Here we are. The La Liga season has just started up, and now we get to watch the league with the world's three best players, its two best teams, and the saddest hodgepodge of patsies since Enter the Dragon. In spite of these financial realities, Spain managed to produce Europe's wildest title race last season, as well as a handful of second-tier teams playing some of the best soccer you could see outside of the Champions League. Will this year match up?
As André from Outkast once said, "we-we-well, yes and no." As is customary in Spain, the rich stay rich, the pretty good get poached and have to rely on the country's seemingly inexhaustable farm of young talent to step up, and the bad are, frankly, godawful.
The pros: Each of the top three teams spent stupid money—by the end of the transfer window, it's likely that all three will have shelled out over €100 million bringing in new players—trying to strengthen their squads. The world's most electric player of last season, Luis Suárez, now (well, not exactly now) plays in Spain. The most electric player of this summer's World Cup, James Rodríguez, also joins the fun. Oh, and so does maybe the best player on the World Cup's winning team, Toni Kroos. This isn't a shootout. It's a goddamn nuclear war. The battle for the fourth Champions League spot will be similarly tenacious, with maybe five teams thinking they can make the continent's most prestigious competition should they play their cards right.
The cons: Does anyone really believe returning champs Atlético Madrid can challenge for the title again? They have spent oodles of Euros deepening their roster, and seeing how their new star-in-the-making Antoine Griezmann performs in a freer role alongside better teammates has me envisioning a "#TeamGrizi 2014-15 Skills and Goals" video so badass I don't even mute the dubstep in the background, but they are still losing their best player, Diego Costa, as well as a key defensive piece in Filipe Luís. And they did only win the league with the worst Barça in years and a Real Madrid completely focused on La Decima.
A little further down the table, the fourth-place contenders will have to cope with the usual summer-window raid on their talent. Griezmann goes to Atlético from Real Sociedad, Ivan Rakitić moved to Barcelona from Sevilla, Ander Herrera left Athletic Bilbao for Manchester United, and so on. Only Valencia can claim to have gotten stronger, thanks to the (probable?) completion of the long-rumored, still sort of hazy sale of the club to super rich guy Peter Lim. The rest of them will have to plug in some younger guys and count on their development, which, to be fair, is a pretty good bet when you're dealing with Spaniards.
But the very bottom is still fucking terrible. Actually, let's just start there.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
This group of teams suuuuuuuuucks. If ever there was evidence that Spain has no business fielding 20 teams, this season is it. Real Madrid are going to send 5-plus goals past a few very talented teams this season, but running over tiny squads whose entire operating budget is less than Cristiano's weekly hair products expenses will be more slaughter than battle.
Case-in-point: Eibar and Córdoba. These two newly-promoted sides are as close to locks to get shoved right back down to the Segunda as there is in world soccer. There's basically no reason to even talk about their squads, save to mention that Eibar will trot out Derek Boateng, of the Boateng clan of super-athletes, and maybe Fiorentina loanee Ryder Matos can show for Córdoba why the young Brazilian attacker has been so hyped for years now.
Don't feel sorry for Eibar, though, whose run of consecutive promotions to reach the promised land has been nothing short of miraculous. They will undoubtedly enjoy every moment of their top-league experience, ass-whippings and all.
Eibar is a tiny Basque town of less than 30,000 inhabitants with a tiny soccer club that plays in the tiny, 5,250-seat Estadio Municipal Ipurua. The club has spent its entire history puttering around in the lower divisions, recently spending most of its time trying to claw its way out of the 80 team third tier league. After four consecutive years there, the Armeros finally won promotion to the Segunda at the end of the 2012-13 season. With largely the same squad figuring why stop there, Eibar somehow fucked around and won that league as well, guaranteeing themselves their first entry into La Liga.
Well, that was until the notoriously corrupt Spanish soccer authorities tried to Lady Tremaine their Cinderella story. Here's a more in-depth look at what the money issue was, but as the short version goes, because of the rest of Spanish soccer's irresponsible, unsustainable, debt-fueled spending, Eibar—one of the few Spanish clubs with no debt—had to raise about €2 million to be decreed "financially healthy" enough to compete in La Liga. Thus was sparked the Defend Eibar campaign, where shares of the club were sold to anyone who wanted to help. It took a while to reach that sum, since internal regulations prevented anyone from buying more than 2% of the club's shares, but by the deadline, they had their money.
