazorla (Villarreal).
Important departures: Quincy (Al Sadd).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Caballero – Gamez, Mathijsen, Demichelis, Monreal – Joaquin, Baptista, Toulalan, Cazorla – Van Nistelrooy, Rondon.
Prediction: Europa League qualification
Pick: Malaga to score more goals than Sevilla