The 2013/14 La Liga season was unlike any other experienced in recent years. Atletico Madrid managed to break the Spanish duopoly which dominated the past decade, recording their first league accolade since the 1995/96 season. Under the guidance of Diego Simeone, the Mattress Makers made history and were seconds away from being Champions League winners too. That said, Barcelona and Real Madrid reinforced heavily this summer, looking to bring back the league trophy between them. With La Liga now a three-way dance, fans are in line for another blockbuster season.
At the reigning champions, Atletico Madrid have sadly seen the departure of some of their most influential players. Standout goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has been recalled to Chelsea, with star striker Diego Costa and left-back Filipe Luis joining him to boost Jose Mourinho’s side, and veteran David Villa off to start a new adventure in the MLS. Meanwhile, forward Mario Mandzukic joined from Bayern Munich, while highly-rated Benfica goalkeeper Jan Oblak comes in to fill Courtois’ void. Antoine Griezmann’s joins his first big club after impressing with Real Sociedad.
Considering how Atletico Madrid managed to shake off the departures of Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero in past seasons, one would bet on Los Colchoneros fighting for the crown for a second successive season. However, there is no doubt that with Courtois and Costa gone, Simeone has lost his two most important players. He still retains the core of his side, comprising Diego Godin, Arda Turan and Koke, but things might prove to be tough this time around.
At Barcelona, Luis Enrique took over from Gerardo Martino, making him the club’s third coach in three seasons. The arrival of the former Cule coincided with the team’s biggest reshaping since the 2008 season, with the most important exits being those of mythical captain Carles Puyol and goalkeeper Victor Valdes. Cesc Fabregas also ended his boyhood dream by going back to England with Chelsea, while Alexis Sanchez was sold to Arsenal.
But the Catalans were also on the end of the summer’s biggest piece of business by signing Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, currently serving a ban until 26th October. The Uruguay man joins Lionel Messi and Neymar up front in what will be the most devastating attacking unit on the planet. Elsewhere, Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla comes in to fill Fabregas’ shoes, while Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen will reinforce the defence. Claudio Bravo from Real Sociedad and Marc-Andre ter Stegen will compete for the place of first-choice custodian.
Enrique will have a tough task on his hands, including keeping his forwards’ egos satisfied. In the middle, their midfield might be lacking something with the departure of Fabregas and it will be interesting to see how Rakitic will fill that void, especially with Xavi not being the same man he used to be, putting even more pressure on the Croatian. At the back, Enrique finds himself with an abundance of centre-backs with the presence of Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra, Mathieu and Vermaelen, with Javier Mascherano possibly slotting in there too. With such a new squad, Enrique will have to put his mark on the side as they pick up the pieces again, but whether or not he can have the instant impact that Pep Guardiola managed remains to be seen.
Real Madrid added quality to their star-studded squad. Los Blancos managed to win the Copa del Rey and a tenth Champions League last term – La Decima – but failed in La Liga, eventually finishing in third place. That said, the Madrid board recruited World Cup revelations Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez and Keylor Navas. Going the opposite way, Diego Lopez was the victim of Navas’ arrival as the goalkeeper was sold to AC Milan, while Angel di Maria, Sami Khedira and Isco could also be sacrificed in a summer clear-out.
Carlo Ancelotti’s biggest challenge will be to regain the league crown this year, missing from Madrid’s cabinet since the 2011/12 season. A decorated “cup” coach, the Italian coach has a poor league record, managing only three league wins in his illustrious career, once each with AC Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain. Should he manage to do so, then he will have convinced the world he is the best successor to Jose Mourinho. Another task on his hands will be trying to keep all his superstars happy, as the arrival of Kroos and Rodriguez crowds the midfield, one that already has Xabi Alonso, Khedira and Luka Modric amongst others.
Naturally, Eibar seem to be one of the favourites for relegation in the upcoming season. The small Basque side, with a stadium capacity of just 5,250, have no standout players in their ranks and are surely going to find it tough to stay in La Liga for another term. Another team that are relegation candidates is Cordoba. Similar to Eibar, the small Andalucian outfit have no realistic goals for the league campaign other than to “sit back and enjoy the ride”.
The obvious choice is Enrique. The former Barcelona player comes back home after coaching Roma and Celta Vigo in the top flight. Obviously, the big talk surrounds the formation that the Asturian will adopt at the club in a bid to keep all the players happy. Talk have varied from keeping the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 to switching to a more controversial 3-5-2 formation for the Catalans. Managing the egos of Messi, Neymar and new signing Suarez will also be amongst his biggest challenges.
Another important change will be the arrival of Joaquin Caparros at Granada. Having coached Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, and more recently Levante, the manager left the club after failing to agree an extension to his contract, and switched allegiances and joined Granada soon after. A man with a respectful coaching pedigree, it will be interesting to see how his expertise can solidify Granada’s position as an established Primera Division side and prevent them from being relegated.
Luis Suarez might make his anticipated competitive debut on the weekend of 25th October. Of course, that is when the first league Clasico will take place and all eyes will be on the Uruguay star as he aims to be the striker his team have so long been craving after the Camp Nou failed to accommodate Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa.
Another player who could make his mark is €80m signing James Rodriguez. The Colombian arrived at Real Madrid after a great display with his nation at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and it will be interesting to see how he will connect with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in what promises to be a jaw-dropping attack.
Atletico Madrid will be the team under most pressure to succeed in 2015. Diego Simeone guided his men to La Liga glory last term, and they were seconds away from winning the Champions League. However, the loss of his key players will be the perfect litmus test in order to see just how resilient the team Simeone has built truly are.