By Steve Zavala
After a near three-month absence, one of the best leagues in the world has finally returned.
The 2015-2016 La Liga season will kick off on August 21st with a Malaga vs Sevilla clash to begin the season. With an exciting finish to last year’s La Liga season that saw Barcelona win their 23rd La Liga title en route to a treble, all other 19 teams will seek to improve from last season while others have their sights set on lifting the La Liga trophy in May. This season, La Liga will feature three new promoted teams: Real Betis, Sporting Gijon, and Las Palmas. This season will also see UEFA Champions League defending champs Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Europa League champions Sevilla in the 2015-2016 edition of the UEFA Champions League. Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao will be featuring in the 2015-2016 edition of the UEFA Europa League.
La Liga Team Previews
The Top 3: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid
Barcelona: 2014-2015 La Liga table finish: 1st/94 points. Key additions: Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal (both newcomers will be able to play beginning in January due to transfer ban). Key losses: Xavi, Martin Montoya (loan to Inter Milan)
The champions of Spain. The champions of the Copa Del Rey. The champions of Europe. Possible future champions of the world. The team to beat. FC Barcelona was just unstoppable last season. The attacking trio of world class talent Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez was just unbelievable last season and played up to their hype as they combined for 122 goals last season. Yes, 122 goals COMBINED just from three players in all competitions last season.
Ivan Rakitic did not play like prime Xavi Hernandez but did well as his replacement. Sergio Busquets played like the best central defensive midfielder in the world. The backline played consistent all year long and the duo of Claudio Bravo and young German Marc-Andre Ter Stegen played well in their first seasons with Bravo playing in league games while Ter Stegen played in cup games. It just all clicked for Barcelona beginning in January and they ran away with the treble.
If you are one of the other 19 teams in La Liga, what flaw in this team could you look to exploit? Barcelona’s trademarked Tiki-Taka has not failed them and when you have a player like Messi who works so efficiently in the “system”, what really can you do? You also look at who is alongside him up top, arguably two top five talents in Suarez and Neymar. In Suarez’s first season with Barcelona, he faced his fair share of critics stating that he would struggle adjusting from being the #1 guy in Liverpool to the #3 guy in Barcelona and the fact that play in the EPL and La Liga were distinctively different. Well, he proved critics wrong as he continued to be the fearless striker that he was at Liverpool scoring 16 goals while he was also a facilitator in Barca’s tiki-taka dishing out 14 assists.
As seen in preseason games, their aging defense might come back to hurt them again. In the UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup games, the team was out of sync with erratic mistakes by the backline and midfield play being unable to have consistent ball control. As seen with last year’s team, Luis Enrique had to go through multiple lineups until he found the perfect match that sent them off to the treble.
Manager Luis Enrique and Barcelona have everything that they need for a possible repeat La Liga champions season. The only way that this team could possibly be stopped are injuries. If injuries begin to devastate the team, they could make a transfer for depth in January. Like with all other La Liga seasons, it will be Barcelona and Real Madrid and possibly a third team attempting to win La Liga. Injuries could halt this team’s journey to back-to-back La Liga champions. You can expect the possession dominating, high pass accuracy, high scoring, tiki-taka Barcelona next season controlling La Liga.
Real Madrid: 2014-2015 La Liga table finish: 2nd/ 92 points. Key additions: Danilo, Kiko Casilla. Key losses: Iker Casillas, Sami Khedira
Even though Real Madrid was in 1st place in La Liga for 16 straight weeks, they struggled late in the season with disappointing results and injuries as Barcelona won La Liga last season. After coming off of a trophyless season, Real Madrid has surprisingly been quiet during the transfer window. They picked up defensive depth in bringing in Danilo from FC Porto. Due to a crowded midfield and being demoted to bench, Sami Khedira left Real Madrid and he signed with Juventus. Also in a controversial and shocking move, long time Real Madrid goalie transferred to FC Porto and in a resulting move, Real Madrid picked up Kiko Casilla from Espanyol. Real Madrid was so disappointed in their trophyless season that they fired Carlos Ancelotti, who won the Champions League with them last year.
