There are less than three weeks left until the start of the 2011/2012 La Liga season, with defending champions FC Barcelona travelling to the home of the much-improved Malaga CF on the Opening Day. The Catalans have won the past three leagues in somewhat comfortable fashion and they'll be looking to equal the club record (set by Johan Cruyff's Dream Team) of four consecutive league titles. But if winning three in a row is fantastic, winning four is a monumental task.
Under the tutelage of José Mourinho and with the most expensively assembled squad in football history, Real Madrid will do everything in their power to put an end to the Catalan dominance.
But the title race isn't the only interesting thing happening in La Liga: The race for Champions League and Europa League spots, as well as the battle to avoid relegation, promise to be exciting as well. Besides, even those who don't follow La Liga will be curious to know just how far Malaga can go this season, after their mega investment during the summer.
Here are 13 predictions for the coming season in Spanish football:
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It's no secret that right now there are two teams who are way ahead of everyone else (not only in Spain, but also in Europe): FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF.
There are several good teams in the league, but Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two best teams in the world and have incredible depth, with even some of the bench players of world-class caliber. They'll once again dominate the league and leave the third-place team at least 20 points behind them (last season, Valencia finished 21 points behind Real Madrid).
While the emergence of these two super teams might make the league a bit uncompetitive at the very top, few would doubt that the two Spanish giants possess the two strongest squads in the world at the moment and would probably turn any league into a two-horse race.
Just a few years ago, Barcelona and Real Madrid didn't take the Cup seriously, fielding very weakened squads and being on the end of embarrassing defeats against lowly sides year after year. The Cup used to be the competition where the other teams could compete for some silverware.
But that's no longer the case with Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho in charge. Both managers are obsessed with winning every competition they're in and it was no surprise when the two sides reached the Copa final last season. This season, a similar scenario seems likely.
The unpredictable nature of Cup football means that maybe one of the giants might be upset, but it's unlikely that both will be upset. Of the two, Barcelona seem more prone to an upset, since, unlike Mourinho, Guardiola tends to rest some players in Cup fixtures.
That said, it would be a surprise if one of Spain's big two didn't win the Copa.
In the past few seasons, Atlético Madrid have always managed to at least qualify for Europe, even to the Champions League on some occasions. But with their talisman and best player Kun Aguero gone, that won't be the case any longer.
Aguero's importance to Atlético Madrid can't be stressed enough. He was one of the world's best players in an overall average side. His dribbling, creativity and guaranteed 20 goals a season made Atlético a team to be reckoned with. There's no way Atlético can replace him, they will most certainly suffer this season, especially with Diego Forlán well past his prime years.
They won't even come close to relegation, but won't qualify to Europe either; they'll be a mid-table team.
Malaga's manager Manuel Pellegrini was unceremoniously sacked from Real Madrid at the end of 2009/2010 season, despite leading to the club to their best-ever league season in terms of points. This season, with a pretty good squad at his disposal, he has a chance to get his "revenge." Malaga won't finish the league ahead of Real Madrid—not even close—but they'll manage to beat José Mourinho's team in at least one of the fixtures between them.
Pellegrini will be extra motivated to prove his former employers wrong and he'll inspire Malaga to a win over the Bernabeu giants.
So far this summer, Malaga have signed Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jeremy Toulalan, Joaquin, Joris Mathijsen, Nacho Monreal, Isco, Sergio Sanchez and Santi Cazorla. If we add some of the quality players that were already in the club's ranks and a top-quality manager in Manuel Pellegrini, Malaga should be a whole lot stronger than last season. Their spending spree might not even be over yet.
While this is very far from being a team who can give Barcelona and Real Madrid a run for their money, this is only the first year of the Malaga project and they already have a team capable of at least competing for a top-four finish. While they won't get it this season, they might certainly come very close. A Europa League spot should be considered a good season for Malaga CF.
Valencia were third in the past two seasons and with the excellent signings they've been adding, they should be hot favorites to retain that position. The likes of Diego Alves and Pablo Piatti (both from Almeria) will certainly add a lot of quality to the side; young Piatti might very well be one of the best players in the league in the coming season.
