5 things to watch in La Liga 2013-14
Thank heaven that Spanish football is back. Those of us who love it, crave it. That it has flaws is not up for debate. It does. But that facial blemish cannot disguise the fact that, generally, we are faced with a beautiful, golden age of Spanish soccer.
Skill, technique, showbiz, drama, high theatre, great goals. These are the things you'd pray for if we weren't already guaranteed them. The skeletons in the closets -- well, let this be a season when they are taken, autopsied properly and buried permanently.
Five things about La Liga, I hear you say? Then five things I'm interested in -- and need following -- I'll give you.
There have been three distinct stages in our relationship with Leo Messi -- discovery, learning and outright admiration.
For most of us, certainly those who pay more than passing attention to La Liga and Argentina, I would argue the learning part of that equation has diminished in relation to the admiration in recent years. We already know most of the utterly remarkable things he can do with a ball, we just keep on being stunned that he can do them over and over again.
Right now, however, I think that those who pay close scrutiny are going to enter an important, perhaps defining, learning stage with this genius of football once again.
The challenges are littered in front of him.
This is the first time since 2008 that he's had a genuinely "new" club coach. The first time since 2008 that he potentially has a proper competitor for the "No. 1" slot in the affections of the fans, media and ... the president. In June, he will be 27, the ideal age to lead a World Cup-conquering squad, and where better for a proud Argentinian to do that than in Brazil?
At first glance, his Champions League record looks like the best in history. From 2008: semifinal, winner, semifinal, winner, semifinal, semifinal. But the last two, in particular, have shown that stamina, electric pace, power and athleticism have become commodities that around mid-spring are at a premium for Barcelona.
Knowing him, the temptation I think Messi needs to confront and deal with is that he can "do" everything. Lead the squad, keep coach Tata Martino well-informed about how to run the team, score the goals, make sure Neymar is subjugated to a Jeeves role, score the goals, win the Champions League, not miss any games, spend some time with his partner and infant son, score the goals, please the sponsors, captain Argentina, score the goals, win the World Cup.
And ... breathe.
The worrying scenario, for those who care about him and his divine football (notwithstanding those who support Barca and Argentina) is that he ended last season injured, played charity matches for most of the summer, and was invalided out of Argentina's friendly in Italy during the week.
For five years. Messi's utterly remarkable football has been aided by the fact that he's barely been injured. Not only has he avoided the impact injuries that contact sport brings his constitution, but his stamina, recuperation sessions, diet, physio, and willingness to sleep well -- all of these have made him extremely robust.
But not superhuman. Playing almost every match of a Barcelona season doesn't seem, to me, problematic so long as he's on a fully fit, fully functioning team that, when Messi contributes less in a given match, picks up the slack.
That wasn't the case in the first half of 2013. Playing every match of a Barcelona season when he's not carrying any more than minor niggles or occasional leg weariness, again, isn't the end of the world.
But he had a chance to rest this summer and largely didn't take it.
I admire his resolute determination to raise money for charity and his patent success in distributing funds across a wide range of beneficiaries around the world.
However, this summer was full of travel, from Argentina to Medellin to Peru to the United States, when in theory he could have been resting up for the biggest year of his sporting life.
His choice. No problem.
Nonetheless, it won't be easy. How ready he is, how robust he is, mentally and physically, may begin to determine whether we remember him as an all-time great. Or the all-time great.
While some will judiciously argue that they are outsiders and others, the harsh ones, perhaps will sneer at me, I think it's legitimate to ask whether Atletico Madrid can win the title this season.
I know, I know.
The primacy of Spain's duopoly is less likely to be broken than the Vatican high command are to appoint a Protestant as next pontiff. Fine.
However, let's take accepted logic and call it by another name.
In the past three years, this club has won five trophies. Winning is a habit, it costs to achieve, but it's harder still to begin to repeat. Los Colchoneros have worked that bit out and coped.
A large number of these players have stayed together across the two Europa League titles, two UEFA Supercups and, last May, the Copa Del Rey triumph. This is a fighting unit.
Radamel Falcao -- yes, they've lost a superstar. A team player, a popular guy . . . a scorer.
But to replace him with both David Villa and Leo Baptistao, and to increase Diego Costa's contract in the face of competition to sign him from Liverpool, has been shrewd summer business. When school starts, manager Diego Simeone, 43, can write a nice essay: "What I Did On My Holidays."
Almost as important are two further bonuses. Chelsea somehow still can't find room for the thought that Thibaut Courtois is now in the top three keepers in the world, never mind not the top keeper at Stamford Bridge.