Unfortunately, Eibar are the only side down here at the bottom where there's any kind of interest in their upcoming season. (Unless, like me, you're wondering if Wiz Khalifa catches on to Córdoba's nickname of Los Califas and decides to make a "Black and Yellow" remix called "Blanquiverdes.") The rest of them are almost unwatchably bad. Almería barely managed avoiding the drop last season, and won't be helped by losing their two most talented attacking midfielders, Aleix Vidal (snapped up by Sevilla) and Suso (returned to Liverpool after a loan). Elche couldn't buy a goal last season—they scored a league-worst 30—and their leading scorer from last year, loanee Richmond Boakye, won't be returning.
Deportivo la Coruña, a league powerhouse not too long ago, will try to recapture at least a smidgen of their former glory by staying in the first tier after yo-yoing between the first two divisions for the past few years. Getafe are one of those typical midtable sides that in good years can maybe set its sights on a safe top half finish but in down ones, as this season looks like becoming, will really have to fight to ensure this 10-year streak in the top flight isn't broken.
If we are again comparing European leagues in terms of watchability, this group of unremarkably competent teams is another area where the Premier League bests La Liga. The Prem's bunch of Southampton, Swansea, and Tottenham are themselves quality viewing every week regardless of who they play. None of Spain's midtable are good bets for entertaining soccer week in, week out, but they are all capable of giving the big boys a game every now and then, which isn't so bad, all things considered.
Rayo Vallecano are starting to get the hang of this La Liga thing. After a deceptively comfortable 12th place finish last season (they had the league's second-worst goal difference), Rayo have reinforced their squad with a number of promising young loanees, headlined by former Rayo man and current Atlético Madrid forward Léo Baptistão. Ultimately, their fortunes will likely hinge on whether old man Roberto Trashorras can keep performing at peak levels heading into his mid-thirties.
Granada, a team that already had problems creating and scoring goals, will not be helped any with the loss of Algerian winger Yacine Brahimi, who moved on to Porto. Maybe this is where former Barcelona and Blackburn Rovers attacking midfielder Rubén Rochina finally comes good. In any case, new and highly-respected manager Joaquín Caparrós can probably wring enough out of the decent squad that remains to stay up for another year.
While that other Catalan club hogs up all the attention, Espanyol have quietly been building a young, constantly growing nucleus that should see them finish at least somewhere in the middle for the foreseeable future. David López, Javi López, Víctor Sánchez, and Kiko Casilla have all played together for years now. Unlike many teams perpetually in the bottom half of the table, Espanyol prefer to purchase and develop their own players rather than relying on the yearly loan circuit.
Espanyol might be considered Little Barcelona on account of playing in the same city, but Celta Vigo have an even stronger claim to that designation, being that they have team packed full of former Barça youth team players. A few of those players no doubt were brought in because of former manager and current Barça boss Luis Enrique was familiar with many of them from his time in charge of the Blaugrana B team. Guys like Nolito, Andreu Fontás, and Rafinha (on loan) joined the club during Enrique's sole season there and almost immediately became some of their best players. The trend has continued this year, with the addition of Carlos Planas and Sergi Gómez. If those youngsters can continue to blossom, and older guys like Charles and Joaquín Larrivey can continue fighting their advancing age, Celta could find themselves in the top half of the league once again.
There's no easy explanation for how Levante have somehow managed to finish so consistently high every year since returning to La Liga in 2010. They are a team full of old guys, largely indebted to a fairly anonymous goalkeeper who quietly stopped every shot around him, and were good for at least one or two title-altering wins or draws against the top two. They will go into this season without their aforementioned superstar keeper, Keylor Navas, but for some reason I think they'll continue right where they left off.
