When European football’s board pieces begin to shuffle, all eyes turn to Spain. More specifically, they turn to the cities of Barcelona and Madrid.
The nation’s two traditional soccer giants, Real Madrid and Barca, along with those disruptive warriors from the capital, Atletico Madrid, have become arguably the best three teams on the continent over the last three seasons. This has created an increasingly cutthroat environment at La Liga’s summit, with each side consolidating resources and power in attempts to gain (or retain) control. And although that much isn’t surprising, the manner in which each contender is choosing to handle their business is.
Reigning La Liga champions Barcelona have long-been the standard bearers of European football’s elite. Yet their relationship with the summer transfer window has often been kind of strange. Ever since the Guardiola era of youth academy products hauling in boatloads of silverware, Barca’s approach to team-construction has been — with a few exceptions — an internal quest.
That promotion-from-within philosophy at Camp Nou was always going to hit a wall, however. With the exodus of Xavi Hernandez, the aging of Andres Iniesta, and the recent batch of La Masia grads not exactly setting the Catalan sky ablaze, Barcelona have been forced to shift their attention abroad in order to remain champs.
Luis Enrique’s side has taken a couple of hits this offseason; some vital, some less so. The departure of Dani Alves to Juventus is an obvious shot to the gut, while the sales of Marc Bartra, Adriano, and Alen Halilovic at the very least leave holes that need to be filled. The club started by bringing back Denis Suarez, who had been sold to Villarreal last year with a €3.5 million buy-back clause.
A double-Bleus swoop of Lucas Digne and Samuel Umtiti was then made to insure a weakened back-line. Finally, a big-money move for Valencia’s Andre Gomes was sealed last week. Although these *squad* players are merely 22-years-old each, the total tab for the four comes out to just under €80 million.
Although Barcelona also tied down Javier Mascherano for another three years this week, the club’s final summer saga is as-of-yet incomplete. Their search for an extra forward to share time with Luis Suarez has varied in fortune over the last month. The two main targets in question have been Sevilla’s Kevin Gameiro and Atletico Madrid’s Luciano Vietto. Most recent reports have Gameiro close to signing with Atleti, with Vietto likely headed the other way. For once, Barca appear to be the odd men out.
When you really read through that lengthy catalog of activity at Camp Nou, the common response might be, “Damn, if Barca have spent that much money this summer, Real Madrid must be tossing euros from the Bernabeu’s rooftops!” Well, shockingly, the opposite has been true.
Thus far, the usually extravagant Florentino Perez has made just one player purchase, activating Alvaro Morata’s €30 million buy-back clause from Juventus. This is an odd display of patience by Perez, particularly in a post-major tournament summer period when he would typically splash the cash for a flavor-of-the-month type. Many attribute this newfound restraint to the effects of manager Zinedine Zidane on the old prez. Either way, it’s weird but admittedly refreshing. Another positive note for Madrid is that there have been no significant departures.
But here’s where things get tricky, and perhaps start reverting back to normal: reports surfaced yesterday that Paul Pogba’s long-awaited move from Juventus to Manchester United has stalled because the player might be holding out for a bid from Madrid. If these reports are true, then Madrid will likely shell out upwards of a world-record €130 million fee for the Frenchman’s services. Not only would this series of events would be straight out of the Galactico handbook, but it would all of a sudden turn what was a mild summer for Madrid into the circus it always is. History tells us how this one should play out.
So what about Diego Simeone’s Colchoneros?
Well for starters, Atletico Madrid’s squad remains virtually untouched (apart from the still developing Matias Kranevitter, who has gone on-loan to Sevilla). And apart from that, they’ve actually gotten — and will get — extensively better. The early summer purchase of Nico Gaitan — coming off an amazing season for Benfica — for €25 million was a stone-cold statement-of-intent buy. Additionally, they’ve brought back the resurgent Fernando Torres for another season, as well as 19-year-old Portuguese winger Diego Jota for the future and Croatian right-back Sime Vrsaljko to replace outbound Jesus Gamez.
Atleti’s season will rely heavily on whether or not they can seal the aforementioned Kevin Gameiro deal, which in-turn relies on whether or not they can sell Vietto. Sevilla have set the price-tag for the Frenchman at €30 million, while Vietto is also likely to be included in the transaction. Seling the Argentine to Barcelona remains an option, too, but might also come at the expense of getting Gameiro, who by-all-means is a perfect fit for Simeone’s set-up.
With the major deals of Pogba, Gameiro, and Vietto hanging in the balance, La Liga’s mountaintop remains as interesting and uncertain as ever. The business side of things can often be tiresome and shameless, to be sure, but also necessary. Luckily, it all leads toward actual football, which begins August 19.