So the giant (6-foot-5) Belgian, who may go on to become regarded as the top keeper of his generation anywhere in the world, remains in Spain. And the men in grey suits at the Calderon have managed to keep just about every single important squad member at Atletico as they gear up for assaults on the Spanish Supercup (which they stand a reasonable chance of winning against Barcelona in the next two weeks), La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.
As an aside, one thing I cannot wait to see is the development of Oliver Torres. He's yet another little gem of a footballer. He's only 18, with just 10 substitute appearances last season. But he'll get more time this term, and I'm sure he'll merit it. Remember the name. This boy is good.
Atletico also have a driven, successful, undeniably talented man manager in Simeone. The Argentine feels about Atletico like Sir Alex Ferguson felt about Manchester United. This isn't his nation, nor his first club -- but it's his true love. Breaking the Real Madrid hoodoo, which had dated from 1999, winning the first domestic trophy since 1996 (excluding the Segunda), adding striker resources to an already fully clawed side -- these are important forward leaps.
Madrid and Barcelona are richer and better-resourced. But each has its vulnerabilities. Atletico is not facing the Barcelona of 2008-2011, nor the Madrid of 2000-2003.
Perhaps their chance is minor. But it is there. And believe you me, whatever he says in public, that's what Simeone will be thinking in private.
The Summer Sales
Have you detected the beginnings of a tone of optimism already? Good.
I must admit that, given the financial black hole into which many of Spain's clubs are staring (as, indeed, is the country's infrastructure), I expected the hemorrhage of talent to be far worse. The English Premier League has come calling. Monaco and Bayern, too. Money talks, talent walks.
I'll miss Roberto Soldado, Alvaro Negredo, Thiago Alcantara, Jesus Navas and Falcao. Of course I will.
But La Liga has managed to attract Carlo Ancelotti and Neymar. La Liga has managed to retain (against the odds) Isco, and Asier Illarramendi's big move took him not to Milan or PSG, where he would have flourished, but to the Bernabeu.
Yes, Spanish football is financially jeopardized. Yes, there has been a substantial outflow of players. However, for some of them, it will have been a sound move in ways that don't include their bank balances.
For years Spanish footballers were too complacent, too soft, to scared to move abroad. And to make it work. It's no coincidence that the outflow of young bucks (Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas) to English football and their subsequent return, permanently or during national team work, helped fortify the general Spanish footballing mentality and launch this trophy-winning generation of La Roja.
Thiago will benefit, Navas, Soldado and Negredo, too. But so will the lesser-known talents who have hit Swansea, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Everton.
Eventually there may be a net gain for Spain. If 60 or 70 players leave La Liga every summer, then there is no argument. Negative. The youth ranks and the superior scouting that make Spanish league football so special won't be able to stem the quality drain.
But I look at Sevilla and their famous director of football, Monchi, as a small example. It's worth following how they do this season. Monchi, a not particularly notable goalkeeper, went through a spell of five or six years when he had the absolute Midas touch. Signings such as Luis Fabiano, Dani Alves, Freddie Kanoute and Seydou Keita among others (plus sales of youth) earned the club a nine-figure net profit.
He then went through a spell when the players Sevilla signed didn't fit or didn't click or got injured -- from Midas touch to minus touch. But many have failed to notice that he's been in the groove for some time again.
The sales of Negredo, Navas and Gary Medel will have earned Sevilla about $40 million in net profit, while his spotting and signing of Geoffrey Kondogbia and Ivan Rakitic have been pretty inspired. Now, I'm told, we should have very high expectations of Sebastian Cristóforo, signed from Penarol to replace Medel, in central midfield.
Spain's clubs, during this horrendous financial crisis, need to be exceptional at wheeling and dealing, like Levante, Valencia and Atletico have been recently. Sevilla's progress, after a summer of "sell, sell, sell!" will be a good barometer of how successful the policy can continue to be.
The fact that Racing Santander officials approached Girona's board and asked them to abandon their previously sworn testimony and suddenly, mysteriously, admit that they were intentionally at fault for fielding an ineligible player when the sides met is now a matter of record. They asked this despite a Spanish league committee previously having accepted Girona's defence that they committed an admin error and had no intention to deliberately break the rules.
Racing's objective was to persuade Girona to suddenly admit fault so that Santander could claim the three points and thus avoid relegation.
So long as no new evidence emerges, this must simply be called an attempt to cheat.