The same can be said about Dani Parejo and the loan deal for Sergio Canales, who will also greatly improve the squad. Valencia will again be the closest team to Barcelona and Real Madrid. If they manage to retain Juan Mata, there's every reason to believe they can go far in the Champions League as well. In Unay Emery they have one of the best managers in the league.
Despite the loss of Santi Cazorla to Malaga and their inactivity in the transfer market, the quality of Villareal's star players (Nilmar, Rossi, Senna...) and their fabulous youth system should be enough for them to go back to the Champions League in 2012/2013. If they want to be third in the league and maybe repeat their 2005/2006 Champions League odyssey, they'll need to add some reinforcements to the existing squad.
Valencia and Villareal will once again complete the top four.
The fight for relegation has always been very fierce in Spain's top flight. Last season, 12 teams were either relegated or facing relegation before the last day of the season. Osasuna only escaped relegation in the final day and ended ninth in the league.
There were really no mid-table teams in Spain last year. Such an extreme scenario is highly unlikely to be repeated, but you can surely expect a very fierce battle to avoid relegation, with at least six-to-seven teams fighting for survival until the very last day.
There's not much to be said here. Thiago Alcantara is arguably the best young talent in the world at the moment and this should be his breakthrough season, making the most of his opportunities. He might be behind Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta in the pecking order, but not even that should stop the prodigious 20-year-old from displaying all his talent in the fields of La Liga.
He seems poised to follow in the footsteps of the two aforementioned Barcelona legends.
Cristiano Ronaldo might not be the most technical player around, but he certainly knows where the goal net is. Last season, he scored a record-breaking 40 league goals and he should be the league's top scorer once again this season and maybe even break his own record.
With FC Barcelona sharing the goals among their forwards, it seems pretty likely that Cristiano Ronaldo will retain his Pichichi award.
In each of the past three seasons, the same man won the Di Stefano award for La Liga Player of the Year: Lionel Messi. There's no doubt that the Argentine is the best player in the world, and obviously the best in La Liga. It'd hardly be a surprise if he were La Liga's Player of the Year for a fourth consecutive season.
If Messi keeps this up, soon the award will have to be renamed as "The Lionel Messi Award."
Victor Valdés won the Zamora Trophy for least-beaten goalkeeper in the league in each of the past three seasons and he should win it again. His brilliance coupled with Barcelona's suffocating style should make sure that he won't conceed more than 20-25 goals over the course of the season.
Victor Valdés will once again be the best goalkeeper in La Liga.
The winner of the 2011/2012 La Liga will be the same as in the past three editions: FC Barcelona of Pep Guardiola. Ever since Pep took over, Barcelona have been collecting trophies at a relentless pace and they don't look like slowing down.
Real Madrid had the two best seasons in their history as far as league points are concerned and they still couldn't pipe Barcelona to the title. Los Blancos have certainly been great, but Barcelona have been just unstoppable.
FC Barcelona have set a benchmark of consistency that not even José Mourinho's All-Stars can keep up with. Real Madrid would need Barcelona to falter in order to win the league, which doesn't seem very likely. If Barcelona maintain their level, La Liga is theirs. Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta and Co. look ready to set La Liga alight once again and capture yet another league title.
Barcelona are the best team in the world at the moment. Real Madrid are the second-best. No other team in the continent comes close. The four best players in the world all play for the Spanish giants (Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta for Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid).
The possibility of an all-Spanish final is definitely in the cards, unless the two teams face each other before. It's just very hard to see anyone beating the Spanish giants over two legs; last season, both teams easily defeated their opponents until they faced each other in the semifinals.
Barcelona becoming the first team to successfully defend their title and Real Madrid winning La Decima are the two likeliest outcomes for next season's Champions League. It'd be a surprise if the trophy didn't go to Spain. Then again, cup competitions are known for being prone to upsets. But Barcelona and Real Madrid are undoubtedly the two main favorites to win the coveted Champions League trophy.
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