I can already hear the protests about La Liga. It’s just like the Scottish Premier League on steroids. All the best players outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona are leaving the country because of the massive debts that clubs are carrying. They don’t bother defending over in Spain and players go down under a light wind. La Liga can’t match the Premier League in terms of the pace of play, excitement, drama, and competitiveness, because the entertainment and quality of play are obviously intrinsically linked.
While some of these complaints are actually somewhat legitimate (the first two), they don’t take away from the fact that La Liga is still a brilliant league to watch, regardless that it’ll again be a two horse race for the title this season. Furthermore, is the fact that only two clubs can win the league unique to La Liga anyway?
Looking at the other major leagues across Europe, while it’s true that there are more sides that theoretically have a shot at winning the title at the start of the season, once the seasons begin, it is rare to actually see more than two clubs challenging for the title. Last season Manchester United, Bayern Munich, and Juventus all won their respective leagues in convincing fashion with Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, and Napoli never putting up much of a serious challenge.
Still not convinced? Well, without further ado, let’s get down to the ten reasons you should watch La Liga this season and we’ll see if I can convert you into a Spanish football fan.
1) Neymar. Everyone has their own opinion of the 21-year-old Brazilian forward, and whether you think he’s destined to become the next Ronaldo or the next Robinho, his talent is undeniable. It will be fascinating to watch how he integrates into this Barcelona side and how he and Messi gel both on and off the football pitch. He certainly proved some doubters wrong in helping Brazil capture the Confederations Cup this summer, against several of his new Barcelona teammates it might be added, and he will want to continue his good form with the World Cup looming this summer. Barcelona president Sandro Rosell invested a lot of money in him, £48.6million to be exact, in order to take some of the weight off Lionel Messi’s shoulders. And he will eager to live up to his billing.
2) Gerardo Martino and the next step for Barcelona. The Argentinian coach is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, the former Argentina and Chile manager who left Athletic Bilbao this summer, and Martino will look to reinstate the high intensity pressing game that was a trademark of Barcelona under Guardiola but was somewhat lacking in the last campaign. While many have attributed Barcelona’s defensive frailty last season to the lack of a dominating centre-back, keen observers of the Catalan side’s play will recognize that the lack of consistent pressure applied by the forwards and the midfielders played a large role as well. Martino is a slightly surprising selection considering the fact that he has never coached in Europe, but he was Lionel Messi’s favorite for the job and that counts for a lot. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the European game and how Barcelona, a side that has captured the imagination of a generation of fans, progresses under their new manager.
3) King Carlo and the chase for La Décima. Speaking of new managers, if you didn’t notice, the Special One is out and Carlo Ancelotti is in at the Santiago Bernabéu. The Italian manager brings a wealth of experience to the job from his time with Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea, and PSG, and was doubtless recruited in part because of his pedigree in Europe, as Florentino Pérez and Real Madrid continue their quest for La Décima (a tenth European Cup). However, his record in the league has not always been the best, winning just two Scudetto in his time with Milan, and he has a considerable challenge ahead of him to wrest the La Liga crown back from Barcelona, who won the league by a staggering margin of fifteen points last season.
4) The Spanish renaissance at Madrid. Though all the talk this summer has been about whether or not Gareth Bale will be arriving in Madrid, Los Blancos have already made a number of acquisitions with a Spanish flavor, including Spain U-21 star Isco from Malaga, midfielder Asier Illaramendi of last year’s fourth place finishers Real Sociedad, who they see as a long term replacement for Xabi Alonso, and right-back youth product Daniel Carvajal who Real Madrid bought back from Bayer Leverkusen. The one weakness in the squad is potentially a lack of depth in the striker position, with Karim Benzema the only proven centre-forward after Gonzalo Higuain’s departure to Napoli, though Madrid have high hopes for youngster Álvaro Morata. Ancelotti is well known for his ability to accommodate a number of creative players in his side. Look at his 2004 title winning Milan side that featured Pirlo, Seedorf, Kaka, and Rui Costa in the same XI. A potential midfield of Alonso, Modric, Isco, and Ozil is equally enticing.
