Following on from our preview of the English Premier League season, we look at the leagues and teams across Europe that’ll be making the headlines throughout 2011/12, starting in Spain.
After this week’s heated events in the Spanish Super Cup, who are you tipping to win La Liga this year? Barca or Real? It surely can’t be anyone else the way things stand.
Greg: It won’t be, and I’m backing Barcelona all the way. Besides their fearsome work rate and abundance of brilliantly technical footballers, it is Barca’s vivid sense of their own unique footballing identity that gives them an edge over their Madrid rivals. Whilst there exists a fierce hunger to over turn Barca’s recent domination over at Bernabeu, the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality of their manager, Jose Mourinho has created conflict amid concerns about the well-being of the club’s reputation, traditions and dignity. Whilst Barcelona are equally guilty of descending into highly derisible gamesmanship when it suits them, Jose’s Real seem to emanate an aura of calculated cynicism at the best of times with their attempts to counter Catalans last season based on reactive, anti-football roughhousing.
The conspiratorial mind gaming of the self proclaimed ‘special one’ created powerfully productive siege mentalities at both Chelsea and Inter, yet his attempts at building a similar mind-set at Madrid seems to have backfired into a team psyche prone to lashing out in frustration. This week Gerard Pique decried Madrid’s approach as “destroying Spanish football” yet it could well be the ever-strengthening duopoly of Spain’s two footballing giants that could lead to a withering of the game. Perhaps Cyldesbank may soon find new sponsorship opportunities in sunnier climbs.
Dan: “We’re chasing third place because of the adulteration of the league. Eighteen teams can’t compete for the title” – Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido. With the talent available and the financial stranglehold those two have over the rest of La Liga, it’s very unlikely we’ll see a Valencia/Deportivo win the league for a very long time. There looked to be very little between the teams in the Super Cup, with Real arguably the better side for both games, but Barcelona the more clinical, making them ultimately the winner. It should be noted, however, that Barcelona’s Copa America quartet were making their first appearances of preseason, with Real looking by far the fitter team at this stage.
Greg: Much is made of Mourinho’s two year plans (Inter’s trajectory under his management is testament to such a brewed-up transition) but Madrid’s showings in the Super Cup this year suggests that Jose does now have a clearer vision for how his Real team can battle Barca beyond simple physicality. I still think the La Liga will be back at Camp Nou this year however, but it’ll be tight at the top!
Besides comparing clubs, who is the better, and therefore best, player? Messi or Ronaldo?
Dan: Well, Ronaldo’s played against Stoke and Leo hasn’t…
Greg: Ha! I think Ronaldo could do a job at Stoke in his current guise as the uber-athlete goal machine! I’m not sure he can any longer execute lithe, mercurial dribbles, preferring to rely on his admittedly impressive physique, acceleration and stamina to knock the ball past a defender where his pace and power will, more often than not, carry him through. He has become perhaps the ultimate direct footballer, and whilst his scoring record speaks for itself, he now takes every touch of the ball as an opportunity to shoot. In comparison, Messi is very nearly as lethal in front of goal whilst being more prolific in providing for his team mates, retaining possession and creating space with his ‘playstation’ ball control and intelligent running off the ball. Can Messi go on to stake a claim to being one of the very best footballers of all time? It’ll be an exciting privilege to watch him try!
How will the new additions to the Barca and Real squads affect the title race and rivalry? Who’s had a better run in summer market so far?
Dan: Barcelona have blown Real away in the market this summer. With the sales of fringe players Bojan and Jeffren, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Caceres making their loan deals permanent elsewhere, they have a total net spend of €12.25m on Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.
That’s not to say that Real have been poor, however. I firmly believe that Marcelo was the best left back in Europe last season, so the signing of Fabio Coentrao for €30m seems like overkill to me. They now have unbelievable squad depth with Coentrao, Altintop and Nuri Sahin incoming, and a very promising young defender in Raphael Varane could mean we see less of the walking bomb that is Pepe.
Greg: That Barca have just bought two world-class footballers, both of who were star players at their previous clubs, purely to supplement their strength in depth on the subs bench speaks volumes.
Which clubs could be challenging Valencia for third thus year?
Dan: Villareal look the most capable threat. With Valencia about to lose Juan Mata (who is most likely a Chelsea player by the time you read this) Villareal should be able to launch a credible campaign for third. Keeping hold of Rossi (so far) is huge for their ambitions and Nilmar is finally fullfilling the potential he had previously shown flashes of. Cristian Zapata was one of the most accomplished centre backs in Italy last season and should settle into life at Villareal immediately. Borja Valero has transformed into a player unrecognisable from his time in England with West Brom. With the exit of Cazorla, there will be extra pressure on the man now known as ‘Borja’ and Villareal’s season could hinge on keeping him fit.
Greg: The Yellow Submarine would be my choice too, with or without my distant interest in their progress. In aid of this article though I’m going to suggest Malaga. Their colossal spending power makes them not only contenders for third place this year, but potential usurpers of the top two spots in years to come. The Spanish Man City!
And who are your teams and players to look out for this year in La Liga?
Greg: Lets get the headliners out of the way first, and besides their acquisitions of Sanchez and Fabregas, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Barcelona have yet another homegrown youth product in Thiago Alcantara ready to explode. Canales loan move away from Real will hopefully give him a chance to play a bit and justify some small part of the hype surrounding him.
Dan: Sergio Canales on loan to Valencia is one of the most exciting transfers, big expectations are on the former Racing Santander man, and away from the huge expectations of the Bernabeu we could see him flourish. Falcao replacing Sergio Aguero at Atleti for near enough the same amount with put huge pressure on the Columbian to hit the ground running.
