Part two of our two-part La Liga Season Preview. Click here for part one.
Last Season Finish: 14th
Notable Summer Signings: Deyverson from Belenenses (€2 million), Angel Trujillo from Almeria (€1 million), Nabil Ghilas from Porto (loan), Verza from Almeria (free transfer)
Key Player: Victor Casadesus
Since their re-arrival in the Primera in 2010, Levante have never finished below 14th in the table. Although that may not scream success in a traditional sense, it’s an undeniable feather-in-the-cap for a club of their level. Manager Lucas Alcaraz knows all too well of the trials of the country’s lower-tiered football teams having slugged at over 10 Spanish clubs since 1995.
To be fair, last season’s 14th place finish absolutely flatters Levante. Their minus-33 goal-differential was third-worst in La Liga last season and only scratches the surface of their issues. As elementary as it sounds, the Frogs struggle to score just as much as they struggle to not concede. When that’s the diagnosis, there’s no choice but to address every area of the pitch.
Out are David Barral, Ivan Ramis, Momo Sissoko and Diego Marino; in are Deyverson, Angel Trujillo, Nabil Ghilas and Verza. With each of these changes, Alcaraz has specifically targeted different parts of the team. While players like Victor Casadesus, Ruben Garcia,and Simao Mate may represent the optimistic side of Levante’s squad development, these new additions must flourish if the Granotes hope to remain a La Liga participant. If not, these flattering finishes could just as soon backfire.
Last Season Finish: 9th
Notable Summer Signings: Nordin Amrabat from Galatasaray (€3.5 million), Raul Albentosa from Derby County (loan), Juan Carlos from Braga (loan)
Key Player: Ignacio Camacho
There was a time not so long ago when Malaga were scheduled to be the next world footballing giant. They were spending cash, attracting names, and even regularly playing in Europe. An irreparable debt sheet and a UEFA ban later, and Malaga have taken on the role of a battered club. Established boss Javi Gracia hopes to put an end to that image this year.
Just as in recent years when they’ve lost talents like Isco, Santi Cazorla and Jeremy Toulalan, Gracia’s Boquerones took some significant hits this offseason. Villarreal swooped in for both Samu Castillejo and Samuel, Southampton lured Juanmi to England and Panathinaikos came in for mainstay defender Sergio Sanchez. Although these departures represent the way of the world for Malaga, they still hurt.
As far as incoming players, Nordin Amrabat’s loan from Galatasaray has been made permanent, and centre-half Raul Albentosa has arrived on-loan from Derby County after a very strong La Liga showing with Eibar at the beginning of last season. Still, Malaga’s core squad depth remains fairly strong.
Midfielders Ignacio Camacho and Sergi Darder are coming off stellar seasons, while a defensive unit consisting of Carlos Kameni, Weligton and Roberto Rosales is serviceable at worst. It may be a bit crippled at the moment, but football at the Roselada is sure to survive. And and maybe even thrive.
Last Season Finish: 11th
Notable Summer Signings: Patrick Ebert from Spartak Moscow, Diego Llorente from Real Madrid (loan), Luis Farina and Bebe from Benfica (both loans), Zhang Chengdong from Beijing Guoan (loan)
Key Player: Roberto Trashorras
It speaks volumes that, in a league flooded with ingenuity and pizzazz, Rayo Vallecano stand out. Lead by progressive boss Paco Jemez, the Madrid-based club have gained a reputation as an attack-heavy juggernaut who know how to navigate Primera life. Behind Jemez, who champions an astute possession philosophy as well as a refusal to ever play for a draw, the Vallecanos have finished comfortably in mid-table for the past three seasons.
Although chief creative influence and top-scorer Alberto Bueno has left for Porto, Rayo’s playing philosophy won’t be changing anytime soon. They’ll still be buoyed in midfield by Liga vets Roberto Trashorras and Raul Baena, who excel at controlling the tempo and direction of a game. Since a solid attack rests at the core of their footballing style, Rayo will be leaning heavily on ex-Manchester United players Manucho and Bebe.
