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La Liga 2016-17 season preview: Part 1

Lionel Andres Messi (10) FC Barcelona celebrates their win in the final. Copa del Rey final between FC Barcelona and Sevilla FC at the Vincente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, May 22, 2016. (Photo by Enrique de la Fuente/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire
(Enrique de la Fuente/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire)

It’s that time of year again. Time to take a closer look at the upcoming La Liga season as it rapidly approaches.

Plenty of questions abound for this year’s Primera. Will Barcelona continue their league dominance with another championship? Can Atleti retrieve the title-winning magic of 2013-14? Will the Zidane Era at Real Madrid translate to domestic competition? Will Eibar keep the dream alive for another season?

Really, these questions merely scratch the surface of what is and has been the golden standard of European top-flight football for quite some time. Fecha 1 kicks off on Friday, so let’s get into this!

Alaves

Manager: Mauricio Pellegrino

Last Season Finish: 1st Place in Segunda (automatic promotion)

Key Player: Manu Garcia

Notable Transfers: Christian Santos (free from NEC Nijmegen), Alexis (€400k from Besiktas), Victor Camarasa (loan from Levante), Daniel Torres (€3.18 million from Independiente Medellin), Deyverson (on loan from Levante), Ibai Gomez (free from Athletic Bilbao), Nenad Krsticic (free from Sampdoria), Aleksandar Pantic (loan from Villarreal), Zouhair Feddal (free from Levante), Marcos Llorente (loan from Real Madrid)

Notable Departures: Juli (free to Cordoba), Javier Carpio (free to Cadiz), Sergio More (free to UCAM Murcia), Dani Pacheco (end of loan from Real Betis), Facundo Guichon (free to UCAM Murcia)

Despite leading them to their first top-flight promotion in over a decade, Alaves manager Jose Bordalas was unceremoniously sacked by the club in June. Soon thereafter, ex-Babbozorros player Mauricio Pellegrino was appointed as head coach. A brand new gaffer ahead of a promotion campaign never sounds like an ideal situation. Still, the reigning Segunda champions should come into the Primera season with a brimming optimism.

Pellegrino and Co. have done quite well in the transfer market, however. Veteran Liga defender Alexis has been added to what was already a quality defense anchored by keeper Fernando Pacheco. A Levante triple-swoop landed them Deyverson, Victor Camarasa, Zouhair Feddal, while a dip over to Bilbao found seasoned winger Ibai Gomez.

Nothing about this will be easy for Alaves. Goalscoring might prove to be an issue — they scored a full ten goals less than last year’s Segunda runners-up, Leganes — although prolific new signing Christian Santos will aim to solve any scoring woes. But these Basques have certainly improved over the summer, which was always paramount. (Tip: Keep your eyes out for longtime bottom-dwelling winger Manu Garcia, whose emphatic late-season performances make him one to watch in the coming months.)

 

Athletic Bilbao

Manager: Ernesto Valverde

Last Season Finish: 5th Place

Key Player: Benat

Notable Transfers: Inigo Lekue (promoted from Bilbao Athletic), Oscar Gil (promoted from Bilbao Athletic), Enric Saborit (promoted from Bilbao Athletic), Mikel Vesga (promoted from Bilbao Athletic), Ager Aketxe (promoted from Bilbao Athletic), Yeray Alvarez (promoted from Bilbao Athletic), Unai Lopez (promoted from Bilbao Athletic)

Notable Departures: Ibai Gomez (free to Alaves), Gurpegi (end of career)

Given their club policy of only employing talent native to their region, Athletic Bilbao largely begin every season in the same way: promote the necessary youngsters from the reserve team, scour Spain for any cheap, suitable Basque players, then get to footballing. Although these methods seem primitive, they’re anything but. Alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid, Athletic club are the only team to have never been relegated from Spain’s Primera.

This season’s Lezama group appears special enough for the club to, as of now, forego any real abroad player acquisitions. From defense (Yeray Alvarez and Oscar Gil), to midfield (Ager Aketxe and Unai Lopez), to attack (Guillermo Fernandez), Ernesto Valverde’s side is chock-full of promising Basque youths ready to pounce on La Liga. Much will be expected of them, of course. After two straight Europa League placings, Athletic club will surely be aiming for a top-four finish this time around.

