La Liga Season Preview: Martino and Ancelotti On Their Marks as La Liga Race Begins
The 2013/14 season of La Liga kicks off this weekend. Champions Barcelona once again prepare to start the campaign with a new coach. Argentine Gerardo Martino took over at Camp Nou in less than ideal circumstances after Tito Vilanova was forced to step down to continue his battle with cancer and will need to instill continuity in the face of continued high expectations.
Martino will need to quickly cement an understanding between goal machine Lionel Messi and new signing Neymar, the talented Brazilian striker signed from Santos. The new coach will also be expecting greater consistency this season from the Barcelona engine room. Xavi looked jaded at times last term alongside Andres Iniesta and with Thiago Alcantara moving to Bayern Munich, the pressure on Messi as the source of both goals and creativity will be immense. Meanwhile, the club looks set to retain Cesc Fabregas, the midfielder having been the subject of sustained interest from Manchester United.
Defense was Barca’s achilles heel last term and a fallible backline could once again be their undoing. Chelsea’s David Luiz and fellow Brazilian international Thiago Silva were identified as potential long-term replacements for veteran skipper Carles Puyol, and Luiz has emerged as the primary target. Chelsea seem unlikely to let the Brazilian go and Daniel Agger, Jan Vertonghen, Jeremy Mathieu and Vincent Kompany have all been linked with a move to Camp Nou.
The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid heralds a new dawn at the Santiago Bernabeu following Jose Mourinho’s final turbulent year at the helm. The Italian has made two significant midfield signings, bringing in Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad and the exciting and highly-rated 21-year-old playmaker Isco from Malaga. Illarramendi, a 23-year-old defensive midfielder, is seen as a long-term replacement for Xabi Alonso. Striker Gonzalo Higuain, meanwhile, has joined Napoli.
Speculation has continued to surround the future of Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu. Ancelotti has insisted that the brilliant but temperamental Portuguese is vital to the club, but admits his future is uncertain. Attempts by Real Madrid to lure Gareth Bale away from Tottenham Hotspur have added to the uncertainty surrounding Ronaldo, who has often said he is unhappy in the Spanish capital, though it remains to be seen whether Los Blancos are prepared to meet the London club’s €93m asking price for the Welsh international.
Last season’s Primera was a three-horse race for much of the campaign until the challenge of Atletico Madrid lost momentum towards the end, but Los Colchoneros held on for an impressive third-placed finish. The prolific Radamel Falcao, scorer of 28 goals in La Liga for Atleti last season, has moved on to Monaco and his replacement, David Villa, is an interesting choice. Although 31 years old and plagued with injury in recent seasons, he scored 48 times in 116 games for Barcelona and remains Spain’s leading all-time marksman.
Looking for experience in defence as well as attack, coach Diego Simeone has brought in 32-year-old fellow Argentine Martin Demichelis from Malaga. In addition, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was a key player for Atleti last term and he will be available for a third successive season on loan from Chelsea, but Simeone expects the coming campaign to be the last before the Belgian returns to his EPL parent club.
Former Valencia defender Miroslav Djukic, now back at Mestalla as coach, has had some big decisions to make during the off-season, not least telling the long-serving David Albelda that, after 15 seasons at Mestalla, he did not figure in the new man’s plans. The no-nonsense Serbian has failed, however, in his bid to hold on to his star striker Roberto Soldado, who has joined Tottenham.
With their well-publicized financial issues, the lack of Champions League football for yet another season at Mestalla has not gone down well and the ambitious Djukic clearly has his eyes set on a top four finish this time out. Valencia’s biggest enemy last year was inconsistency, with a fine record at Mestalla negated by some erratic performances on the road. The club’s position was not helped by instability among the technical staff. Three coaches passed through the revolving door at Mestalla last season and Djukic is the fifth to take charge in a little over a year.
Real Sociedad massively over-achieved last season, qualifying for the Champions League under coach Philippe Montanier and his assistant Jagoba Arrasate. With Montanier having left to take charge of French Ligue 1 side Rennes, Arrasate has stepped up to the top job at the Anoeta.