So who comes in to help bring Real Madrid back to glory?
Well, they hired former Valencia/Liverpool/Inter Milan/Chelsea/Napoli manager Rafa Benitez, who has a career 50% win percentage. For Benitez, there is not much to fix with this team. As Barcelona has MSN, Real Madrid has their own trio of their own with top two player in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best finishing strikers in Karim Benzema, and the quick winger Gareth Bale. You can expect Ronaldo this season to be the goal scoring machine that he has been over the past multiple of La Liga seasons with the key to the attacking trio being Bale. Many fans around the world believe that Bale can give this team much more in terms of goal scoring and being a versatile passer.
As with their rival Barcelona, only injuries can stop this team because what flaw does this team have? After losing Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid went straight to pick up 2014 World Cup stars James Rodriguez from Monaco and Toni Kroos from German giants Bayern Munich. In their first season, they both performed well in the midfield playing to the approval of Ancelotti. Along with a healthy Modric, Isco, and arguably midfield depth that managers dream of, they should provide balanced midfield/possession dominating/high paced game as well provided the attacking trio up front with splendid scoring opportunities.
With rumors of Sergio Ramos to ManU squashed, they should be fine on defense. Danilo’s arrival should provide help depth wise and if the opportunity arises, he should do well as he did with FC Porto in Portugal last season.
For the first time since 1998, Real Madrid will have a goalie not named Iker Casillas as their starter. The long time Real Madrid bid his farewells and moved to FC Porto which means all the pressure will be on new starter Keylor Navas to replace Casillas. Looking at Navas, he has played in the big games before including helping Costa Rica reach the Quarterfinals. Navas should just look to limiting mistakes that Casillas made last season and continue to improve.
Real Madrid will be on pace to capture another La Liga title as they will be battling Barcelona and numerous other teams. As many of their starters are still performing at a world class level and at their primes, expect another season of great play that you have seen from them for decades.
Atletico Madrid: 2014-2015 La Liga table finish: 3rd/78 points. Key additions: Luciano Vietto, Jackson Martinez, Stefan Savic, Filipe Luis. Key losses: Miranda, Mario Mandzukic, Arda Turan, Mario Suárez, Raul Jiménez
It seems like every year Atletico Madrid loses their best players, is counted out of competing in league and cup competitions, and then they go out and sign players that are perfect fits for clubs and now are suddenly back in the title race. Look at last year when the team lost Diego Costa, David Villa, and Thibaut Courtois after winning La Liga. As expected, they were counted out of being in the top 4 of La Liga until they recovered by bringing in Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezmann, and giving young talent more playing time. It worked as Atletico Madrid went to the quarterfinals of the Copa Del Rey/Champions League and finished 3rd in La Liga.
Now, the same has happened. As the team lost numerous starters, they recovered and provided mastermind manager Diego Simeone with solid talent. French winger Antoine Griezmann will now have Vietto and Martinez to play alongside him. The Colombian Jackson Martinez will love to play in Atletico Madrid. After three years with FC Porto where he solidified himself as he consistent finishing striker combining for 67 goals, replacing Mandzukic will not be a difficult task.
The other new addition is Luciano Vietto, which Atletico Madrid got for a steal price of 15 million. The 21-year-old enjoyed a breakout season in his first season with Villarreal last season accumulating 20 goals. He is someone who Atletico Madrid will invest in a lot due to his young age and excellent speed as a striker. Also having veteran fan favorite Fernando Torres will be key to this club.
Losing Arda Turan and Mario Suarez will definitely hurt but Atletico Madrid fans should be pleased that they lasted another summer transfer period still with Koke. Koke, along with Gabi, Raul Garcia, and Gabi,who will form another year of excellent midfield play.
Although Atletico Madrid is not a team that dominates possession (45% last season) and presents high passing play (77%), they did do well scoring a La Liga high of 35 goals from set piece. If Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto can adjust and play solid all season long and if the addition of Filipe can just add more outstanding play from defenders, they will be competing for the La Liga title. This is not a team that produces daily highlight reel plays or has world class players across the pitch, but their gritty and hard play inspired by manager Diego Simeone will be the x-factor for this Atletico Madrid team.