 

Atletico Madrid

Manager: Diego Simeone

Last Season Finish: 3rd Place

Key Player: Antoine Griezmann

Notable Transfers: Kevin Gameiro (€32 million from Sevilla), Nico Gaitan (€25 million from Benfica), Sime Vrsaljko (€16 million from Sassuolo), Diogo Jota (€7.2 million from Pacos Ferreira), Fernando Torres (free from Milan)

Notable Departures: Borja Baston (to Swansea City for €17.5 million), Leo Baptistao (to Espanyol for €3.5 million), Jesus Gamez (free to Newcastle United), Luciano Vietto (loan to Sevilla)

As we get further away from Atletico Madrid’s memorable title-winning 2013-14 season, pressure certainly begins to mount on Diego Simeone to re-claim the intoxicating glory that is winning La Liga. The key lies in getting better with each passing year, even after those in which you don’t capture a championship. Well, Atleti have done just that this time around.

In addition to housing Euro 2016 Golden Ball/Boot winner Antoine Griezmann, Simeone has further reinforced his blistering attack by adding Benfica’s Nico Gaitan and Sevilla’s Kevin Gameiro, both seemingly perfect fits for Atleti’s playing style. Considering Simeone’s always stellar defense and another year of development for the still-improving talents of Saul Niguez, Angel Correa, Lucas Hernandez, and Jose Gimenez (among others), Los Colchoneros appear more than capable of pushing aside their heighty rivals to retake control of the league.

 

Barcelona

Manager: Luis Enrique

Last Season Finish: 1st Place

Key Player: Lionel Messi

Notable Transfers: Andre Gomes (€35 million from Valencia), Samuel Umtiti (€25 million from Lyon), Lucas Digne (€16.5 million from PSG), Denis Suarez (€3.25 million from Villarreal), Sergi Samper (promoted from Barcelona B)

Notable Departures: Dani Alves (free to Juventus), Marc Bartra (€8 million to Borussia Dortmund), Alen Halilovic (€5 million to Hamburg), Thomas Vermaelen (loan to Roma), Adriano (€600k to Besiktas), Alex Song (free to Rubin Kazan), Sandro Ramirez (free to Malaga)

Though they nearly coughed it up down the stretch, Barcelona captured another La Liga title in 2015-16, their sixth in the last eight seasons. Still, despite that domestic dominance, 2016-17 presents questions for the reigning champs. The biggest being: How will they respond to losing eight-year servant Dani Alves, the club’s greatest ever right-back and preferred wide-link of Lionel Messi? With Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal ready to deputize in the Alves role, all eyes will be on that right side of defense.

With that being said, Barcelona have spent their summer strengthening their squad from top-to-bottom. A batch of blossoming 22-year-olds (Andre Gomes, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Denis Suarez) headline the moves, while La Masia’s long-awaited golden boy, Sergi Samper has finally been fully promoted to the senior squad (although Valencia are said to be sniffing around for a loan move). Oh yeah, and another year of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar doesn’t hurt. Even an Alves-less Blaugrana has to be considered favorites for another Liga crown.

 

Celta Vigo

Manager: Eduardo Berizzo

Last Season Finish: 6th Place

Key Player: Iago Aspas

Notable Transfers: Pione Sisto (€6 million from Midtjylland), Jose Naranjo (€1 million from Gimnastic), Facundo Roncaglia (free from Fiorentina)

Notable Departures: Nolito (€18 million to Manchester City)

Having been one of La Liga’s surprise teams over the last couple of seasons, Eduardo Berizzo’s Celta Vigo come into the 2016-17 campaign a more-than-well-known commodity. As with any non-rich soccer club, however, the vultures are always circling.

Manchester City’s poaching of Nolito, Celta’s star player of the last two years, puts the club in an obviously precarious position. The absence of the Spanish international, who scored 12 goals in 29 league appearances last season, leaves a hole in Celta’s creative department. The acquisition of Danish winger Pione Sisto from Midtjylland does add a fresh, pacey outlet in his place, but more will be expected of forwards Iago Aspas, John Guidetti, and new signing from Lyon, Claudio Beauvue, to pick up the goalscoring load.

