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La Liga 2017-18 Season Preview | Part 1

FC Barcelona's coach Ernesto Valverde attends a training session at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi, Spain, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. FC Barcelona will play against Real Madrid in the first leg of Spanish Supercup next Sunday. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

It’s mid-August now, which means La Liga‘s 2017/18 season is about to kickoff. Following what has been perhaps the silliest of European football’s summer silly seasons, Spain’s top-flight returns with one less Brazilian superstar, but tons of intrigue.

Reigning champions Real Madrid have somehow found new ways to strengthen, while their rivals Barcelona have taken a few crippling body shots. Atletico Madrid are attempting to continue playing their lofty challenger role, while also hoping not to drown in the process. Meanwhile, Valencia hope to keep their fireworks to a minimum this time around, as Alaves hope to prove they’re more than a one-season wonder.

Then there’s Girona taking that leap to the big stage, Eibar trying to extend the dream, and Malaga hoping to stay afloat. There’s no telling what will happen this season, but whatever does will start this Friday.

Alaves

Perhaps no single Liga side have had their prospects more negatively altered since season’s end than Alaves. Not only have their four best players — Victor Camarasa, Marcos Llorente, Theo Hernandez, and Deyverson — returned to their parent clubs, thus leaving gaping holes that may or may not be appropriately filled with new acquisitions, but their experienced boss Mauricio Pellegrino swiftly fled, too, for a more lucrative, visible job at Southampton.

Young Argentine boss Luis Zubeldia will have the task of revitalizing a relatively unrecognizable group of Babazorros. They’ve done okay in the shop window, with Burgui, Ruben Duarte, and Tomas Pina all signing on, as well as Rodrigo Ely making his loan from Milan permanent. But the true worth of Alaves’s footballing infrastructure will be put to the ultimate test starting Friday against Leganes. It feels unlikely that they’ll connect so spectacularly on another batch of loan moves, but then again, this is a club that has exceeded expectations for the last two seasons.

Athletic Bilbao

The Valverde Era at Athletic Bilbao is officially over. Well, the second Valverde Era, that is. And just for now, at least. You can never rule out such a seamless union finding that flame again at some point down the road. But for now, the Lions will move forward with B-team coach Cuco Ziganda.

As typical with the Basques, any summer personnel additions have or will come via their lauded Lezama youth academy. Such a set-up makes Ziganda the perfect hire, as he’s already overseen the reserve-to-first-team promotions of several senior mainstays like Inaki Williams, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Yeray Alvarez, and Inigo Lekue. There will be no melding needed; the players know Cuco, Cuco knows the players.

There are two ways to view the lasting effect of a manager like Valverde. A cynic would say, such shoes are impossible to fill. A brighter take is that Valverde protected Athletic’s footballing culture and system to an extent that a managerial change could be simple and fluid. With the Basque blood out on the pitch and in the dugout, Athletic will still be Athletic, punching above their weight in more ways any of us can count.

Atletico Madrid

Becoming the unofficial third wheel in La Liga’s everpresent duopoly can be great. You attract more fans and better players, partake in more meaningful games, and even, on the rare occasion, win a league title. The downside, of course, is that every transfer window is do-or-die, and no matter what happens, you’ll always have less money and resources than your two rivals. This can be a near-death-sentence when you’re barred from acquiring new players fullstop, which is Atletico Madrid’s current predicament.

Due to a FIFA-induced transfer ban stemming from illegal youth practices, Diego Simeone’s Colchoneros are unable to register new players this summer. This has been terrible for the club, obviously, but they’ve attempted to make due. They signed Vitolo, who Atleti will loan to Las Palmas until January, when he can officially register in red-and-white. They’re also hopeful to reach a similar deal with Diego Costa in the coming weeks, with the ex-Colchonero looking to have no future at Chelsea.

Atleti’s prime piece of business, however, has been keeping ahold of existing players, specifically star forward Antoine Griezmann. With the Frenchman leading the attack, Simeone committed for the long-haul, and a new Vicente Calderon waiting to be christened, 17/18 can still be a special season for Atleti. Unfortunately, it has to be.

