Manchester City – Southampton FC
Transfer in: Emanuel Adebayor (Tottenham – return from loan), Roque Santa Cruz (att), Betis – return from loan), Jack Rodwell (Everton)
Transfer out: Owen Hargreaves, Stuart Taylor, Wayne Bridge, Vladimír Weiss, Greg Cunningham
Transfer in: Jay Rodriguez (Burnley), Paulo Gazzaniga (Gillingham), Steven Davis (Rangers), Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace)
Transfer out: Dan Harding, Bartosz Bialkowski, Lee Holms, Ryan Doble, David Connolly, Radhi Jaidi, Aaron Martin
Wigan Athletic vs Chelsea
Transfer in: Ivan Ramis; Fraser Fyvie; Ryo Miyaichi ( loan from Arsenal); Arouna Kone (Levante)
Transfer out: Hugo Rodallega, Mohamed Diame, Hendry Thomas
Transfer in: Marko Marin (Werder Bremen) Eden Hazard (Lille), Thorgan Hazard (Lens); Oscar (Internacional); Yossi Benayoun (return of loan from Arsenal)
Transfer out: Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Romelu Lukaku; Jacob Melli, Jose Bosingwa
Athletic Bilbao v Real Betis
Athletic Bilbao Season Preview
The escapades of last season surely ranks as one of the greatest years in Bilbao’s recent history as they watched their prodigious squad reach two major finals (Europa League & Copa del Rey) as well as challenge briefly for Champions League qualification. Alas however Los Leones failed in all three pursuits, having the carpet pulled from underneath just as glory beckoned.
Pride remains the predominant keyword associated with Bilbao despite the agonising lengths the club went to in their unsuccessful efforts for victory. Born and bred Basque blooded battlers both on and off of the pitch, the cantera policy ensures that the historic morals of the club remain. Far from xenophobic, the loyalty shown within the San Mames is astonishing as the production line continues to develop exciting players for both Athletic and Spain.
Of those, Iker Muniain is the next youngster causing a stir in Europe. Present in the first team squad since the age of 16, Muniain made the top European clubs really take notice last season as his stellar performances in the Europa League propelled Athletic to the final. Now 19, the hot Pamplona prospect featured in 58 games for the club last year, scoring 9 times from the wing but assisting Fernando Llorente’s goalscoring greatly. He’ll be the main threat for Bilbao this season.
Along with Llorente, Javi Martinez, Markel Susaeta and Ander Herrera, Muniain is the next Bilbao talent to be linked with a big-money move. Each player from the list has been subjected to transfer speculation so often that it’s difficult to believe that they could still remain at Bilbao for the upcoming season.
Sadly however, Bilbao are heavily reliant on the income from transfers as their new stadium drains funds, giving coach Marcelo Bielsa a headache.
Despite this, the club renewed the contract of their Argentine boss after the impressive 2011/12 season. Bielsa conjured up some insane sorcery to not only guide Bilbao so far but he instructed them to play a brand of football so pleasing to watch which could devastate opposing sides, like Manchester United found out in the Europa League.
As for this year, Bilbao would yet again perform miracles to match the standard of last season. The continual struggle to keep their talented youth products may prove too elusive and the lack of depth could again cause untimely fatigue at the crucial stages of the season. Despite that, Bilbao will play their exciting style of football and will be a danger in domestic competition. Write them off at your peril.
La Liga: 10th
Europa League: Runners-up (Lost 3-0 to Atletico Madrid)
Copa del Rey: Runners-up (Lost 3-0 to Barcelona)
Ismael Lopez free from CD Lugo
Aritz Aduriz €2m from Valencia
Igor Gabilondo Free to AEK Larnaca
Pablo Orbaiz free to Rubin Kazan
One to Watch: Iker Muniain
Betis Season Preview
Returning to La Liga following promotion in 2010/11, Betis’ season of consolidation was about as much as could have been asked of them. A whirlwind start of five wins from their first five games triggered fans to dream and took them to the summit of the league, but inevitably it wasn’t to last. A run of six straight defeats then followed until their results became more sporadic and Betis hovered above the relegation zone for a while.
