La Liga preview: Real Madrid to ‘blossom,’ more Messi and Barca drama, Sevilla a dark horse?


When a France team starring Hugo Lloris and Yoann Gourcuff won the UEFA Under-19 Championship on July 29 2005, bringing to a close a season that saw Liverpool win the Champions League and CSKA Moscow the UEFA Cup, no one could possibly have imagined the relentless stranglehold Spanish football was about to impose on Europe. From that day, 15 years ago, not a single season has passed without a Spanish club or one of Spain‘s national teams either winning the Champions League, Europa League, World Cup, European Championship or its equivalents at the U19 or U21 levels.

It’s a record that was kept intact, just under three weeks ago, thanks to a thrilling Europa League final in which Julen Lopetegui’s Andalusian underdogs, Sevilla, beat Inter Milan 3-2. Take note: you are witnessing the most remorseless and remarkable dominance of football by one nation in European history. And I’ve deliberately excluded the European Super Cup and Club World Cup titles since 2005 or else the trophy list, instead of numbering 27, would be well over 40.

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The “winningest” sides of this momentous era are Spain’s U19s with six trophies… and Sevilla. Not Real Madrid, not Barcelona, not Atletico Madrid. Instead, the club that boasts Spain’s greatest “non-playing” asset of the modern era: Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez Verdejo. The master squad-builder. The club that’s only won the Spanish title once in its history, in that most unusual and unrepresentative season of 1945-46 when Europe was emerging from war and Spain was still in smithereens thanks to the brutality of its own civil strife.

So with champions Madrid a little shy in the transfer market, at least until they accelerate their “sell-sell-sell” policy, Barcelona in such a tizzy that they’re not sure whether it’s Wednesday or Westport, and Atleti still desperately in need of a prolific goalscorer, the question has to be: can Lopetegui, Monchi, Jesus Navas and Lucas Ocampos somehow parlay their European know-how and inspire Sevilla to the La Liga title?

Even having pointed out that the surrounding challengers might be exhibiting vulnerability, ultimate victory always begins “at home.” So what are Sevilla made of?

Firstly, and with a month of the transfer market left to offer us its quixotic, Machiavellian twists, Sevilla have been a net winner in their trading. To lose Ever Banega is to lose the sensual, passionate tango-style rhythm in midfield — the ball won’t be caressed and have loving messages whispered to it in Sevilla’s midfield any more.

And whether or not Monchi can persuade Sergio Reguilon to return, after his season-long loan from Madrid, is relevant. He was aggressive, quick, and coped with the immense demands of that left-back position under Lopetegui — perpetual attack plus constant defensive rigour.

That said, the counter-balances are terrific. Ivan Rakitic brings know-how, technique, leadership, goals and the energy of his stinging anger at how Barcelona treated him, back to the team he left in 2014. You’d back him to score the first time he turns out for Sevilla against his ex-club, too.

Oscar Rodriguez might be less proven, but he’s a delightful, technical footballer. For him to score 13 goals from midfield over two seasons at lowly Leganes, before he turned 22, is an indication that, with superior players and coaching around him, we may be about to see the development of a €50 million footballer that Sevilla just bought for €35m less than that. Vintage Monchi.

What needs to be said, immediately, is that Lopetegui needs goals — more of them generally and a lot more of those “killer” strikes that win “six-point” matches. Last season, Sevilla scored 54 times in la Liga: no club has won the title with fewer than 70 in the previous 13 years. The last time anyone conquered Spain with that kind of total was Rafa Benitez’s Valencia in 2002, and they were significantly more stingy in their defending.

Despite his European heroics, notching the winner against Manchester United in the semifinal and two in that final against Inter, Luuk de Jong looked cumbersome, scoring just six in his debut La Liga season. Now 30, he’s neither quick enough, technical enough or sufficiently clinical to make Sevilla champions. Whether he stays or leaves, Monchi simply must find another, jack-in-the-box centre-forward if they’re to make history domestically, particularly if you take a critical look at the club’s performance against the rest of the top four.

Of a possible 18 points against Madrid, Barcelona and Atleti last season, Lopetegui took three, his team scoring only four goals. That’s not good enough if this is to be their excelsior season.

Another unfortunate thing, entirely beyond their control, is that Sevilla’s Nervion stadium will be empty. It’s an utterly magnificent place when the fans are in full flow — it has to be worth several points per season, giving their players energy where breathlessness or sore limbs threatened to sink them. It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine that full, throaty, intimidating atmosphere being permitted for many, many months.

So, to the competition.

Real Madrid project as favourites — partly because they have the best squad, partly because Zinedine Zidane, the coach, has become nothing less than a winning machine and partly because I’d expect them to believe, just like Sevilla, that “… this is a massive opportunity for us!”

