And then there were three. If there was any doubt that Atletico Madrid could mount a serious La Liga challenge this year, it was expunged in Estonia the moment Diego Costa lashed a grenade past Keylor Navas.
The UEFA Super Cup is a tame curtain-raiser compared to what will come but there is a sense Atleti proved they can go the distance in the title race after dispatching Real Madrid after extra-time.
Reigning champions Barcelona have freshened up an aging squad and Julen Lopetegui, who suffered the trauma of being sacked by Spain after being handed the Real reins, must smooth out the Cristiano Ronaldo aftershocks.
We sum up the reasons for and against all three clubs hoisting the trophy come May – now it’s Barcelona’s turn. Click here for Atletico Madrid‘s assessment and visit this link for the summary of Real‘s chances.
WHY THEY WILL WIN LA LIGA
Unlike Real, Barcelona haven’t pussy-footed around in the transfer market. They’ve trimmed the fat by shipping Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes and Gerard Deulofeu to the Premier League. The meaty Arturo Vidal was a welcome surprise alongside the injection of fresh talent in Malcom, Clement Lenglet and Arthur Melo.
Ernesto Valverde had a traumatic first summer in charge given Neymar’s abrupt departure and Ousmane Dembele’s injury-wrecked start to the season. The 4-4-2 was a hasty, safety-first adaptation rather than by design, helping to protect Andres Iniesta’s legs on the left – even still they won La Liga at a canter.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN LA LIGA
However, there’s no guarantee a change to a preferred Valverde formation will be an improvement. Indeed, it could end up exposing some defensive frailties, especially if Philippe Coutinho is stationed in the midfield of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
Iniesta, while used sparingly last year, was still one of the world’s very best playmakers and Dembele, for all his attacking strengths, lacks tactical discipline for now if he is to be the left-sided prong of the attacking trident.
Then there’s Luis Suarez, who took ages to limber up last season and it won’t help if he’s isolated as the lone frontman. Even if he fires, he has no obvious relief from the bench.
Barca crave Champions League silverware. Every time Real Madrid lift ol’ big ears, they are metaphorically stepping on Blaugrana bodies all the way up to the podium. Juggling that clamour for European success, a La Liga tilt, Messi’s freshness and both a change of personnel and tactics will be a delicate balance for Valverde.
On the subject of Messi, he turned 31 in June. Will any fallibility creep in over the course of a draining season that started with the World Cup or he will shine even brighter in Spain now Ronaldo has fled?
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