Avoiding the drop back down to the Segunda straight away was the first objective outlined at the start of the season and it was duly achieved as the Andalucian side finished six points ahead of 18th placed Villarreal.
That target will surely remain once again for the folowing campaign.
Betis were once a force in Spain, regularly challenging for Europe. Those ambitions have been put on hold in recent years however and despite being back in the top tier, the aim of European qualification remains a little farfetched, but not impossible.
Levante were the surprise package of last season and nearly gained qualification for the Champions League. The emergence of Malaga has made that ambition much tougher for the less financially-endowed clubs but the Europa League can still be targeted by Pepe Mel.
Avoiding ‘second season syndrome’ must be conquered prior to that however and if it appears that another season in mid-table beckons for Betis then a late surge could put them into contention. La Liga poses many teams of similar ability though and Betis must be wary of being sucked into the relegation mix before they make a break for 7th.
Currently, Betis appear inferior to surpass the likes of Osasuna, Mallorca, Athletic Bilbao and local rivals Sevilla for those European spots. Whether or not they go on to disprove that depends much on how prolific Ruben will be.
Ruben has spent the majority of his career below La Liga but finished as third-top Spanish scorer in the division last year with 16 goals. He seems to have found his home south of Deportivo at last having been so nomadic during his six year spell in A Coruna. He and Jonathan will aim to improve upon the 47 goals Betis ammounted last season, the highest behind Rayo Vallecano in the bottom half, but the loss of Santa Cruz back to Manchester City will be a blow for the club.
Nevertheless, Betis have Benat behind these two supplying the ammunition.
Benat capped an impressive season by earning a call up to the Spanish squad in May. The 25 year old Bilbao graduate has attracted attention from teams across Europe as he looks to build on last season and remain in the ‘fringe player’ category of the European Champions’ team.
Betis claimed just eight draws to their name last season, most likely attributed to the amount of goals conceded in the final 15 minutes (17). Against a fatigued Atletico Madrid, Betis mauled the Rojiblancos throughout but conceded a 94th minute equaliser and in the process dropped two points. If they can keep it tight for the full 90 minutes and supply Ruben with enough chances then Betis could be an outside bet for the top 10 if the dreaded second season syndrome doesn’t kick in.
La Liga: 13th
Copa del Rey: Round of 32 (lost to Cordoba 2-2 on away goals)
Paulao Santos free from Saint-Etienne
Joel Campbell loan from Arsenal
Juan Carlos Perez loan from Braga
Ruben Perez loan from Atletico Madrid
Iriney Santos free to Granada
Inaki Goitia free to CD Mirandes
Ezequiel Calvente loan to Freiburg
Juan Calahorro free to Alcorcon
Javier Matilla loan to Murcia
One to Watch: Benat. Also look out for Mario, sent off thrice in 12 games last season!
Real Madrid vs Valencia
Real Madrid Season Preview
Winning La Liga is massively important just to keep Barcelona in their place but their burning obsession with winning the Champions League for a tenth time is no secret.
La Liga: 1st
Copa del Rey: Quarter-finals (lost to Barcelona 4-3 on agg)
Sergio Canales & Fernando Gago €5million each to Valencia
Hamit Altintop €3.5million to Galatasaray
Pedro Leon loan to Getafe
One to Watch: Ronaldo
Valencia Season Preview
Can Valencia win La Liga?
I was always told it was best to begin with a joke. Maybe humour isn’t my strong point…
The fact that the question above is usually followed by an instant dismissal of Valencia’s title dreams, almost as quick as Messi changes direction, makes glum reading for Valencia supporters.
Only in a handful of leagues will the 3rd placed team not have a significant hope of challenging for the title. It’s a dismal situation for Valencia, struggling for success amidst the league, cup and European duopoly of ‘Bardrid’ as Valencia finished a whopping 30 points adrift of runners up Barcelona!
Perhaps a more suitable query would be to ask whether Valencia are the greatest challengers to the La Liga giants. Now I bet that has a few of you scratching your head and/or chin.
