La Liga 2016-17 preview: Barca and Real to contest the title, Atletico to slip
I think it was Confucius who once wisely said, "There are Five Things about everything." How right he was -- and here are mine as far as Spain's new La Liga season goes.
1. A two-horse race for the title
Usain Bolt has turned the Olympic 100-meter final into a one-horse race for eight long years now. Still, the world devours it, loves it and venerates him. In the U.S. alone, 35 million people tuned in to watch the Jamaican sprint, have a cigar, chat to some competitors, grin for the cameras, make a cup of tea and meander home for gold. Again.
But when people like me admit that this year's Spanish title is a two-horse race, there's usually a wailing and a gnashing of teeth, an end-of-times condemnation of everything in Spanish football from the TV money to the exquisite fine art they've developed here of making it as hard and confusing as possible to actually watch the thing. What makes me sadder now is that previously the thoroughbred stallions, Barcelona and Real Madrid, cut through the field not because the other competitors were poor, but because the two of them were utterly elite.
Right now, however, when you look at the runners and riders it's reasonable to fear that there has been an equine decline. And yes, I'm sorry, Atleti fans. They won't -- in fact, they can't -- win the league title.
When Diego Simeone's vastly impressive, vastly likeable group of players became champions in 2014, the two thoroughbreds were a touch lame. But right now, Madrid are a well-equipped squad (not by any means perfect in certain positions, mostly the back four) and also imbued with a confidence, a fighting spirit and a sense of mission which makes them good competitors. Conquering Europe will never, ever be made to look like a "second best" option for them, but the fact that they've won one Spanish title since 2008 means that La Liga will actually be their top priority.
As much as I wanted Zinedine Zidane to isolate Madrid's wrong-headed president, Florentino Perez, and make him change his ways by not accepting the job, he has been an absolutely wonderful addition to the racecourse here. Impishly happy in his work, elegant, tough, increasingly smart in his decision-making, full of leadership qualities and committed to attractive (read: winning) football, he has galvanised his club and it's just terrific to watch.
Then there's Luis Enrique and his champions. Despite the adrenaline injection from a phalanx of young, hungry and technically able footballers like Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez, the absolute key factors are these: the front trident (Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez) is sublime and the key members of the squad are, somehow, managing to fight the psychological rust that usually ends winning eras.
The transfer market hasn't closed yet, so wild things could still happen, but look at it this way. Madrid lost the first Clasico 4-0 at home, dropped points stodgily until Rafa Benitez was sacked and coped with two-thirds of the "BBC" (namely Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale) starting just 21 and 26 league games respectively but still had the title in their sights until the final matchday. Throw in Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio (recalled to HQ after time at Juventus and Espanyol) and Barcelona have a rival on their hands.
So what's wrong with Atleti? Like Barcelona, we have to admire how they keep a fire raging in their bellies. Not just when they hear the roar of the crowd and the scent of win bonuses on game night. No: This is a club, a coach and a group of athletes who go to war every single day. They'll be capable of winning the Copa and even the Champions League, but do they have the excellence, the "special" players, to dig out exceptional results in extremis?
I'm not convinced.
If Atleti are sitting top with a couple of games to go then, don't worry: You won't have to go to your bookmarks and use this to mock me. I'll be happily patting them on the back and celebrating the two-steed race seeing a dark horse edging in front down the stand side. For now, I'm just happy to be working in a league that has two Usain Bolt-esque teams fighting to go higher, faster and stronger.
2. The next-tier contenders all have major flaws
I'd like to be more positive and more optimistic about the supporting cast. Football often benefits from change, innovation and problem-solving results. But no matter how you package it, Sevilla and Villarreal have lost two intelligent, successful, driven and high-quality coaches in Unai Emery and Marcelino. How they cope with that will be a test. Interesting and quite possibly fun, too.
At Sevilla, it's going to be fascinating to discover how well Ganso and Wissam Ben Yedder can add the kind of élan, chutzpah and Toreador instincts that the crowd love down there. Jorge Sampaoli will have his team well-drilled, full of hard work and raucous to play against, but is there a cutting edge?