5) The race for Champions League places. Okay, enough about Real Madrid and Barcelona. The race for the presumably two remaining Champions League places will be intense, with a number of teams fancying their chances of joining Europe’s elite. Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad claimed third and fourth respectively last year, but both have lost key players such as Falcao and the aforementioned Illaramendi. Clubs like Valencia, who brought in Portugal strike Helder Postiga this summer after losing Soldado, Sevilla, who have signed Marko Marin, Ivan Rakitic, and Kévin Gameiro among others, Athletic Bilbao, and potentially even Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano will look to claim a spot in the Champions League (numbers six and seven are my two pick to claim the remaining Champions League places in 2013/2014). Those of you impressed with Malaga’s showing in the competition last season shouldn’t expect to see them in Europe anytime soon. However, with financial difficulties seriously undermining the clubs ability to compete, leading some La Liga experts to go as far as to put them in the relegation battle.
6) Atlético Madrid. Yes, they lost Falcao to Monaco, but they picked up Spain’s all-time top goalscorer David Villa for about a twelfth of the price, who is only two years older than Falcao if you believe the birth certificate controversy. They have also brought in Brazilian striker Léo Baptistão and with Arda Turan, Diego Costa and Oliver Torres already at manager Diego Simeone’s disposal, they should be very dangerous going forward this season. They also have excellent 21-year-old Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois on loan again from Chelsea to back of a reasonably solid defense. They finished nine points adrift of Real Madrid last season, but if Villa can fill Falcao’s sizeable boots, who knows, perhaps they could even make a title challenge. Strange things sometimes happen in a World Cup year.
7) Athletic Bilbao. While they finished a distant twelfth last season, Athletic have parted way with ‘El Loco’ himself, Marcelo Bielsa, who the players had tired of both mentally and physically after the side lost in two cup finals the season before last. They have also lost Fernando Llorente to Juventus, but this is not really much of a loss since the player’s mind was clearly already in Turin all of last year, and Athletic already have a capable striker in Aritz Aduriz. The Basque club, who much like Guadalajara will only sign players from the region, have brought in Beñat and Kike Sola to strengthen the side. If highly rated new manager Ernesto Valverde is able to get 20-year-old starlet Iker Muniaín playing at the level he is capable of, Champions League qualification is a definite possibility.
8) Style of play. Yes, it’s a stereotype, but it’s also largely true. Spanish sides generally like to play the ball on the ground, and even teams in the relegation battle possess some wonderful magicians on the ball. So rather than watching the ten collective centre-back Stoke and West Ham hoof the ball back in the forth in a game of pinball, you can tune in to most any La Liga match and watch the ball being knocked around nicely. It’s not only Barcelona who can wow with their great passing ability. But don’t take my word for it, tune into a La Liga game yourself and witness the high technical ability on display yourself.
9) Youth. While of course the exodus of top talent from clubs outside Barcelona and Real Madrid is not good for La Liga in the short term, much as is the case in Serie A, it has created a great opportunity for young players to gain valuable playing time. It’s no coincidence that the two teams contesting the European U-21 championship were Italy and Spain. Whereas Stuart Pearce’s England side was full of players who were not regulars with their clubs, the majority of the players in the Spain and Italy sides had a good amount of first team minutes under their belts. It’s not only Barcelona with La Masia who are developing talent. Real Madrid also have an excellent academy that has produced players like Juan Mata, Álvaro Negredo, Roberto Soldado, Borja Valero, and Iker Casillas in recent years. Spain is a factory of top quality players right now and watching La Liga, you will be able to witness the development of a new generation of Spanish talent.
10) The commentators. beIN SPORT owns the exclusive right to La Liga in the US, and have an excellent team of commentators and analysts. They’re definitely a step up from the likes of Warren Barton and Eric Wynalda. Ray Hudson and Phil Schoen form a great commentary team and Ross Dyer, Ian Joy, Bodo Illgner, and Kay Murray are knowledgeable analysts. If you have never listened to Ray Hudson commentate a game, you have seriously been missing out. Check out this compilation to see what I’m talking about.
So, I hope you are excited as I am for the upcoming season in La Liga, if you want to read or hear more about the upcoming season in Spain, go check out Sid Lowe’s article for the Guardian or Graham Hunter’s article for ESPN. If you’re more of a podcast type of person, then have a listen to The Spanish Football Podcast with the excellent Sid Lowe here, or the podcast by Inside Spanish Football here.
For readers/viewers in the United States, visit beIN SPORT’s TV Guide to find out when the next La Liga games on are on television.