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?
Suarez struggled to make any impact as a starter against Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup and replacement in the friendly against Boca Juniors – his first appearances since helping Uruguay reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
The 31-year-old striker will act as Barcelona’s spearhead in their season-launching showdown with Alaves at the Camp Nou and while coach Ernesto Valverde is aware of his slow start last season, he insists he will soon burst into life.
“Luis is fine. He’s only just coming back from his break, so he’s gradually getting up to speed, but he looks good,” Valverde said.
“Luis is a goalscorer. He’s aggressive in the area. We know what he gives us. Regardless of his success in front of goal, the fight is always there.
“Last year, at the beginning, there were criticisms because it took him a while to start scoring, but when he started he did not stop.
“He guarantees fight in front of the goal. It’s a matter of patience and perseverance, and what Luis has is perseverance. Once he gets started he doesn’t stop. He’ll keep plugging away.”
Valverde has revealed that Lionel Messi could be used on the right and views the Argentina playmaker’s wellbeing as key as he looks to make up for a disappointing World Cup.
“It’s possible – we know his tendency to be drawn to where the ball is,” Valverde said.
“Whether Messi plays out wide or through the middle, it’s always an advantage for us. That’s how we’ve started ahead of the new season, we’ll see how he gets on.
“Like everyone else, Messi needs to feel comfortable, be involved in the game, score and set up goals. I think that’s practically what every player needs.
“But it’s true that there is a lot of commotion around Leo just for who he is – both here and in Argentina.
“What we have to do is create an environment for him in which he feels happy out on the pitch.”
New signings Clement Lenglet, Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Malcom have been involved in pre-season but their roles against Alaves have yet to be revealed, although they are unlikely to be in the starting line-up.
Alaves, who are managed by former Barcelona defender Abelardo Fernandez, finished in 14th place last season but have been widely tipped to struggle in this campaign.
However, they were the last team to win in La Liga at the Camp Nou two years ago.
After a busy summer in the transfer market, reigning champions Barcelona get their new La Liga campaign underway with a home game against Alaves on Saturday night.
Confidence is high among the Blaugrana after last week’s Super Cup victory over Sevilla and a comfortable midweek win against Boca Juniors, but Alaves have a good recent record at the Camp Nou and will be determined to cause another upset.
Here are three big talking points ahead of the new campaign.
4-3-3 or 4-4-2?
It goes without saying that Lionel Messi will continue to be the most important player for Barcelona as he returns to more comfortable surroundings following the trauma of his ill-fated World Cup campaign with Argentina.
The big question, though, is where will he play?
Last season saw new manager Ernesto Valverde largely lean upon a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Messi in a central free role behind sole striker Luis Suarez, and that strategy succeeded in giving the team a strong backbone – they ended up conceding only 29 goals in 38 games despite a few late-season defensive blips.
However, the pre-season meetings with Sevilla and Boca saw Messi line up on the right-hand side of a forward trio in a 4-3-3 formation, with Ousmane Dembele and Malcom starting the two games on the other flank in a system similar to the ‘MSN’ glory days a few years ago.
The signing of Malcom and Dembele’s hoped-for emergence into a more reliable presence will give Valverde options that simply didn’t exist last season, and his team selection on opening day will provide a strong clue over his future plans.
Midfield rotations already?
The biggest shake-up to the Barca squad has come in midfield, where Brazilian ball-player Arthur, fiery Chilean international Arturo Vidal, returning Rafinha plus versatile pair Sergi Roberto and Philippe Coutinho are all available to fill the gap created by the departures of Andres Iniesta and Paulinho.
Realistically, only two of them at the very most will feature in Valverde’s strongest side, with Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic guaranteed a starting role barring injuries or an unexpected collapse in form.
But Barca – as admitted by Messi in his traditional captain’s speech before the Boca game – are focussing heavily on the Champions League this season and part of that will require Valverde to rotate his team far more often than he did last year, preventing his key players from burning out by the time the European knockout stages arrive.
With that in mind, this weekend’s league opener could be the right time to give Rakitic some rest following his exertions in Russia this summer. He played every game in Croatia’s march to the World Cup Final, and giving him an extended break now could be a wise move to ensure he avoids becoming fatigued before the season has even begun.
Alaves aiming to repeat history
On Saturday 10 September 2016, the unthinkable happened: little Alaves travelled to Barcelona and took the lead through Deyverson. Before long Jeremy Mathieu levelled for the hosts, but then Ibai Gomez struck again and Alaves sealed three dramatic and historic points.
Since then nearly two years and 36 league games have passed by, and Barcelona have lost precisely none of them. But now the last visitors to win at the Camp Nou in La Liga are also aiming to become the next team to win at the Camp Nou in La Liga, and Alaves can approach this weekend’s game with nothing to lose, everything to gain.
The Basque club also came close to an upset last season, leading through a goal from erratic frontman John Guidetti until the final 20 minutes, when Suarez and Messi pulled off a rescue act. And with Guidetti joined by Borja Baston plus former Real Madrid youth wingers Burgui and Ruben Sobrino, Alaves have the cutting edge to cause more problems for the hosts – if they dare.