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La Liga 09/10 Preview: Will Real Madrid and Barcelona live up to expectations?

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Last season Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona thrilled Europe with their fluid, vivacious, irrepressible brand of football. Led by the combined talents of Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Messi and Eto’o, Barca surged to an exceptional treble which established the Catalan club as the most formidable on the planet.

With the start of the new campaign just a fortnight away, Barca will be keen to continue their good form of 2008/09 and dominate La Liga for a second consecutive campaign. Hot on their heels will be a reinvigorated Real Madrid, their squad replenished with a new generation of galacticos keen to win the trophies their talents are surely capable of challenging for. This could be one of the most fascinating campaigns Spain, or indeed the whole of Europe, has seen for a long while.

La Liga for dummies

La Liga, the top-flight of Spanish football, is home to a number of world football’s most glamorous, most attractive sides and is generally considered, along with the English Premier League, to be one of the highest-calibre competitions the game has to offer. Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the game’s most successful clubs, traditionally battle it out for the title, with the likes of Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal forming a highly competitive chasing pack.

Real Madrid’s recent decision to revive their famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) galactico transfer policy has ensured that a substantial number of the world’s finest footballers – including Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema amongst others – will be plying their trade in La Liga for the foreseeable future.

Last season in a Tweet

Barca dominate in Pep’s first season. Real struggle under Schuster, improve under Ramos. Valencia short on cash. Betis, Numancia, Recre relegated.

If La Liga was a footballer…

Socrates. A cultured, skillful footballer in possession of an incredible natural gift and  an intelligent and political nature.

Title contenders

Having so thoroughly dominated La Liga last season, Barcelona will start the new campaign as favourites to secure a second consecutive domestic title. In terms of personnel the Catalans have retained the vast majority of last season’s squad, Samuel Eto’o being the only regular starter to have moved on during the summer.

The Cameroonian striker, one of La Liga’s top scorers in 2008/09, has been replaced at the Camp Nou by the immensely talented Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swede having proved his goal scoring capabilities for Inter Milan in recent years. If Ibrahimovic can integrate into his new team and important players such as Xavi, Iniesta and the superb Lionel Messi can continue their rich veins of form, then Barca will be well on their way to securing yet more silverware.

Real Madrid, not used to being so comprehensively outplayed by their Catalan rivals, will look upon the 2009/10 season as a chance to reassert themselves as the primary force in Spanish football.

A new manager in the shape of Manuel Pellegrini and the arrival of some of the world’s best players over the summer have certainly signaled Los Blancos’ intent for the coming campaign. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and Raul Albiol are just some of the players Madrid have signed in an attempt to revisit the triumphs brought about by the first wave of galacticos in the early part of the decade.

Much rests on the ability of this collection of superstars to gel and learn to play alongside one another. If they can integrate quickly and Pellegrini can find a system to accommodate such an embarrassment of footballing riches, then Madrid will have an excellent chance of claiming the title and, perhaps, honours on the European stage. If not, then Los Merengues might have to wait a little while for their investment in talent to see a significant return.

European hopefuls

Such is the high quality of La Liga, there are a number of clubs capable of vying for places in the various European competitions. Last season it was Sevilla and Atletico Madrid who finished third and fourth to claim the remaining Champions League places, with Villarreal and a cash-strapped Valencia qualifying for the Europa League.

Sevilla have bolstered their midfield with the signing of Tottenham’s Didier Zokora and, despite being set to lose Luis Fabiano, if young players like Jesus Navas and Diego Capel can fulfill their burgeoning potential, Los Palanganas will almost certainly be in and around the top four come the end of the season.

Atletico, one of the league’s most attractive teams in 2008/09, have added more defensive guile to their undoubted attacking prowess, signing Real Betis’ Juanito on a free and snapping up the talented goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo from Real Valladolid. If the prolific pairing of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero can continue their scintillating form then Atletico might just improve upon their 4th place of last season.

Villarreal will also be looking to improve upon last year’s 5th place, although with manager Manuel Pellegrini, the architect of the club’s recent success, having moved to Madrid, the coming campaign might prove more difficult than anticipated for El Submarino Amarillo.

Similarly, Valencia, who have endured a catalogue of financial disasters in recent times, may have to lower their expectations for the coming season. Although it was widely presumed that Los Che would be forced into selling their best players this summer (and they still might be), thus far they have managed to keep hold of David Silva and David Villa and retained a competitive squad.