We closed the last La Liga season with Spain's league organisation announcing they were investigating attempts to "fix" matches, that they believed they had evidence and this particular scar on what can be a beautiful face of Spanish football (at least when the ball is in play and bureaucrats are not involved) might be surgically removed.
Thus far there is no further public news, no advances. No demonstration of proof, no trial of guilty men.
Again, that's simply a matter of record, not a criticism.
When a subject like this is attacked, it needs to be done with precision, it must be researched exhaustively and it must be proven beyond doubt.
I fervently hope that LFP president Javier Tebas achieves his mandate. He claims that his No. 1 objective is to find, expose and end match-fixing in Spain. I like his attitude and his determination but he is currently turning a complicated situation into a nest of vipers.
It is a fact that in an interview on July 28 with the ABC newspaper, he named a specific Second Division match last season which he said he "didn't have the least doubt was fixed. 100 percent sure." ESPN FC has not been able to corroborate this claim.
By Tebas' own logic, he must have proof. He must neither defame nor slander clubs unless he has what he believes to be incontrovertible proof (he is a lawyer) and, almost as important, he must not undermine the already-difficult job of making witnesses come out of the woodwork by garnering publicity for unproven accusations.
The task he has set himself is both vital and full of complications. But I'd far rather have his gung-ho attitude than complacency.
It's just that the credibility of his entire idea is under the microscope, and the likelihood of success will be either massively helped or hindered by his first concrete results. Let him proceed with wisdom and determination, rather than good intentions and loud noise.
The Italian Saviour
And finally, welcome Carlo Ancelotti. I've made very clear the fact that I thought Jose Mourinho, for almost all of last season, made himself an improper match for what Real Madrid needed.
I fervently hope that this clever, affable and enormously successful Italian is just the opposite.
Nobody should be fooled into thinking that the positive signs of Madrid "going Spanish" stem from an Ancelotti strategy.
But nor is the forward movement of the football side of this club wholly back in the hands of team president Florentino Perez or vice president Jose Angel Sanchez.
Zinedine Zidane had a very firm hand in the recruitment of Isco (a 24-carat diamond of a footballer). Had he not done so, then Isco would be playing for Manchester City right now.
It's good to see Illarramendi staying in Spain if, indeed, he had to leave Real Sociedad when they hit the big time of Champions League qualifying. Younger Madrid fans may not remember Ancelotti was a top-order midfielder, both talented and clever, and as such there are few better equipped to help "Illarra" fulfill his potential. Equally, Dani Carvajal is welcome competition for Alvaro Arbeloa both at club and country level.
So these are welcome additions and in time, their presence and their trajectory at Real Madrid may become helpful to the development of the Spain national team, too.
However, what is particularly exciting is that Ancelotti is the polar opposite of Jaunty Jose. Mourinho's divide-and-conquer tactics, usually aimed at opposition clubs and the media, bounced back on him, and he committed the cardinal sin of fracturing his own squad.
The move to Ancelotti is like being stuck in a lift with Piers Morgan, Madonna and the Tasmanian Devil, the doors opening, Madonna, Morgan and Taz departing, and Mahatma Gandhi walking in.
Ancelotti's football and pedagogical skills are matched by an unflappable, calm intelligence which, sadly, is rare in football and was almost nonexistent around Mourinho last season.
The new Madrid manager has issues to deal with, some positive, some potentially negative. I think he has, as Ned Flanders -- the only man nicer than Carlo -- would say, "a dilly of a pickle' when it comes to electing a first-choice goalkeeper.
My own feeling is Iker Casillas has world-class pedigree, was unfairly targeted last season and is the greater asset from now on. However it's not arguable that Diego Lopez was absolutely exceptional last season and has staked a proper claim to start this term. That's a positive problem to solve.
That Ancelotti is not the author of Madrid's obsession with Gareth Bale and, while happy enough to take him, not wholly sure of the way to sign the Welshman and still get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo is potentially a tougher nut.
Madrid need another striker -- Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata as your two main forwards isn't the right combo to win La Liga and or the Champions League. Good, but not enough.
Ronaldo at centre forward? I think it works; United made it look sensational and Ancelotti has toyed with it. But Ronaldo is not keen. Tread carefully on that territory, Carlito.
But, in general, we'll see better football, a better relationship between team and fans, and more balanced, objective media coverage. All of those things should be healthy for the club and for the league.
All Ancelotti has to do now is find the squad solutions, galvanize good football and conquer Europe. Simple.