If Málaga fans are still ruing those halcyon days of only a couple years ago, when Qatari sheik Abdullah Al Thani and his oil money promised a bright future of Champions League berths and trophies, before a combination of boredom and Financial Fair Play rules made discouraged him from making his club the new Manchester City, now's a pretty good time to get over it. You may not have such figures as Santi Cazorla, Isco, Jérémy Toulalan, and Manuel Pellegrini leading the team to on-pitch glory, but this is still a well-run club that has continued buying smart and putting out an entertaining lineup every season. Nordin Amrabat, Willy Caballero, and Jesús Gámez are the only regular starters to depart so far this transfer window—hey, that's less than usual!—and Ignacio Camacho is still in town, so all isn't lost. If Juanmi grows into the player he could become, and new keeper Guillermo Ochoa keeps up his World Cup form, Málaga should remain as entertaining as recent vintage.
FIGHTING FOR FOURTH
This is the area where La Liga often gets overlooked. Their second-tier teams are as good as any in the world, and constantly demonstrate this fact in European competition. (There's a reason La Liga gets as many Champions League spots as the Premier League.) The upcoming season's battle for the European places, including that fourth UCL spot, will be as fierce as ever, with no less than five teams gunning for that spot.
The key to Villarreal's season is age—how their older players cope with it, and how their younger players grow from it. Cani and Bruno have been the foundation of how the Yellow Submarine have played for damn near a decade now. They've enjoyed title-contending seasons and Champions League success, withstood catastrophic injuries to key players and even a relegation, and have brought the team back not only to La Liga, but to European qualification. Now on the wrong side of 30, do they still have what it takes to compete in two competitions to the level they expect of themselves?
On the other end of the spectrum, there are guys like Giovanni dos Santos, Mateo Musacchio, and Manu Trigueros, players who have already demonstrated their quality and now could kick on to reach an even higher level. Gio has proven over the last couple seasons that he isn't only an international wonder and can perform for club just as impressively as he regularly does for Mexico. This will be the forward's first season returning to the same team he played for the season before, which can only be a good thing for Villarreal.
Musacchio, at only 23, is already one of the most promising center backs in Europe. The only thing likely to stop Villarreal from continuing to reap the rewards of his growth is if they sell him this transfer window, as Tottenham are reportedly hoping. Trigueros looks to have sewn up the second central midfield spot next to Bruno, and getting more games under his belt will certainly help his growth, as well.
With those key players only getting older, though, it's hard to see Villarreal finishing in the top quadrant of the table. It will take a while for players like Jonathan dos Santos, Javier Espinosa, and Gerard Moreno to convince that they have the ability to take over for key guys like Bruno, Cani, and Ikechukwu Uche.
7) Real Sociedad
The loss of household-name-in-the-making Antoine Griezmann will hurt La Real. A lot. And not just from in the form of results.
Part of what makes watching players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar so fun to watch is how they're able to put up crazy goal scoring numbers while playing on the wing. While strikers often have to put in work holding up play, laying off backwards passes to midfielders, and making unthreatening runs just to occupy the opponent's center backs, wingers get to focus almost solely on attacking when in possession. The best ones are always teasing the back line, just waiting to tear after a through ball to sprint towards goal. When there isn't a quick counter to be feasted on, they try to isolate a defender, then blow by him with their intricate dribbling skills, cut inside, and curl a shot inside the far post, the keeper flat footed, turning his head helplessly, praying that the trajectory is off. Strikers get rewarded for their dirty work with simple tap ins in the best areas of the pitch to score from, but watching a goal-hungry winger work for his goal is even more satisfying.
Real Sociedad had probably the most exciting goal-scoring wing tandem outside soccer's traditional superpowers. Seeing Grizi on the left, Carlos Vela on the right, and open grass ahead of them was enough to make your mouth water. They each scored 16 goals apiece, doubling striker Imanol Agirretxe's tally. It was awesome to watch, it led to success (the year before, La Real got that coveted 4th place UCL spot), and now it is gone.
Still, the txuri-urdin have competent, possibly hugely successful replacements already at the club. Chory Castro was impressive a couple years ago as a starter for Mallorca and has been a useful sub his last couple years in Basque Country, so he could could fill in that wing role nicely. And if former Real Madrid star-in-waiting Sergio Canales can stay healthy, he could prove to be an absolute steal. (Also, be on the lookout for Rubén Pardo, who just might be the next great Spanish deep-lying playmaker.) In short, they won't be what they were, but they can still be really good.
