Part One of our two-part La Liga Season Preview. Here we’ll be previewing Athletic Bilbao through Las Palmas. Check back Thursday for Part Two.
Last Season Finish: 7th
Notable Summer Signings: Gorka Elustondo from Real Sociedad (free transfer)
Player to Watch: Aritz Aduriz
As one of only three clubs to have never been relegated from Spain’s top-flight, Athletic Bilbao are continually expected to not only hang around in the Primera, but also to ruffle some feathers. This year is no different. In fact, the Basques got an early start on the ruffling this past week when they thrashed Liga champions Barcelona in the Spanish SuperCopa by an aggregate score of 5-1. As unexpected as the result was, it wasn’t the first nor the last scalp to be collected by Athletic Club.
Adhering to his club’s Basque-only protocol of squad building, manager Ernesto Valverde will be expecting a higher finish this time around than last season’s seventh place. This means they’ll have to divide focuses between La Liga and the Europa League in their attempt to reclaim what they believe to be their rightful place in Spain’s top-four.
Although their main goal threat, Aritz Aduriz, turns 37 in February, his four goals in the aforementioned SuperCopa bodes well for his current form. His 18 goals last campaign were far and away tops for the club. Expect additional fireworks from standout winger Markel Susaeta, as well as last season’s breakout forward, 21-year-old Inaki Williams.
Last Season Finish: 3rd
Notable Summer Signings: Luciano Vietto from Villarreal (€20 million), Filipe Luis from Chelsea (undisclosed), Stefan Savic from Fiorentina (€12 million)
Key Player: Antoine Griezmann
They were expected to fall. Even after breaking up the longstanding Barca-Madrid duopoly at the top of La Liga in 2013/14, capturing their first league title in 18 years, Atletico Madrid weren’t given a chance to repeat by anyone with half-a-brain. Such is life on the mount of the Primera.
To be fair, Atletico Madrid were quite good last season. Behind their trusted gaffer, Diego Simeone, Los Colchoneros finished third whilst also sporting the second-best defensive record in the league (behind only Barcelona).
Although they lost key figures like Diego Costa and Filipe Luis (who has now returned to the club), other players stepped up in their absence. Koke and Jose Maria Gimenez further flaunted their world-class qualities, while Antoine Griezmann flirted with Messi-and-Ronaldo-dom at times.
Now, with the addition of goal-hound Luciano Vietto from Villarreal, and the post-loan return of uber-talented Oliver Torres from Porto, we could see a 15/16 Atleti that rivals the 13/14 version. A lot will have to fall their way to truly challenge for the Liga crown, but with Atletico Madrid, it often does.
Last Season Finish: 1st
Notable Summer Signings: Arda Turan from Atletico Madrid (€34 million), Aleix Vidal from Sevilla (€18 million) (neither can play until January due to transfer ban)
Key Player: Lionel Messi
For a club that spent much of the 2014/15 season in “crisis,” Barcelona sure did strut across the finish line when May rolled around. Last season’s European and domestic treble has caused many to compare Luis Enrique’s Barca to that of Pep Guardiola’s 2008-2012 dream teams.
It’s entirely unfair — now or ever — to make such claims, but that won’t stop fans and media from doing it ad nauseam. What’s fair to state, however, is that, even with their recent Spanish SuperCopa stumble, we’re witnessing something special at FC Barcelona right now. That should be enough.
Barca undoubtedly come into the 15/16 La Liga season as favorites. Even with a summer transfer ban — that will see new boys Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal unable to suit up until January — the Catalans seem stronger if only because their best players have gotten better. The front trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar might be the greatest any of us will ever see at once on a football pitch, while the spine of Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets seem to grow more distinguished and dominant by the year.
Meanwhile, Ivan Rakitic is becoming a quicker, more athletic version of Xavi Hernandez, and Rafinha might just be solidifying himself as the better of the Alcantara brothers. Defensively, there have been early questions, but we can’t forget how efficient Barca were on both sides of the ball last season. Assuming Lucho can keep the puzzle together for another nine months, unprecedented things could be ahead for the Blaugrana.
Last Season Finish: 8th
Notable Summer Signings: John Guidetti from Manchester City (free transfer), Iago Aspas from Sevilla (€5 million)
Key Player: Nolito
Although they finished in eighth place, Celta Vigo were second-to-none in the realm of footballing entertainment last season. This time around, the focus for manager Eduardo Berizzo turns to Europa League qualification, which they missed out on by four points in 14/15.
There was a bit of a clearing out in Vigo this summer with Joaquin Larrivey, Santi Mina, and Michael Krohn-Dehli all departing the club. But just as in previous seasons, much of Celta’s success depends on the ingenuity of Nolito.
