BARCELONA: Ahead of the start of the 2016/17 La Liga season today, take a look at the five most prominent challengers to champions Barcelona and European champions Real Madrid (last season’s final position in brackets):
Atletico Madrid (third)
The undoubted third force of Spanish football missed out on the title by just three points last season and, having firmly established themselves as a European power with a second Champions League final appearance in three years, have finally survived a summer without having to sell one of their top players. The flair of Argentine international Nicolas Gaitan and goals of Kevin Gameiro-signed from Benfica and Sevilla respectively-offer more options to coach Diego Simeone in attack, but much will still depend on France’s Euro 2016 top scorer Antoine Griezmann’s eye for goal. Should an exciting crop of young players, including Jose Maria Gimenez, Saul Niguez and Angel Correa, also continue to develop, Atletico have the strength in depth to make it a three-way title race once again.
Having clawed their way back from relegation to the Champions League play-offs in just four years, Villarreal have endured a nightmare close-season with coach Marcelino sacked just over a week before the start of the campaign due to disagreements with the board. He has been replaced by Fran Escriba, who was sacked from relegated Getafe in April. Marcelino’s discontent surfaced from a frustrating transfer window as key players Eric Bailly and Denis Suarez joining Manchester United and Barcelona respectively. Striker Roberto Soldado will also be missing for six months due to a cruciate knee ligament injury, so even just making it back into Europe via the top six looks a big ask for Escriba. Meanwhile, Villarreal face a potentially season-defining Champions League play-off against Monaco right at the start of the campaign.
A third consecutive Europa League win and direct passage to the Champions League wasn’t enough to prevent another summer of upheaval at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Coach Unai Emery left for Paris Saint-Germain and took star Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak with him to the French capital. Top scorer Gameiro headed to Atletico, whilst Ever Banega and captain Coke also exited. Former Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli is the new man in charge, although even he flirted with jumping ship just weeks into his new post when the temptation of taking over his native Argentina was offered. Early signs from European and Spanish Super Cup defeats to Real and Barca are that despite signing an array of talented midfielders, revered sporting director Monchi hasn’t found the replacement for Gameiro that will score the goals to guarantee a return to the top four. He will hope Frenchman Wissam Ben Yedder, recruited from Toulouse, can be the solution in attack.
A miserable campaign that saw three coaches take charge at the Mestalla, including an awful four-month period for former Manchester United captain Gary Neville, has led to no European football and a firesale from Singaporean owner Peter Lim. Andre Gomes joined Barcelona and could be joined by goalkeeper Diego Alves and striker Paco Alcacer on the road north to the Camp Nou. Influential Germany defender Shkodran Mustafi is a target for multiple Premier League clubs, whilst Sofiane Feghouli and Alvaro Negredo have already headed to England. The signing of Nani fresh from winning Euro 2016 with Portugal has been the only positive note of what seems to set to be another season of struggle for the six-time Spanish champions, coached by Pako Ayestaran.
Athletic Bilbao (fifth)
Perpetually burdened by their Basque-only player policy, Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic haven’t recruited at all in the window, but do have a good blend of exciting young talent and old heads to make them a contender for the top four. Blighted by injury last season, 22-year-old striker Inaki Williams looks set to take La Liga by storm. Strike partner Aritz Aduriz, though, will have a tough time recreating the 36-goal campaign of his life last season at 35. – AFP