The Next 4: Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla: 2014-2015 La Liga table finish: 5th/76 points. Key additions: Ciro Immobile. Key losses: Carlos Bacca and Aleix Vidal
If there could be a dark horse team to make a surprise run at a top three finish in La Liga, it would be Sevilla. They finished 5th in La Liga last season behind by one point to Valencia. After another improving season, they won another UEFA Europa League and will finally be apart of the Champions League this season.
Losing Carlos Bacca to AC Milan will be a devastating loss. He had a fantastic scoring season last season scoring 20 goals last season, which was 5th in La Liga. Losing Bacca will only put pressure on Kevin Gameiro, Vicente Iborra, and new comer on loan from Borussia Dortmund Ciro Immobile. Gael Kakuta, who is on loan from Chelsea, will also be given an opportunity up front as manager Unai Emery will be scrambling for the perfect lineup up front to help replace Carlos Bacca’s goal scoring.
The key player for Sevilla’s success this season will be midfielder Ever Banega. One of La Liga’s most underrated midfielders, Banega completed 1195 passes last season with an 83% pass accuracy. He also produced 43 chances created, which was crucial for Sevilla’s scoring opportunities. Along with Vitolo and Jose Antonio Reyes, they should be fine as all three are quality midfielders that have adjusted well to the La Liga style of play.
As seen in the UEFA Super Cup, Sevilla should be able to compete with Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid. Their defensive play should be a question of concern as well as replacing Carlos Bacca.
Valencia: 2014-2015 La Liga table finish: 4th/77 points. Key additions: Danilo and Steven N’Zonzi. Key losses: None.
With a fairly quiet summer transfer session for Valencia, manager Nuno Santo and Valencia will be running out the same squad that helped them finish in 4th in La Liga and securing a spot in the Champions League playoff round.
Valencia had themselves a well rounded scoring squad as they did not just rely on one player to carry the team. Dani Parejo put up a team leading 12 goals, Paco Alcacer had 10 goals, and Pablo Piatti had 7 goals. Like with their rivals in La Liga, Valencia will also put up their own solid attacking trio. Valencia will have Rodrigo, Alvaro Negredo, and Paco Alcacer as their own attacking trio. Now the case will be for this upcoming season is if they will sport out a 4-3-3 or another formation that could prevent all three from being on the field.
The three key players for Valencia’s upcoming season will be goalie Diego Alves and midfielders Dani Parejo and Pablo Piatti.
Goalie Diego Alves was arguably the 2nd best goalie in La Liga last season as the Brazilian gave up just 29 goals in 37 appearances. At 30 years old, Diego Alves should put up another solid season at goalie with durable defenders up front.
If Valencia want to compete this upcoming season in all three competitions, they will need fantastic midfield play from Dani Parejo and Pablo Piatti. Besides Parejo’s 12 goals, he completed 1458 passes last season with an 84% pass accuracy. With Piatti, he created 54 scoring opportunities.
Among the scoring trios in La Liga, Valencia is overlooked but not for long. With a healthy squad, they should be able to compete again in the top five in La Liga and hopefully break through into the top three. The duo of Parejo and Piatti should provide excellent scoring opportunities for Valencia. Addition of Steven N’Zonzi will also give this team a good boost on defense. This team could also make noise in the Champions League.
Villarreal: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 6th/60 points. Key additions:Roberto Soldado, Leo Baptistao, Alphonse Areola. Key losses: Giovanni Dos Santos, Luciano Vietto.
The 2015/2016 Villarreal team will be a completely different team this upcoming season. After a disappointing campaign last season that was devastated by injuries, Villarreal had themselves an interesting summer transfer session. After an underperforming tenure with the team, they Giovanni Dos Santos moved to the MLS to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Also in a surprise move, Villarreal sold the 22 year old Luciano Vietto, who led the team last year with 20 total goals, to Atletico Madrid for a bargain price of 20 million.
