For some, La Liga is expected to once again be a two-horse race—as is often the case. Last year, however, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side proved that they could challenge the big spenders, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and this year they can do it again.
As it seems difficult for Simone’s side to replicate last season’s achievements—topping the La Liga table and a Champions League final loss to Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid—it becomes easy to dismiss them as merely a one-off occurrence.
To Balague’s credit, he does at least say Atletico are in with a shot—part of a "three-horse race"—before he eventually decides on Real for the title. But he is wrong: Atletico Madrid can and will retain La Liga this season.
How can you argue against a Real Madrid side bristling with talent such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema—not to mention new signings James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos? Indeed, when Ancelotti’s side lined up against Sevilla in the European Super Cup, the overall value of the squad was staggering:
Easy: La Liga's "big two" may have the individual stars, but Atletico have a squad spirit that will prove itself worthy of a league title for a second successive campaign.
Overall, despite the loss of Diego Costa, David Villa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois, Atletico’s squad has hardly weakened. If anything, like Lee Roden argues for talkSPORT, it is stronger. The capture of Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic—who scored 18 goals in 30 Bundesliga appearances last season—offers them the firepower they lost through the departure of Costa.
In addition, Atletico gained the services of Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann, who joins the club off the back of 16 La Liga goals in the 2013/14 campaign. As The Guardian’s Sid Lowe wrote: "Griezmann’s signing was a golpe de efecto: a statement of intent that changed the mood." Atletico’s forward line will be significantly improved by the Frenchman this season.
Bringing in the unspectacular—but experienced—Miguel Moya for Courtois means goalkeeper is the only position that you could argue Atletico have weakened. Yet, with a solid defensive backbone of Miranda, Juanfran and Diego Godin—the key components in Atletico’s title achievement last season—once again the Rojiblancos will be a difficult side to break down.
Diego Simeone has played down the idea of Atletico challenging for La Liga once again: "I don't like lying to people, and one thing is clear: we cannot compete with Real and Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, and the target is third place," he said, per Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t the Daily Mail).
Yet, for many, his words ring a little hollow this time around. The idea that Atletico Madrid can challenge the big guns for La Liga may seem unlikely, but it seemed impossible last year. Can they upset the established order of things once more?
Rest assured—they will give it one hell of a go.