La Liga season preview
Twelve months ago almost everyone expected another two-horse race in La Liga, with Atletico Madrid available as high as 1000-1 to win the title. But Diego Simeone's men surprised everyone -- even probably themselves -- by staying the course and taking a first title since 1996.
September's 1-0 win at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu showed Atletico were challengers, while January's 0-0 draw at home to Barca confirmed they were serious. Gerardo Martino's Blaugrana side were top at Christmas but never really convinced amid stories of dressing-room debates over tactics. Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid started slowly, roared through the early spring, but then got distracted by the chance of a 'Decima' Champions League trophy. Meanwhile, Atletico kept to Simeone's 'game by game' mantra and eventually got the point they needed at Barca on the final day to secure the trophy.
While beating both the big two was a sensational achievement, it is still worth recalling that Atletico's winning total of 90 points was well short of Barca's the previous year , and Madrid's a season earlier [also 100]. The last few weeks of the season saw all three challengers drop points unexpectedly to Valladolid, Celta Vigo, Granada, Elche, Malaga and Levante. Simeone's side showed their 'guts' coming through in the end, and [again] were truly deserving champions. But the chances of the 'big two' both slipping again, and of Atletico being able to repeat such intensity and consistency, look slim.
Key European club fixtures
French Ligue 1 -- Aug. 8
FA Community Shield: Manchester City vs. Arsenal -- Aug. 10
German Super Cup: Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich -- Aug. 13
English Premier League -- Aug. 16
Spanish Super Cup: Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid -- Aug. 19 and 22
Spanish La Liga/German Bundesliga -- Aug. 23
Italian Serie A -- Aug. 30
Three big storylines for 2014-15
1. Can Atletico go again?
Whether Atletico can retain such intensity and consistency is now a huge question, but Simeone and his equally scary assistant German 'Mono' Burgos will once again be right on top of their players. The expected summer exodus of key players has not been quite as painful as expected, with the defence and midfield actually more or less retained, except for Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis. In attack new signings Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezmann and Raul Jimenez actually look quite exciting, and the evidence from this week's Supercopa is they're willing to work hard too.
2. Have Barca really sorted out their defence?
Luis Suarez's 80 million euro transfer predictably took most of the headlines, but Barca's really important summer talking point was at the back. Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen are two pretty expensive bets to solve the club's long-running centre-back problems, but neither is really the dominant force most fans and pundits were hoping for. Javier Mascherano was outstanding in defensive midfield for Argentina at the World Cup, but was back at centre-back for this week's final warm-up friendly. Gerard Pique's preseason form has not been good. The long-waning Dani Alves remains first choice right back, and Claudio Bravo will start the season in goal. If Suarez clicks alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar, Barca could be unstoppable up front, but they still look leaky at the other end.
3. Ancelotti starting over again?
Even finally winning 'La Decima' has not changed Madrid president Florentino Perez, who has once more spent big on 'galacticos' James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. So once again coach Ancelotti is trying to cram as many big name attackers as possible into his side. Diario AS editor Alfredo Relano was reminded of Sisyphus, with the Italian having rolled his rock to the 'Decima' peak last season, but now back again at the base of the mountain. There is also the little matter of deciding whether to play the woefully off-form Iker Casillas or another new signing, Keylor Navas, in goal. But if anyone can solve such problems, while managing all his superstar egos, it is 'Carletto'.
1. Luis Suarez [Barcelona]
Even the World Cup biting incident did not persuade Barca against paying 80 million euros on Suarez from Liverpool. Suarez is clearly good enough to play for any club side, but incoming coach Luis Enrique already had Messi and Neymar -- two other South American superstars used to being their team's main attacking focus. Besides the tactical conundrum, there's also Suarez's 'behavioural issues' to deal with. When the Uruguayan finally togs out in late October, everyone will be watching.
2. James Rodriguez [Real Madrid]
Champions League winners Madrid did not really need James Rodriguez, but the Colombian was world football's hottest property after his six World Cup goals so Perez had to get him. At 23 he has the potential to be a Bernabeu star for seasons to come, but it is far from clear how he might fit into the 4-3-3 system which was so successful last year. While it was first assumed James would replace Angel di Maria in midfield, the continuing injury issues around Cristiano Ronaldo could well open up a spot in the side further forward quicker than anyone had previously imagined.
3. Antoine Griezmann [Atletico Madrid]
Ex-Bayern Munich number nine Mandzukic looks the more natural replacement for Diego Costa as Atletico's number nine. But many Colchoneros fans are more excited about capturing Griezmann from Real Sociedad. The France attacker is lightning quick, and scored 16 goals in 31 La Liga starts last season starting wide and going direct for goal. A lack of consistency is a slight concern, but Simeone is unlikely to let the 23 year old away with any slackness.
1. Thibaut Courtois [Atletico Madrid]
The losses of Costa and Luis to Chelsea were painful, but most worrying for Atletico was Courtois returning to Stamford Bridge after winning La Liga's 'Zamora' award for best keeper in the last two years. Presumed replacement Jan Oblak is another of Europe's top-rated young stoppers, but his hip problem means ex-Getafe keeper Miguel Moya is set to start the season as number one.
2. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez [Barcelona]
Three summers ago Fabregas and Sanchez were Barca's big summer signings, as then-coach Pep Guardiola looked to add a more 'vertical' element to the team's tiki-taka style. Neither player really settled into the starting side [although Fabregas made 13 La Liga assists last season, and Sanchez scored 19 league goals]. Camp Nou directors, fans and pundits have been almost unanimous in welcoming their departures for a combined 70 million euros. But if both players shine in England, Barca's transfer policy will again be questioned.
3. Ivan Rakitic and Ander Herrera
Rakitic was La Liga's best 'other' player last season, with 12 goals and 10 assists in 34 La Liga games for Sevilla, making him a snip for Barca at 20 million euros. His departure is a real blow for the Andalusians' hopes of Champions League qualification next year, but getting Blaugrana starlets Denis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu on loan has really softened the blow. With Athletic Bilbao not being able to similarly replace their departing playmaker Herrera, Sevilla team look best placed to nick fourth spot.
Atletico are not the rank outsiders of 12 months ago, but few fans or pundits really believe another miracle win is likely. The bookies make Madrid marginal favourites over Barcelona, but most pundits are hedging their bets at the moment until at least 2014-15's first clasico on the weekend of October 25/26.
Putting the neck out, Madrid look the best prepared for a long season, especially at the back where the apparent reserves include internationals like Marcelo, Alvaro Arbeloa and Raphael Varane. Barca will likely hammer a lot of teams at the Camp Nou, but could drop too many points away from home unless the issues at the back are resolved quickly. So Ancelotti is tipped to gain a league title in a fourth European country.
Battle at the bottom
Most interesting of the new teams is Eibar -- the tiny Basque club in their first ever Primera season. Some canny signings and the momentum from last season suggest they have a chance to stay up, but it will be difficult. Other promoted sides Cordoba and Deportivo La Coruna have also been busy in the market, although Depor's surprise sacking of coach Fernando Vazquez after a row over transfers looks a mistake.
As usual, Rayo Vallecano have a mostly all-new team so predictions are difficult, but Paco Jemez's side have some exciting new loan signings and should win enough games to stay afloat again. Almeria and Elche just escaped relegation last year and the latter especially could struggle again this season amid leaks of financial issues at the club. Levante finished 10th last year, but could be in trouble after losing both manager Joaquin Caparros and star goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Celta Vigo -- who have lost both coach Enrique and playmaker Rafinha to Barca -- are in a similar boat.