La Liga preview: Can rampant Real keep Barcelona and Atletico at bay?
Real Madrid's quest to maintain supremacy over Barca in Spain looks likely this season but then again, you never know what to expect. Graham Hunter previews the 2017-18 La Liga season.
With all due respect to Neymar's quest to persuade us that his move to Paris has more to do with ambition than finance -- good luck with that one, kid -- the three biggest storylines in world football all reside in Spain.
They are the narratives of Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.
A year ago, admittedly, everyone was salivating over the Pep Guardiola vs. Jose Mourinho story, Part II. This season it'll be the real thing: whichever of them finishes higher in the Premier League will be champion. But in the interim, they've been firmly shoved off centre stage by Zidane.
He starts this season, only his second full term in charge, at Madrid as Spanish, European and world champion. As a coach, whether assistant or head, he has won three Champions League medals in the past four years and in doing so, he has become the only manager to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
Three additional things stand out about the "Zizou" story since assuming control at the Bernabeu. Firstly his team's football is immense fun to watch. Front foot, daring, never-say-die stuff. Secondly, he gives off clear signs that he's loving his work. He radiates confidence, enjoyment and a bewilderment at how this job looked like a thankless task for so many of his predecessors. Finally, it has been near impossible for any coach to manage both upwards and downwards at Madrid over the past couple of decades. (Downwards meaning the squad, upwards meaning the president.)
Zidane seems effortless but can he continue along this trophy-laden path?
One of the key factors in that answer is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. It's hard not to imagine him winning the Ballon d'Or again in January but can he repeat that massive, muscular burst of prolific goal scoring just at the crucial time this term?
Ronaldo is an advert for the "less is more" claim. Less dribbling, less movement, less pressing, less running. But more rest, more often playing like a centre-forward, more goals and more trophies.
Will age gnaw at him or reduce him? Can he rest as much as last season when there's no James Rodriguez or Alvaro Morata to pick up the slack? Can he feasibly keep on racking up trophies and achievements. It's an irresistible storyline that inevitably, leads to Messi.
Newly re-committed to Barça (although yet to sign his deal), Messi is a guy who always, always responds to the stimuli of the gauntlet being thrown at him. Neymar's absence hands more responsibility to the greatest player in history but not just to score more goals: He now has to adapt correctly to a differently equipped forward line.
More, although there is clear mutual respect between Messi and Ronaldo, it has always been sufficient to galvanize the Argentina international when CR7 appears to be subjugating him.
Finally, Messi yearns for the World Cup. He must power his nation through a treacherous final qualification stretch and he must find out whether the best way to get himself to Russia ready to win the trophy that matters so much to him is to conserve energy and attitude domestically, or play flat-out and hope to carry devastating form all the way from the stadia of La Liga to victory in Moscow next July.
At the time of writing, the likelihood of either Madrid or Barcelona securing their targets -- Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele or Philippe Coutinho -- remains in question. So while these "marquee" signings may be overtaken in profile and dwarfed in price, these are the key moves so far.
Vitolo, MF/FW, Sevilla to Atletico Madrid: This represents the age-old tactic of harming a direct rival while reinforcing yourself. Even before highlighting the attacking midfielder's football ability there's such a thing as a "fit" when a guy joins a club. Atleti's fans want derring-do; they want passion, effort, commitment and fun.
The degree to which Sevilla's fans took Vitolo to their heart, and now mourn his loss, tells you this is a pure-bred Atleti signing.
How does he cope with a few months "back home" playing for Las Palmas before Atleti's transfer ban ends? Can he help inspire Diego Simeone's team to a trophy between January and May? Vitolo's a vital story.
Nelson Semedo, DF, Benfica to Barcelona: Two things should happen as a result of the Portugal right-back arriving at the Camp Nou. Sergi Roberto, a technically gifted and intelligent midfielder, should be restored to his more natural position. Secondly, the lack of outright pace that dogged Barça last season in this position, as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of Dani Alves, can be addressed.
Semedo might be raw in terms of elite experience but he's an exciting, daring footballer and brings competitive aggression too.
Luis Muriel, FW, Sampdoria to Sevilla: Anyone who can successfully make his way in Colombian and Italian football with a "Boy Named Sue" weight around his neck deserves respect. OK, OK, it's Luis Muriel not Muriel Luis. Notwithstanding that Johnny Cash joke, there's another burden for the new boy. Sevilla arguably have the best transfer market record in modern football history but it's not all been plain sailing.