For most well-stocked youth programs run by non-megarich clubs, the summer transfer window is a time of panic. All the success they've meticulously cultivated over years and years of scouting, training, and nurturing young talent can be done away with with the swoosh of a pen from one of the world's buying clubs. For Sevilla's behind-the-scenes mastermind Monchi, though, the window is just another opportunity to quietly reload.
Sevilla are a big club, but they aren't Barcelona or Real Madrid, so they are also a selling club. Almost every year a player they either developed as a youth or snapped up from around Europe and developed is sold off to an even bigger club, either at home or abroad. So far this season it has been Ivan Rakitić, Alberto Moreno, and could well include Federico Fazio before the end of the month.
Monchi, Sevilla's sporting director, doesn't worry about any of that. He has an amazing track record of uncovering the next big thing right when he's forced to offload the current big thing. Coming into last season, Sevilla had to fill the boots of the England-bound Álvaro Negredo and Jesús Navas. No worries, how about Carlos Bacca (who a few teams earlier in the summer flirted with signing but it now looks like he'll stay another year at least) and Kevin Gameiro?
This year, Monchi has looked to the loan market to infuse his team with talent. Iago Aspas is back in Spain after not getting much time at Liverpool. From Barcelona come future stars Denis Suárez and Gerard Deulofeu, who already might be the two best players on the whole team. For even more depth in attack, the Nervionenses have also brought in Aleix Vidal, who looked so good for a shitty Almería side last year. If these moves work as well as they tend to, Sevilla could improve upon a season that resulted in a 5th place league finish and the Europa League trophy.
5) Athletic Bilbao
That Athletic Club can fairly comfortably finish end the season in 4th, as they did last year, and have the distinction of being one of only three La Liga teams to have never been relegated, all while following a stringent Basque-only player policy is almost beyond belief. Basque Country is a small area along the Spain-France border, currently counting only around 2 million inhabitants. Yet the sporting fruit of that region populates one of the country's best teams.
(A quick note on the Basque-only policy: it has gone through changes over the years. It used to mean only people born in Basque Country, but has now expanded into basically FIFA's nationality standards. So if you grew up there, have a grandparent who was Basque, etc. you can play. Which is still impressive.)
They will have to overcome the loss of new Manchester United midfielder, Ander Herrera, though. He was their best player last year, a traditionally deeper-lying player who moved into a more attacking role and flourished. That'll probably require a bit of tactical reshuffling, but the likes of Ibai Gómez and Óscar de Marcos are primed to take more prominent roles. They've managed to retain the rest of their young core, and Aritz Aduriz still scores all the time, so they should be near where they were last season. Their biggest threat is likely those extra UCL/Europa matches that distract so many upper-midtable sides around Europe.
Ah, but cash still rules, and Valencia now have a ton of it. They're probably finishing fourth. The once proud club suffered through some very Sevilla-esque times of austerity recently, shipping out almost every salable asset to try to feed the coffers and keep the taxman at bay. Roberto Soldado, Jordi Alba, Juan Mata, David Silva, David Villa—all those star players were sacrificed with an eye toward whittling down the clubs massive debt.
For the past few years, Singapore businessman Peter Lim has been mentioned as a possible purchaser for a number of European soccer clubs up for sale, Valencia being one of them. Talks between him and Bankia, the bank to whom Valencia owed its debt, had been percolating for months if not a year or more (it's all be very confusing), but just recently the two sides have reached an official agreement.
Even before the sale was finalized, Lim appeared to be acting as the de facto owner. He is closely linked to Jorge Mendes, the agent to the stars and the shadow-Director of Football for a number of huge teams around Europe. As early as last season's winter transfer window, when Lim was strongly linked with purchasing the team but way before anything had been finalized, a conspicuous number of Mendes clients were linked to the club. Including the current window, Mendes-controlled players like Rodrigo, Nicolás Otamendi, André Gomes, and João Cancelo have joined the club, either purchased outright or coming on dubious "loans" that are really purchases whose red tape needs time to be sorted through before being made official.
