Season Preview: Refined Real Ready for Repeat in the Year of the Minnows

La Liga

The fireworks of the Spanish Super Cup first leg brought the curtain up on the new La Liga season and Barcelona must now realise they face two Herculean tasks: Staging a two-goal comeback in the Bernabeu and the not-so-insignificant task of replacing Monsieur Neymar Jr.

Unstoppable drives from Real Madrid’s current alpha – Ronaldo – and future one – Asensio – effectively tied white ribbons to the glorified pre-season trophy. Humorously a red card for Cristiano was spliced in between. The Portuguese got his first yellow for removing his shirt to celebrate his goal and a second when the referee adjudged him to have taken a dive in the box. In consternation he pushed the ref on his way off the field and has been slapped with a five-match ban. Justice.

The game, in many ways, seemed to be a barometer for the season ahead. Barcelona appearing just a bit short and Real settled and secure. Real are a team with continuity on their side and the early indications seem to suggest this will stand them in good stead for the season. On the back of becoming the first team to successfully defend the Champion’s League they have retained all their stars and Zidane has renewed his contract. The signs are ominous and Los Blancos will be looking to repeat last season’s feats. They should win La Liga and that’s without the potential arrival of Mbappe.

Barcelona meanwhile appear clueless. No major arrivals so far and still reeling from the departure of Neymar. They are sounding out Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho but neither club wants to do business so close to the start of their campaigns. They may, however, be coaxed into doing so and Barca will have to pay way over the odds for it. Dortmund are asking for €135 million for Dembele and Liverpool in excess of £100 million for Coutinho. Barca, regardless of transfer tribulations, should still come second but one doesn’t envy Ernesto Valverde. His dream job is rapidly becoming a tainted chalice – I’m sure the fans will give him time…

The top four is odds on to remain the same too. Despite their transfer ban, Atletico Madrid – who held on to Antoine Griezmann – have the quality to come third again which leaves Sevilla to sweep in for fourth. Sevilla’s only problem might be managing the transition. Seven arrivals including Ever Banega, Nolito, Jesus Navas and Simon Kjaer show quality has been added. But quality has been subtracted too – over €60 million worth – it’s hard to consistently balance the scales – especially in the first post-Monchi campaign.

In truth, the rest of the division are still several rungs down the ladder. Villarreal have done business but not really improved. The arrival of Unal and Fornals from Manchester City and Malaga respectively are positive but the departure of Jonathan dos Santos to LA Galaxy isn’t great and the loss of Mateo Musacchio to AC Milan is even bigger. The Yellow Submarine will be hoping £12.3 million new boy Ruben Semedo can fill the Argentine’s defensive boots.

Valencia continue to drift into the unknown – rudderless into obscurity. Fifteen departures will ensure it will be another season without note at the Mestalla. Marcelino should steady the ship to some degree but not to a point of salvation. Lower top half suspects.

The real intrigue is at the other end. Alaves and Eibar obliterated expectations last year and should encounter some sort of difficult second album-like curse this time. Sales and manager departures never help and neither do increased expectations. Throw into the mix the second flight’s finest from last year – Levante, Girona and Getafe – then little Leganes and even Las Palmas (who are also in difficult second season territory) makes the race to avoid the drop looks like it will have a weekly six-pointer.

Girona have lucked into some type of indirect Qatari-doping thanks to Manchester City’s penchant for Catalonia. Four City loanees have come in as well as Barca old boy Marc Muniesa from Stoke. It’s a cajoling coax towards top division competency.

The war of attrition at the bottom should be enough to keep the print presses turning over all year then but the tilt at the top depends on how the rest of the transfer window plays out. Barca have €222 million burning a hole in their pocket at the minute and no obvious avenues. Beware of the deal delirium, the tumultuous transfers…