10 Players to Watch in Spain's La Liga Next Season
Although La Liga is often criticized for being Real Madrid, Barcelona and 18 other teams, the reality is that it is a league packed with talent.
This doesn't always work in favor of La Liga's smaller clubs, as the league's excellent youth systems and solid performances in Europe prevent the current disparity in TV rights money from changing.
Nevertheless, La Liga's talent ensures that the league's rank remains high, and that games between smaller clubs are still exciting.
In the following slides, we'll highlight 10 talented players you need to watch out for next season. To emphasize the quality of the league as a whole, none of these players will be selected from FC Barcelona or Real Madrid.
1. Sergio Canales (Valencia)
Since leaving Racing Santander, Sergio Canales has gone through a rough couple of years in his career. First, at Real Madrid, he was used as a substitute in all but six matches, and started only three La Liga matches in his only season at the club.
The following season, he was loaned to Valencia, but a promising start to the season was brought to an abrupt end when he tore ligaments in his knee in the ninth round of La Liga fixtures.
Nevertheless, his performances to that point, and in three games at the end of the season, convinced Valencia to sign him permanently, and he is expected to start as Los Che's attacking midfielder next season.
It's been a while since we've seen the magic that convinced Real Madrid to sign Canales in the first place, but, with his future secure at Valencia, I expect Canales to regain his Racing Santander form and fulfill more of the massive potential he showed as a teenager.
2. Andres Guardado (Valencia)
After years of having his talent hidden at struggling Deportivo De La Coruna, Guardado was finally picked up by Valencia on a free transfer this summer.
That move could be the best La Liga transfer of the summer.
Guardado had a magnificient season last year, even if it took place in the second division of Spanish football. His 11 goals and 12 assists, both career highs, helped Deportivo De La Coruna charge to the Segunda Division title and get back to the Premeira Division.
Now playing for Valencia, Guardado will be given the opportunity to showcase his talents in the Champions League, an opportunity that has been long overdue for the still-young Mexican international.
Valencia will also benefit tremendously from this move, as they've been far less dangerous on the wings since the exit of Juan Mata last summer. Pablo Hernandez and Pablo Piatti have blown hot and cold, and behind them Valencia have had almost no alternatives.
With Guardado, that changes. Valencia still aren't good enough to challenge Barcelona or Real Madrid, but this move equips them well to defend their third place position in La Liga.
3. Salomon Rondon (Malaga)
After recording 14 goals in 30 games for Malaga at the age of 21, many envisioned that Rondon would break out for Malaga this season with a more impressive total of 15-20 goals.
Instead, Rondon rather struggled, finding himself on the bench for seven of Malaga's first eight matches due to the arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
When Van Nistelrooy was unable to provide Malaga with goals though, Rondon was reinstated, and he finished the season with a healthy goal tally of 11, despite a major dry spell from late March to the final game of the season.
2012-13 will be the season which will decide if Rondon has a future with a club as ambitious as Malaga. At the age of 23, Rondon is at a crossroads; he can break the 15-goal barrier and become an elite, even world-class striker, or he can remain a decent option with 10-15 goals per season.
Alternatively, he could become worse than he currently is, dipping below 10 goals a season. This would likely force Malaga to look elsewhere for a striker, and make Rondon second choice at the club.
It's all in Rondon's hands, and I have a feeling he won't disappoint. We'll see how far he can carry La Liga's Qatar-funded club in all competitions.
4. Isco (Malaga)
2011-12 was Isco's breakthrough season for Malaga, as he recorded five goals and five assists in his first season with the club since transferring from Valencia.
Now, as one of Spanish football's hottest prospects, everyone in the world is waiting to see how good Isco can become.
There are only a handful of players in the world in a better position than Isco right now. He's playing for a Champions League club that will give him time to grow and the freedom to explore the depths of his talent.
If him and Rondon can strike up a productive partnership, Malaga could be a dangerous club to face in 2012-13.