Valencia haven't stopped there. They've also brought in Germany's World Cup-winning defender Shkodran Mustafi, Manchester City's Bruno Zuculini on loan, and are still rumored to be in the market for more big-name players. Lim has waited a long time to get his soccer club, and now that he has one, he hasn't wasted any time in stacking it up with young talent. As we've seen with Man City and PSG and even Monaco, success is only a matter of time.
3) Atlético Madrid
You could argue that last year's champions and Champions League finalists aren't true title contenders this season, since they've lost pivotal pieces to their side while their two rivals have only strengthened. On the other hand, though it would be hard to say Atlético Madrid's starting 11 is better this year than last, the squad undeniably much deeper, and a fresh, well-rotated Diego Simeone side will be even more fearsome throughout the entirety of the season than the sputtering parts running on fumes in Lisbon a few months ago. Knowing, Cholo, I know how I'm betting.
First, the losses. Once again, Atléti lose a star striker they'd developed, with Diego Costa following in the footsteps of Fernando Torres, Sergio Agüero, and Falcao from Madrid to greener bank accounts.
Costa's unending tenacity every minute of every match couldn't be matched by any one player, unless Simeone himself decided to suit up. Then there is long time Chelsea loanee Thibaut Courtois, who was finally recalled by his parent club for good. The Belgian in his early 20s had already become one of the best keepers in the world, adept at every facet of goalkeeping. Lastly, there was Filipe Luís, the perfect defensive left back for Simeone's deep-set, flat back line. In a modern game full of veritable wingers playing full back positions, Luís could defend as well as most center backs while still providing a credible threat in attack, as well.
With all the money they earned from the sales of those stars, plus the ones over the recent few seasons necessitated by their own debt problems (debt really is an omnipresent issue in Spanish soccer), Atlético are currently in a much healthier financial position, allowing them to toss around almost €100 million of their own to completely restock the team.
In place of Costa is Mario Mandžukić, a criminally overlooked goal scorer (how he was underrated despite thriving for the best team in the world, Bayern Munich, I'll never know) who won't match the outgoing Brazilian's pace and one man counterattack ability, but he is also big, strong, willing to bust his ass on the defensive end, and oh yeah, scores boatloads of goals. As a secondary option, the club also enlisted the talents of 23-year-old Mexican international Raúl Jiménez. His pace and physical presence should allow him to do a more convincing Costa impression.
Even more importantly for their attack, Atléti added Real Sociedad winger Antoine Griezmann, who is miles better than the man he'll replace in the starting lineup, MLS's David Villa. Along with the goals he's most known for, he will provide tactical flexibility (he can play on either wing in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and will probably spend most of his time playing as a second striker just behind Mandžukić) and some of the speed they need for their quick countering game. At La Real, Grizi could focus almost all of his attention going forward, but just from the evidence of Atlético's victory over Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, he also looks more interested defensively than ever as well.
Around the rest of the pitch, Simeone focused on adding depth to supplement his losses. At Luís's left back spot, the team bought Guilherme Siqueira from Granada and picked up Cristian Ansaldi on loan from Zenit, who gives them more attacking thrust from that position. Filling Courtois's gloves are veteran Miguel Moyá and highly-rated youngster, Jan Oblak. To back up their central midfielders, young Saúl Ñíguez is back after balling out on loan for Rayo last season. At every position, Atlético Madrid now have legitimate rotation options to prevent them from the fatigue problems that so obviously plagued them in the Champions League final.
For all of that change, though, the most important components of the side remain in tact. Three of their world-class defensive four return, their central midfield duo of Gabi and Tiago is back, Arda Turan and Koke will take creative control duties once again, and the incessant, dogged pressing system of Simeone will ensure Atléti remain one of Europe's elite defensive and counterattacking teams.
It speaks to Barcelona's recent absurd dominance that a season where the club lost out on the opportunity to repeat as La Liga champions by one goal in the season finale, lost in a Copa del Rey final
they were leading up until just in the last few minutes, and was ousted in the Champions League quarterfinal to the eventual runners-up is rightly judged to be an absolute catastrophe.
