It is still three weeks until La Liga kicks off for the 2016-17 season but what happens in them could go a long way to determining the ultimate destiny of the Primera Division title.
Just 3 points separated the top three last season but few could argue that the best team were crowned champions. Even Zinedine Zidane conceded Barcelona deserved their crown and they certainly come into the new campaign as the team to beat.
While the Catalans have beefed up their squad a bit with a few new additions, their first-choice eleven will almost certainly be the same again with the exception of the right-back berth which has been vacated by the departing Dani Alves. He has yet to be replaced but surely will be with Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, one man on the Barca radar.
However the overwhelming theme for Luis Enrique’s side is one of continuity. Despite their late season wobble, Barca are set to head into the new season with effectively the same team, same coach and same style of play and unless anything very odd happens they will be extremely strong again.
That is not to say a 25th league title is a sure thing. Both Madrid clubs will feel that with the right signings or perhaps more pertinently the right signing over the next few weeks they are capable of bridging the gap and knocking Barcelona, who have won the title in 6 of the last 8 seasons, off their perch.
Like the Catalans, the Spanish capital’s ‘big two’ are already outstanding teams as a second Madrid derby Champions League final in the space of three years would testify. They aren’t teams in need of knocking down and starting from scratch, they just need a slight tinker and perhaps that one key new addition who can come in and give them something they don’t currently possess.
For Atleti the missing piece in the jigsaw is glaringly obvious. Last season they were a world class striker away from perhaps landing a historic league and Champions League double. While world class strikers may not grow on trees they have tended to pass through the doors of the Vicente Calderon with surprising regularity in recent years. How they could have used a Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero or 2011-13 Radamel Falcao leading their line as opposed to Fernando Torres, who remains a shadow of his former self but was still the most prolific of Atleti’s forwards with 12 goals in all competitions.
Efforts to land the striker who could take Atleti to the next level this summer have so far proved fruitless. Diego Simeone may only have a couple of seasons left with the defence that his side’s success has largely been built on, at the peak of their powers but while they are this Atleti side certainly still has a window of opportunity to win more major trophies. That makes it even more crucial they get the right man to lead their attack this season and relieve some of the burden that is on the shoulders of the exceptional Antoine Griezmann.
The re-signing of Diego Costa would have been the ideal solution but for now at least he looks to be staying put at Chelsea. If Atleti are to miss out on the Spanish international, they look set to turn their attention to Sevilla’s Kévin Gameiro, who bagged 29 goals for the Andalusians in all competitions last season. The Frenchman would certainly be an upgrade on Jackson Martinez, who Atleti signed 12 months ago supposedly as the solution to their goalscoring problems.
It was a rare mistake from the Madrid club as Martinez was quickly shipped off to China having netted just 3 goals for Atleti and it was an error that perhaps cost them silverware last term. Diego Simeone will know as well as anyone they can’t afford to make the same mistake again and if they are to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid for the league this season, they have to land a reliable goalscorer between now and the start of September.
As for Los Blancos, their outlook is a bit more muddled predominantly because it is still proving difficult to quantify the season just gone. There were plenty of bad days, a clasico humiliation and numerous off-field errors yet they still ended the campaign as European champions.
A much-muted summer squad revamp seems to have been put on hold as a result. There have been no high profile departures and the only major addition has been Alvaro Morata who returns to the club from Juventus for €30million and even he may yet be moved on.
However it would be most unlike Real Madrid to fail to make a major addition for the second summer in succession and behind the scenes work is being done to land at least one big signing who could come in and help the club end their domestic title drought.
The name on everyone’s lips this summer is Paul Pogba. He seemed almost certain to be leaving Juventus even before they splashed a cool €90million on Gonzalo Higuain earlier this week. It was the sort of inflated fee that only a club set to come into serious money would be inclined to pay and the question isn’t whether or not Pogba will leave Turin this summer but where he is heading for.
For a long while the destination was assumed to be Manchester United but Real Madrid have always been lurking in the background and he is the one player on the market that could almost unquestionably come into this Real side and improve it.
Pogba to Madrid makes more sense than Pogba to Manchester for many reasons. The Frenchman is one of only a handful of players under 25 who can genuinely lay claim to being world class and at the very least he deserves Champions League football. Jose Mourinho may improve the Red Devils but it may take years before they are seriously competing with the elite European teams again and Pogba is already comfortably at a level where he should be playing for one.
The opportunity to not only join up with his compatriot Zidane but follow in his footsteps by switching Juventus for the Santiago Bernabeu may ultimately prove too tough to resist should Los Blancos make their move especially when the alternative is Europa League football at a club that could barely make room for him on their subs bench four years ago.
Much like a Diego Costa or even Kevin Gameiro would give Atleti something they don’t currently have, Pogba would add a touch of dynamism to the Real Madrid midfield that is often lacking and isn’t provided by more methodical ball-players like Luca Modric or Toni Kroos.
If both clubs can land their principal targets then we’d have genuine reason to believe that at least one of the pair are capable of knocking Barcelona off their perch in La Liga. One player never makes a team but when the margins between the top three in Spain are as fine as they are, it could be that landing that one key player over the next few weeks will ultimately be the difference between the Madrid clubs again chasing Barca’s shadow and fighting toe-to-toe with them in the 2016-17 Primera Division campaign.