In a reacting move, Villarreal turned that money to bring in 30 year old Roberto Soldado. He is coming off a disappointing run with EPL side Tottenham Hotspur where he was not the dominant scorer he used to be. Villarreal are hoping that Soldado can return to the goal scoring machine that he was a few years back with Valencia.
While Gio left, his brother Jonathan Dos Santos is still at Villarreal and he is in great form just coming off an impressive tournament with Mexico in the Gold Cup. As accurate and solid as he was for Mexico in the Gold Cup, Villarreal are hoping that it can translate into this upcoming season. Along with Bruno and the underrated Manuel Trigueros, Villarreal will be hoping that a healthy season will bring them back into the top four in La Liga.
Valencia also struck loan deals with Alphonse Areola from PSG and Leo Baptistao from Atletico Madrid. Both players could possibly get some playing time and any positive contributions from the youngsters on offense will only be a plus for Villarreal.
A concern for Villarreal this upcoming season will be on defense. They conceded 37 goals last season. If they want to compete and put last year’s season to rest, consistent defensive play will the biggest factor for them as they try to make life easier for goalie Sergio Asenjo.
Athletic Bilbao: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 7th/55 points. Key additions: Gorka Elustondo. Key losses: Andoni Iraola.
As expected, Athletic Bilbao were quiet during the summer transfer period. They brought in long time Real Sociedad player Gorka Elustondo on free transfer while they also gave up long time player Andoni Iraola to MLS team NYCFC.
Athletic Bilbao will throw out the same lineup and core that helped them succeed in one of their best seasons in a long time. Athletic Bilbao will hope that Aduriz can replicate last season’s 18 goal performance. They will also have Susaeta( 7 assists and 53 chances created), veteran Mikel Rico and Ander Iturraspe back for the season. For Athletic Bilbao to take another step forward this season, they will NEED to find another solid scorer to pair up with Aduriz.
Another concern for them will be their shaky defense. They conceded 41 goals last season, something that they need to improve in. They are fresh off of a Spanish Super Cup win over Barcelona, so momentum will be on their side to start the season.
Middle of the table teams: Celta de Vigo, Espanyol, Real Sociedad, Rayo Vallecano, Málaga
Celta de Vigo: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 8th/51 points. Key additions: Iago Aspas. Key losses: Santi Mina, Yoel Rodriguez
Celta de Vigo just missed out on qualifying for the UEFA Europa League and this year’s team will have question marks all over. They lost Santi Mina to transfer this summer but they still have Nolito up front for a good attacker to rely on. They have basically lived in the middle of the La Liga table for years and that will likely continue this upcoming season. A quiet summer transfer session along with losing one of their best scorers from last season could mark trouble.
Espanyol: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 10th/49 points. Key additions: Gerard Moreno. Key losses: Kiko Casilla, Héctor Moreno, Sergio Garcia and Lucas Vázquez
For a team that finished 10th in La Liga, the 2015/2016 Espanyol will struggle a lot. Losing one of the best goalies in La Liga and one of their top young defenders in Hector Moreno will hurt them down the stretch. Defending will be the focal point as they gave up 51 goals last season as they struggled in defending some of the quickest players in La Liga. They also lost their leading scorer from last season in Sergio Garcia so Espanyol will have to look at their youth for answers across the field. He also provided the team with nine assists so the team will start the season with more questions than answers
Real Sociedad: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 12th/46 points. Key additions: Jonathas and Diego Reyes. Key losses: None
Injuries halted Real Sociedad’s season last year. Mexican superstar Carlos Vela missed time during the season and he will be needed by Real Sociedad this upcoming season. This team could potentially reach the top six if it all goes good for this team. They brought over Jonathas from Elche who scored 14 goals for them last season. Jonathas and Carlos Vela will be a great attacking pair up front.
David Moyes’ Real Sociedad gave up 51 goals last season and with that, they brought over Mexican defender Diego Reyes on loan from FC Porto. They hope that he can make an immediate impact alongside Inigo Martinez. A healthy Real Sociedad team can make noise in La Liga and could potentially provide upsets. Finishing in the top six vying at least for a spot in the Europa League is something they should seriously aim for.
