Five questions ahead of the new La Liga season

Andy West 18/08/2016
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Ready to kick-off: Zidane, Boateng, Sampaoli and MSN.

The La Liga season is now just two days away and, having already seen two Super Cup ties involving some of the league’s biggest contenders whet the appetite for what is to come, anticipation is running high ahead of the new campaign.

Barcelona will be looking to retain their title once more, but with Real Madrid fresh off the back of a Champions League triumph and Atletico strengthened, competition will again be high.

For those who have been drawn in by his entertaining Chile side, many are also keen to see whether Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla can hit similar heights and make it a four-horse race for the title.

Sport360’s Andy West looks at five major talking points ahead of the new campaign.

WILL REAL MADRID END THEIR TITLE DROUGHT?

Real Madrid have won only one La Liga title since 2008 – taking the crown under Jose Mourinho in 2012 – and there is plenty of pressure on Zinedine Zidane, despite his success in the Champions League, to return the club to domestic supremacy.

Zidane has made an undeniably brilliant start to his managerial career, finishing last season with 12 consecutive league victories as well as triumphing on the European stage, and despite an unusually quiet summer in the transfer market the French coach certainly has the tools at his disposal to flourish.

Indeed, Zidane’s cause will probably actually be helped by the fact that club president Florentino Perez for once resisted making his usual ego-fuelled pre-season Galactico signing, because many of Madrid’s previous forays into the market have undoubtedly unbalanced and unsettled the squad.

Los Blancos already boast a more or less complete squad, with the return of Alvaro Morata from Juventus meaning they possess high-class starters and back-ups in every position, with the exception of a defensive midfielder to share the load with Casemiro.

As always, a lot will depend on whether Cristiano Ronaldo continues his ludicrous goalscoring exploits and how well the Portuguese gels with Karim Benzema and especially Gareth Bale, who is slowly but surely becoming top dog at the Bernabeu.

But if Zidane can maintain the progress he made during his first few months in the job and control the political infighting which comes as part of the club’s DNA, Madrid could become frighteningly good.

CAN ANYONE STOP MSN?

Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Sevilla in the first-leg of the Supercopa de Espana suggests a familiar pattern is ready to resume.

Early in the second-half Barca were playing poorly, having been outplayed for long periods by their hosts and struggling to get Lionel Messi into the game. But then Luis Suarez was presented with a chance, buried it into the corner and the Blaugrana were on their way to another victory.

The rampant success of arguably the best forward line in history – Messi, Suarez and Neymar have combined for an out of this world 253 goals in just two seasons – means that Barca essentially can win any game, any time, anywhere.

Seven trophies in the last two campaigns is ample evidence of MSN’s effectiveness and the Catalan club’s power should be further enhanced by Luis Enrique’s busy summer in the transfer market, which has provided several significant reinforcements including talented creators Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez.

Their presence should allow Enrique to give more rest to key players such as the superstar strike trio and Andres Iniesta, who turned 32 in May, preventing the burn-out which threatened to derail their challenge at the end of last season.

The only real concern for Barca is whether they will be able to adequately replace Juventus-bound Dani Alves. The dynamic right-back was an undervalued part of the team’s structure – especially considering his near-telepathic understanding with Messi – and could be very badly missed.

ARE ATLETICO READY TO CHALLENGE AGAIN?

The idea that La Liga is a two-horse race has been dismantled in the last few years, with Atletico Madrid winning the title in 2014 and coming close again last season, as well as progressing to two Champions League finals.

A number of intriguing summer signings has led many observers to conclude that Diego Simeone’s squad is stronger than ever, and the arrival of Kevin Gameiro from Sevilla could prove particularly significant. His all-French strike partnership with Antoine Griezmann promises to give an edge to Atletico’s attack which was missing last season.

With youngsters Saul Niguez, Jan Oblak, Jose Maria Gimenez and Thomas Partey continuing to blossom, there is every chance that Atletico will continue their recent powerhouse ways, and their ongoing rivalry with crosstown foes Real is a particularly tasty treat for fans of Spanish football to savour.

Despite the remarkable turnaround in fortunes that he has inspired, however, there is no danger of Simeone allowing his team to become complacent.

Atletico have not won a trophy since lifting the Supercopa de Espana two years ago, and the feisty Argentine will be determined to avoid another season without silverware, especially considering last season’s heartbreaking climax which saw them fall to Champions League final defeat on penalties and at the hands of Real.

WHO WILL WIN THE RACE FOR FOURTH?

The ‘league within the league’ will see several candidates for the all-important fourth Champions League place heading into the campaign with serious question marks.

Villarreal, who finished last season as Spain’s best team outside of the ‘Big 3’, have made some promising summer signings but were rocked by the out-of-the-blue sacking of manager Marcelino in early August, leaving new man Fran Escriba with little time to formulate his plans.

There is similar turbulence at Sevilla, where former Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli is preparing to work with a largely new squad. Sampaoli’s ferocious style of football should ensure the season is anything but dull, but replacing the goals of Atletico-bound Gameiro will present a major challenge to new signings Wissam Ben Yedder and Luciano Vietto.

An even more volatile situation is unfolding at fading power Valencia, with owner Peter Lim rapidly turning himself from heroic saviour into loathed villain by seemingly being happy to sell off the squad’s biggest assets without effectively replacing them. It could be a torrid campaign at Mestalla.

