Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde says he will not make the Champions League their priority over retaining the La Liga title this season.
The Catalan giants have won the league in seven out of the last 10 season but have struggled in Europe, advancing to only one final since 2011.
Valverde’s side suffered defeat to Roma in the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season, after taking a commanding 4-1 lead in the first leg.
Real Madrid went on to clinch a third straight title but Valverde insists his focus will not switch from domestic to European matters this season.
“We prioritise everything, we will always fight for the Champions League,” Valverde said ahead of their La Liga opener against Deportivo Alaves on Saturday.
“Barca will always be like that, we are very excited but the way to win the Champions League is to win the league. You focus on being better for a year, and if so, you are closer to winning the Champions League.”
La Liga’s announcement that it plans to stage games in the United States is hardly surprising, and it is hardly a new idea.
Whether traditionalists like it or not, modern elite football is very much a global affair. Fans routinely tune into games from all over the world, and match-going supporters are now just a small (if crucial) part of a much bigger overall picture.
Barcelona, for example, boast 28.9 million followers on their English-language Twitter feed, compared to just 5.6 million in their native Catalan tongue. They are very much an international entity, and their business operations should reflect that reality.
Clubs and leagues have accepted this for a long time, and are already making strenuous efforts to engage with their followers in far-flung locations.
Pre-season overseas tours, for example, have become a matter of routine for top-flight football clubs, while the NBA and the NFL have been staging competitive regular season games on foreign shores for many years.
The idea, then, that Barcelona might face Real Betis in Florida rather than Catalonia or Andalusia is not exactly revolutionary, and on many levels it makes perfect sense both in terms of business and in terms of reflecting the identity of contemporary football.
La Liga, especially the big clubs, have plenty of fans overseas who would love to watch the team. And although clubs should of course be based in their home town or city rather than becoming a rootless Harlem Globetrotter style travelling band, a rare and occasional venture to another location does not really dilute the overall essence of what that club ‘means’. If anything, it strengthens it.
Like many ideas, the success of La Liga’s latest plan will be determined by whether it is executed well. And this, rather than the idea itself, is the key.
Many objections have already been raised, the most valid of which is the unfair treatment of season ticket holding fans who will be denied the chance to watch a game they have already paid for.
That is a fair complaint, especially for fans of smaller clubs where the annual visit of Barcelona and Real Madrid is a genuine highlight in the calendar. Loyal fans of their local teams should not be harmed by a marketing strategy which will benefit their opposition more than their own club.
Therefore, to use the example cited above, the kind of game selected should be Barcelona vs Real Betis rather than Real Betis vs Barcelona.
Of course, many Barca fans would object but, to be frank, they wouldn’t really miss a home game against someone like Betis. They have many bigger occasions to enjoy every season, and the swathes of empty seats at the Camp Nou for most home games – despite the presence of thousands of tourists – shows that most season ticket holding Barca fans are selective about the games they attend.
Another crucial consideration is the scheduling, with one obvious complaint being that staging a game in a neutral venue would detract from the symmetry of the competition.
But that supposed ‘symmetry’ is an illusion, with countless factors constantly intervening to prevent any league from being truly ‘fair’. This weekend, for example, Real Madrid will play their opening league game just three days after contesting an intense 120 minutes Super Cup in eastern Europe, whereas their opponents Getafe have been given a full week to prepare.
That’s not ‘fair’ on Madrid, but there are many more examples of the league not being as symmetrical as we sometimes like to think.
Playing one game overseas would just be another in the long list of distortions of the league’s non-existent ‘fairness’, but of course that distortion should be minimised by clever scheduling.
In the NFL, for instance, teams playing in London are then given a bye week. They don’t exist in football, but international breaks do. And if Barcelona against Betis are scheduled to play in Miami just before a set of international games which would require many of their players to cross the Atlantic anyway, another objection would be smoothed down.
Lots of good decisions have to be taken to make this idea a success, and it will be impossible to make everyone happy with it. But there are undeniable benefits, and just because it’s never been done before that doesn’t mean it should be automatically discarded. It’s just modern life.
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 that 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 – here it’s Atletico Madrid’s turn.
WHY ATLETICO WILL WIN LA LIGA
A transfer ban and the move to Wanda Metropolitano disrupted the early-season rhythm for a team which needed everything to go right to maintain a challenge. This year there are no off-field distractions to worry about and shrewd moves in the market have toned up the squad, while core muscle has been retained in the likes of Antoine Griezmann.
It’s not all about record signing Thomas Lemar – Rodri’s return from Villarreal is a like-for-like replacement for club legend Gabi. Full-back Santiago Arias and winger Gelson Martins are not guaranteed starters but at the very least are top quality depth.
Diego Simeone has been at the helm for seven years now and his players would willingly throw themselves under a bus for his street fighter mentality. But make no mistake, Atleti won’t just compete with the big boys – they are big boys. Indeed Atletico’s UEFA Super Cup squad was worth more than Real’s according to transfermarkt.com.
WHY ATLETICO WON’T WIN LA LIGA
When it comes to the crunch, can they beat both Barca and Real over 90 minutes? The last time Atleti got one over the El Clasico pair in the league was in February 2016, when Griezmann silenced the Bernabeu. The squad may have improved markedly but Simeone’s charges will have much to prove when they step out onto their city rivals’ patch on September 29.
When they arrive there they may be at a disadvantage already – while Atleti were handed a fiendishly tricky opener away to Valencia, Barcelona should breeze past Alaves and Real likewise against Getafe. In a season of fine margins, playing catch-up would not be fun at all.
There are no problems at the back between Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez – but do they have the artillery to last the season? Barca and Real were touching 100 goals in La Liga last season while Atleti mustered just 58. The four or five-goal thumpings may skew the statistics in the bigger two’s favour, but occasionally those have been the games that Simeone’s men haven’t put to bed.
With motivation and age two question marks hovering over Real and Barca’s respective midfields, this could be the season Atleti’s middle men become the envy of Europe.
Simeone’s preference for a 4-4-2 is such Atleti will never rule possession with an iron grip – and that’s just fine. Koke (26) and Saul (23) have the tenacious streak their manager revelled in many moons ago, but that combat is married with an extraordinary range of passing to unlock doors out wide or through central two Griezmann and Diego Costa.
Rodri’s addition should give that pair a degree more control – the sight of those three and an electric Lemar flying across the pitch should be a joy to behold.