Rayo Vallecano: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 11th/49 points. Key additions: Juan Carlos. Key losses: Alberto Bueno
Not much to say that is appeasing for Rayo Vallecano. They scored a combined 46 goals last season and they lost 17 of them with the departure of Alberto Bueno to FC Porto. They will struggle to score as they failed to find his replacement in the transfer market. They also conceded a ludacris 68 goals, something that will carry onto this season with the team’s lack of a quality backline. The pressure will be on them to survive and avoid relegation.
Malaga: 2014/2015 La Liga table finish: 9th/50 points. Key additions: Nordin Amrabat. Key losses: Samuel, Samu Castillejo, Juanmi.
A team that looked to make it into the top 6 failed to do so after a shaky season. The cycle for Malaga, which is for other teams as well, continued as they lost 22-year-old Juanmi to to EPL team Southampton. The goalie position will be another to spotlight as last season, Carlos Kameni beat out Guillermo Ochoa for the starting job last season. The opposite could happen this season with Ochoa securing the starting job. Losing the trio of Samuel, Samu, and Juanmi will be devastating as they were arguably three of the squad’s top players. They could face relegation this season if they struggle to turn it around.
Relegation teams?: Deportivo La Coruna, Eibar, Getafe, Granada, Las Palmas, Levante, Real Betis, Sporting Gijón.
New arrivals in La Liga Real Betis, Las Palmas, and Sporting Gijon will have a difficult task ahead of them this upcoming season. They will all hope to survive La Liga and avoid getting relegated. With Deportivo La Coruna, they faced relegation until they fought to a 2-2 tie on the last day of the season to stay in La Liga. Due to a tax controversy, Elche was relegated while Eibar survived another season. With Getafe and Granada, they will face the same issue, SURVIVE LA LIGA. All of these teams do not have the financial leverage that Barcelona and Real Madrid have so they will need to develop players through academies and bring them up hoping they are the next Spanish superstar or at least a quality player that can bring the team over the hump and out of the relegation zone.
“I am in a new team and I will prove you wrong and play great soccer” candidates: Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Arda Turan, and Jonathas
-All three will have to face the pressure of adjusting to a new team and they should do fine. The Martinez/Vietto duo will be a great scoring duo alongside Antoine Griezmann. Arda Turan is a perfect fit for Barcelona off the bench and will be a great boost for the team when he is available to play in January. Pairing Jonathas with Carlos Vela should help Real Sociedad reach the top six in La Liga.
“Who will have the better season, Messi or Ronaldo?”:
-Impossible to answer this question, next.. but do expect another monster season from both. Another 40+ goal season from both while they will both feature in the Ballon D’Or conversation and leave fans across the world asking the same question over and over again, Messi or Ronaldo?
“Who will have a breakout season?”
–In the case that Pedro leaves, Sandro and Munir are two possible candidates. They will only get playing time off the bench or if an injury occurs, they could bolster and finally prove Barcelona fans that they can make it in La Liga. Villarreal Jonathan Dos Santos is another possible candidate. He can produce quality midfield play while also taking on the task of being a consistent scorer. While he will not have his brother to pass to anymore, he will have Roberto Soldado now.
“Games to look forward to besides Barcelona vs Real Madrid?”
-Watching Atletico Madrid play against Barcelona and Real Madrid are always fun meetings. Seeing how much Real Sociedad has improved, their games against Sevilla and Valencia will be must watch. Also looking forward to Barcelona vs Villarreal and Real Madrid vs Sevilla will be two games to circle on your calendar.
The La Liga is just days away from starting. Arguably and currently the best league in the world, the 2015/2016 La Liga season has so much to look forward to. The league is slowly shifting away from just being Barcelona and Real Madrid, now you have various other team vying for possibly a La Liga title as well as Champions League and Europa League spots. Also look forward to the January transfer window where teams on the brink of qualification to the Champions League/Europa League could make a game changing transfer that could help them secure a top spot. The La Liga title race will be one of the best in years with possibly more teams being in the title race compared to the English Premier League, Bundesliga, and more across the world.