Atletico Madrid have strengthened within the last 8 months to become a Champions League contender and we all know about the spending of Malaga (up until now as it seems it could all go up in smoke), no less Valencia who sold Isco and Joaquin to the South coast side last summer.
Atleti halted Valencia’s European run in the semi-finals of the competition on their way to winning it, probably the turning point in the Valencia-3rd place dynasty.
Valencia have always been a selling club, losing key players annually. Jordi Alba departed for Barcelona in the summer yet Atletico maintained their squad from last season, looking to go from strength to strength. Valencia constantly have to rebuild and the resurgence of Atletico and the pressure of an immeasurable Malaga side could begin the club’s downfall after clinging onto 3rd for so many years.
Unai Emery, frequently chastised by the fans, has departed too paving the way for previously inexperienced Mauricio Pellegrino. Things aren’t looking too promising already. Why can’t Rafa Benitez just drop at the gates of the Mestalla?
Pellegrino may be the next best thing however having assisted Rafa at Liverpool and Inter. Can Benitez’s disciple bring similar success as his predecessor? If so it will probably be bigger than the next coming of Jesus!
Pellegrino may have lost Alba and Aduriz but his incoming transfers help ease the loss of the duo. Joao Perreira, Fernando Gago and Sergio Canales are handy players and are likely to be perfect at setting up Roberto Soldado (should Valencia not lose grip of their star man).
The gap, sadly, is growing between the top two and the chasing pack. Valencia simply cannot match the sort of revenue Real, Barca or even Atletico Madrid manage to bring in. The club face a struggle to keep their grip on 3rd place but Champions League qualification should still be attainable. They’ll just have to watch over their shoulder for Atletico Madrid and not focus on the inevitable yardage between themselves and ‘Bardrid’.
La Liga: 3rd
Copa del Rey: Semi-finals (lost to Barcelona 3-1 on agg)
Europa League: Semi-finals (lost to Atletico Madrid 5-2 on agg)
Andres Guardado free from Deportivo
Sergio Canales & Fernando Gago both €5million each from Real Madrid
Joao Perreira €3.7million from Sporting Lisbon
Jonathan Vieira €2.5million from Las Palmas
Hedwiges Maduro free to Sevilla
Michel free to Levante
Angel Dealbert free to Kuban Krasnodar
Bruno Saltor free to Brighton
Aritz Aduriz €2million to Athletic Bilbao
Jordi Alba €14million to Barcelona
Mahmet Topal €4.5million to Fenerbahce
Miguel Angel Moya €1.8million to Getafe
One to Watch: Joao Perreira
FC Barcelona vs Real Sociedad
FC Barcelona Season Preview
La Liga: 2nd
Copa del Rey: Winners (3-0 over Athletic Bilbao)
Champions League: Semi-final (lost to Chelsea 3-2 on agg)
Jordi Alba €14m from Valencia
Henrique free to Palmeiras
Seydou Keita free to Dalian Aerbin
Ruben Mino free to Mallorca
One to Watch: Messi
It was the end of an era. Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s legendary midfielder of the 1990s, managed Los Cules during the most successful spell in the club’s history. Barca won 14 major honours in just four seasons under the Catalan boss, including three successive La Liga titles and two Champions League trophies. Now breaks the dawn of a new era under Guardiola’s assistant Tito Vilanova and his first task is to wrestle control back from Barcelona’s great rivals Real Madrid, who usurped Barca as the kings of Spain under controversial manager Jose Mourinho in 2011-12. How the Catalan giants respond to that humiliation could define the success of the club over the next few years. Vilanova will be under an intense spotlight, but there have been no paradigm shifts in the club’s policy to suggest that the blaugrana army will be any weaker under the new management. The players claim nothing has changed and that the Tito Team has very much the same style and approach of the Pep Team; unsurprising when Vilanova has been schooled by Guardiola over the past four years. The team does not look any weaker, either. Even though there has been a slowing down in the transfer market in Spain, brought about inevitably by the deep economic depression the country finds itself in, Barca look stronger if anything having signed Jordi Alba to replace liver tumor victim Eric Abidal at left back and have seen just one senior player, supporting midfielder Seydou Keita, leave the club. Barca expect to be stronger this season thanks to the variety of promising young players who continue to pour out of La Masia. Gerard Deulofeu, Sergi Roberto, Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra and Cristian Tello could all figure prominently this year to supplement the senior veterans. Meanwhile, apart from Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez, nobody is in danger of slowing down due to age – those two (especially Xavi) still lead the way when fit. David Villa’s return to full fitness is like having a new 40 million euro signing so Vilanova will have plenty of options and he is still likely to sign a top class centre back before the transfer window closes. A season preview of Los Cules wouldn’t be complete without mention of the fact that they still have the best player of all-time leading the attack and Lionel Messi, who scored a whopping 73 goals in all competitions for Barca last season to smash all previous records, has looked even sharper in pre-season than he did last year.