Additionally, Jemez has employed the services of ex-Valladolid winger Patrick Ebert and La Liga’s first ever Chinese import, Zhang Chengdong. These signings may not be the flashiest, however, they further strengthen Rayo’s wide attack, which is largely where they butter their bread.
Rayo will concede goals, as they always do. But they’ll score plenty, as well. As Jemez has discovered, the top-flight isn’t about scoring or conceding, it’s about winning games whenever you can. Despite having a minus-22 goal-differential last season, Rayo’s 15 victories were more than every club outside of the top-six. Enough said.
Last Season Finish: 1st in Segunda (automatic promotion)
Notable Summer Signings: Rafael van der Vaart and Heiko Westermann from Hamburg (both free transfers), Juan Manuel Vargas from Fiorentina (free transfer), Didier Digard from Nice (free transfer), Petros from Corinthians (€1.5 million)
Key Player: Ruben Castro
Being a perennial La Liga side doesn’t guarantee anything from year-to-year, as Real Betis discovered in 2013/14 when they were relegated to the Segunda. Although they bounced right back up after just one year, thanks in-part to the expertise of manager Pepe Mel, the grind has only just begun.
Betis have certainly addressed any and all squad issues over the summer. They lobbied for experience in the form of Rafael van der Vaart and Heiko Westermann from Hamburg, as well as Juan Manuel Vargas from Fiorentina. There’s also the case of Dani Ceballos, the wildly talented young midfielder whose early exploits point toward a breakout season.
However, the Beticos’ season will loom largely over the form of forward Ruben Castro. An injury to the 34-year old at the beginning of their 13/14 Liga campaign played a massive part in their eventual relegation that year. Luckily, Castro is raring to go after a ridiculous 33-goal tally in the Segunda last season. With no other prolific scorers in the squad, Betis will need a healthy output from their star striker if they hope to extend their stay in the top-flight.
Last Season Finish: 2nd
Notable Summer Signings: Mateo Kovacic from Inter Milan (€30 million), Danilo from Porto (€31.5 million), Kiko Casilla from Espanyol (€6 million)
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
If you don’t win at Real Madrid, you’re gone. It doesn’t matter if you’re Carlo Ancelotti — the brains behind the club’s historic La Decima in 2014. It doesn’t matter if you’re Iker Casillas — the stonewalled general whose name has become synonymous with the club over the last 15 years. Those people don’t matter because those people didn’t win the most recent thing that they were supposed to win. Fair or not, those are the expectations at the Bernabeu.
Eleven years after capturing the La Liga crown with Valencia, Rafa Benitez has returned to Spain. Although the appointment doesn’t practically make much sense — Ancelotti has won at every club he’s been at, while the Spaniard hasn’t won a league title since that ’04 title — that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
Madrid’s squad may have underachieved last season, but those familiar faces from La Decima are still there. Cristiano Ronaldo will, of course, score a ton of goals (in fact, CR7’s pichichi-clinching 48 goals contributed to Madrid’s staggering 118 total Liga goals, eight more than Barcelona), while Gareth Bale should better his most recent output with another year of Liga experience. A healthy year for Luka Modric will also be key, as the Croatian midfielder missed large chunks of last season due to injury.
Isco, Toni Kroos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez — anyway you cut it, this Merengues team has the makings of a title-winning side. Putting it together amidst the hectic environment fostered at the Bernabeu will, as always, dictate whether or not the Benitez Experiment is a success. One thing’s for sure: Rafa only has one season to make it work. Expectations.