5. Emre Belozoglu (Atletico Madrid)
Atletico Madrid unfortunately failed in their quest to sign Diego on a permanent basis from Wolfsburg. With Emre Belozoglu though, they may have secured the signature of the next best thing.
Emre is on the wrong side of 30, but he arrives at the club for free and with a wealth of experience. The former Internazionale and Newcastle United midfielder has expressed a great deal of excitement (via Goal.com) about his move to Atletico, and should help increase Atletico's quality in the middle of the pitch.
He's not a playmaker in the same mold a Diego, nor is he a primarily attacking midfielder, but if he gets in a groove he's good for a few goals and assists per season. He's also a good controller of the tempo of the game. Maybe a lesser Modric, if you will.
Emre had his best season in 10 years last year with Fenerbahce. Atletico were wise to swoop for his signature now, and I expect that he'll pay them back well if given regular playing time.
6. Jorge Koke (Atletico Madrid)
Atletico Madrid's midfield should get another big boost from Jorge Koke. At just 20 years old, Koke is only starting to make a name for himself, but after two seasons of slowly getting more playing time, I expect that 2012-13 will be the season Koke breaks out for Atletico.
Koke's biggest obstacle will be getting playing time ahead of the plethora of midfielders at Atletico. Koke's versatility as a left and central midfielder should help this, but the acquisition of Cristian Rodriguez from Porto means that the competition on the flanks is even more intense than before.
Centrally, things don't get any easier as Diego Simeone will likely pick one central midfielder from Mario Suarez, Emre, Tiago, Ruben Micael, Raul Garcia and Koke to partner Gabi.
With such intense competition, Koke's chances of playing centrally don't look too favorable.
Nevertheless, a few good performance is it all it takes to change a manager's opinion. Koke has the advantages of age and potential on his side, and if he can convince Simeone that he's worth investing in, it won't matter how many competitors he has for his place in the team.
7. Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad)
At last, Carlos Vela can say goodbye to his miserable days on the Arsenal bench.
At Real Sociedad, Vela rediscovered his love for the game, and played well enough to earn himself a new contract.
Now we wait to see what else he can do. Of course his 12 goals and seven assists are already remarkable numbers for the Mexican, but if made a regular starter from the start of the season, I wouldn't be surprised to see those numbers pushed up to 15 goals and 10 assists.
8. Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)
Clearly Inigo Martinez has a thing for remarkable goals.
Martinez is famous for the goals shown above, but he's actually not a half-bad defender.
Real Sociedad recorded seven clean sheets with him in 26 games, and as he matures, that number will surely increase.
And who knows, we might even see a few more 50-yard goals from the skilled centre-back.
9. Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao)
Can you believe Iker Muniain is still only 19?
It feels like the Bilbao winger has been around for years, yet he remains a teenager with so much of his career ahead of him.
Despite the hype, don't be fooled into thinking that Muniain is close to being a finished product.
With his massive talent and attacking flair, two goals in 33 league games is borderline unacceptable, and I expect him to improve on that total significantly next season.
Bilbao are far too good to finish 10th in La Liga, and if Muniain can add more goals and assists to his game, Bilbao should have a good chance of finishing in the top six of the league.
Pablo Sarabia (Getafe)
Pablo Sarabia was a disappointment in 2012-13.
Produced by Real Madrid's surprisingly-productive academy, Sarabia was cast off to Getafe as he was deemed not good enough for Madrid's first team.
He certainly did not prove his former owners wrong, recording a single assist in 19 matches, though that assist came in a 1-0 win over Barcelona.
Nevertheless, Sarabia will probably be given a second chance to prove his worth this coming season, and if he wants to avoid slipping in obscurity, he'll have to grasp his chances with both hands.
He's got the talent, but he needs to overcome his injuries and increase his confidence to show it. We'll confident he'll do just that though, and help Getafe to its usual mid-table finish in La Liga.
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