Barcelona

Don’t look now, but Barcelona are soiling themselves, uncontrollably, and in front of everyone.

Following a disastrous season, in Blaugrana terms, where they won just a single trophy, the Catalans ditched Luis Enrique for Athletic boss Ernesto Valverde. That happened in May. Then, earlier this month, their long term Messi heir, Neymar, was shockingly lured to Paris for good. Although the Brazilian’s departure subsequently banked them an extra €222 million, they’ve only managed to spend €40 million of it on a suspiciously overpriced Paulinho so far. Add onto all of this the recent Supercopa embarrassment at the hands of their suave rivals from the capital, and you’ve got the public pants-wetting I was referring to above.

While this clearly feels like the onset of a darker period for the Catalan giants, there are slivers of hope. Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele look likely to arrive at Camp Nou sooner rather than later. Both will cost around €100 million, but will ultimately skyrocket the quality of Valverde’s squad, with Dembele being singled out as the future of the team. And of course, Messi is still Messi, Suarez is Suarez, Busquets is Busquets, and so on. This is still Barca.

So there’s the hope. But if Barca’s board, led by now-reviled club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, continues to handle their business with such grave incompetence, Neymar won’t be the last one to peace out for greener pastures. The trophies might just follow him.

Celta Vigo

Sometimes losing a successful, long-tenured manager can be a death knell, particularly when that figure acts merely as glue holding something volatile together. But other times, a boss simply runs his course at a post, and new ideas are the perfect prescription. Celta Vigo are hoping the latter proves true as Eduardo Berizzo departed the club over the summer after three brilliant seasons. Enter Juan Carlos Unzue.

This is Unzue’s second stint at Celta — he served as Luis Enrique’s second-in-command in 2013/14 — and the 50-year-old already has the Galicians soaring into this season with some exquisite football reminiscent of his departed Catalan club. Although they’ve been largely quiet in the transfer window — their biggest signing being midfielder Stanislav Lobotka, bought from Nordsjalland for €5 million — they’ve managed to keep the outgoings similarly bare. Much will be expected from Swedish forward John Guidetti — though he’s just broken his collarbone — to help out the always-prolific Iago Aspas with the goal load. In truth, most were expecting some sort of a drop-off for the Celestes post-Berizzo, but don’t count on it. This is a side with a clear identity who know how to play up to competition. Expect fireworks at Balaidos this season.

Deportivo

Once kings of Spanish football, Deportivo La Coruna barely fought off relegation last season. An abysmal 16th Place finish meant that an reshuffling was in order for the Blanquiazules. Experienced Liga boss Pepe Mel, who successfully helped the club miss the drop last campaign following the Gaizka Garitano debacle, will now lead Depor into the season with a squad he’s been able to build and form himself.

The moves have been unspectacular but calculated. Guilherme’s loan from Udinese has been made permanent, while Adrian Lopez and Zakaria Bakkali have been brought in, both loans. Swiss international Fabian Schar has been purchased from Hoffenheim to help out in defense.

The real story of Deportivo’s transfer window, however, has revolved around their former star striker Lucas Perez. Following an unsuccessful spell at Arsenal, Perez’s future clearly lies elsewhere. Although Newcastle are said to be interested, Deportivo sit in pole position to return the 28-year-old to Galicia. The fee is rumored to be €12 million, which will be well worth it for Mel and company. Perez is the kind of player who turns relegation fodder into midtable menace. He might even make them Super again.

Eibar

It seems like just yesterday that a miniscule football club in Basque country were fundraising to secure their entry into Spain’s top-flight. Here we are four years later and Eibar are basically part of the furniture.

Although they lost centre-half Florian Lejeune over the summer, they did managed to squeeze €10 million out of Newcastle in the process. That money went back into the defense in the form of Sporting Lisbon’s 25-year-old Paulo Oliveira, who they bought for €3.5 million. Elsewhere, they nabbed Liga connoisseur Charles from Malaga on a free and Espanyol midfielder Joan Jordan for €1 million.