Fortunately, in his time at Balaidos, Berizzo has constructed a well-rounded team with a keen attacking philosophy that the majority of his players buy into year-to-year. While there’s a ceiling to their rise, surely, they should be able to comfortably float above the bottom half of the table.

 

Deportivo La Coruna

Manager: Gaizka Garitano

Last Season Finish: 15th Place

Key Player: Lucas Perez

Notable Transfers: Florin Andone (€4 million from Cordoba), Przemyslaw Tyton (€500k from Stuttgart), Bruno Gama (free from Dnipro), Juanfran (free from Watford), Carles Gil (loan from Aston Villa), Guilherme (loan from Udinese), Raul Albentosa (Undisclosed from Derby County), Emre Colak (free from Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (free from Elche), Ruben (free from Levante)

Notable Departures: Manuel Pablo (end of career), Juan Dominguez (loan to Mallorca), Cani (free to Real Zaragoza)

For many penny-pinching top-flight sides, merely hanging onto pre-existing talent can be the chief task of the summer. Managing to keep Lucas Perez aboard was enough of a breath-releaser for Deportivo to feel confident going into this season’s Liga. In fact, apart from the retirement of captain Manuel Pablo, Depor boss Gaizka Garitano hasn’t lost much in the way of outward transfers. And that could be the difference in hanging around or dropping out.

A whole slew of incoming talent means we should see a much better Branquiazui squad this time around. Raul Albentosa, one of Malaga’s standout players of last season, will mightily improve the backline. Meanwhile, the addition of Florin Andone, last year’s second-best goalscorer in the Segunda (21 league goals), means Lucas Perez won’t have to do all of the scoring again. It won’t be quite Super Depor, but expect a huge bounceback campaign from the Galicians.

 

Eibar

Manager: Jose Luis Mendilibar

Last Season Finish: 14th Place

Key Player: Sergi Enrich

Notable Transfers: Bebe (€1.5 million from Benfica), Alejandro Galvez (€1.5 million from Werder Bremen), Florian Lejeune (€1.5 million from Manchester City), Pedro Leon (free from Getafe), Ruben Pena (free from Leganes), Yoel Rodriguez (loan from Valencia)

Notable Departures: Keko (€5 million to Malaga), Lillo Castellano (free to Sporting Gijon), Xabi Irureta (free to Zaragoza), Saul Berjon (free to Pumas), Mikel Arruabarrena (free to Eastern)

No longer the fishes out of water, Eibar have become something akin to La Liga veterans in their short-but-sweet time at the top. In those two years, they’ve been relegated, reinstated, and had various spells of both treacherous and glorious performances in between. It’s been nothing short of amazing, albeit, also extremely testy at times. Coming from a village of 28,000 people, theirs is a fairytale, after all.

The loan-spell of last season’s leading goalscorer, Borja Baston, has retired, leaving much of the goalscoring load to fall atop the shoulders of Sergi Enrich, who tallied just nine goals in 38 league matches last year. Although supply to the forwards should improve with the addition of Liga vets Bebe and Pedro Leon. To be sure, 2016-17 looks set to be a grueling season for Jose Luis Mendilibar’s Armeros. But they like it that way.

 

Espanyol

Manager: Quique Sanchez Flores

Last Season Finish: 13th Place

Key Player: Pablo Piatti

Notable Transfers: Pablo Piatti (loan from Valencia), Javi Fuego (€2.55 million from Valencia), Martin Demichelis (free from Manchester City), Leo Baptistao (€5 million from Atletico Madrid), Roberto (€3 million from Olympiakos), Jose Manuel Jurado (€1.2 million from Watford), Jose Antonio Reyes (free from Sevilla)

Notable Departures: Mamadou Sylla (€200k loan to Eupen), Marcos Asensio (loan from Real Madrid expired), Jose Canas (free to PAOK), Thievy Bifouma (free to Bastia), Abraham Gonzalez (free to Pumas)

Where to start with Espanyol. Under Sergio Gonzalez, and then Constantin Galca, the Parakeets’ 2015-16 league campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Despite narrowly evading relegation, Espanyol finished with the worst goal-differential in the entire field, including shipping a league-high 74 goals. In order to reverse their fortune for this coming season, the Catalans had quite a bit of work to do over the summer.

