La Liga-preview: Ancelotti keeps faith, while Barcelona go for broke

Another competition, another trophy for Real Madrid, this time their fifth European Super Cup against Eintract Frankfurt just before the start of the new La Liga season.

Working on the basis that if it isn’t broken why bother to try to fix it, Ancelotti lined up with the same 11 that saw off the challenge of Liverpool in last season’s Champions League and cruised to a efficient and painless 2-0 win in Helsinki. 

They finished with new signings Aurelien Tchouameni and Antonio Rudiger coming on for the last five minutes which probably tells us much about their plans for the upcoming season. The two players are the necessary addition of muscle and strength to his line up.

Basically the game plan will be similar to that of last season with the combination of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric (named by Ancelotti as Real Madrid’s Bermuda triangle because when the ball goes there it seems to disappear), helped in a fluid 4-4-2 by the box to box Valverde, alongside the more rock and roll style second half performers like Modric understudy, Ceballos, and young and dynamic players like Camavinga, Tchouameni and of course Rodrygo available from the bench.

WINNER: Carlo Ancelotti with Eder Miliato and Casemiro after the supercup-win. FOTO: NTB

Ancelotti reckons they have a stronger squad than last season, one that cannot count on Mbappé, but that will not get a striker to replace the hole that his decision to remain in PSG has left. Real knows that any other striker they might purchase is never going to be as good as the one they currently have – Karim Benzema who on Tuesday leapfrogged Raul to become the club’s second highest ever goalscorer behind Ronaldo with 324 goals. In Karim (surely the new Ballon d’Or) and Courtois, the Italian manager has got two of the three best players in the world (the other one? The one they missed out on). And in Vinicius they have potentially the best young player on the planet (he received in Helsinki the trophy to the young player of last season’s Champions League)

While rebuilding their stadium they did not want to get into debt with players (except Mbappé) so any purchases now will have to be funded by sales of players like Marco Asensio should that ever happen (looks unlikely this summer). Youth is the name of the game for them and they keep looking for players with huge potential, as they are not about to start competing with the likes of PSG and Manchester City on the open market.

Benzema and Modric are by all accounts handling the dilemma that everyone will encounter of having to play a World Cup halfway through a league campaign by making it clear that they want to play in every game. Ancelotti though trusts the squad so much that rotations will be used more often than he did at the start of last campaign. By the way, Hazard seems to have been lost in the Bermudas too, as he did not even warm up in the Supercup.

STARS AND PRODIGY: Thibaut Courtois and Karim Benzema embrace Vinicius Jr. FOTO: NTB

Last season they won the title with with four games to spare eventually winning by a 13 point margin and were clearly the best team in the league, one blip in the Clasico apart.

The Champions League was another matter altogether and they weren’t superior overall against any of their opponents in the knockout phase – including Liverpool in the final – yet still managed to end up lifting the trophy. Why are we still surprised? Real Madrid (almost) always find a way, but they need to play better to have the chance to win it again. They showed us last campaign how not to win the competition (conceding goals and chances, losing the first game without attacking, losing at home in the second leg before turning it around with football miracles)! Even if they did.

As for Barcelona there were two ways of sorting out the financial catastrophe left by the previous regime.

The first is the softly-softly cautious economists’ approach making sure that little by little that the club is being run on a firm financial footing, until such point as the club is once again solvent and viable. Meanwhile they could have used young players and hope to become competitive in the mid term.

Then there’s the Laporta way. During elections he persuaded everyone that he was willing to be cautious and had in his team some excellent economists and people willing to rebuild the fortress, but they are now gone as he decided to go for broke instead. 

Effectively what he has done is sold parts of the club laying to rest the myth that this is a club owned solely by its members. It clearly isn’t anymore, although you will not hear anyone at the club saying as much.

The club is now owned by the various funding outsiders that have put money into the club (either by buying parts of it or by loaning the club huge amount of money) as much as it is by the members.

It has sold 25 per cent of its TV rights for the next 25 years, and other percentages of the TV hug (Barça studios) and plan to get rid of a part of Barcelona Licensing and Merchandising department, all to very surprisingly overpriced. But LaLiga considers that is not enough to register players. 

The Goldman Sachs loan along with the parts of the ‘family silver’ they have sold provides funds to service the debt as well as buy players, but they still need to reduce wages in order to be able to register everyone. Hence the departure of some footballers and the immense pressure to invite Frankie de Jong to leave. Nothing of what Barcelona is doing with Frankie is new (using local media to turn fans against him, threaten to take to court his last contract), but Laporta is not scared of taking strong decisions to help the club to refloat. Not renewing Messi, for instance. The fear is that if success does not come on the pitch, the bankruptcy of Barcelona is guaranteed, and with less options to be rescued as they will have less portions to sell. Once again Barcelona are taking things to the wire and they might not even have everything in place by the time proceedings start at the weekend. At the time of writing they were still about €30 to €40m short in terms wages reduced further for La Liga to allow them to register the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Frank Kessie, and Andreas Christensen.

They are looking to convince Piqué to reduce his wages which he will do and are also trying to see if they can pay some of Busquet’s wages next season although at the moment his plan would seem to be to leave at the end of the season and join Inter Miami in the MLS.

