The Premier League is often lauded as the ‘best league in the world’ but England’s finest barely lays a glove on La Liga when it comes to continental success this millennium. Spanish football has dominated Europe in recent years and there’s more to La Liga than just the big-two.
Of course, Barcelona (1.60) and Real Madrid (2.50) headline and it’s no surprise to see the two giants chalked up at restrictive quotes to claim top honours in 2015/16. Ten of the last 11 titles have been shared by the superpowers and bookmakers and punters believe the duopoly will continue. But I’m not so confident.
Barcelona deservedly secured a magnificent treble last season but will be weaker coming into the new campaign. Although Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal should prove handy additions, neither can play until a transfer embargo is lifted in January. Sure, both will bolster the Barca ranks but with Xavi no longer at the Nou Camp and Pedro’s sale imminent, there has to be question marks.
Luis Enrique’s squad is thin on the ground. Defensively they impressed in 2014/15 but during Super Cup fixtures against Sevilla (UEFA) and Athletic (Spanish) they imploded. The mind-set must be right if the Catalans are to clinch a sixth title in eight seasons and after such a successful and draining past 12 months, you have to question the wisdom in taking the 1.60 on offer.
Real Madrid finished just two points adrift of top spot and looked to be cruising before Christmas. Los Blancos went on a ridiculous 12-match winning streak before their season took a turn for the worse. The capital club ended the campaign trophy-less and Carlo Ancelotti was given the boot.
Rafa Benitez has been brought in to reignite Real’s challenge and although the former Liverpool coach has failed to land a league title in 11 years, the early signs are promising. Benitez is imposing a new 4-2-3-1 system to give the side more stability and structure with Gareth Bale being used in a free role and Cristiano Ronaldo in his favoured left-wing position.
Danilo is the standout signing in what’s proven to be a quiet summer at the Bernabéu but the lack of activity could contribute to a successful campaign. The consistency in playing personnel, hunger to lift silverware and a fresh tactical approach should bring Madrid back into major focus. Benitez may not be regarded as a saviour but he’s well capable of lifting Real back within reach of trophies.
However, the best bet could be to back Atletico Madrid to trump the big-two at 17.00 following an outstanding summer of transfer business. Diego Simeone’s troops stunned the football world with their La Liga title win in 2013/14 and although Turan, Miranda and Mario Mandukuic have gone, the additions of Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Felipe Luis, Stefan Savic and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco suggest Atleti are ready to come back fighting.
The Mattress Makers have a clear ideology on how to best utilise their ability and with an excellent defensive backbone, quality and steely midfield plus the addition of pace in attack mean Atletico are a much stronger proposition. Simeone’s signed a contract extension until 2020 and his aggressive, young squad look primed to run the big guns close once more.
Atletico go to post at a bigger price than 12 months ago despite bolstering their squad and the evolution into a more forward-thinking style should suit against the league’s lesser lights. Make no bones about it, the Mattress Makers are serious contenders and the value outright bet.
Elsewhere, the battle for the fourth and final Champions League place is likely to be battled out by Valencia and Sevilla. Los Che finished just a point ahead of Sevilla in fourth last term in an enjoyable campaign under Nuno Espirito Santo but with the added responsibility of European football on top, you have to question whether the squad has the mettle to last the pace.
Sevilla have proven under Unai Emery that they’re more than capable of competing on both fronts, having collected back-to-back Europa League titles. Despite losing star striker Carlos Bacca, Vidal and Stephane M’Bia in the close season, the Andalusians have recruited superbly in the summer and look potentially stronger this time around. In 2014/15 Sevilla recorded their highest ever points total and at 2.30 look an interesting bet to finish in the top-four.
At the bottom of the league, Eibar (1.65) look like serious relegation candidates having been given a reprieve. Elche were demoted for their tax-paying problems despite finishing in 13th and plucky Eibar live to fight another day. The minnows won just nine games last time out, losing a huge 21, and are having to feed off scraps in the transfer market. Jose Luis Mendilibar is now in charge and it would take something remarkable to keep the club in la Liga for a third successive season.
But it’s Levante (3.50) who make the most appeal in the Relegation market. A failed takeover in the off-season, the loss of top goal-getter David Barral amongst a host of departures and a batch of signings from the bargain bin mean the squad’s in a weaker position. Defensively the Frogs were a shambles and their home form was below-par too. They escaped by the skin of their teeth last time out but may not be quite so fortunate this season.
Finally, it’s almost impossible to look beyond the obvious two candidates in the Top Goalscorer market. Ronaldo pipped Lionel Messi by 48 goals to 43 and at 2.00 looks the bet to claim the award for the fourth time. Barcelona are likely to share the goals about a little more Madrid and Messi might be squeezed out of contention by his team-mates Luis Suarez and Neymar’s penchant for goals.
Ronaldo will operate from the left in his favoured role and the Portuguese superstar will be gunning to defend his title from the off. Following a full pre-season, we should expect CR7 to be on top of his game and Messi might be weary following another summer competing on the international stage.