, June 13, 2021

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Barcelona and Real Madrid prepare to duel again in similar state of flux, opening the door for a third title challenger

  •   3 min reads
La Liga season preview title favorite
Real Madrid and Barcelona are confronted with aging squads, most notably their captains. Alberto Estevez/EPA.

It was over a four-game stretch in June that the 2019/20 La Liga title was effectively placed in Real Madrid’s hands. First, Barcelona dropped points away to Sevilla. This was followed by draws against Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid. By the time the full time whistle blew on the latter, Real Madrid had a clear run to the finish line.

Despite stringing together a 10-game winning streak after lockdown, the prevailing sense at the conclusion of the 2019/20 La Liga season was that Zinedine Zidane’s side had been handed the title. They were the best of a bad bunch, underlined by the nature of their feeble Champions League exit to Manchester City just two weeks after they had celebrated their Spanish title triumph.

Barcelona spiraled after lockdown, both on and off the pitch. Poor results on the pitch, which ultimately led to an historic 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in Lisbon, preceded a full-blown political implosion off it over the summer. The purest manifestation of this came in the saga over Lionel Messi’s future at the club which still hasn’t reached a full conclusion.

As both Barcelona and Real Madrid embark on a new campaign, nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. These are two teams going through a generational transition, one slightly more extreme than the other. That makes it difficult to judge what this season will bring at the top of the Spanish game.

Ronald Koeman is now in charge at the Camp Nou and the Dutchman has been handed significant freedom to change Barcelona’s squad. Memphis Depay is expected to sign for the Catalans having worked with Koeman as Netherlands national team manager. Georginio Wijnaldum is another Dutchman who could be on his way to Barcelona having been requested by the new boss.

Whether the changes Koeman implements will be meaningful or not will be determined over the coming weeks and months. If Koeman isn’t the man to spark a revolution at the Camp Nou, Barcelona will have to wait for next year’s presidential election for a regime change. There’s a chance the Catalans will be left treading water until then.

Just because Real Madrid finished last season with a trophy in hand doesn’t mean they are without their own problems too. Zidane has managed to squeeze more out of an ageing group of players, but the likes of Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos will have to be phased out of the first team over the coming years. That could be an arduous, and potentially painful, process.

That process started with the signing of Ferland Mendy to replace Marcelo at left back last summer and the emergence of Fede Valverde in midfield. The return of Martin Odegaard after a sparking season on loan at Real Sociedad will also help this transition, but there is an element of the unknown over how Zidane will handle the demise of his most trusted figures.

The door is open for an outsider to crash through. Atletico Madrid were that outsider a number of years ago, but as an established member of the Spanish soccer elite Diego Simeone’s side have suffered their own drop-off of late. Atleti are in the midst of their own transition, both generational and philosophical.

There has been talk of a Sevilla title challenge. Julen Lopetegui has made a profound impact at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, as has the return of Monchi as the Andalusian club’s master architect. Last season saw Sevilla make real progress, capping their campaign with a Europa League final win over Inter. To truly challenge at the top of La Liga, Lopetegui will likely need to find a true goalscorer, but the structure of a successful team is in place.

Villarreal are building something noteworthy under new manager Unai Emery, with Francis Coquelin and Dani Parejo arriving from Valencia and Takefusa Kubo signing on loan for the 2020/21 campaign from Real Madrid. Then there’s Real Sociedad, who looked a good bet for a top four finish before lockdown, but faded towards the end of the season. Now, they have David Silva to take them that much closer this season. Their 0-0 draw with Real Madrid on Sunday suggested they will be competitive.

This season’s title race could be among the most intriguing ever witnessed, but that intrigue will likely come from the weaknesses of the teams involved rather than the strengths, just as it did last season. Barcelona and Real Madrid are set for another duel, but with both teams fighting with one arm behind their back there is scope for another challenger.

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