If they can manage to join all the pieces there is no doubt that they will have a very strong side. Is it strong enough in terms of the traditional Barcelona DNA? Xavi forms a fundamental part of that DNA as does the Barcelona Academy although at this stage the Barcelona coach is looking at strengthening with some of the best players in the world rather than closer to home. The style will be determined by centre backs that will want to play the ball and a midfield led by young Pedri. But I imagine that, while the style gets defined, many games will be won by the quality of Lewandowski, Dembele and Raphina.

Lewandowski will score goals, Pedri is growing in stature, and the bench will be stronger with a lot of alternatives particularly up front and quality at the back so they should once again be candidates for everything.

At Atletico, efforts to get rid of Alvaro Morata look premature especially as he has shown as the club’s best goalscorer in pre-season and it looks like the number nine that they were looking for was there all time. Financially, however, they still need him to be gone but Simeone is asking the club to make an effort and keep him.

Their problems last season were probably linked in part to a hangover from having won the title the year before. Rumblings of discontent emanated from inside the camp about Simeone despite the fact the club has not hesitated in immediately reinforcing his authority. In pre-season they have improved from both attacking and defensively, even on set pieces, and they keep playing the Simeone way. The use of new arrival Axel Witsel as a centre back plus that of full back, Nahuel Molina from Udinese in defence should also strengthen them. Victories and challenging for the title will keep the discontent quiet, but if defeats arrive, expect Simeone to be under pressure again.

Not everything can be learned from pre-season games although I went to see Sevilla against Arsenal in the Emirates Cup a couple of weeks ago and they were frankly inept and nothing like as intense as a Sevilla side has to be if they want to mix it with the top boys.

The arrival of central defender Marcao from Galatassary and full back Alex Telles on loan from Manchester United should help to compensate for the loss of Jules Kounde to Barcelona while isco returns to Andalusia on a two year deal with much to prove after nine years at Real Madrid.

Whatever happens they ill need to raise that lethargy that was with them as they succombed to a bruising 6-0 defeat against Mikel Arteta’s side if they are to have any hope of repeating that fourth place finish they achieved last year. Fans are not in love with Lopetegui, and his relationship with director of football Monchi is not the most fluid, so they also need a good start of the season. 

Should they fall short then Villarreal look to be in a good place to achieve it and Unai Emery will be hoping his talismanic striker Gerard Moreno has a more fortunate season that the injury blighted one who endured last campaign.

Giovanni lo Celso has returned to Tottenham but Villarreal would love to bring him back to the club, although that might depend on Arnaut Danjuma finding a new home. Young star, Yermy Pino also could leave Spain with Arsenal having put in a bid of around £33m which Villarreal might accept despite being half the price of his release clause. Key players at the side have asked the club not to get rid of him, but Villarreal is and will always be a selling club.

Real Sociedad will hope to maintain their level and have shown their intent with a the £15m signing of Brais Mendez from Celta Vigo where he has spent his entire senior career. Many eyes will be on Takefusa Kubo who has since he joined Real Madrid as an 18-year-old been on a tour of Spain at clubs like Mallorca, Villarreal, Getafe and then back to Mallorca before Real Madrid have finally decided that the time is now right to sell him on a permanent deal to the San Sebastian club. Could this be the place where we finally see just what the prodigiously talented Kubo is capable of?

Real Betis are going to struggle to maintain their fifth place finish of last season not least because of financial fair play regulations that have prevented them from signing players because they are at their wage cap limit. Isco was a case in point, something made even more galling by the fact he has gone instead to City rivals Sevilla. Betis mightnot be able to register this weekend around seven players, four of which might have started on Monday against Elche. Joaquin, Bravo and William Jose are three of them.

Athletic Club also doesn’t have a huge amount of room for manouevre with their self imposed rule of only playing Basqeu players, and their real coup has come with the signing up of Ernesto Valverde for his third spell as coach at San Mames.

Ernesto was in fact was interviewed for the Manchester United post before it was given to Ralf Rangnick and Leeds United were also rumoured to be interested, and would have replaced Bielsa if he had resisted the whole of last season. He has signed on a one year deal which could be extended depending how things go for all parties at the club.

Valencia continue to struggle because of the lack of investment and will need to be clever in the market if they are to achieve anything. They had to sell Goncalo Guedes to Wolves for around £30m to avoid going into the red and much will depend on whether or not they can find a way of bringing back Bryan Gil to the club after he had to return to Tottenham at the end of his loan deal.

And it will be wonderful to see how Diego Martinez fares at Espanyol, a club in the top ten budget wise, yet who only managed to finish 14th in last years table. Still it isn’t all peace and quiet at the Cornella Stadium with main striker Raul de Tomas waiting for an offer to leave and an absence of the arrival of new players that maybe he was expecting.

LaLiga counts with the two giants being both strong at the same time again, with the two best goal scorers in Europe last season (Benzema and Lewandowski), with the best player in the world (Benzema), with two of the best youngstairs in the world (Pedri, Vinicious), the best goalkeeper in the world (Courtois), with the Champions of Europe… who said LaLiga was dead!