Last Season Finish: 12th
Notable Summer Signings: Jonathas from Elche (€5.4 million), Bruma from Galatasaray (€1.33 million), Diego Reyes from Porto (loan)
Key Player: Carlos Vela
After two seasons of quality top-10 football at the Anoeta, Real Sociedad put up a bit of a stinker in 2014/15. Just three months into the campaign, a string of poor results saw manager Jagoba Arrasate replaced with ex-Manchester United boss David Moyes.
While the Scot improved the overall state of the team, La Real’s erroneous start was simply too much to recover from. They eventually finished in 12th place, a big drop for a side who was playing Champions League football just a year earlier.
With a debut La Liga season under his belt, it stands to reason that Moyes will have his troops better in-line this time around. The only major departure over the summer was Gorka Elustondo leaving for Athletic Bilbao. While Elustondo is a loss, La Real’s midfield is quite deep with players like Xabi Prieto, David Zurutuza, Esteban Granero and Ruben Pardo making up the numbers.
In attack is where Real Sociedad hopes to take a huge step forward this year. The frontline will, as usual, be led by Carlos Vela, who will look to bounce back after a lackluster 14/15 campaign in which he managed just nine goals. It’s the addition of Jonathas, who scored 14 goals for Elche last season, that could turn La Real back into that spirited force that they used to be.
Last Season Finish: 5th
Notable Summer Signings: Ciro Immobile from Borussia Dortmund (loan), Yevhen Konoplyanka from Dnipro (free transfer), Steven N’Zonzi from Stoke City (€9.75 million), Gael Kakuta from Chelsea (€6 million), Adil Rami from Milan (€3.5 million), Mariano from Bordeaux (€3.5 million), Michael Krohn-Dehli from Celta Vigo (free transfer), Sergio Escudero from Getafe (€2.5 million)
Key Player: Vicente Iborra
There were few hotter commodities in world football over the summer than Sevilla boss Unai Emery. Fresh off of back-to-back Europa League titles, in an era when nobody wins anything two years in a row, the boisterous Spaniard justifiably gained a reputation for how to operate a knockout competition.
But with every passing year of continental success comes more pressure on Emery to deliver in La Liga. Two straight fifth place finishes represent Sevilla’s current good-but-not-great domestic standing. Though many believe, along with Emery himself, that brighter Liga days lie ahead for the Rojiblancos.
Over the years, Sevilla have shown a great eye for squad replenishment having had so many of their star players poached by bigger clubs. This summer was no different in that department, as the Andalusians lost the services of leading scorer Carlos Bacca (20 league goals) and breakout wideman Aleix Vidal, to Milan and Barcelona, respectively.
To fill the void left by those departures, Sevilla have nabbed attacking starlets Ciro Immobile from Borussia Dortmund and Yevhen Konoplyanka from Dnipro. These new signings will have a lot to live up to. Last season, Sevilla scored more Liga goals than anyone outside of the top two. It’s time to put up or shut up at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
Last Season Finish: 2nd in Segunda (automatic promotion)
Notable Summer Signings: Tonny Sanabria from Roma (loan), Omar Mascarell from Real Madrid (loan)
Key Player: Luis Hernandez
After a three-year La Liga absence, Sporting Gijon have returned to Spain’s top-flight. Though their journey to promotion wasn’t exactly pretty — they scored fewer goals than any other top-six Segunda team — it was undoubtedly stern and effective. Their 27 goals allowed were far and away the fewest in the Segunda, and they only lost twice all season. This may not be a team that dazzles, but it’s a team that wins.
Under defensive mastermind Abelardo Fernandez, Sporting will be looking to stonewall their way to Primera survival. Although it’s an admirable cause, and one that could pay off in the end, it’s difficult to see any club staying up without a healthy batch of goals in them.
Without doing much of anything in the transfer window, Sporting’s goalscoring load looks to fall on the existing talent. Leading talisman, Miguel Guerrero has only managed 14 goals for the club since his arrival in 2012.