In addition to 13 goals and 13 assists, the ex-Barcelona winger created 95 chances last campaign (according to Squawka), which was tops in La Liga (even more than some guy named Messi). If the club can keep Nolito in sky blue beyond the end of the transfer window, Europe will be a real possibility for the Celestes.
Deportivo La Coruna
Last Season Finish: 16th
Notable Summer Signings: Cani from Villarreal (free transfer), Fede Cartabia from Valencia (loan), Faycal Fajr from Elche (loan), Pedro Mosquera from Elche (loan)
Key Player: Sidnei
We sure are a long way from Super Depor. For a club that has spent most of the last 25 years in the Primera, Deportivo La Coruna have displayed some yo-yo tendencies recently. After barely surviving the drop last season (stayed up on goal-differential), Depor, lead by first-full-year boss Victor Sanchez, will be hoping for a less stressful campaign this time around.
For lower-table teams like Deportivo, transfer window reinforcements from year-to-year are a matter of life-or-death. No player in Sanchez’s squad came anywhere near double-digits in scoring last season, and it’s debatable whether or not the issue was truly addressed over the summer.
The acquisition of Cani from Villarreal helps, but the veteran winger is nearly 34-years-old and not known for his goal tallies. The bright side of things? On the defensive end, centre-halves Alberto Lopo and Sidnei represent a versatile and experienced backline. However, it doesn’t matter how great your defense is if you can’t score goals. And Deportivo can’t score goals.
Last Season Finish: 18th
Notable Summer Signings: Sergi Enrich from Numancia (free transfer), Adrian Gonzalez from Elche (free transfer), Mauro dos Santos from Almeria (free transfer)
Key Player: Mikel Arruabarrena
This one’s a bit weird. Eibar were relegated from La Liga last season, but then they weren’t. What happened was, Elche, who survived the drop, failed to pay certain tax debts, which lead to a fatal penalty of automatic relegation. And because Eibar finished highest of the three demoted Liga sides, the Basques were granted another season in the top-flight. It was a fortunate turn of events for a team that specializes in luck.
Although they began last campaign with a bang, Eibar fell hard and fast in the second half of 14/15. In the end, they didn’t do enough to numerically survive, thanks to losing 15 of their final 19 league matches.
Being the penny-pinching darlings of the Primera can only get you so far, as Gaizka Garitano’s team found out the hard way. Now, under the new and highly experienced Jose Luis Mendilibar, it only gets harder for Eibar.
What’s even worse — or better, perhaps — is that the squad has been completely gutted over the summer. This is almost solely because of Eibar’s overreliance on loan signings, which is also the only way for them to compete, unfortunately. Done are the spells of first-teamers Federico Piovaccari, Abraham, and Manu Del Moral, while Javi Lara and Eneko Boveda have also left for good. In return, new loanees Borja Baston and Simone Verdi have arrived, while Ivan Ramis, Antonio Luna, Adrian Gonzalez, Mauro dos Santos and Sergi Enrich have signed permanent deals.
Predicting whether or not this new batch of personalities will coalesce is futile. What’s certain is that there’s a lot of pride radiating from the Ipura ground these days, along with a fair share of good fortune.
Last Season Finish: 10th
Notable Summer Signings: Gerard Moreno from Villarreal (€1.5 million), Hernan Perez from Villarreal (free transfer)
Key Player: Felipe Caicedo
Espanyol continue to be a formidable Primera side, even while forfeiting 99 percent of their local limelight to that “other” Barcelona club. Playing second fiddle isn’t exactly a best-case scenario, but it’s not so bad, either.
Flying under-the-radar comes with its perks. Losing streaks aren’t so quick to be diagnosed as crises, nor do winning streaks skyrocket expectations. You’re allowed to simply develop and build in the comfort of the Camp Nou’s shadow. It might not be glamorous, but it’s healthy.
Although manager Sergio Gonzalez will be happy with his club’s 10th place finish in 14/15, he’ll agree there’s room for improvement at the Cornella-El Prat. Unfortunately, while goal-scoring wasn’t exactly a dire issue last season, their two leading goalscorers, Sergio Garcia and Christian Stuani, have both left the club. That leaves a heavy burden on Ecuadorian striker Felipe Caicedo (who notched nine goals last campaign) and ex-Mallorca forward Gerard Moreno.
The Catalans’ defense has also taken some hits in the offseason, as both keeper Kiko Casilla and centre-half Hector Moreno have departed. Both vital screws in the machine, their absences will surely be felt at the back. Though there’s much work to be done at Espanyol, they should have ample amounts of space and time with which to do it.