Muriel beats their two previous most costly signings: Alvaro Negredo and Arouna Koné. Negredo was a stonking hit, splurging goals, while Kone's appearance and goal record stank. The Colombia international, who is fast, agile and can play off any of the three front positions, needs to aim at Negredo's achievements and look to dwarf those of the Ivorian flop.
Call me an old softie (although it had better be behind my back!) but I'd hate to see the loss of Diego Alves to La Liga go unheralded. Of course he'll always stand out for having saved more penalties in the history of this competition than anyone else. His record was absolutely eerie. In fact, in all competitions while in Spain, he saved 26 more spot-kicks than were scored against him.
But it goes further than that. Twice, while Valencia were being battered by Chelsea at the Mestalla and Barcelona at Camp Nou, I saw him produce a stream of saves that frankly, stand in the top goalkeeping performances of defiance I've ever witnessed. And finally, I met him a few times and the Brazil international proved to be friendly, articulate and a great representative for our sport. He'll be missed.
Ruben Castro, who left Betis for football in China, was also something of a phenomenon. Far from prolific until the age of 29, indeed bouncing north, south, east and west around Spain on various loans, he then hit 135 goals for Betis from the age of 29 until 36. Really, he was an excuse to watch an Betis game because he knew no situation where the odds were too great for him to expect to score and win.
There are things worth saying about both Pepe and Morata, who have left Madrid for Turkey and England respectively, but I guess candidate No. 3 has to be Neymar. Without question he brought effervescent creativity and wit to La Liga. What's a little sad is that this competition didn't see his maturity, nor did it see him properly protected on the pitch.
Right now he's saying that he feels liberated and is enjoying a new lease of life. Let's go back to that in, say, January, when there have a been a couple of cold damp months and two or three lie ahead and the fixture list offers the next three away games at Angers, Dijon and Troyes.
Who will win the league?
Put simply, only Real Madrid can stop Madrid. Right now, with Barcelona not only in decline but split by factions clawing at each other, Zidane's team has enough skill, hunger, mentality and experience to repeat their triumph of last season.
However, there are caveats. I disagree that it's competent to shed 31 goals (Rodriguez and Morata) and not replace that with a proven scorer or scorers. Good luck, Borja Mayoral: you're a welcome return to La Liga, but should one of Madrid's front line have an injury-plagued season then Los Blancos' current ability to produce jack-in-the-box wins in tough fixtures may wilt. Moreover, teams that compete in the Club World Cup usually carry a hangover into January. It didn't happen to Madrid last season, but it's a hurdle they face again.
Barcelona, if they were reinforced well between now and the closing of the transfer market, carry the threat of being stung into a reaction. It's not impossible that they lift the title, but the Camp Nou is an unhappy camp right now, which, as ever, leaves Atleti as dark horses because while Sevilla look exciting, they don't have enough depth to win the title.
Simeone's troops looked as if they needed not only reinforcements but a decent summer's rest. The latter is in the bag; the former will come at Christmas. Given how he plays, Gabi has passed the most powerful stage of his career and that will be Atleti's Achilles heel unless Augusto, such a loss last term, hits the ground running.
Battle at the bottom
This season threatens to offer us six or seven teams who will face relegation uncertainty right until the end of La Liga 2017-18.
Girona were top scorers in winning promotion and will debut in the top division this season. They're an outright marvellous story given the predicament they were in when coach Pablo Machín took over and have Manchester City as a friend in deed, but they need to prove they can score. Preseason has shown that unless Olarenwaju Kayode does arrive from Pep Guardiola's squad and is pretty prolific, then Girona have problems.
Getafe squeaked up via the playoffs. It's easy to point at them and say that the thing that kept them up for so many years previously, the fact that teams didn't like playing at the soul-less Coliseum Alfonso Perez and let performances there dip, needs to be re-confirmed. But Getafe don't yet look like a squad that will be free of sleepless nights between now and May.
Making the Madrid derbies they'll play vs. Leganes all the more attractive. How on earth Asier Garitano kept them up is still enough to make you scratch your head but those last four or five games when everyone at and around the club completely believed in their safety: that was special. Keeping prying eyes away from Alexander Szymanowski until the market closes looks vital.
Levante, Depor, Alaves, Eibar: you've much to prove but for the moment, you're not in my top three suspects list.
Enjoy the season. Football is great. Particularly in Spain.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.