Everyone’s favourite eccentric Argentinian (sorry, Diego) Marco Bielsa, has landed in Basque country and all eyes will be on Atletic Bilbao to see if they can top last season’s Europa League qualifcation.
Greg: Biesla’s stints at Argentina and Chile were fantastic to watch. Seeing his formations and tactics deployed on a more regular weekly basis in La Liga has the potential to be one of this season’s Europe-wide highlights. As I mentioned above, Malaga…
Dan: Malaga will obviously be this year’s wildcard after an impressive recruitment drive under the new ownership of Sheikh Al Thani and there is a genuine feel-good factor emanating from the club. Although it must be frustrating for the fans for the opening weekend to be postponed due to the strike, it may actually be beneficial to Malaga, with the club no longer starting the season against the juggernaut that is Barcelona.
Getafe have outdone all other clubs, however, with their viral marketing. NSFW.
Over in Italy, could this be the year of the giant killers on top? Who are your picks for the three front runners for Serie A this year?
Dan: I’m going to take this opportunity to shamelessly plug my piece on the top Serie A clubs: https://somegoals.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-scudetto-and-race-for-third/
Greg: Its Juventus or Milan for the title for me whilst Napoli, Inter and Roma battle it out for third with the romantics in Naples scraping it. I’m a soppy romantic me!
Up and over the mountains and through the forests to the north, can Dortmund retain their Bundesliga title? Who are your tips for contenders this season?
Dan: 2 games in and BVB and Bayern have won 1 and lost 1 apiece. I really fancy Bayern Munich for the title this season. Neuer may not be a terrace favourite, but is one of the top goalkeepers in the world, couple that with the new look defence with Lahm moved back left, Jerome Boateng in the centre and Rafinha bombing down the right, the rejuvenation starts to look formidable. In the few games Boateng played for Manchester City in the centre of defence he looked composed and comfotable with the ball at his feet. After a dissapointing spell in Italy, Rafinha’s return to the Bundesliga should coax the attacking best out of him and a potentially lethal partnership with Arjen Robben. I have fond memories of visiting the Veltins Arena in 2008 and being impressed Rafinha’s off the ball movement, for €5.5 million I believe Bayern have picked up a bargain.
Greg: Whilst Bayern look formidable, Dortmund are still largely intact besides Nuri Sahin’s departure to Real. I fancy their fantastically young talents to push on even further this season and look to fulfill some of their massive potential.
With so much talent bubbling up within the youth ranks of the German leagues, who are your picks for ones to watch out for this season in the Bundesliga?
Dan: After a key role for the champions and recently pulling Brazil apart, Mario Gotze isn’t really under the radar anymore. Gotze’s BVB team-mate, Shinji Kagawa really shone at the start of last season before a broken foot at the Asian Cup ended his season. With his debut season out of the way and match fitness, he should build on his 8 goals in 18 games.
Greg: Ilkay Gundogan has been brought in to replace Sahin at Dortmund. Being given such a pivotal role in the side, he’ll have plenty of opportunity to show his abilities in the middle. If he clicks, Gundogan could be one of the engines that drives Dortmund onto a successive Bundesliga title.
The French Ligue 1 seems ready to explode once more as a top competition. How do the title contenders shape up?
Dan: Not great so far! The current champions, Lille, have 1 point from their first 2 games. Whilst last year’s second and third placed teams, Marseille and Lyon are marginally ahead on 2 points. Away from results, Lille have lost three of their best players in Gervinho, Rami and Cabaye and PSG need time to gel the new signings before they quite match the level of expectation surrounding them.
Greg: They could yet lose Hazard too! I’m hoping for big things from Lyon and St. Etienne this year but obviously PSG will be very strong contenders if they can settle before too long. I’m very interested in seeing how Pastore does for them especially.
Back on the Iberian peninsula, and eyes will be on Porto as they begin live without Villas-Boas. How do you think they will fare?
Greg: The Primeira Liga looks wide open as last year’s Porto side dissipates across Europe. Benfica look the most likely to benefit from the opportunity to take the initiative in the league, with Sporting hot on their tails. With the cash from cash from Coentrao’s transfer to Madrid, Benfica have reinvested wisely. Fresh recruits have arrived from across the continent and beyond to bolster their side with the additions of Standard Ligue’s Alex Witsel and Corinthian’s Bruno Cesar to add quality to the midfield. Ezequial Garay and Joan Capdevila arrive from Real Madrid and Villarreal respectively to shore up the backline. Capdevila, a world cup and European championship winner with Spain, is an astute, and free, replacement for the departing Coentrao, providing something going forwards as well as defensive security on the left flank. I don’t mean to write off Porto but they look to be about to enter a season of transition. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to life after AVB.
Dan: I don’t know much about Vítor Pereira, but if Villas-Boas deemed him good enough to be his assistant I’m sure he will prove to be tactically astute. They’ve paid the price for Villas-Boas’ success, unfortunately, just as they did under Mourinho, with the prize assets of the squad being picked off by Europe’s circling vultures. The coach taken by Chelsea and their 73 goals in 88 games striker, Radamel Falcao, by Atletico Madrid. It really wouldn’t suprise me to see Joao Moutinho follow AVB to Chelsea, should the hunt for Luka Modric prove fruitless. The recent signing of Santos’ (hugely impressive at the Copa Libertadores) Alex Sandro for €9.6m could also pave the way for Alvaro Periera to also leave the Dragao.
Most eyes will naturally be on Benfica to put up the title challenge, but I quite fancy Sporting CP to clinch it this season. They have a brilliant young coach in Domingos Paciencia, who had Braga punching well above their weight, and a new president who is investing money wisely.
Jeffren for €3.8m is an absolute bargain, as is Sevilla’s Diego Capel for €3.5. With a new look strikeforce boasting Valeri Bojinov and Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Sporting could really be the team to watch in Portugal this season.