Last Season Finish: 15th
Notable Summer Signings: Moi Gomez from Villarreal (loan), Balazs Megyeri from Olympiacos (free transfer), Damian Suarez from Elche (free transfer)
Key Player: Alvaro Vazquez
A 12th straight season in the top-flight is a major accomplishment for a club like Madrid-based Getafe. While it hasn’t been easy — seven of those seasons have been spent in the bottom-half — Getafe’s Primera life has been professionally handled, diamond-tight budget and all.
As a shining example of their savviness, the Azulones went ahead and snatched wily Elche manager Fran Escriba over the summer to lead things (though Elche finished in 13th place, they were relegated over financial issues). As the man behind Elche’s rise back into La Liga, Escriba has proven that his years of being an assistant at clubs like Atletico Madrid Valencia, and Benfica is truly paying off. Getafe hopes that trend continues.
Personnel-wise, Getafe’s defense should be fair and steady. Although they lost left-back Sergio Escudero to Sevilla, a slew of defensive loan signings, including Damian Suarez from Elche, Santiago Vergini from Sunderland and Emiliano Velasquez from Atletico Madrid should more than fill the void.
The issue for Getafe remains goalscoring; their 33 total goals were third-worst in La Liga last season. With top scorer Alvaro Vazquez contributing a modest seven tallies, a large upswing is expected from fellow attackers Angel Lafita, Pablo Sarabia and new addition Moi Gomez. Without a surge in goalscoring, Getafe’s 15/16 campaign could get very sketchy, very quickly.
Last Season Finish: 17th
Notable Summer Signings: Rene Krhin from Inter Milan (€1.3 million), Robert Ibanez from Valencia (loan), Ruben Perez from Atlético Madrid (free transfer)
Key Player: Youssef El-Arabi
There’s really only one way to say it: Granada were gut-wrenchingly poor last season. Goalscoring was obviously the main issue, as the club’s 29 total goals were better than only Cordoba, a team that basically phoned-in an entire Primera campaign. But defense was almost as much of a concern; their 64 goals-against record was one of the league’s worst, leading to a minus-35 goal-differential, second-worst to only, yep, Cordoba. (When your closest comparison happens to be a team fresh off a historically abysmal season, you just might be in trouble.)
That being said, the Nazaries will be beginning their fifth-straight season in La Liga. They’ve never finished above 15th place in that time, true, but that doesn’t really matter to a club like Granada. Staying up is — and might always be — the upcoming season’s objective.
Although their defense struggled last season, Granada managed to get €8 million from Inter Milan for centre-back Jeison Murillo, which was obviously too much for the Andalusians to reject. However, even with the injection of cash, Granada still haven’t spent much in the window. The only transfer fee they’ve paid was €1.3 million for Inter midfielder Rene Krhin; the rest have been either free agent or loan signings.
The hope, from the perspectives of club executives and manager Jose Ramon Sandoval, is that budding talents like Jhon Cordoba and Robert Ibanez will experience breakout campaigns, while others like top-scorer Youssef El-Arabi continue to thrive. Relying on your existing squad is a risk for any team; but at Granada, it’s the modus operandi.
Last Season Finish: 4th in Segunda (promoted via playoffs)
Notable Summer Signings: Sergio Araujo from Boca Juniors (undisclosed), Jonathan Viera from Standard Liege (€900k), Antolin Alcaraz from Everton (free transfer), Javier Garrido from Norwich City (free transfer)
Key Player: Sergio Araujo
After a 13-year absence, Las Palmas have returned to Spain’s top-flight. Assuming Eibar will relinquish their currently inhabited role of darling underdogs, this academy-centric club consisting of almost nothing but Gran Canarian-born players, who play an attractive brand of soccer, fit the bill.
Simply put, if there’s any new Primera side ready to capture the eyes and hearts of football fans, it’s Las Palmas. They even have the recent tale of heartbreak to round out the narrative.
Lead by experienced Catalan manager Paco Herrera and last season’s breakthrough talisman Sergio Araujo (23 goals in the Segunda), the Canarians won’t be afraid of any prospective opponents in the Primera. An already experienced squad with the likes of Juan Carlos Valeron and Nauzet, Las Palmas have acquired valuable defensive cover in Javier Garrido and Antolin Alcaraz for the Premier League.
There’s also Jonathan Viera, who has returned permanently to his boyhood club following a successful loan-spell. There’s a unique mixture at Las Palmas of old and new, reserved and exuberant. All arrows point towards 15/16 being a campaign where the Amarillos inspire, spoil, and reestablish themselves as a force in Spanish football.
Check back Thursday for the rest of our La Liga team previews (Levante through Villarreal).