If Unai Emery, the club’s talented young manager, can keep his squad together, Valencia will no doubt be one of the best sides in La Liga. However, if his hand is forced by the club’s prevailing financial conditions, then Valencia’s fans may have to gear themselves up for several seasons of mid-table mediocrity and financial survival. It could go either way.

Outside bet

Espanyol. Barcelona’s “other” team endured a terrible start to the 2008/09 season, finding themselves rooted to the bottom of the table for much of the first half of the campaign. However, the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino in January acted as a catalyst for an upturn in the club’s fortunes, an improvement in form which eventually saw the Periquitos finish in 10th.

Espanyol are undoubtedly a strong side, their triumph in the 2006 Copa Del Rey and appearance in the 2006/07 UEFA Cup final is testament to that, and they are well capable of European qualification. The death of captain Daniel Jarque this summer was a devastating blow to all involved with the club, but if they play to their potential this season there is no reason why Espanyol can’t compete at the top end of the league table and do their old captain proud.  

Relegation candidates

Xerez, Real Zaragoza and Tenerife have all been promoted from the Segunda Division and may struggle, but Zaragoza in particular have a squad more than capable of competing at the top level, so I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that the Aragonese side will survive relatively comfortably this season.

Getafe struggled last season, staying up only by virtue of their head-to-head record with Real Betis, and will need to fulfill their sizeable potential if they’re to avoid a similar situation this season.

Osasuna, Real Valladolid and Sporting Gijon also laboured towards the foot of the table last term and will have to keep their relatively fragile squads in tact to ensure survival this time around.

Joker in the pack

It’s hard to know what you’re going to get with Malaga. After promotion back to the top-flight in 2007/08, the Andalusian side exceeded all expectations last season to finish in 8th place, just seven points shy of a place in the Europa League.

Astute signings such as Milan Stepanov and Albert Luque should serve to improve an already industrious side and, with Juan Ramon Lopez Muniz back at the helm, Malaga might just be looking to challenge at the top end of the league yet again. The side’s development will be watched with great interest.

Solid gold gaffer

When Pep Guardiola took over at the Camp Nou at the beginning of last season, a newcomer to the business of management (albeit with the status of a club legend), there were doubts over his ability to guide Barca to any sort of success. Guardiola quickly silenced his critics and, in the space of just nine months, turned himself into one of the hottest properties in management, inspiring his side to a treble whilst playing some truly wonderful football along the way.

Frighteningly, the Catalan icon is still learning his trade as a manager and, if it’s possible to imagine, there might be even better things to come this season.

The man with the golden boot

Diego Forlan, who scored 32 league goals last season, was the 2008/09 Pichichi winner and the Uruguayan will again be amongst the favourites to claim the golden boot, as will his Atletico Madrid striker partner Sergio Aguero.

With Samuel Eto’o having moved to Inter there will be pressure on his replacement at Barca, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to do his fair share of goal scoring, with his teammates Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry also likely to finish the season with sizeable hauls.

Several of Real Madrid’s stellar signings, not least Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, are also likely to challenge Forlan for his place at the top of the scoring charts, as will some of La Liga’s usual suspects such as David Villa and the evergreen Fredi Kanoute.

In short, there might just be a few goals this season.

Three to watch

Nilmar (Villarreal)

Long considered one of Brazilian domestic football’s finest players, Nilmar has consistently shown himself to be a great creative attacking talent for both Internacional and Corinthians. A two-season spell at Lyon five years ago yielded little, a move which dented his reputation in Europe somewhat, but his recent form for Internacional has done much to restore belief in his talent. Still only 25, Villarreal have signed Nilmar in the hope that he can provide the sort of creative spark which was the trademark of the now departed Nihat. It could be one of the transfers of the season.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

Whilst at Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo established himself as one of the best, if not the best, player in the world. With an £80m transfer to justify, Real Madrid fans will be expecting their club’s marquee signing to reproduce a similar level of performance to that which he displayed at Old Trafford. If he can, Madrid’s chances of winning silverware will be massively enhanced and that transfer fee will seem a veritable bargain.

Diego Capel (Sevilla)

Last season Diego Capel began to show the level of ability everyone has known the young Spaniard to be capable of for a long time. Giving Sevilla an added attacking dimension down the left flank, Capel’s pace and aggression has made the 21 year-old one of La Liga’s best young players. His form will be crucial to Sevilla’s success this season and, if he continues to develop at his current astronomical rate, he could well become a key player for Spain at next summer’s World Cup and in the years to come.

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