Valencia: I know them well and just think Pako Ayesteran is the bees knees. Bright, diligent, head over heels in love with football, blessed with a winning etiquette and endlessly hard working. One smart dude. But the squad lacks quality and they're shedding too much of the talent they did possess. Storm clouds there, sadly.
I admit I've high hopes for Fran Escriba but before September comes, Villarreal's exceptional recruitment department needs to add more goals: either those who make them or take them.
3. Why you should watch out for Espanyol, Real Betis
I'm hugely intrigued and excited about two teams in particular as La Liga restarts. Quique Sanchez Flores is not only a coach of proven talent but he's also Spanish football royalty: a title winner as a player, the godson of Alfredo Di Stefano, a man from an artistic family who've been beloved in this country for decades.
And now there's a "Dirty Dozen' or "Kelly's Heroes" feel about his Espanyol squad. The old soldiers accepting one big and thrilling last mission include Martin Demichelis and Jose Antonio Reyes, each of whom has supped the nectar at football's top table in the past. Pablo Piatti and Leo Baptistao add the impish, lovable "Peter Pan" feel to the project: they're awfully full of talent but too preoccupied with being cool to show it all the time.
If they focus and get inspired by Sergeant Major Sanchez Flores, then who knows? The mission might yield some laughs and some victories. No negative waves either.
Nor will many of those be allowed at Betis. Gus Poyet is a phenomenon -- misinterpreted, I think, because of his love of a laugh and some chatter. He has an impish sense of humour, a voracious hunger for life. The fact that he gobbled up finals and trophies wherever he went as a player indicates the truth: he's intense, hard working, dedicated to winning. A stern rival.
It's true that Betis have a lot of workday players -- not Charly Musonda (on loan from Chelsea), Matis Nahuel (borrowed from Villarreal) or Ruben Castro, mind you -- but when Gus says he wants his team to play with character, attacking attractively and using the ball intelligently, he means it.
It's worth watching these two teams this season, I'd say.
4. Look out for Athletic, too!
I guess it went under most people's radar that Athletic Club played 24 matches over and above their Liga campaign last season. Some achievement: they won a trophy, their first since the beginning of the 1980s, thanks to a Supercopa thrashing of Barcelona, they eliminated both Valencia and Marseille from Europe and experienced a valiant quarterfinal Copa defeat to the eventual winners, Barcelona.
I think that speaks volumes about the quality, spirit and attitude at the club -- particularly as they qualified for Europe again by finishing fifth. Hats off.
You're right about the question marks, though. Another year older for the dazzlingly special Aritz Aduriz, not far removed from Raul Garcia's health scare, and Aymeric Laporte is still recovering both form and fitness after his broken fibula. But it's worth keeping your eye on the exhilirating Iñaki Williams and watching how Guillermo and Oscar Gil develop.
If Luis Enrique doesn't renew his contract with Barcelona, then it'll be third or fourth time lucky for Ernesto Valverde at the Camp Nou, I'd guess. There is still time for him to win a knockout trophy with Athletic just in case this does prove to be his last season at the mighty San Mames.
5. Must-see TV in Granada
Paco Jemez is a true managerial enigma: good enough to coach Rayo to more Primera Liga permanence than anyone outside that rock n' roll club thought possible. Good enough to make Carlo Ancelotti ask him whether he could come and study training. At the same time, he's either unwilling or unable to coach a team to defend.
I know some Rayo players who'll tell you he just doesn't bother with anything other than "attack is the only form of defence." Also, they'll note that Jemez is a high maintenance guy who'll have his work cut out to survive at a club which isn't the hand-in-glove "fit" he had with Rayo.
Now, he's at Granada. New, demanding owners... same old demanding Los Carmones crowd but no Youssef El Arabi or Adalberto Peñaranda up front.
For better or worse, there will be fireworks down in Granada over the coming months. Stay tuned. Oh, and welcome back.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.