It's. About. To. Go. Down.
With less than a week to go until La Liga kicks off, it's time I got the my preview of the upcoming season. Before we get down to it, a quick round up of FCB news. The first leg of the SuperCopa was played at Espanyol's new stadium on Thursday. Barcelona won 0-1 thanks to Ludovic Giuly's 44th minute gol. The second leg is tonight in the Camp Nou at 9pm on Sky Sports 1 (though I'll probably be watching the last round of the US PGA instead). On the transfer front, Barcelona B captain, Arnau Riera has joined Niall Quinn's Sunderland. Riera made his first appearence yesterday in the Black Cats 3-1 away defeat at Southend, their fourth loss in a row. Arnau must be wondering what on earth he's gotten himself into.
Forward Mother Russia!
Rather than break this down team-by-team, I've divided it into four sections; title contenders, UEFA Cup pretenders, those stuck firmly in midtable and the likely relegation candidates. So without further ado...
There are really only three teams that are vying for La Liga this season and predictably enough it's the same three as last time, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia. While things have been fairly quiet at the Camp Nou over the summer (until a few weeks ago Eidur Gudjohnsen was the only signing, though Gianluca Zambrotta and Lillian Thuram have since joined from Juve), it's all being going off at the Bernabeu and the Mestalla. Real have a new president in Calderon, a new coach, Fabio Capello, and a raft of new players, World Cup winning Italia captain, Fabio Cannavaro and ex-Juve pensioner Emerson, Ruud Van Nistlerooij from Manchester United and as of yesterday, Mahamadou Diarra from Lyon. In the out tray, Zizou has retired and a few of the Real Madrid Castilla players have been farmed out.
The Che on the other hand have been shoving players out the door; Di Vaio, Aimar, Mista, Rufete, Kluivert, Aurelio, Corradi, Caneira have all left, with Stefano Fiore and perhaps Roberto Ayala shaping up to join them. Though no one will miss the forever injured Kluivert or the unsettled Di Vaio, I'm quite surprised at the departures of Aimar and Aurelio. Aimar is absolutely fantastic, one of the finest players I have ever seen and much better than Saragossa (which is where he's ended up). He didn't play a great deal last season (down both to injury and being out of favour) but ala Riquelme at Villarreal, there are few players who can control the game the way Aimar can and I think that should new Valencia's new signings, the untested Tavano from Empoli and the aging El Moro fail to gel with David Villa, come October or November, Aimar will be sorely missed. The other main addition to the Mestalla is Basque defender Asier Del Horno, who's been given the short shift at Stamford Bridge after only one season. Del Horno was a super player at Bilbao yet at Chelsea all I can recall him doing is getting substituted lots and launching himself at Leo Messi. Jamie Gavilan has also joined from the racist hole in the suburbs of Madrid that is Getafe.
So how is all of this going to play out? Looking at the Barcelona squad, the loss of Henrik Larsson aside, they're even better than last year. The arrivals of both Thuram and Zambrotta are huge. I've waxed lyrical about Zambrotta before so I shant labour the point again. He's brilliant and let's just leave it at that. Over at Real, despite all the new faces it's the old ones that are still hanging around like a bad smell that will likely be their undoing. Roberto Carlos, who is the only left back at the club, is still there, as is fatty Ronaldo. Antonio Cassano, who was stellar under Capello at Roma and then fell to pieces when his mentor left for Juventus, is the size of a house and it remains to be seen whether or not Capello can whip him back into shape. Useless hacks like Gravesen, Diogo and Garcia are still knocking around too. And they have like seven strikers. Even for someone of Don Fabio's talents, there seem to be a few too many weak links for the title to return to the capital this season. They'll certainly narrow the twelve point gap but I don't think they have enough to stop Rijkaard's team from winning it for the third time in a row. Similarly with Valencia, though they have added to their forward line, too many of their eggs are in the David Villa basket and when he's off, Valencia just can't seem to get it together. I've mentioned that I think letting Aimar go is a mistake and with relations strained between sporting director Carboni and Roberto Ayala, they could lose their best defender too, which would be a disaster as they have no one in the squad capable of replacing him (I remain unconvinced that Raul Albiol is good enough to step up to Ayala's level. We shall see)
So yeah, I'm going for FCB to win it again. Not by the country mile they have these last two seasons, but by maybe five or six points.
I'll post part two tomorrow; the teams chasing fourth place and UEFA Cup spots.