There are few things in life that are certain. Apples will fall from the tree, Celtic will win the Scottish Premier League and in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid will once again contest the 2014-2015 Spanish Primera Liga title.
There is an undeniable inevitability about this. Last season, Diego Simeone brilliantly mustered his Atletico Madrid side into a genuine title force, lifting La Liga and finishing runners up to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals.
Yet beset with financial problems, it was inevitable that the footballing vultures would circle over Simeone’s majestic team. Diego Costa and Filipe Luis, two integral parts of that team, have already left to join Chelsea for £32m and £16m combined.
There are constant rumours that lynchpin defender, Diego Godin, who scored the goal that won Atletico the league title and also netted in the Champions League final, is a target for Bayern Munich. Liverpool are one of a host of clubs said to be interested in Arda Turan and the Reds are also believed to be lining up a loan deal for right back Javi Manquillo.
Atletico have since brought in Mario Mandzukic from Bayern Munich and Jan Oblak, a goalkeeper, from Benfica but they in no way redress the loss of two key players from Simeone’s side.
It seems difficult therefore for Atletico to sustain a similar challenge this season as they did last and with Barcelona and Real Madrid both strengthening their squads with massive signings, the indications are that this year’s title race will once again be between the superclub duo.
For Barcelona, it is the start of a new era as former player Luis Enrique takes over from Gerrard Martino as manager and it is fair to say that as yet, Enrique is yet to stamp his own credentials on what is still very much, Pep Guardiola’s team.
On the positive side of things, this means that Barcelona will be an irresistible attacking force, especially after the 26th October 2014, when £75m new signing Luis Suarez becomes eligible to play once again. Indeed, a front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar features undeniably three of the four best attacking talents in world football.
Backed up by the clever promptings of Xavi, Iniesta and another new signing Rakitic from midfield, Barcelona should steamroller lesser opponents in La Liga, but if there is one criticism of Luis Enrique so far, it is that he has not addressed Barcelona’s key flaw and that is in defence.
It is fair to say that at times, Barcelona’s defensive frailties have been exposed comprehensively by teams like Bayern Munich in the last couple of years. Playing Mascherano out of position, a chronic lack of pace in central areas, wing backs too focused on attacking and not enough on defending and simply a lack of quality in defensive areas are issues that have not been addressed.
Enrique has recently snapped up Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia for 20m Euros, however he is a left full back and arguably Barcelona’s strongest defender is their current incumbent left back, another ex-Valencia man in Jordi Alba.
This leaves Barcelona’s defensive options as Pique, an out of position Mascherano, Bartra, Montoya, Adriano, Dani Alves (who is strongly linked with a move to PSG) and now Jeremy Mathieu.
When viewed on paper the harsh reality of this, combined with an unproven goalkeeper in either young German Marc-Andre ter Stegen or Mexican ace Claudio Bravo, then you have serious question marks in defence.
At the present time, this Barcelona team looks like it will be an even greater goal threat than last season. Suarez is definitely an upgrade over the now-departed Alexis Sanchez, and Rakitic will add further creativity and invention in midfield, but the same defensive problems exist.
This is a Barcelona side built to sweep weaker La Liga sides aside 6 or 7-0. However, when they come up against teams that can negate their attacking threat as Real Madrid, Atletico and several other opponents in the Champions League will be able to, I feel they will struggle.
So where does that leave current Champions League holders Real Madrid? Well they have kept hold of manager Carlo Ancelotti, which is one good thing. They have also asked his assistant last year, Zinedine Zidane to coach the reserve team, which is a clear indication that Zizou will be asked to take over from Ancelotti in the near future. That’s a smart move by Real.
The major signing for Real this summer has been James Rodriguez in a £63m deal from AS Monaco. The Colombian midfielder shone at the World Cup and he will fit neatly into the team, either in a 4-4-2 formation as an attacking midfielder, a 4-3-1-2 formation, or also in Ancelotti’s preferred 4-2-1-3 formation where Rodriguez will sit as the advanced midfielder behind a front three of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale.
Add into this the astute signing of midfield schemer Toni Kroos to take the pressure of Xabi Alonso and even the loss of Sami Khedira, reportedly a target for Chelsea and Arsenal, won’t hit Real too hard. Not with Luka Modric still at the club.
Real’s weakest area remains defence with Pepe and Sergio Ramos a combustible alliance, however a fully fit Raphael Varane offers a perfect partner for either player and the young Frenchman could be every bit as important to Real this season as either Rodriguez, Bale or Ronaldo.
Even without any further transfer activity for any of Spain’s top three teams (and that looks unlikely with several names linked with leaving and arriving at all three clubs) it is hard to make a case that Atletico will be the same force this season. Barcelona will be irresistible at times but have severe defensive frailties and it looks very much like Real Madrid will be the best all-round team.
How important is that? Well, this summer perfectly demonstrated why having a balanced team is so vital. Many teams had individuals that shone brightly at the summer World Cup in Brazil. Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Holland and of course Brazil, but the undeniable class act of the tournament was a team that eschewed individual glory, for collective, team success.
At the moment, the only team close to that in La Liga, is Real Madrid and that is why, for me, they are the outstanding pick to win La Liga in 2015-2016.