In the reigning champions’ favour, we may be about to enter the football-blossoming of a side containing Federico Valverde, Vinicius Jr., Eder Militao, Martin Odegaard, Rodrygo, Ferland Mendy, Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio — all of whom are either very young and about to benefit from recently accumulated experience, relatively new to the club or enjoying returning from long injury. Each of them showed signs last season that they possess lovely, flowing football, attitude and the capacity to hold the rest of La Liga at bay.

The questions that Zidane, and head-honchos Jose Angel Sanchez and Florentino Perez, must be weighing up are as follows:

– Is it reasonable to rely upon another 48-game, 27 goal season from Karim Benzema, who turns 33 in December?
– Will Luka Jovic ever look like a Real Madrid player and add the required goal-power?
– Can the class and experience which Toni Kroos and Luka Modric ooze in midfield outweigh the fact that they will be at 31 and 35 later this season?
– Do Madrid have sufficient cover with a fourth centre-back if this happens to be a season when Sergio Ramos, 35 in March, begins to feel the aches and pains a little more?
– And finally, can the fact that Greg Dupont, Madrid’s fitness coach, is starting his second full season, add to Los Blancos‘ energy, stamina and athleticism which, against Manchester City and in patches while wrapping up the league, ebbed rather than flowed?

President Perez, too, may be wondering why Zidane was so elusive when, after exiting the Champions League to City, he was asked to confirm that he’d definitely stay in charge for the next year. But, boy, would Barcelona swap for Madrid’s problems.

By now, the whole world feels like it’s an expert on Lionel Messi‘s every emotion and idea. But the little genius has taught us that he’s an ultra-competitive animal. When he says, he’s staying in order to give his utmost; it’d take a fool to doubt that much. It’s innate to him.

However there’s another, almost as iconic, part of his nature we’ve come to know. When Messi is upset at something — whether it be training ground injustice, inability among his teammates, refereeing decisions, maladroit management or other thorns in his side — he can sometimes be incapable of containing himself. He has almost immeasurable stress insulation, but that doesn’t mean he’s not occasionally volcanic.

What the relationship between new manager Ronald Koeman and Messi will be like is open to conjecture. Personally, I’m pretty skeptical. Unless things are going swimmingly from the start, I think meteorologists won’t be required to forecast stormy weather, the type from which others need to take shelter. Around Messi float a galaxy of dim stars who want to shine more brightly. Ostensibly a Barcelona XI of Marc-Andre ter Stegen; New Signing, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba; Miralem Pjanic/Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong; Antoine Griezmann, Messi, Ousmane Dembele; Ansu Fati/New Signing, assuming the new signings are the right quality, in a 4-2-3-1 formation looks competitive. Fun even.

But Ter Stegen is out for weeks, Barcelona haven’t bought well for several years, civil strife is more than a guarantee, Luis Suarez will be badly missed if he’s pushed out — something President Josep Maria Bartomeu is determined to achieve — and Messi’s likely departure in June for free will become a constant “will he, won’t he” in the Spanish media, every day. I must say, it’ll be miraculous if the irascible and headstrong Koeman can manufacture a proper title challenge this season.

This leaves us with Atletico, a club to return to as the season develops. What they’ve got is a tremendous coach in Diego Simeone, who’s just lost his previously vital henchman, German “Mono” Burgos. One of (if not the) highest-paid coaches in world football, Simeone seems, to me, somewhat in a rut.

They have previously been able to boast of a brutal, but superior, fitness regime under Oscar “Profe” Ortega, yet in recent months Atleti haven’t looked sharp, athletic, remorselessly strong like they once did. More, I’m assured that Atleti want to generate about €100m in sales in order to curb their debts. So how do you do that and still trade cleverly enough so as not to weaken the squad?

If they keep the majority of this group in tact and don’t feel the need to let goalkeeper Jan Oblak go (their best player and one I’m assured needs certain assurances about the direction of the club in order to be happy to see out his contract), then what Atleti and Simeone desperately need is a 25 goal-per-season striker. Suffice to say, Simeone had a little tickle at trying to recruit Suarez: remember how he pulled off a similar trick in liberating David Villa from Barcelona just before what would become Atleti’s title winning season of 2014?. If this ultra-competitive coach had been able to import the equally win-or-bust forward and keep the spine of this current team, then they’d have been title contenders.

Imagine what that would have been like: Atleti with Suarez-power, Madrid with their wonder kids maturing, Barcelona in perma-crisis and Sevilla, dark-horsing their way towards the finishing post in May?

The fight to conquer the most successful and dominant football country in the world will be mad, maverick, marvellous and magnificent again this season. I promise you.

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