28 August ~ As defending champions who have just added the top striker from the World Cup winners – David Villa – to what is already best attacking line-up in world football – Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Ibrahimovic, Messi, Bojan, Alves – Barcelona will understandably approach the new La Liga season with confidence. However, increasingly obvious defensive fallibility and an inevitable creeping tiredness mean they might struggle to reach consistently the heights of the past two seasons.
And given the overpowering resources of La Liga’s top two, if Barça won’t win it, Real Madrid must. A lot will depend on how quickly Jose Mourinho configures a workable system from offensively minded signings Ozil, Khedira, De Maria and Canales and returning stars Ronaldo, Kaka, Van der Vaart, Benzema and Higuaín. But his record of championship victories in his first full seasons at Porto, Chelsea and Inter suggests he’ll find a way.
Last year’s Europa League winners Atlético Madrid look the most likely to challenge the big two, especially if new defensive signings Diego Godín and Filipe Luis settle quickly and Kun Agüero stays and sparks. Athletic Bilbao’s young squad, backboned by World Cup winners Javi Martínez and Fernando Llorente, are likely to be more consistent this time around too.
Atlético and Athletic should also profit from the calamities befalling their possible challengers. Sevilla have just crashed sickeningly out of the Champions League to Braga (which means knickers in Spanish), Valencia have sold crown jewels Davids Villa and Silva, Deportivo won three of their final 18 league games last year and Villarreal’s new star signings include Jozy Altidore from Hull, Borja Valero from West Brom and Dorian Dervite from Tottenham’s reserves. None of which inspires much confidence.
New boys Hercules and Levante might struggle, with the former facing likely distraction or worse from a judicial inquiry into alleged bribing of opponents last season. These two might be joined through the trapdoor by a Racing Santander squad who’ve been sliding ever since the sudden emergence and exit of wonderboy Canales last spring.
Three players to watch out for
Diego Godin, Atlético Madrid Tough centre-half who starred as Uruguay ground their way to the World Cup semis. The €10m signing from Villarreal could add the solidity required for a surprise title push.
Iker Muniain, Bilbao Athletic’s youngest ever player and scorer, the 17-year-old winger or second striker has already been through the inevitable link with Manchester City and has played starring roles in Bilbao’s pre-season friendlies.
Isco, Valencia Los Che fans will look to Juan Mata and new signing Roberto Soldado to fire them close to Real and Barca. But 18-year-old attacker Isco may upstage them if he can build on his impressive pre-season form. Dermot Corrigan