Is Zinedine Zidane already under pressure? Will Gareth Bale play for Real Madrid? Will Neymar be returning to La Liga – and where would he fit if he does? Can Atletico Madrid challenge for the title after a summer of heavy spending?
It’s been an intriguing summer in Spain and the new season starts on Friday evening as champions Barcelona – probably without Lionel Messi – face Athletic Bilbao.
From mammoth transfer spending to problems for Zidane and debate over kick-off times, we look at how the new La Liga season is shaping up…
Trouble ahead at Real?
“Zidane is worried” read a headline on a Marca column on Wednesday, four days before Real Madrid start their season with a trip to Celta Vigo.
Why is Zidane worried? Where to start…
You might think he would be relatively pleased to have spent over £200m this summer to bring in Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Rodrygo, and defenders Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy.
But there’s a name missing from that list: Paul Pogba.
The Manchester United midfielder has reportedly been Zidane’s top target this summer and it has been claimed that Zidane even promised Pogba he would bring him to Madrid. With the Premier League window now closed, meaning United couldn’t replace Pogba if they sold him, it looks unlikely that Zidane will get his wish.
There is reportedly friction between Zidane and club president Florentino Perez over the failure to sign Pogba, while Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez remain at Real despite the head coach seemingly not wanting either in his team.
Bale appeared to be set to leave Real and move to China but the deal was called off at the last minute. He then came off the bench in the final pre-season game against Roma and, asked about James and Bale afterwards, Zidane said: “I count on them 100 per cent.”
What that means in terms of Bale’s first-team action is unclear, but a cruciate ligament injury to Marco Asensio that could rule him out for the whole season has potentially opened up a spot in the starting XI.
Along with frustration in the transfer market Zidane has also dealt with a poor pre-season that has seen Real concede 18 goals in seven games – including a 7-3 loss to rivals Atletico Madrid – and win only twice.
There is debate over whether Thibaut Courtois should start in goal ahead of Keylor Navas and there is even been reports that Jovic, who was Real’s first summer signing for around 60m euros, could leave on loan after failing to impress Zidane.
Then there’s the question of how Real make up a 19-point gap on Barcelona.
Real are looking to challenge for the title again after finishing third, behind Barcelona and Atletico, for the last two seasons. When Zidane returned to the club in March he said the league is “the most important thing for me” and “has to be the primary objective”.
But will that objective change if Real’s pre-season form continues and they start slowly in La Liga? And will Zidane even be around to see the conclusion of the season?
Barca go for the hat-trick
Aside from regular talk of Neymar’s return, Barcelona’s summer has been smooth sailing in comparison to the issues surrounding Real Madrid.
They haven’t been as busy as Real in the transfer market but have secured two major signings in Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong.
The discussion now is how Barca will line-up this season, particularly if Neymar does join from Paris Saint-Germain. Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic may leave, but Barca still appear to have a wealth of attacking options that Ernesto Valverde might struggle to keep happy.
Could Neymar, Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi fit into the same team? And what would that mean for the structure of the rest of the side, not to mention Ousmane Dembele, who would surely see his minutes severely reduced?
The defence is settled, with only left-back Junior Firpo joining from Real Betis, and De Jong should slot into the midfield with Sergio Busquets, Rakitic (if he doesn’t depart), Arthur Melo or the emerging Carles Alena.
There is one issue ahead of the opener on Friday, and it concerns Messi.
Messi missed the club’s tour of the United States with a calf injury and is also set to miss the trip to Athletic Bilbao. How many more games he misses remains to be seen – he wrote on Instagram at the start of August that he expects to be out for a “little while” – but Barca might be wary not to rush him back.
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Barcelona have won eight of the past 11 league titles, but Messi must be as frustrated as anyone at their recent struggles in Europe.
They have only made it past the quarter-finals once in the last four years and have suffered shock exits to Roma and Liverpool in the previous two seasons after securing three-goal leads from the first legs. They also lost to Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey last season as a campaign that promised plenty somewhat petered out.
