By Joe Meloni
Visions of Spain captain Iker Casillas proudly brandishing the nation’s first-ever World Cup trophy two months ago are still fresh in the mind of soccer fans around the globe. Surrounding him on the podium were his teammates, including the likes of Barcelona stars David Villa, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. While the group celebrated the championship together, it all ends once La Liga begins its season.
The stars of los Galacticos and the leaders of l’equip blaugrana don’t have much to celebrate together in most season. Last year, Barca edged out Real Madrid by three points and hopes to win the league for the third consecutive time.
There are, of course, other clubs in the league. But it always comes down Madrid and Barca when the season’s approaches its conclusion.
Unlike last season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry won’t be able to help Barca to the title. And Jose Mourinho will be calling the shots in the Spanish capital.
1. Real Madrid
Take a poll of soccer fans, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a few who have a negative opinion of new Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho. Not one of these people, however, can deny that the man can win. He won in Portugal, and he won in England and he won in Italy and he’s going to win in Spain. It’s going to take a couple weeks – maybe even months – for his team to figure out how to play in his system, but if, and when, it does, Real will be unstoppable.
Around Europe, clubs such as Arsenal, Inter Milan and Chelsea have dealt with issues related to their players’ prolonged stays in the world World Cup. Even with La Liga’s late start, a substantial portion of Barcelona’s starting 11 played deep into the World Cup, including the seven who started on Spain’s run to its first World Cup title. The late loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who signed with AC Milan late last week, will force a few Barca players to pick up some slack. Even the loss of Thierry Henry will hurt Barca early in the season if its depth is an issue
The late loss of Sebastien Squillaci, who signed with Arsenal last week, will affect Sevilla’s play on the back. However, a few of the club’s most important players are a year older and wiser. Late last season, losses to Villareal, Getafe and Valladolid marred Sevilla’s campaign, and the club has sworn it won’t happen again. With players such as Luis Fabiano desperate to prove the 25 million euro asking price isn’t too substantial, and experienced players such as Didier Zokora spending another season with the club, 2010-11 could be a successful season for the defending Copa del Ray winning club.
4. Atletico Madrid
Last season wasn’t particularly kind to Madrid other club, but a few things that happened this summer will help it improve on its seventh-place finish in last year’s campaign. Diego Forlan used the World Cup to prove he’s one of the most gifted goal scorers in the world, and the signing of Fran Merida from Arsenal add a new dimension to the Atletico offense. Rumors persisted throughout the season regarding Sergio Arguero’s future with the club, but he stayed and will be there all year if they’re winning.
18. Racing Santander
Following a sixth-place finish in La Liga in 2007-08, Racing Santander thought it had the pieces in place to become one of Spain’s better sides. However, the club fell to 12th place two years ago and continued the plummet to 16th in 2009-10. Replacing manager Juan Carlos Mandia in mid-November with Miguel Angel Portugal was supposed to save los Racinguistas, but Portugal struggled to do much with the club in his second stint atop the club. A stagnant offseason paired with an increasingly deep La Liga will push Racing to relegation for the first time since 2002.
Juan Ramon Lopez Muniz’ first season as manager didn’t go very well even as the club managed to remain in La Liga for its fourth-consecutive season by drawing with Real Madrid on the season’s final matchday. Francesc Arnau has been one of the league’s premier goalkeeper for years, which has helped keep the club in the first division, but Malaga’s luck is going to chance at some point. Once again, La Liga is as good as it’s been in years, and that isn’t good for a club that’s as average – at best – as it’s even been.
Hercules has improved consistently in each of the last three years – moving from sixth three years ago to promotion last season. Early season fixtures against Barcelona and Valencia will mean disaster, and there won’t be much improvement from that point. A saving grace for the club may be its late-season schedule, which, aside from a match against Atletico Madrid on the second-to-last matchday of the season, is among the easiest in the league. But there likely won’t be much Hercules can do to save its place in the first division at that point.
Bold predictions for La Liga
- Neither Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi will lead La Liga in scoring. That honor will fall to either Diego Forlan or Gonzalo Higuain. Don’t be surprised if all four start things a little slow, though, whether it’s due to Ronaldo finding his way in the restrictive system of Jose Mourinho or Higaun, Messi and Forlan struggling to find fitness after prolonged World Cup stays.
- Atletico Madrid will not sell Sergio Arguero during the January transfer window. Since his senior career began six year ago, the rumors of his demand for away from Vincente Calderon been a constant – as have the goals. The wins, however, have not come. With the addition of Fran Merida, some extra motivation and a few notable departures from other second-tier Spanish clubs, los Rojiblancos will be in the mix for a top four finish.
- Barcelona won’t be as dominant as we’ve seen. With more than half of its starting 11 and a portion of its bench not quite ready after leading Spain to the World Cup final, it will be difficult for them all to coordinate with their other teammates. Furthermore, the extreme heartbreak players such as Gerard Pique and Xavi must feel after Barcelona failed to pry Cesc Fabregas away from Arsenal may prevent them from being emotionally ready to compete.
Joe Meloni is a writer and editor for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at Joe.Meloni@TheSoccerGuysOnline.com.