La Liga 2014/15 season preview: Spain's top flight gets under way

Champions League winners Real Madrid open their La Liga campaign tomorrow at home to Cordoba. Pete Jenson considers the prospects for the new Spanish season

A two or a three-horse race this season?

Barcelona v Real Madrid used to be called just the derbi then it became the clasico and last season some were calling it the super-clasico. With the arrival of Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez and Luis Suarez, where do we go from here? The Super-Mega Clasico? The Cataclismico?

The Barça v Real Madrid fixtures will be stunning affairs and go a long way to deciding the title race, but Atletico Madrid have also spent €100m this summer and are not about to give up their crown easily.

So three horses but with one horse in slightly better shape than the other two?

Real Madrid have spent less than £100m and yet signed three of the best players from the last World Cup. Paul Scholes urged Manchester United to sign Kroos but Louis van Gaal, who did not have the best relationship with him at Bayern, never came close as Madrid picked him up for £20m.

In the European Super Cup he played in Xabi Alonso’s midfield holding position and looked as if he had been there all his life; no wonder Pep Guardiola did not want him sold – but Kroos had already fallen out with Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and with just a year left on his contract he fell straight into Madrid’s lap.

James Rodriguez was considerably more expensive at £64m but at only 23 will give Madrid his best years. And Keylor Navas, who made more saves than any other keeper in La Liga last season, looks a snip at £8m to compete with Iker Casillas.

Is there anything Real Madrid didn’t do right?

If they sell Angel Di Maria they will lose, in the mischievous words of Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone, “their best player”. And if he stays it will only add to the “overbooking” which already means Xabi Alonso, Isco, Asier Illarramendi and Rafael Varane will all start the season on the bench. Top players not playing regularly could destroy last season’s impressive team spirit.

 

Have Barcelona bought well?

Suarez is a massive signing. It’s easy to forget in the fog of their unsuccessful appeal against what amounts to an 11-game ban from club football that they have signed the Golden Boot in his prime. If his arrival coincides with Lionel Messi returning to his best the result could be devastating.

Barcelona have also added one of the best midfielders of last season, Ivan Rakitic, the unfashionable but effective Jérémy Mathieu and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 22-year-old keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to the team. Buying Claudio Bravo to compete with Ter Stegen, and signing the currently injured Thomas Vermaelen made less sense, but the squad shake-up, and new coach Luis Enrique, will renew the desire for success.

Can Atletico retain the crown despite the big two’s spending?

That old trick of winning 1-0 thanks to a goal from Diego Costa and a great save from Thibaut Courtois will now be Chelsea’s to play. Mario Mandzukic looks to have all the awkwardness of Costa but none of his acceleration into space and they have replaced Courtois with 21-year-old Slovenia keeper Jan Oblak and 30-year-old Miguel Angel Moya – one lacking experience and the other Champions League quality.

They have improved elsewhere with the acquisition of Antoine Griezmann and the return of Saul Niguez from loan at Rayo Vallecano. The former is a goalscoring winger who netted 20 times last season and the latter a future Spain international who is not 20 until November and can play anywhere across the midfield. They also kept their biggest asset: Simeone.

Who are best of the rest?

Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao will make their return to the European Cup if they can get past Napoli – an incredible achievement to do so without compromising their self-imposed ban on non-homegrown players.

Seville will push them for fourth despite losing Alberto Moreno to Liverpool and now captain Federico Fazio to Spurs. They have the talented but at times uncoachable trio Gerard Deulofeu, Iago Aspas and Ever Banega. It reads like the script for a blockbuster about a squad of misfits who come together under an eccentric coach to become greater than the sum of their parts… with the brilliantly barmy Unai Emery playing himself as the manager.

And off the pitch?

Neymar’s father will give evidence on 1 October to Judge Pablo Ruz, who must decide if the tax Barcelona paid in Brazil on his €40m fee – and on various related contracts – should have been paid in Spain instead. The club also appeal against Fifa’s one-year transfer ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and they are the subject of an ongoing investigation by the European Commission into the special tax status they enjoy, along with Osasuna, Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, over other La Liga teams.

In the same inquiry, a Real Madrid land-swap deal with Madrid city council dating back to 1998 is being investigated and has halted the go-ahead on a €400m redevelopment of the Santiago Bernabeu. The EC wants to know why when the council told Real Madrid a piece of land it gave them 15 years ago valued at €595,000 was not theirs to give, it compensated them with different land, worth €22.6m.

Prediction then…

Real Madrid – just – with Gareth Bale having his best season yet.

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