Well, it appears they’ve put the work in. Beginning with the hiring ex-Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores, Espanyol have dramatically changed the make-up of their squad. To tackle their defensive woes, they’ve brought in journeyman keeper Roberto to man goal, along with uber-experienced centre-half Martin Demichelis and veteran holding midfielder Javi Fuego. In addition, Sanchez Flores has sought out Jose Antonio Reyes, Pablo Piatti, Jose Manuel Jurado, and Leo Baptistao to reconstruct their previously tepid attacking front. It’s fair to say that Espanyol have changed the complexion of their side more than any other Primera club. That bodes well for them, because they really, really needed to.

 

Granada

Manager: Paco Jemez

Last Season Finish: 16th Place

Key Player: Javi Marquez

Notable Transfers: Jose Angulo (€4.03 million from Independiente Ecuador), Tito (free from Rayo Vallecano), Matthieu Saunier (free from Troyes), Guillermo Ochoa (loan from Malaga), Gabriel Silva (loan from Udinese)

Notable Departures: Isaac Success (€15 million to Watford), Ruben Rochina (€10 million to Rubin Kazan), Youssef El-Arabi (undisclosed fee to Lekhwiya), Jhon Cordoba (€6.5 million to Mainz), Ricardo Costa (free to Luzern), Yrondu Musavu-King (free to Udinese), Edgar Mendez (free to Alaves), Jean-Sylvain Babin (free to Sporting Gijon)

For a club of Granada’s status, acquiring a manager like Paco Jemez should be seen as a definite coup. As Rayo Vallecano boss, the Spaniard took a team of beaten-down lower-league dwellers and turned them into an idealist’s fantasy. And he was effective, keeping them punching well above their weight until last May when they were finally and fatefully relegated. If Jemez can bring that same kind of killer mentality to Los Carmenes, this could all get very fun, very quickly.

Quality-wise, Jemez will have a little tinkering to do. Granada scored less than Rayo did last year, but they also conceded less. Jemez has brought in his old Vallecanos right-back Tito, along with Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and Udinese left-back Gabriel Silva. The lion’s share of transfers done at Granada, however, have been loan moves for burgeoning youngsters from elite European clubs like Chelsea (Jeremie Boga and Victorien Angban), Arsenal (Jon Toral), and AS Roma (Ezequiel Ponce).

As we saw with Diego Llorente in 15-16, Jemez has a knack for getting unexpected levels of production from young rentals; as a 21-year-old, the Real Madrid loanee, Llorente, made 33 total appearances for Rayo last season.

Jemes’s sides are all about philosophy, however. If Jemez can instill his gameplan into the heads of his players, Granada will more than likely thrive.

 

Las Palmas

Manager: Quique Setien

Last Season Finish: 11th Place

Key Player: Kevin-Prince Boateng

Notable Transfers: Kevin-Prince Boateng (free from Milan), Marko Livaja (free from Rubin Kazan), Michel (free from Almeria), Helder Lopes (free from Pacos Ferreira), Mauricio Lemos (loan from Rubin Kazan made permanent),

Notable Departures: Juan Carlos Valeron (end of career), Carlos Gutierrez (free to Numancia), Christian Fernandez (free to Real Oviedo)

The decision to fire highly experienced manager Paco Herrera just two months into last season’s promotion campaign could’ve sentenced Las Palmas to an ill fate. But alas, the Armarillos not only escaped relegation threats under new boss Quique Setien, but flourished in unforeseen ways.

A stellar second-half, including a run of 7 wins in ten league games, saw the new Liga darlings finish in a respectable 11th place. With Setien on for at least another season, the Gran Canaria club will looks to further solidify their Primera status.

The summer acquisition of Kevin-Prince Boateng stands alone as the club’s highest-profile signing ever. The fact that they got the Ghanaian star on a free transfer means they’ve still been able to strengthen in other areas. They’ve reupped on the fullback area with Michel Mercado and Helder Lopes, and have also managed to hang onto prior standouts such as Jonathan Viera, Tana, and Pedro Bigas. A sophomore slump is certainly possible, but Setien and company seem to be building something that could last.

 

Check back on Thursday for Part Two, where we’ll have previews for Leganes-Villarreal.

 

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