The snarling and teeth-gnashing by Barça fans despite these otherwise respectable showings in the important competitions was more a factor of how the team looked than their results. They were improved defensively from the year before in terms of goals allowed, but it still seemed way too easy to breeze past their two-man back line en route to a 1-v-1 with goalkeeper Victor Valdés.
Their midfield suffered the same recurrent problems seen since Cesc Fàbregas's return, with Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, and Fàbregas unsure how best to play together. Often one-year manager Gerardo Martino's solution was to play either Iniesta or Fàbregas out of their favorite central positions, either Iniesta on the wing or Fàbregas as the false 9, which worked at times but just as often neutered their attacking thrust in favor of impotent possession.
Worse still, Messi began looking strangely disinterested, Neymar only rarely performed up to his "next world great" profile would've predicted mainly due to injuries, and Xavi went from a wily vet to an old and slow liability in about one offseason. Couple all of that with an delusional belief that the stars of the Pep Guardiola glory days would keep playing with the ability and motivation of before without being pushed by new, hungry signings and it actually wasn't a huge shock that things finally fell apart.
Luckily for Barcelona fans, the club's leadership got the message. The team this year has been replenished with a new players that address almost all the flaws the club has run into over the years.
The biggest name, obviously, is Luis Suárez, the terrible-acting, amazing-playing superstar from Liverpool. He will join Lionel Messi and Neymar in a forward line that has the potential to be the strongest of all time. Messi is already hands down the best player on the planet, Suárez is the only name that can be mentioned with Leo and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar has all the talent to throw his name in that circle as soon as this year. By the end of this season, Barça could have three of the four best players in the world. Even Real Madrid's BBC can't touch that.
Suárez immediately solves many of Barcelona's attacking problems. Trying to combat extremely deep lying defensive blocks was not a new phenomenon last season for Barça, but what was new was finding a way through with Messi playing as a more traditional striker than as his patented false 9 role. Barcelona's wingers were often tasked with staying near the touchline to provide width, which meant Messi had to occupy the opponents' center backs instead of dropping deep and starting attacks from midfield as he is more accustomed to.
To play as a false 9, he needs a sort of false 7 who nominally plays on the wing but will compensate for Messi's midfield jaunts by sliding in more centrally. That way Messi can run at defenses with a reference player ahead of him to play one-twos with, and who can then either finish his throughballs or drag defenders out wide when Messi runs more centrally. David Villa was the last player Messi played with who regularly filled that position, so it's not a coincidence that Leo and the attack as a whole went through some growing pains trying to adapt. Simply moving Messi further up the pitch wasn't the answer, and probably contributed to his alleged disinterestedness: he looked less active because he was asked to do less.
Suárez is basically the perfect player to fill in there. He is a natural striker, and will instinctively drift centrally from his likely wide-right starting position when Messi moves around. He is a tireless runner who will provide the kind of off-ball runs Messi is so good at rewarding. And the switch to a nominally wider position won't be too much of a change of pace, since he often played on the wing back in his Eredivisie days and even played there a few games last season. And as you can see in the video above, he plays all over the pitch, anyway. Not to mention his nigh unparalleled goal scoring and chance creating. Barça will be terrifying up front. (In about two months, when his suspension is up, that is.)
Even more crucial to Barcelona's chances to actually win matches will be the other additions behind the forwards. In that sense, Ivan Rakitić might be an even more important signing than Suárez. The central midfielder brought in from Sevilla was the best player in La Liga not playing for Barça or the two Madrids. He will fit into the starting lineup next to Iniesta even better than the homegrown Fàbregas ever did, missing only a bit of Cesc's incisive passing but making up for it in passing range, long-shooting ability, and, most crucially, defensive awareness.
Barça's lack of true central defenders is often blamed for their defensive frailties, but all of those ugly 1-v-1s on the keeper actually started from the midfield. Sergio Busquets has been the only non-center back outfield player even halfway interested in defending, which doesn't cause too much trouble when the team is in possession of the ball. When they turn the ball over, Iniesta is usually too far forward to help defensively and Xavi has lost any semblance of the necessary pace to chase down anyone moving faster than at a trot, so it's left to Busquets and the back two to cover the entire width of the pitch. Which hasn't been successful.
