Ten things to watch in La Liga 2016/17: Messi v Ronaldo, Sampaoli's Sevilla and more
Ten things to watch in La Liga 2016/17: Messi v Ronaldo, Sampaoli's Sevilla and more
Barcelona are bidding to defend their crown after beating Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid to the title last season, and there is intrigue up and down La Liga ahead of the big kick-off.
Who will come out on top between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? How will Sevilla line up under Jorge Sampaoli? And who exactly are La Liga new boys Leganes? Here are 10 things to watch out for this season in Spain...
Messi v Ronaldo
Messi and Ronaldo were outscored by Luis Suarez last season. It was the first time since 2008/09 that one of the pair hasn't topped the scoring charts, but they remain the headline attractions in La Liga. The 2016/17 season opens up a new chapter in their extraordinary rivalry.
They come into it on the back of very different summers. While Ronaldo won Euro 2016 with Portugal, Messi announced his retirement from international football as Argentina were agonisingly beaten by Chile in the Copa America final. Ronaldo is now the strong favourite for the 2016 Ballon d'Or, but Messi will be eager to change the narrative.
They will have to wait until December for their first Clásico meeting, but their weekly battle for individual supremacy starts when the first ball is kicked this weekend. Can Messi reclaim centre stage? Will age finally slow Ronaldo's phenomenal scoring rate? As always in Spain, Messi v Ronaldo will be more than a mere subplot.
Sevilla under Sampaoli
It has been a summer of change at Sevilla. Unai Emery departed for Paris Saint-Germain after guiding them to a third consecutive Europa League trophy in May, and he has been followed through the exit door by key players Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kevin Gameiro, Ever Banega, and Coke.
In Emery's place, Sevilla have appointed Jorge Sampaoli. The Argentine has a burgeoning reputation thanks to his Copa America-winning spell in charge of Chile, but his methods are untested in Europe. Will his high-intensity playing style be a success in La Liga?
It is an intriguing prospect, and Sevilla's summer transfer business certainly suggests a big emphasis on attacking football. Sampaoli has brought in no fewer than seven new forwards, including Paulo Henrique Ganso from Sao Paulo, Franco Vasquez from Palermo and Wissam Ben Yedder from Toulouse.
There were promising signs in Sevilla's narrow European Super Cup defeat by Real Madrid, but Sampaoli insists the hectic pre-season schedule has been tough on his players. He hasn't got much time to whip them into shape, but whatever happens next, it is unlikely to be dull.
Can Barcelona be stopped?
Barcelona head into the new campaign aiming for their seventh La Liga title in nine years, and while they only clinched last season's crown by a one-point margin, the bookmakers have made them strong favourites for 2016/17.
They will certainly take some stopping. Messi, Suarez and Neymar are set for another season of tearing La Liga defences apart having combined for 90 goals in 2015/16, and Barcelona have also addressed the lack of squad depth that was exposed at times last season.
Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez have come into midfield from Valencia and Villarreal respectively, with France internationals Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne bolstering their defensive options. It all adds up to what Luis Enrique describes as his best squad since taking over at Barcelona - and there could be attacking reinforcements to follow.
"We have a squad that has been strengthened brilliantly," he said recently. "While the window remains open, we are ready to strengthen our squad. That's the intelligent way to look at things. If we find a player that will improve us, we will do it." Further improvement would be ominous for the rest.
The Leganes fairytale
There is a new name in La Liga this season. Madrid minnows Leganes were playing in Spain's regionalised third tier as recently as 2013/14, but this year they will welcome Barcelona and Real Madrid to their 8,000-seater Butarque Stadium after winning promotion to the top flight for the first time in their 88-year history.
The feat is all the more impressive when you consider they had one of the smallest budgets in Segunda last season. Argentine winger Alexander Szymanowski and former Juventus youngster Gabriel are the players to watch, but the squad is largely comprised of free transfers, loan signings and youth products. The odds are against them, but that's nothing new for Leganes.
Can Simeone keep it up?
Diego Simeone was disconsolate after Atletico's Champions League final heartbreak against Real Madrid in May. "Should I continue with Atletico or is it the end of a cycle?" he asked. "I have to think about that."
It appeared the Argentine might call time on his extraordinary four-and-a-half year tenure at the Vicente Calderon, but a month later, he confirmed his intention to see out the final year of his contract. "I spoke in the heat of the moment," he said. "We Argentinians are like that."