Amid the uncertainty elsewhere, it could prove to be a very fruitful season for Athletic Bilbao, who were handed a huge boost in the summer when star defender Aymeric Laporte rejected Manchester City to stay in Spain. If the Basques play to their potential, they could make fourth place their own.

WHICH TEAMS ARE ON THE RISE?

Canary Islands-based Las Palmas might not feature too heavily in many pre-season pundit predictions, but Quique Setien’s team were excellent towards the end of last season – winning six games out of seven at one stage – and the shock signing of former AC Milan playmaker Kevin Prince Boateng has excited high hopes.

Another sunny spot with soaring expectations is Malaga, who have lost manager Javi Gracia to Rubin Kazan but appointed a capable and experienced replacement in former Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos.

New arrival: Kevin Prince Boateng.

New arrival: Kevin Prince Boateng.

Malaga boasted the fourth best defensive record in La Liga last season, and the summer addition of talented and hungry attacking talents Sandro [from Barcelona], Keko [Eibar] and Jony Rodriguez [Sporting Gijon] could allow them to step up to the next level.

Still in Andalusia, one of the best-supported teams in Spain is Real Betis, and a flurry of relatively expensive summer signings has filled Los Beticos with expectation ahead of the new campaign – although a lot will depend on manager Gus Poyet’s ability to restore his reputation after rocky conclusions to his spells with previous clubs Brighton, Sunderland and AEK Athens.

Elsewhere, new and wealthy Chinese owners at Espanyol have allowed Barcelona’s second club to cast aside years of negativity and look forward to stepping out of their overbearing local rivals’ shadow.

It may be a season too soon to expect a major sea change but Quique Sanchez Flores is back in the Spanish top-flight after last season’s heroics at Watford and will be looking to continue his reputation as one of the country’s brightest and most-respected managers.

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Barcelona win Spanish Super Cup

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Champions: Barcelona celebrate.

Barcelona swept to early-season silverware as a 3-0 Nou Camp victory over Sevilla secured the Spanish Super Cup title for Luis Enrique’s team.

The hosts were ruthless in the second leg of the curtain-raising clash of last year’s double winners and the Copa del Rey runners-up.

Arda Turan fired Barcelona into a 10th-minute lead and doubled his haul in the early moments of the second half, before Lionel Messi headed a third as Barcelona sealed a 5-0 aggregate win.

Messi, typically, made Barcelona tick throughout and proudly lifted the trophy.

It was his prompting that cued up Arda for the opening goal, the newly blond Argentinian exchanging passes with new recruit Andre Gomes before feeding in the telling pass.

Arda, on the shoulder of his marker, pulled away and drove a left-footed shot across goal and into the right corner.

Sevilla had posed an early threat before the breakthrough strike, with Claudio Bravo saving from Wissam Ben Yedder.

But trailing 2-0 from the first leg, Jorge Sampaoli’s players needed to take their chances.

Barcelona had the comfort of being able to spurn chances, such as when Messi rather inexplicably cracked a shot off target when he looked all set to stretch the home side’s commanding lead.

Sevilla were wasteful again after Samuel Umtiti’s handball gave them a penalty, with Bravo saving from Vicente Iborra.

They were out of luck, too, being denied an equaliser on the stroke of half-time when Gabriel Mercado’s stooping header from a difficult angle bounced away off the top of the crossbar.

Arda made it 4-0 on aggregate when he swept home just 54 seconds after the break, seizing on a loose ball 25 yards from goal and whipping the ball over Sergio Rico, possibly with the aid of a slight deflection.

He squandered a hat-trick chance soon afterwards when chipping over the bar, but by then Barcelona were cruising towards their title.

Messi got the goal he deserved in the 55th minute when Munir’s cross from the left somehow found the diminutive Argentinian amid a forest of players, and his header back across goal, at full stretch, bounced into the far corner.

Sevilla were outclassed, but fatigue was also perhaps a factor. The Andalusian side played extra-time in the European Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid last week and were playing their second game against Barcelona in the space of four days.

It was a stroll down easy street for Barcelona after the fifth goal of the tie, or perhaps simply target practice, with Messi driving a free-kick into the Sevilla wall and curling another shot just wide.

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La Liga fixtures: Who plays who in 2016-17

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Fans will have to wait for El Clasico.

The Spanish football federation released the fixtures for the 2016-17 season on Friday, with Atletico Madrid hosting promoted Alaves to kick off their campaign.

Barcelona and Real will have to wait until the first weekend of December for the season’s first Clasico, at the Camp Nou, with the arch rivals meeting on April 22-23 for the reverse fixture in the Spanish capital.

Real visit city rivals Atletico over the weekend of November 19-20, before the two sides face off at the Santiago Bernabeu in early April.

The league season will run until May 21 with the final of the Copa del Rey planned for the following weekend.

Barcelona will warm up for their season opener against Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup. The first leg takes place in Seville on August 14 with the second leg three days later in Barcelona.

Europa League winners Sevilla face a particularly hectic August schedule, with Jorge Sampaoli’s men also playing Real in the European Super Cup in Trondheim in Norway on August 9.

Opening La Liga fixtures:

Malaga v Osasuna

Real Sociedad v Real Madrid

Sporting Gijon v Athletic Bilbao

Barcelona v Real Betis

Deportivo de La Coruna v Eibar

Atletico Madrid v Alaves

Valencia v Las Palmas

Granada v Villarreal

Sevilla v Espanyol

Celta Vigo v Leganes

Dates of El Clasico next season:

Barcelona v Real Madrid (December 3/4)

Real Madrid v Barcelona (April 22/23)

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