Rakitić is only 26 years young, fast, and an imposing physical presence, and he'll help shield Busquets and the defense much better than Cesc or Xavi have in recent years.
And would you look at this, Barcelona actually bought a couple true center backs! Hooray! Okay, one, Jérémy Mathieu, is a converted left back, but he is a giant and has played enough centrally that it comes pretty naturally to him now. And the other, Thomas Vermaelen, happens to be injured all the time and might not be very good, but hey, bodies are bodies, and having merely good center backs never hurt Barça in the past.
So in summary, Barcelona are a lot better this year, are unbelievable in attack, have the pieces to play more cohesively defensively, have quality depth on the bench for once, and have a new, fiery manager hellbent on getting these guys going. I only have them finishing second because it'll probably take a little while for everything to gel, but I do expect them to win something this year.
1) Real Madrid
Alright, all of this is probably accurate. Real Madrid really, really should win the league this year. They've been stockpiling great players on top of great players for years now, and have the world's best two-deep. They've added two more thoroughbreds in James Rodríguez and Toni Kroos, both the toast of the town after their World Cup performances. They are favorites in every competition and should be.
But maybe just as a thought excercise, let's try to look at this from a different perspective. One where a coherent tactical strategy adhered to by complementary pieces win titles and star players brought in solely because of their Q ratings go ... the way of the Galacticos. From that point of view, this Real Madrid team doesn't look as treble-ready as it seems.
In fact, the whole decision to purchase James was pretty baffling, though not baffling in the sense that I don't understand it. (I know exactly what Florentino Pérez was thinking: Ooooh, a pretty new superstar owned by a club I can throw money at to have? I'm the boss and I want him, so here he comes!)
The confusing part is the fit. Real Madrid looked devastating last season as a counterattacking team, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema up front, waiting to pounce on a pass into space, Luka Modrić providing those passes, Ángel Di Maria driving full-speed at any player anywhere on the pitch, and Xabi Alonso circulating the ball to find any openings. It was simple and extremely effective.
Rodríguez's presence means Real Madrid have to play completely differently now. James is best in the hole behind the striker, but is very capable on either wing. His €80 million price tag means he must start, and the obvious fall guy is Di María, who is all but sold already to Manchester United. You know, Ángel, the guy who tactically if not by talent was the best, most important player for Real Madrid the whole season. The guy who basically willed them to victory in the Champions League final. The guy who provides enough much energy and workrate to play almost two positions at once—box-to-box midfielder and counterattack-starter in possession, left-wing defender when the other team has the ball—which frees up their best player, Ronaldo, from much of his defensive duties. Why throw away the guy who makes everything work?
Then there's the Toni Kroos addition, who fit-wise makes much more sense, but maybe not in relation to their other moves. If James replaces Di María, does Kroos replace Alonso? Modrić? Can you survive against a strong attacking team with a 4-2-3-1 with Kroos and Modrić as your holders? I'd ask Carlo Ancelotti but he didn't ask for any of these players (hell, he wasn't even so hot on Bale last year). Pérez picks the players, which is a pretty backward way to run a club.
And none of that touches on the apparently forgotten Isco. He was purchased from Málaga last season for a bunch of money himself, and now he has to be wondering if he'll even get a game this year. It might sound crazy after the fireworks James produced in the World Cup, but Isco, even now, might be the better prospect of the two. That was certainly true before this summer, as Isco was thought to be the next Spanish superstar. Isco has played better against better competition than James, and is a whole year younger. The only reason you'd buy James while having Isco is if you want to sell jerseys.
Even in light of all of that, Real Madrid will still probably win the league. There will only be a handful of games where the word defending will need to be mentioned in the team talk, and even mediocre performances against the other title challengers can be overcome by curb-stomping every other team in the league. And having a true embarrassment of riches to choose from every match day is, as they say, one of those good problems. But if everything clicks for Barcelona sooner rather than later, and the noxious concoction of egos and sparse playing time ferments into a poison in the Madrid dressing room, it wouldn't surprise me if Madridistas rued Pérez's decision making by the end of the season. One can dream, anyway.