So can El Cholo keep Atletico punching above their weight in 2016/17? Barcelona and Real Madrid look as strong as ever - if not stronger - but the 2013/14 title winners were only three points off the summit last season, and there are encouraging signs ahead of the new campaign.
Euro 2016's outstanding player Antoine Griezmann has committed his future to the club, and this is the first summer since 2012/13 that Atletico have not lost a single key player. The stingiest defence in La Liga is intact, and the Rojiblancos have bolstered their frontline with the £27m addition of Kevin Gameiro fresh from his 29-goal season with Sevilla. End of a cycle? Maybe not just yet.
A new Galactico?
Real Madrid's only major signing of the summer has seen Alvaro Morata return from Juventus, but there is another exciting prospect at the Bernabeu. Marco Asensio actually signed for the club in 2014, but the 20-year-old has spent the last two seasons on loan, first at boyhood club Mallorca, then at Espanyol, where he got four goals and 10 assists in 34 La Liga games last year.
Asensio's breakthrough season at Espanyol earned him his first Spain call-up and a debut in a friendly against Switzerland in May, and the stylish attacking midfielder announced himself to Real Madrid fans with a breath-taking long-range goal in their European Super Cup victory over Sevilla last week.
"The best thing was not his brilliant goal, it was his great performance," said Zinedine Zidane afterwards. "This is the direction he needs to follow. I am very happy with him. He is going to stay here, for sure." Asensio didn't command a Galactico transfer fee back in 2014, but he already looks like a superstar in the making. With a possible transfer ban looming, Madrid might need him to step up.
Premier League loan stars?
There are a number of young Premier League players who will be eager to make an impact in La Liga this season, not least Manchester City's new signing Marlos Moreno, who has joined Deportivo La Coruna for the campaign after sealing a £4.75m move to City from Atletico Nacional.
The 19-year-old winger, who is already a full Colombia international, is highly-regarded by Pep Guardiola and viewed as one of the best young players to have come out of South America in recent years, and he is joined at Deportivo by Aston Villa's Carles Gil.
Chelsea's Charly Musonda is back on loan at Real Betis having impressed there in the second half of last season, and the 19-year-old will come up against fellow Blues youngsters Jeremi Boga and Victorien Angban when they face Andalucian rivals Granada, who have also signed Arsenal youngster Jon Toral for the season.
Aritz Aduriz has spent the last four seasons at Athletic Bilbao proving that some things get better with age. The towering striker, who will turn 36 in February, had never scored more than 12 La Liga goals in a single season when he joined the Basque side from Valencia in 2012, but since then his totals read: 14, 16, 18 and 20.
Aduriz is the ultimate late bloomer. He has been the top scoring Spaniard in each of the last two La Liga seasons, and his overall total of 36 goals in 55 games last season was by far the highest of his two-decade long career. His form was recognised with a call-up to Spain's squad for Euro 2016. Now he's aiming to continue defying logic in 2016/17
What next for Valencia?
Valencia's former glories feel like distant memories these days. They have only finished one of the last four seasons in La Liga's top four, and last season's 12th-placed finish was their lowest since 1987/88. Gary Neville admitted he was unprepared for the scale of the task at the Mestalla, and results were not much better when Pako Ayestaran took over towards the end of the last campaign.
They will be hoping to turn over a new leaf in 2016/17, and a relatively kind run of opening fixtures against Las Palmas, Eibar and Real Betis gives them an opportunity to start strongly. Valencia have lost midfielder Andre Gomes to Barcelona for £29m, but they will be hoping for an immediate impact from his countryman Nani, a £7m signing from Fenerbahce.
The former Manchester United winger scored eight goals and claimed eight assists for the Turkish side last season and also impressed for Portugal at Euro 2016. Valencia hope he'll inspire a change of fortunes, but their task will be made tougher if they lose key defender Shkodran Mustafi to Arsenal.
The Prince of Las Palmas?
One of the most intriguing moves in La Liga this summer has seen Kevin-Prince Boateng join Las Palmas on a free transfer from AC Milan. The 29-year-old signed a one-year contract with the Canary Islanders, who earned plaudits for some of their slick attacking football as they finished 11th last season.