Beginning in 2018-19 the top four teams in Spain will automatically qualify for the Champions League group stage—no more playoff—so that makes the battle for fourth rather important. Here at the end of May are my thoughts on how the teams look.
The top two, as almost always:
I’m not going to spend much time on Real Madrid, except to note that their defense was not as strong as in past years (whether Navas or the folks in front of him are to blame, I don’t know) and with Cristiano ‘only’ scoring 19 non-penalty goals....of course, Gareth Bale was a spectator much of the season, too.
Barcelona is a little more interesting because this year some of their flaws have been open to view, and they have a new coach coming in. As long as they have Neymar, Messi and Suarez up front they will outscore most teams in the league, but they’ve allowed some good talent to leave (Sandro, for example) and surely Andres Iniesta cannot play forever. Can he?
Slipping back a bit?
Atletico Madrid has to be the next team on the list—certainly in terms of budget, though this season they found it difficult to keep the momentum going in the league. But the news that they aren’t allowed to sign players this summer (well, they can, but the transfers won’t be effective until January 2018) is going to hit them hard, and Antoine Griezmann keeps hinting he wants to play in Manchester. The first half of this season, at least, might not be as much fun in their new stadium as Cholo was expecting.
Sevilla have rather more rebuilding to do. They’ve lost sporting director Monchi, and they’ve lost coach Sampaoli (who seemed to check out around the end of March, didn’t he?). Word is Barcelona may try to snap up Vitolo, too. Sevilla have a lot of very good players, but they don’t have that great player who can rally the others. The margin between their quality and that of the next two or three clubs below them is much smaller than the gap between them and the top three, so the new coach is going to have to work hard to keep them in the top four.
Keep in mind that Sevilla will play in the Champions League playoff round, as we did last year. If they don’t qualify for the CL proper and drop into their favorite competition, the Europa League, we’ll see how they react to that.
Villarreal managed to finish fifth even with a difficult preseason, no contribution from Denis Cheryshev and partial seasons from Bakambu and Soldado, so the Yellow Submarine has to be feeling pretty good about things this time round. There is a need to strengthen center back now that Musacchio has departed, and we’ll see if young Unal is another diamond in the rough.
In 2016-17, Villarreal played very well against the big boys (especially Atleti) but had trouble with the Basque clubs’ direct play—Eibar, Alaves and Athletic Club accounted for five of our nine losses. We need to figure out how to play those teams, and also Depor (two dreadful 0-0 draws) while maintaining the strong form against the top sides.
Real Sociedad are a lot like Villarreal—they have a very good roster, with some underrated players, and strength in midfield. Xabi Prieto, Illaramendi and David Zurutuza are good examples; Willian José had something of a breakout year with 12 goals and Carlos Vela is always a terror, at least when he cares to be.
La Real usually don’t have an active close season; they did spend well on Juanmi and Willian José last summer (and got Rulli’s loan made permanent in January). Preparing their roster to compete in Europe, as well as La Liga, appears to be the main challenge. They will join us in the Europa league group stage, so need to add some depth to their roster. If they get Llorente from Madrid, that would help.
Athletic Bilbao, rather like Sevilla, will be in something of a rebuild and what-the-hell-just-happened mode. Ernesto Valverde did the best he could, but talk about lack of depth: Los Leones were 2-1-5 in matches played the Sunday after a Thursday EL match, and that included losses to Betis, Valencia, Malaga, and Las Palmas. Their Basque-only policy makes it hard to rebuild quickly; Aduriz had an incredible year, but can you continue to count on a 37 year-old to get you 15 goals a season? Their new coach has a strong, young back four to work with, an aging midfield, and (apart from Aduriz) Muinain and Iñaki Williams to work with up front.
Valencia will be fascinating to watch. We know what Marcelino brings to the table—attention to defense, playing on the counterattack. That an maniacal attention to nutrition and fitness. How will that work with Valencia’s roster? Who will leave, who will come in? There will certainly be a lot of ins and outs here. Marcelino may turn out to be the disciplinarian this team needs, and they do very well, or the whole thing could turn topsy-turvy within six months.
Who from the group below the top seven might emerge as a Europa League contender next year? Celta and Las Palmas seem to be going the wrong way, with coaches deciding to leave because of disagreement with the front office. Especially disappointing in Celta’s case, since they came so close to making it to the EL final. Málaga have played quite well under Michel, though their strike force will take a hit when Sandro moves on. Espanyol have had one of their better seasons (eighth and 56 points), and ex-amarillos Diego Lopez, Hernan Perez, Leo Baptistao and Gerard Moreno all had good seasons. But do they have it in them to add a key player or two to take them forward?
How do you see things at this point in the season? It’ll be interseting to look at it again after the transfer window closes and see who made the best moves.