Eibar give us perhaps the best example of the financial gymnastics lower Primera clubs have to master in order to stay afloat in the division. This typically consists of swaths of loan deals and Bosmans to decorate an everchanging team, or in this case, a solid one with a steadfast identity. For what it’s worth, they’ve manage to do so swimmingly in these early top-flight years. With tried-and-true Liga manager Jose Luis Mendilibar running things, the Armeros seem to be hitting their stride. Evading relegation will be their aim, to be sure, but if last season’s 10th Place finish is any indication, they could very well have their eyes set for Europe come the new year.

Espanyol

Under Quique Sanchez Flores’s guidance, Espanyol underwent a major overhaul last summer. They brought in over ten potential starting players in that window alone. Such a drastic shift of personnel is typically ill-advised, as it tends to indicate instability and panic. But Flores took his new brigade and moulded them into a unit that could implement his vision. Last season’s 8th Place finish left the Periquitos on the doorstep on Europe, which will certainly be the aim this time around.

Due to the wide success of last summer’s signings, Espanyol haven’t done much business this time around. As far as incoming names go, both Diego Lopez and Pablo Piatti have made their loan deals permanent, from Milan and Valencia, respectively. The well-traveled Brazilian central defender Naldo has arrived from Turkey, as well. For departures, Jose Antonio Reyes, Ruben Duarte, and Felipe Caicedo have all left the club. Flores and Espanyol will enter the 17/18 season looking strikingly similar to a year ago. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Getafe

After just a one-year hiatus, Getafe are back in the dance thanks to winning the Segunda promotion playoffs. All things considered, the Azulones are certified Liga veterans. Prior to their drop, the club spent 12 seasons in the Primera, which is a monumental task. This is obviously the kind of pedigree that makes them one of the more attractive of the three promotion sides. While that can sound a bit like complacency, Getafe know better.

Originally candidates to take free fall down Spain’s footballing pyramid upon 15/16’s relegation campaign, a season of unexpected glory in the Segunda appears to have revived the long-dormant club. They’ll bring with them to La Liga last year’s top-scorer Jorge Molina, who’s tallied 20 goals in 39 games. On top, they’ve added Primera mainstays Faycal Fajr and Markel Bergara, along with Atletico loanees Amanth and Emiliano Velazquez. Survival will be difficult, but for the first time in quite a while, optimism reigns at the Perez Coliseum.

There’s an interesting little subplot brewing at Getafe, as well. Just over a year ago, manager Pepe Bordalas received an unceremonious summer sacking after leading Alaves to Liga promotion. He finally gets his well-deserved crack at the Primera this weekend, as well as his old club when they meet in November.

Girona

They finally did it. After four top-four finishes in their last five Segunda seasons, Girona finally won automatic promotion to La Liga last season by finishing in second place. The Catalans have arguably been the most consistent second division side over that time frame, making this subsequent jump feel justified and long overdue.

The Blanquivermell are led by manager Pablo Machin, going on his fifth season in charge at the Estadi Montilivi. Given ample time and resources, Machin has constructed a fiery counterattacking side with explosive wingback play.

Goalscoring comes at a premium in the top-flight, of course, and Girona just so happened to be the Segunda’s top scoring side last campaign. Unfortunately, they’ll be without top scorer Samuele Longo, whose loan-deal with Inter Milan has expired. Though they’ve yet to truly replace the Italian apart from bringing in Christian Stuani from Middlesbrough, the acquisitions of Bernardo Espinosa, Gorka Iraizoz, and Carles Planas indicate a measured defensive restructuring that should aid them well in the Primera.

Oh yeah, they’ve also added another slew of Manchester City loanees (City’s owners possess a large stake in the club) who may or may not prove to be diamonds. If recent seasons are anything to go by, however, the Albirrojos should be well within a chance of staying up, and maybe even dazzling some spectators in the process.



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