Barcelona will aim to win everything but the main priority will be bringing the league trophy back to Catalunya. Along with Real Madrid, they will also start the season as Champions League favourites and they will look to live up to that billing.
Real Sociedad Season Preview
Media hype and excitement has been largely focused around two or three teams in the build up to the new La Liga season and that probably suits Sociedad. In fact if it could continue for the remainder of the season then I don’t imagine hearing too many complaints from Philippe Montanier as his team aim to slip beneath the radar.
Levante surprised us with their determined stance last season and it appears that Sociedad are well placed to follow in their path with a vibrant squad centred around an attacking quartet which could bring many admirers.
Northern Spain plays host to many teams who enjoy playing the game in a fluid manner (with the exception of Osasuna at times). Largely overshadowed by their neighbours Bilbao, Sociedad have quietly crawled their way back amongst the chasing pack in La Liga and now possess a dangerous squad which could progress within the next few seasons.
Antoine Greizmann is the gem within the attack-minded midfield. The Frenchman at just 21 is an integral figure in Sociedad’s team and often chips in with crucial goals and assists. He’s also a team player; when through one-on-one against Racing and on a hat-trick, Greizmann set up a teammate to make the score 3-0.
Carlos Vela is another youngster who excelled last season and will look to Greizmann and Xabier Prieto as his folly when in the mood for goals next season. Arsenal finally allowed the Mexican to leave for Spain after a few difficult years there and should capitalise on his 12 goals last year while on loan. Vela formed a destructive partnership with Imano Aggiretxe last year, scoring a combined 24 goals in league and cup competitions.
Youth isn’t just an isolated feature in the attacking department; all of Sociedad’s first XI are under 30 after Mikel Aranburu retired last season. Aranburu spent his whole career with Sociedad and sadly hung up his boots at the climax of the last campaign. His absence should introduce 19 year old Ruben Pardo to the squad, another exciting central midfielder who has been blooded through the famous youth system, Bilbao kept at an arms length constantly (notoriously famous for their predation of Sociedad’s youngsters).
And defensively Sociedad have strong, youthful players in Martinez and Estrada, as well as Mikel Gonzalez. Martinez has attracted plenty of attention following a solid season and was named in many pundit’s teams of the year. The youngster is unlikely to begin the season however as he will be part of the Spanish Olympic football team for the early weeks in August.
Montanier has a strong, youthful squad at his disposal and more importantly one which can score goals. The only forseeable problems could be having to cope with the loss of Aranburu and the lack of experience available and the all important opening game. Barcelona.
Sociedad can quite easily challenge for Europe this season but a number of injuries could alter the shape of the whole team. Getting the first game out of the way and putting together a consistent run of results will be the tricky part but they have plenty of quality and look a good bet to be the surprise package of La Liga this season.
La Liga: 12th
Copa del Rey: Round of 16 (lost to Mallorca 6-3 on agg)
Gonzalo Castro free from Mallorca
Mikel Aranburu retired
Borja Viguira free to Alaves
Vadim Demidov free to Eintracht Frankfurt
One to Watch: Carlos Vela
Levante vs Atletico Madrid
Levante Season Preview
Who says La Liga is boring and predictable? Ok the title race proved a pretty elitist affair in contrast to the rest of the division and Real Madrid and Barcelona’s finances do explode off the chart compared to their 18 fellow Primera amigos, but when teams like Levante surprise us all by finishing 6th then much of the previous becomes insignificant.