While Real want domestic success this season, Barca’s priority appears to be Europe.
If they fail to challenge for the Champions League again then Valverde could find himself under serious pressure next summer.
What about Atletico?
It’s been a summer of change at Atletico.
Key players have left, such as Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, Filipe Luis, Juanfran and Diego Godin, and significant money has been spent to refresh the squad.
Portuguese teenager Joao Felix is the headline signing at £113m while there have been defensive additions (Mario Hermoso, Kieran Trippier and Felipe), new midfielders (Marcos Llorente and Hector Herrera) and maybe a new forward (Rodrigo, who is reportedly set to join for 60m euros from Valencia).
Atletico have been Barcelona’s closest challengers in the last two seasons and the expectations are they will contend again, particularly after a pre-season where Felix has impressed and other new signings seem to have settled well.
Such has been Atletico’s investment that head coach Diego Simeone has admitted they are no longer the “people’s team”.
“No, not anymore. Now we have an extraordinary stadium and next year we’ll open a training centre at a level that this club deserves. Now with very good management, a stadium and facilities, we can buy players like [Thomas] Lemar and Joao Felix.”
Simeone has been with Atletico for seven-and-a-half years and this squad looks to be as strong as any he has assembled in that time.
Even though they could take time to settle, former Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho thinks Atletico have to challenge not just in La Liga, but in Europe as well.
“Atletico Madrid’s level of investment leaves them with responsibility to fight for the Champions League and La Liga,” he told the Portuguese Football Federation’s television channel.
“It’s clear that Barcelona and Real Madrid have to be there because of their power, financial capability, culture and quality. Atletico in recent years have been without this responsibility, but the level of investment they’ve made is incredible. It’s time to say, ‘We’re here, we’re big, we want to be big and we are here to win’.”
Could anyone else challenge?
Given the spending power of the top three it would be an enormous surprise.
Sevilla, who have finished seventh and sixth in the last two seasons, might be the best of the rest.
They are now managed by former Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui and, although they have sold Wissam Ben Yedder to Monaco, they have brought in a few new faces like Rony Lopez, Sergio Reguilon, Oliver Torres and Luuk de Jong.
Valencia, who pipped Getafe to fourth last season, have signed defender Eliaquim Mangala from Manchester City and forward Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo.
A dispute around fixtures appears to have finally been settled.
The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and La Liga have been locked in a battle this summer over whether games would be played on Mondays.
Fans protested last season over matches being played on Mondays as they have led to falling attendances.
La Liga opening weekend fuxtures
- Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona (Friday, 8pm)
- Celta Vigo vs Real Madrid (Saturday, 4pm)
- Valencia vs Real Sociedad (Saturday, 6pm)
- Real Mallorca vs Eibar (Saturday, 7pm)
- Leganes vs Osasuna (Saturday, 8pm)
- Villarreal vs Granada (Saturday, 8pm)
- Alaves vs Levante (Sunday, 4pm)
- Espanyol vs Sevilla (Sunday, 6pm)
- Real Betis vs Real Valladolid (Sunday, 8pm)
- Atletico Madrid vs Getafe (Sunday, 9pm)
The RFEF have backed this idea and have pushed for games to only be played on the weekend – but La Liga have been keen to keep the Friday and Monday slots.
The issue has gone to court and on August 9 it was ruled that matches cannot be played on Mondays, but they can be played on Fridays.
There have been barbs on Twitter – RFEF president Luis Rubiales writing that “Javier Tebas [La Liga president] looks down on football and the fans” and Tebas responding to the ruling by saying “sooner rather than later in Spain we’ll be playing on Mondays. The RFEF’s reaction really makes me laugh. I don’t think they even read the ruling – and La Liga have said they plan to appeal the decision.
However, it is at least finally confirmed that the league will start on Friday evening.
Thought the transfer window was closed? Wrong. Across Europe, plenty of deals are still being done, with Premier League players still able to move to the continent.