La Real will have to negotiate a Champions League qualification round but, despite the real possibility of lucrative group stage football for the first time in a decade, the club have not been big spenders over the summer, planning instead to give more opportunities to talented youngsters such as highly rated 20-year-old Ruben Pardo, who has come up through the ranks at Anoeta under Arrasate and is seen as a long-term replacement for the Bernabeu-bound Asier Illarramendi.
Malaga enjoyed an extraordinary run in the Champions League last season, reaching the quarter-finals and finishing sixth in La Liga in what turned out to be Manuel Pellegrini’s last season in charge at La Rosaleda. Already in financial turmoil after their Qatari owner drastically scaled down his support, and excluded from European competition despite their top-six placing, this season could be make or break for Los Boquerones.
One of the first jobs for Pellegrini’s replacement, the German former Real Madrid boss Bernd Schuster, was to replace both Isco and veteran Frenchman Jeremy Toulalan, whose departures for the Bernabeu and Monaco respectively left Malaga short of a creative midfield. Chilean Pedro Morales will fill one of those roles, while the exit of Martin Demichelis to Atletico has seen another Argentine defender, Marcos Angeleri, arrive from Estudiantes.
Rayo Vallecano finished eighth in La Liga last term under Paco Jemez, which would have earned them a Europa League place but for UEFA denying them a licence for international competition. Getafe boss Luis Garcia Plaza is confident that the coming campaign could be the best since his arrival at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez two years ago, while incoming Levante coach Joaquin Caparros has made several mainly low profile signings including Andreas Ivanschitz from German club Mainz and Elche’s Jordi Xumetra.
Real Betis secured a Europa League berth thanks to Malaga’s exclusion by UEFA and Pepe Mel is looking to build on his team’s success. He has retained striker Ruben Castro but has lost Dorlan Pabon, another key source of goals. City rivals Sevilla enjoyed an end of season resurgence to finish ninth and earn an unexpected Europa League place following Rayo’s exclusion. Boss Unai Emery has brought in strikers Carlos Bacca from Club Brugge and Kevin Gameiro from Paris Saint Germain after star players Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas joined Manchester City.
Athletic Bilbao’s turbulent season ended with the departure of coach Marcelo Bielsa, striker Fernando Llorente, and defender Fernando Amorebieta. Ernesto Valverde is Bielsa’s replacement while Benat Etxebarria has signed from Real Betis to reinforce the midfield and Osasuna striker Kike Sola should provide a further attacking option to help the Basques bounce back. Espanyol President Joan Collet has admitted that survival is the first objective for next term, while new Real Valladolid boss Juan Ignacio Martinez has outlined a similar aim following his move from Levante.
Granada boss Lucas Alcaraz has brought in Riki from Deportivo La Coruna and Piti from Rayo Vallecano as well as Chilean midfielder Manuel Iturra from Malaga, as El Grano look to avoid another basement battle. Jose Luis Mendilibar remains in charge at Osasuna, although Los Rojillos have signed Joan Oriol from Villarreal and Jordan Loties from Nancy, their realistic expectation must be for another relegation scrap. Fellow strugglers Celta Vigo narrowly escaped the drop on the final day of last season and incoming coach Luis Enrique moved quickly to bring in prolific Brazilian striker Charles from Almeria following Iago Aspas’ move to Liverpool.
Of the three promoted clubs, Villarreal appear best equipped to survive, having bounced back after only a single season in the second tier. Coach Marcelino has added Atletico goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo to his squad. Segunda champions Elche return to La Primera after an absence of 24 years. Boss Fran Escriba has acquired loanees Ruben Perez from Atletico and Sevilla pair Miroslav Stevanovic and Manu del Moral. Almeria coach Francisco Rodriguez will see avoiding instant relegation as his primary aim. Los Rojiblancos return to the top flight after a two-year absence after promotion via the Segunda play-offs.