x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Big Two in Spain's Primera Liga and a big division

Pep Guardiola's men from Camp Nou are ruling the roost and, on past record, only Madrid can challenge the might of Barcelona for title.

Barcelona’s Chiliean forward Alexis Sanchez skirts the challenge of Real Madrid’s midfielder Xabi Alonso just like the Catalans have managed to get the better of their rivals in what is a league within the Spanish league.
Barcelona’s Chiliean forward Alexis Sanchez skirts the challenge of Real Madrid’s midfielder Xabi Alonso just like the Catalans have managed to get the better of their rivals in what is a league within the Spanish league.

The focus in Spain will again be on Barcelona and Real Madrid. Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna have both lifted the title in the past 15 years, but the chance of another team finishing ahead of the Spanish giants this season is remote.

The gap between second placed Madrid and third place Valencia was 25 points in 2010, 21 points last season.

The gulf damages the credibility of the Primera Liga and with an imbalance in the way television revenues are distributed, it is unlikely to change.

Past challengers are considerably weaker. Valencia, the champions in 2002 and 2004, are still beset by financial problems and a half built new stadium which has stood empty for two years, while Deportivo La Coruna, the 2000 winners, were relegated last season.

The Primera Liga is three leagues in one. There is the battle between the big two, another for the two Champions League/Europa League places and a third where teams hope to avoid relegation.

You can guess where the attention will be focused. Barca are the best team in the world with the trophies to prove it, while Real have an outstanding squad and coach.

Jose Mourinho pushed Pep Guardiola's charges last season, and his side even won the Spanish Cup final against Barca to register Real's first trophy in three years.

It was a rare glitch in Barca's peerless dominance but when the sides met in a much-hyped clasico last November, Barca annihilated Real 5-0. They drew 1-1 in the return league fixture.

Real's failure to beat their arch rivals keeps costing them the title, but the Catalans' dominance is no fluke - they won home and away when the sides met in the Champions League semi-finals.

Guardiola has lifted the league every season since his appointment in 2008 and he has bolstered his squad with Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

Mourinho, meanwhile, seems to have settled on a first XI - the same one which lost 5-0 at Camp Nou - but hopes that they will continue to improve as they spend more time gelling.

Thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo, they have been the league's top scorers in the past two seasons, yet that counts for little when your main objective is finishing ahead of Barca.

Big spending Malaga could offer the strongest challenge, while Unai Emery continues to coach Valencia shrewdly in trying circumstances. Emery is now in his fourth season as coach and his presence provides stability at a club which had little beforehand.

David Albelda, the captain, the wingers Pablo Hernandez and Juan Mata, plus Sergio Canales, the new signing from Real, and the increasingly prolific forward Roberto Soldado will ensure another solid season, one in which they could also be difficult to overcome in the Champions League.

Villarreal finished fourth last season, although they did not have to contend with the pleasing distraction of Champions League football as they will this term. Such demands have hindered their domestic progress in the past.

Juan Carlos Garrido's side play great attacking football and while they have lost Santi Cazorla to Malaga, any team with Giuseppe Rossi and the Brazilian Nilmar up front will be dangerous.

Sevilla, Malaga, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will be disappointed if they do not qualify for European competition with a top six finish.

Sevilla still boast Jesus Navas and Freddie Kanoute, stars who were part of their most successful ever team between 2006 and 2009, but they will need to avoid a repeat of last winter when they lost five successive league matches. The goals of Alvaro Negredo should help.

Atletico Madrid have sold David de Gea and Sergio Aguero.

Jose Antonio Reyes needs to continue his impressive form and step up to help fill the gap for Gregorio Manzano's team. Diego Forlan, 32, will hope that his goal slump last season (eight from 32 against 18 the previous season) is not permanent.

Athletic have enjoyed their recent ascendancy which has seen the Basques finish higher in each of the past three seasons.

Fans are delighted that they are back in Europe and equally enthused by the appointment of the madcap Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa, as coach.

Osasuna, Sporting, Espanyol, Racing Santander, Getafe, Zaragoza, Levante, Real Sociedad and Mallorca will all start the season with relegation avoidance as their priority.

Real Betis won the Segunda A and, such is the optimism in the green and white half of Sevilla, they have sold 45,000 season tickets.

Granada are playing in the top-flight for the first time since 1976. The third promoted side will simply be hoping to stay up, as they lost over half their side in the close season, as will the other promoted side Rayo Vallecano.

The league starts this weekend - if a threatened strike by the players over unpaid wages is not resolved.

Five players to look out for

Pablo Osvaldo (Espanyol)

Espanyol’s youthful home grown players such as Javi Marquez and Jordi Amat have given the Catalans an agreeable new dynamic, but their star is Osvaldo, above, the bearded Argentine striker. He scored 13 goals last season and continues to attract the attention of bigger clubs.

Pablo Patti (Valencia)

The Argentine winger, 22, who was one of the few bright lights for relegated Almeria last season with eight goals. Has a chance to shine surrounded by better players on Mestalla’s bigger stage.

Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid)

A close season signing from Benfica, Coentrao, 22, is hugely versatile. The industrious Portugal international can play anywhere on the left and in central midfield if needed.

Diego Castro (Getafe)

A prolific winger with Sporting Gijon, Castro, 29, is an intelligent signing for the league’s worst supported club who hope he will replace Seville-bound Manu del Moral.

Ander Herrera (Athletic Bilbao)

Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez may be Athletic’s big guns, but Herrera, 22, could be a key signing from Zaragoza. The Bilbao-born playmaker was an under 21 championship winner with Spain in the summer.

Emilio Nsue (Mallorca)

The Spanish U21 international winger broke into Mallorca’s first team last season and did not disappoint. Key to the Islanders’ hopes.

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