To understand the scale of what Levante achieved last year, try to imagine Wigan leading the Premier League for a bit, beating Manchester City in the 3rd game and maintaining their charge to finish in a Europa League position. And that their transfer budget amounts to half a million pounds over the last four years combined!
Spectacularly enough, all of that happened, albeit in Spain where Los Blancos rule and the Blaugrana clean up elsewhere. Ignoring the overwhelming dominance of two indomitable presences, Levante proved to Europe that success didn’t necessarily have to be built on the quickly-disappearing Euro. You might agree that a touch of Madrid’s limelight deservedly shone on Levante as their fairytale season came to an end.
In his first season with the club, Juan Ignacio Martinez took Levante to the top of La Liga and into Europe for the first time ever. Considering the team had managed a 14th place finish last term with almost all of the same players, the achievement speaks for itself. His team surprised many and managed to finish above the likes of Bilbao, Sevilla and Villarreal.
An overwhelming surprise package, Martinez’s tactics are quite the opposite. Vehemently sticking to basic orders of defending stoutly and working hard when out of possession, Levante managed to carve out wins irrespective of the growing age of their squad.
Many expected naivety to settle in whilst the team clung onto their lofty position. Fatigue and a lack of cojones became frequent words to fall from bedazzled pundit’s gaping mouths yet none of those factors affected the determined Valencian outfit. For much of the season Levante barely fluttered an eyelid and beat Real Madrid, Malaga and Atletico Madrid in the process despite the lack of chances that came their way.
Reborn, Arouna Kone became the revelation of the season. Emile Heskey’s goalscoring record looked like Lionel Messi’s compared to the Ivorian’s but 17 goals later, posting a tidy chance to goals strike ratio, and Kone had become a revered man in La Liga. Thankfully for Levante, his deal has become a permanent one this summer as more expectation lies upon his shoulders.
As impressive as they were last season, Levante surely can’t expect a similar season to the last. Limited resources will peg back the club as an extended European season beckons. A faded smugness has returned in journalist’s pieces as the joyous period in Levante’s history is predicted to return to normal. And even if it does then a season in Europe might just be the best treatment.
Martinez’s team will stick to similar tactics and Arouna Kone will again be the dangerman. Growing knowledge of a simple strategy around La Liga could affect them this year and Kone will be lucky to get as much space as he did last year as a result. Yet their impressive resolve shown last season by no means labels them as a one hit wonder.
A long drawn out season in the Europa League could prevent them from mounting another 6th placed challenge and the resulting fatigue could make relegation an issue but Levante are organised and bullish. They’ve set the bar high and the achievements of last year won’t perish their self-belief. Avoiding relegation is vital and anything else would be a bonus. Levante just want to enjoy as much of this golden period as they can.
La Liga: 6th
Copa del Rey: Quarter-finals (lost to Valencia 7-1 on agg)
Arouna Kone free from Sevilla
Angel Rodriguez free from Elche
Michel free from Valencia
Pedro Rios free from Getafe
Keylor Navas €200,000 from Albacete
Nickolaos Karabelas free from AEK Athens
Pape Diop €200,000 from Racing
Valdo free to Atlante
Ruben Suarez free to Guizhou Renhe
Javi Venta free to Villarreal
Xavi Torres €0.5m to Getafe
One to Watch: Michel
Atletico Madrid Season Preview
Monaco is the venue where two managers who were given similar tasks last year will meet to discuss how they fared. Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo managed to steer his beloved club to a maiden Champions League victory against all odds in Munich last May whilst concurrently Diego Simeone guided Atletico Madrid to an emphatic Europa League final win in Bucharest and both will be vying to win the European Super Cup on August 24th.
Simeone had only been in charge since the winter break ended in late January but revitalised the club and leads them into another season of European football and a brighter future.
