Welcome back to the party, dear readers, and we hope you had a good summer because now it’s over and you will from now on be obliged to sit at home and watch La Liga unfold yet again like a late-blooming flower, all multi-coloured petals, stripes and diagonals (Rayo, Huesca, Girona), centenary white (Valencia) all topped off nicely by the yucky puce of Valladolid – but we wish them no ill-will. It’s a stripey wind that blows some good this season, since 14 out of 20 of the top-flight Spanish will be sporting them in some fashion or other. When was the World Cup Final? July 15th? Avast me hearties! Thirty-three days on and August 17th sees Girona host Valladolid in Catalunya at 20.15, to be followed by those other Friday-nighters, Musho Beti and Levante. Let hostilities commence, since they’ve never really gone away.
So what can we expect this season, apart from the prospect of a La Liga match being played somewhere in the United States before Xmas, with Javier Tebas’ assurance to worried customers that the clásico will remain in Spain/Catalunya….if those two continue to be the same thing. So Huesca v Eibar in Utah then, just before the turn of the year. Should guarantee a bigger audience than in El Alcoraz (in Huesca), with its capacity of 7,500 – and that’s with the extra seats recently shipped in. It should also guarantee some interesting language, and the international cameras may have to muffle the mikes if anyone starts shouting, as Euan McTear wrote today – ‘Hijos de Utah!’ We shall see. But it seems to me that if you really want to interest the USA and Canada in La Liga (as if they’d never heard of Barça and Madrid) then the clash of these two teams, historically the smallest clubs from the smallest communities to grace the top-flight stage, will bring in the punters in their millions. I just sent an e-mail to Tebas, but he hasn’t responded as yet. Watch this space folks.
Back in the Iberian Peninsula, Sunday’s clash between the two aforementioned teams up in Eibar’s Ipurua stadium is symbolic of this season’s coming fare. It is cool indeed that La Liga can count on teams such as Girona, Eibar, Huesca and the returning Commies Rayo Vallecano to grace it, instead of a completely inflating balloon of self-serving moneybags. It’s now a fact that if nobody went to any of the games in the EPL this coming season, the 20 sides would still make a profit/break even. Depressing? Yes, kind of. But La Liga is headed down the same path, determined to reduce the gap with England – the Facebook deal to screen live matches to India being yet another example. So….the presence of these teams helps keep the balance, helps maintain a perspective on where the game has come from, and on how it would soon curl up and die if the plankton on which the whales feed can no longer prosper below.
The whales were splashing about on Wednesday in Tallin, of course, and although it’s difficult to say whether conclusions can be drawn from such an event, Atlético looked fitter, sharper and certainly more aggressive, with a feel-good clarity to their counter-attacking that eventually overwhelmed their pale neighbours. Once the excellent Tommy Lemar moved forward, he took over the match and made Asensio (for example) look ordinary by comparison. Diego Costa, who looked off the pace in Russia, was back to his old war-veteran self, and will occupy Bernabéu nightmares for some evenings to come. Is this the Ronaldo-shorn future? Is this the team that will rely on the B & B, but collapse once the remaining C (Casemiro) is absent? We shall see, but I liked the look of Atlético. If you could get good odds at this stage of the year, I’d put some smart money on them for the title. Real Madrid cannot be dismissed, but it looks very much the same old stuff, minus CR7’s piddling annual contributions of 50 goals. Borja Mayoral ain’t going to replace him, Bale will pull up sometime around October, and Benzema will finally disappear completely but continue to be picked. That young ‘un Vinicius had better be good. Courtois will bolster the defence, but his presence in the squad may create tensions with a Navas-Courtois camp that new coach Lopetegui could well do without.
On the next tier down, Betis finished strongly last season and have added Canales, López and Inui to their squad, which suggests they may do even better. Their good friends and neighbours Sevilla looked half-decent against Barcelona last week too, and you suspect that they might be up there too, having added Vidal, Roque Mesa and Girona’s Machin to the side – all useful players. Dark horses? Possibly Real Sociedad, who’ve lost Odriozola but gained Zaldua, Theo Hernandez and Mikel Merino. Watch out for the young mid they’ve just put up from the B team too, called Luca Sangalli. I’ve watched him since he was a kid, and despite his small tank-like appearance, he’ll either become a cult figure or disappear without trace. Rather like Athletic Bilbao, who have lost goalie Kepa but have nobody to spend their ill-gotten 80 million on. Yuri and Capa at the back should strengthen them a little, but up front, with Aritz Aduriz almost qualifying for his pensioner’s bus-pass, a lot is resting on Iñaki Williams’ shoulders. Semi-dark horses (or bats) Valencia are looking good in their centenary year, and if they can get Juan Mata in before the deadline, so much the better. He was never really appreciated in England. Cheryshev looked like the player he was always supposed to be in the World Cup, and if they can prise Gonçalo Guedes away from PSG, you could almost see them raising a genuine challenge, at least pre-Xmas.
Espanyol will most likely struggle, and Getafe’s plight will depend on how their fifteen new players adapt to the league and to each other. It’s great to see Rayo Vallecano back, but two of the players instrumental to their success last season, Unai López and Raúl de Tomás have returned to Bilbao and Real Madrid respectively. Huesca look the strongest of the three promoted, although Spain’s journalists en masse have already written them off, which is annoyingly unimaginative. Teams won’t enjoy visiting Huesca, in the middle of nowhere, and they’ve made some decent signings (Insua, Lusinho). Just as Girona were universally expected to return to the 2nd Division – instead they almost made it to Europe. Huesca don’t have Man City behind them, ok, but they might surprise a few. Valladolid look the weakest to me, and I seriously don’t like their colours.
Sticking my neck out, how about the following for next Spring? Feel free to comment, insult or advise.
6 Real Madrid
8 Real Sociedad
15 Athletic Bilbao
18 Rayo Vallecano