There’ll be a gigantic amount of pressure on youngsters Jony and Carlos Castro to aid in attack, in addition to mainstays Nacho Cases and Alberto Lora to fill-in box-to-box roles. Abelardo and company might be uniquely comfortable on the back foot, but La Liga remains a place where putting the ball in the net reigns supreme.
Last Season Finish: 4th
Notable Summer Signings: Rodrigo from Benfica (€30 million), Alvaro Negredo from Manchester City (€28 million), Santi Mina from Celta Vigo (€10 million), Matthew Ryan from Club Brugge (€7 million), Joao Cancelo and Andre Gomes from Benfica (€15 million each), Yoel Rodriguez from Celta Vigo (€2 million), Zakaria Bakkali from PSV (free transfer)
Key Player: Dani Parejo
Valencia have become something different in the past twelve months. Not better or worse, just different. Although they still managed to outwit opponents on occasion, Los Che transformed into a defensive monster in 2014/15. Gone became the days of Villa, Silva, and Mata, in favor of Otamendi, Mustafi, and Gaya. And it’s all been thanks to manager Nuno Espirito Santo.
In addition to winning three Manager of the Month awards throughout last season, Nuno lead Los Che to a Champions League berth in his first year in charge. Their 32 goals-allowed were third best in the league behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Although the aforementioned Nicolas Otamendi has left the Mestalla for Manchester, both Shkodran Mustafi and Jose Luis Gaya have developed into two of the best defenders La Liga currently has to offer, while captain Dani Parejo and Javi Fuego pitch in on both ends of the pitch.
This isn’t to say that Valencia are deficient in front of goal, either. They were the fourth-best scoring side in the league last season, and haven’t lost any firepower over the summer. In fact, they’ve only added goals.
Promising young forward Santi Mina was bought from Celta Vigo, while loans for Alvaro Negredo and Rodrigo were made permanent. At every end of the pitch, Valencia have improved. Be afraid, La Liga. Be very afraid.
Last Season Finish: 6th
Notable Summer Signings: Roberto Soldado from Tottenham (€16 million), Samu Castillejo and Samuel from Villarreal (€16 million for both), Cedric Bakambu from Bursaspor (€7.5 million), Alphonse Areola from PSG (loan), Victor Ruiz from Valencia (€2.7 million), Leo Baptistao from Atletico Madrid (loan)
Key Player: Bruno Soriano
For a side that won promotion to La Liga just two seasons ago, sixth place doesn’t sound so bad. But for Villarreal, a team that doesn’t believe it should be anything but a club fighting for the top-four every year, sixth place is a disappointment. This process of thinking might blatantly ignore the 50-plus years in which they were shoveling dirt in the lower leagues of Spanish football, but it’s not entirely untrue. With an excellent boss like Marcelino and a booming squad of good, young talent, maybe Villarreal should be aiming higher.
You can always count on the Madrigal to be a haven for beautiful football, and that much hasn’t changed. It’s true, the squad has been virtually gutted, with Luciano Vietto, Giovani dos Santos, Ikechukwu Uche, Moi Gomez, Cani, Gerard Moreno, Hernan Perez and Denis Cheryshev all departing the club. But Villarreal have learned to deal with these harsh realities of modern soccer.
With the acquired funds, they’ve added the burgeoning talents of widemen Samu Castillejo and Samuel from Malaga, as well as winger Cedric Bakambu from Bursaspor. Victor Ruiz has also been purchased from Valencia to add some much-needed defensive depth.
But it’s Villarreal’s purchase of Roberto Soldado from Tottenham that remains the hinge on which their 15/16 campaign lives or dies. Losing leading goalscorer Luciano Vietto to Atletico Madrid was obviously a near deathblow for the Yellow Submarine. But if Soldado, who had a disastrous two-season spell in London, can rediscover his Valencia-era form, then Villarreal will have pulled of the move of the summer.
There are no specific signs that points toward that actually happening, but that’s what hope is for. And there’s a lot of hope floating around the Madrigal right now.