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17 Aug 2018 00:00
Sea of stripes: Atlético Madrid fans have much to look forward to, with archrivals Real and Barcelona in some disarray. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)
The Spanish season kicks off this weekend when La Liga enters a new era after the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Andrés Iniesta, and with Atlético Madrid posing a huge threat to the big two.
Spain’s pre-eminence on the European stage was cemented by Real Madrid winning the Champions League in May, and Atlético won the Europa League just as Barcelona won another domestic double.
But much has changed since then. Ronaldo’s move to Juventus after 450 goals in nine years leaves a gaping chasm at Real, and Zinedine Zidane also quit as coach.
After 15 brilliant years at the Camp Nou, Iniesta has gone to Japan, though at least Barcelona still have Lionel Messi.
Nevertheless, although Real and Barcelona have won the past five Champions Leagues between them, neither looks quite as strong as they have been in the recent past.
Julen Lopetegui is the new coach at the Bernabéu, the announcement of his appointment leading to his messy sacking from the Spain job before the World Cup.
Lopetegui will need to show he can live up to the standards set by Zidane in the Champions League, and also make Real contenders in La Liga — they have won the title just twice in the past decade.
His new charges lost 4-2 after extra time to Atlético in the Uefa Super Cup in midweek but skipper Sergio Ramos insists Real will cope without Ronaldo.
“Throughout history, stars have come and gone and Real have kept winning.
Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez is hoping Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema will now stand up and be counted, although Luka Modric remains and is a contender for the Ballon d’Or after his brilliant World Cup with Croatia. Messi is now captain of a Barcelona side that has won seven titles in the past 10 seasons, and began this campaign by beating Sevilla 2-1 to lift the Spanish Super Cup. The Catalans have added depth to their squad with the signings of Brazilian duo Arthur and Malcom, French defender Clément Lenglet and Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal.
They will also hope for big things from Ousmane Démbéle and Philippe Coutinho, two big-money buys last season, as they try to retain the domestic crown and end Real’s European hegemony.
“Last year we won the league and the cup, but the Champions League stuck in our throats, especially with how we were knocked out,” said Messi.
The Champions League final will be played at Atlético’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium, giving Diego Simeone’s side huge incentive to go all the way in that competition.
But, after finishing 14 points adrift of Barça in second place last season, they also look well equipped for the league, which they last won in 2014.
Antoine Griezmann, the French World Cup-winner and another Ballon d’Or contender, rejected Barcelona’s overtures to stay put on improved terms.
Atlético also made the biggest signing of the Spanish summer by spending €72-million on Monaco’s French winger Thomas Lemar. The narrative that Atléti are the impoverished underdogs against the big two no longer holds true.
“We need to improve on what we did last season. Obviously expectations are high and we need to incorporate and work with the new players who have arrived,” said Simeone.
Although they aim big, the biggest fixture remains the Clasico, and Barça and Real’s first meeting will come at the Camp Nou in late October. Nevertheless, La Liga, which will use video assistant referees this season, offers plenty of interest below the leading trio.
Valencia have strengthened for their return to the Champions League with strikers Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi both enrolled.
Villarreal, Betis and Sevilla will hope to be stronger, also the latter under a new coach in Pablo Machín, and Huesca, the small side from Aragon, are preparing for their first-ever top-flight campaign. — AFP
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