The big bucks may have been spent on bringing some of the best attacking talent in the world to La Liga this summer but just where the title ends up next June could boil down to the big, and somewhat less publicised, changes at the other end of the pitch.
Antoine Griezmann, Ivan Rakitić, James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Mario Mandžukić and Toni Kroos are amongst the star names from this summer’s World Cup to bolster’s Spain’s top three clubs during the close season. Champions Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid have not rested on their laurels and have spent big on acquiring some of the world’s top goalscorers and the players that put those goals on a plate.
While those additions will leave La Liga fans licking their lips at the attacking quality on show next season, the more crucial changes may well have come in the goalkeeping department with all three title chasers set to start the campaign with new No.1’s.
Atletico were forced to see Thibaut Courtois return to Chelsea after a superb three-year loan stint at the Vicente Calderon, Victor Valdes and José Manuel Pinto left Barcelona and Iker Casillas looks set for more time on the Bernabeu bench after Madrid spent big on Levante’s Keylor Navas. Last year may have been the year of the manager with Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti taking the reins in Catalonia and Madrid respectively but this year is the year of the goalkeeper in Spain.
The biggest test may well be with the champions, who enjoyed the services of Belgium international Courtois for the past three seasons. Alongside Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, the Chelsea stopper was the best between the posts in Europe last season and his departure from Diego Simeone’s side left a big hole that has been plugged by Benfica’s Jan Oblak.
Courtois was a crucial part of a strong defensive unit at Atleti that conceded the fewest goals in La Liga with just 26 and one that helped Los Rojiblancos all the way to the final of the Champions League. His form saw him collect the Ricardo Zamora Trophy, the end-of-season award in La Liga for the goalkeeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio, for the second year running. Atleti may have managed to hang on to star centre-back pairing Diego Godin and Miranda but the need for the back four to forge a new relationship with a young goalkeeper, albeit talented in Oblak, is key.
Back-up shot-stopper Dani Aranzubia also left the club this summer meaning it’s all-change on the goalkeeping front for Simeone, with the Argentine also bringing in Miguel Ángel Moyà from Getafe. The £13 million spent on Slovenian international Oblak may suggest a regular starting role for the former Benfica man but Moya, who arrived for the more modest £2.5 million, has pushed him all the way with some fine performances in pre-season.
While Atleti’s hand was forced with Chelsea recalling Courtois to Stamford Bridge, their neighbours look set to enter a new era between the sticks with Costa Rica World Cup star Navas arriving on a six-year deal from Levante. Lopez was manager Carlo Ancelotti’s goalkeeper of choice in the league last season, with club legend Casillas having his opportunity in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. Los Blancos won both of those competitions but an error in the European final and poor performances for Spain in the World Cup have left 33-year-old Casillas looking at more time on the bench in light of Navas’s arrival.
Trouble has been brewing at the Bernabeu with fans’ favourite Casillas and Lopez both believing they are good enough to start for the European champions. An £8 million fee for 27-year-old Navas, who helped Levante to the best defensive record outside of La Liga’s top-four last season, suggests otherwise. Lopez has been linked with moves to AC Milan and Monaco but Casillas is keen to stay put and fight for his place. He will, at least, start the UEFA Super Cup clash against Sevilla in Cardiff.
There are problems at Barca, too, as Luis Enrique weighs-up who to start in goal following the departures of two long-standing clubmen in Valdes and Pinto. Marc-André ter Stegen was earmarked early on from Borussia Mönchengladbach and cost £10 million but Los Blaugrana also brought in Real Sociedad’s Claudio Bravo for a similar price following a good World Cup with Chile. Both have had their chances in pre-season but an error from Bravo in Barca’s 1-0 defeat against Napoli could swing things in the favour of Ter Stegen for the opening Liga game of the season.
It’s not just at last season’s top-three where there have been changes in goal. Malaga lost Willy Caballero to Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City and replaced him with Guillermo Ochoa, one of the stand-out performers for Mexico in Brazil. Real Sociedad replaced Barca-bound Bravo with Gerónimo Rulli on a season-long loan from Uruguayan club Club Deportivo Maldonado SAD. Replacing Moya at Atleti is Valencia’s Vicente Guaita while Jonathan Lopez adds competition after arriving from Greek club Veria. Valencia’s quest for a huge upturn in fortunes included the signing of Celta Vigo’s Yoel Rodríguez, although Los Che secured regular starter Diego Alves to a new five-year deal.
Some clubs have stuck with what they have, notably Espanyol who managed to hang on to the impressive Kiko Casilla, who had been linked with Real Madrid, and Rayo Vallecano, who conceded more goals than any other in La Liga last season but have kept faith with Ruben Martinez. Athletic Bilbao will return to Champions League action with Gorka Iraizoz in goal when they face Napoli in the final Qualifying Round.
When La Liga kicks-off on Saturday, August 23 most eyes will be on players such as World Cup Golden Boot winner Rodriguez and former Liverpool star Suarez if his appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport against his fourth month ban is successful. Last season Atleti proved the championship can be won with a stubborn defence, however, making the changes in goal just as crucial as the extra firepower, even if the transfer fees paid out do not mirror it.