Madrid, the real deal

In Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona have a coach who is level-headed, calm and pragmatic. However, he will understand that unless there is significant investment in his squad before the close of the transfer window, the league title could well be Real Madrid’s to lose again.

Ernesto Valverde, the FC Barcelona coach, speaks before the start of a friendly match against Chapecoense at the Camp Nou. Valverde has already earned the utmost respect of Barca’s superstar squad.   -  AP

Not much point in starting this La Liga preview anywhere other than at the Camp Nou. If Barcelona thought their summer couldn’t get any worse, given that their president has a vote of no confidence almost certain to be pushed through against him, his predecessor in jail for fraudulent activities, and one transfer target after another falling by the wayside, they were wrong.

Neymar’s jaw-dropping €222m move to Paris Saint-Germain has redefined the football landscape. Not least because one of Barca’s best has decided that, actually, they’ve no longer got the cachet they once had. Brutal. Luckily, in Ernesto Valverde, the Catalans do have a coach who is level-headed, calm and pragmatic. Moreover, he has already earned the utmost respect of Barca’s superstar squad.

Certainly, three wins from three, albeit in pre-season, is a great way for the new man in charge to begin. However, he will understand that unless there is significant investment in his squad before the close of the transfer window, the league title could well be Real Madrid’s to lose again.

Zinedine Zidane... with two Champions League titles in two seasons, the Real Madrid head coach’s stock is at an all-time high.   -  AP

 

Gerard Deulofeu has been repatriated after a lacklustre spell at Everton followed by a fabulous few months in Milan. Though the party line is he’s happy to be back, his disappointment at the Rossoneri not putting in a bid for his services has been palpable.

Nelsen Semedo looks as though he can finally cure the Blaugrana’s ills on the right side of defence, having impressed in each of his cameo appearances to this point. With Aleix Vidal fit again, and enjoying something of a renaissance form-wise, plugging gaps elsewhere will be a priority for Valverde and Co.

Los Blancos’ results on their US tour have not been expected, particularly the draw against MLS All Stars. Zinedine Zidane has, apparently, been completely happy with the work rate shown by his players if not the outcomes over 90 minutes.

Kylian Mbappe is likely to join the best crop of players there’s ever been at the Santiago Bernabeu, but not before Gareth Bale is sent packing back to England. The Welshman’s injuries appear to have curtailed what was destined to be a long and happy association at Real because Zidane won’t sign Mbappe —who he wants — unless Bale is sold.

How coincidental then that the supposed heirs to the best players at Barcelona and Real will have left well before deposing their Kings. Though the losses of Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez were, ultimately, disappointing for the club, the signings of Dani Ceballos, Theo Hernandez and Marcos Llorente perfectly complement the embarrassment of riches that Zidane already had at his disposal.

As long as injuries don’t knock Real from their stride, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a procession, at least domestically. With two Champions League titles in two seasons, Zidane’s stock is at an all-time high. Not only does he have the full support of his board — unheard of in recent times — he also enjoys blanket respect from his staff, all of whom have bought into his philosophy.

Only a fool would bet against Real’s juggernaut rolling on in 2017-18. Atletico Madrid will again head the chasing pack, despite still not being able to add to their squad over the summer.

Diego Simeone’s biggest success has been keeping hold of Antoine Griezmann, by a distance the Rojiblancos’ best player. With Diego Costa set to join him, along with Vitolo, in January, we should expect Atleti to push on in the second half of the campaign.

Antoine Griezmann is Atletico Madrid’s best player by a distance, and coach Diego Simeone’s biggest success has been to hold on to the French forward.   -  Getty Images

If there is one thing that could hamper them, at least initially, it’s a lack of strength in depth, something that’s become more noticeable without new staff incoming.

Unbeaten in the Audi Cup, a competition that they entered for the first time, and won, Atleti don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Simply playing to their strengths, as they have for the past few years, will ensure the rewards will come. A brand new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, awaits, and with season tickets sold out, Simeone’s side can bank on their usual fervent support.

Eduardo Berizzo’s Sevilla side are definitely one to watch. The former Celta Vigo coach has bought well, with record signing from Sampdoria, Muriel (€20m), headlining an attack that will include Nolito and Jesus Navas.

Simone Kjaer’s capture from Fenerbahce ensures that their defence has been looked after too. Known for his swashbuckling style, Berizzo will ensure the team plays the type of football the locals desire, and if he can be more consistent than previous incumbent, Jorge Sampaoli, in terms of turning draws into wins, Sevilla could well run Atleti close.

If there’s one team that needs a break, it’s Valencia, though Marcelino’s prophecy of bringing in ‘many’ new players has yet to materialise. Could it be that he too is being hamstrung by owner Peter Lim and the board of directors?

Twelve players have already left Mestalla this summer, with only two new faces coming in. Simply put, Los Che have to hit the ground running at the start of the campaign if they want a genuine chance at redemption, and perhaps even European football. It’s about time the glory days returned. The rest of the league will represent something of a bun fight because no one team stands out. What characterised La Liga in 2015-16 was the inability for most of the Spanish top flight to put any sort of run together, to allow them a tenure in the upper echelons of the table. A handful of wins here or there will give the likes of Real Sociedad, Celta (now managed by Luis Enrique’s assistant, Juan Carlos Unzue) and Athletic Club a real opportunity of having a special campaign in 2017-18.

All of that aside, there is the inescapable fact that the top two continue to move further and further away from the rest of the division. The financial disparity between them and those that seek to depose them, is becoming an embarrassment for the league.

When you have one team that can spend almost €180m on one player and another whose entire sporting budget is less than half that, there’s clearly an issue. What’s more, it makes the La Liga brand, dare I say it, boring and predictable for the most part.

Though TV money will be shared more evenly from now on, unless Barca or Madrid are playing each other or Atleti, there’s little thirst from the watching public.

It’s perhaps why players like Neymar are leaving and others are choosing the Premier League, Serie A or Bundesliga over La Liga. As a brand, it has a lot to learn and as a spectacle, it’s popularity is on the wane.

The 2017-18 season will still be a heck of a ride though. Strap yourselves in…