Tactics were tweaked and Madrid began to turn more defeats into draws, sometimes better. The team, languishing in mid-table obscurity, made a sharp dash for the Champions League qualification spots but were pipped by Malaga in the end. Nevertheless, another campaign in Europe, with retaining their Europa League crown a secondary goal, provides the stepping stone so to ensure that the Champions League doesn’t elude them once again.
The 3-0 success over Athletic Bilbao gives Simeone time and confidence within the boardroom and the platform to go on and battle with Malaga and Valencia for 3rd and 4th spot.
Simeone deploys stubborn tactics which aren’t always easy to watch, but are supremely effective. If Madrid can prevent the opposition from scoring then they certainly have a chance to sneak a win through Falcao and Adrian.
These two scored 55 goals between them last season and pose a real threat to any opposition. It has taken time for their partnership to blossom but next season could result in even more goals. However, an injury to either one would be damaging to Atleti’s ambitions so another striker might be necessary ahead of the season opener against Levante, despite winger Cristian Rodriguez arriving from Porto.
Financing a transfer for an able striker might be tricky however as the club are currently millions of Euros in debt and are forced to sell key players on a regular basis. Highly rated central-defender/right-back Alvaro Dominguez was vital to the club’s success last year but has since been sold to German club Borussia Monchengladbach for €8m. A young, versatile player, Dominguez’s absence will be felt significantly in the Atleti back line, especially as Cata Diaz is likely to be his replacement. The 32 year old signed for €1m from Getafe but will surely struggle to match the standards Dominguez set in his time at the Vicente Calderon.
Defensively, Atletico still appear resolute. Diego Godin and Miranda create a strong presence in the middle whilst despite the loss of Antonio Lopez to Mallorca, Filipe is more than capable at left back. In goal, Madrid once again have Thibault Courtois between the posts as he extended his loan from Chelsea for another year.
As a result, matches can be won at both ends of the pitch with supreme firepower upfront and stern defensive bodies behind them, not forgetting exciting players such as Juanfran and Koke in midfield. Simeone has a powerful squad at his disposal but is likely to continue playing a mundane style of play. If it proves effective enough then he shouldn’t hear too many complaints. Atletico haven’t been as effective as they should have in recent years and that’s one reason why they have failed to qualify for the Champions League so often. Will this season be any different?
La Liga: 5th
Europa League: Winners (3-0 over Athletic Bilbao)
Copa del Rey: Round of 32 (lost to Albacete 3-1 on agg)
Thibaut Courtois loan from Chelsea
Cata Diaz €1 from Getafe
Cristian Rodriguez free from Porto
Emre free from Fenerbahce
Perea free to Cruz Azul
Fran Merida free to Hercules
Leandro Cabrera loan to Hercules
Eduardo Salvio €10m to Benfica
Ruben Perez loan to Betis
Antonio Lopez free to Mallorca
Ruben Micael loan to Braga
Alvaro Dominguez €8m to Borussia Monchengladbach
One to Watch: Torn between Thibaut Courtois and Adrian Lopez
Friendly, Napoli (Ita) – Olympiakos Piraeus (Gre)
NAPOLI (3-5-1-1): 1 De Sanctis; 14 Campagnaro, 28 Cannavaro, 5 Britos; 11
Maggio, 85 Behrami, 88 Inler, 17 Hamsik, 6 Aronica; 24 Insigne; 29 Pandev. A
disposizione: 83 Rosati, 21 Fernandez, 20 Dzemaili, 18 Zuniga, 8 Dossena, 23
Gargano, 9 Vargas. Allenatore: Mazzarri
OLIMPIACOS (4-4-2): 42 Megyeri; 2 Maniatis, 8 Fejsa, 6 Papazoglu, 20 Cholevas;
18 Fetfazidis, 23 Siovas, 22 Tatos, 35 Torosidis; 93 Abdoun, 29 Mitroglou. A
disposizione: 1 Carrol, 9 Pantelci, 14 Castillo, 7 Fernandez, 27 Greco, 190
Torrijos, 3 Modesto. Allenatore: Valverde.
ARBITRO: Damato di Barletta