Barcelona and Madrid face uncertainty ahead of La Liga season; Atletico could take advantage

AP , Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

Barcelona couldn’t bring back Lionel Messi, and lost two other stalwarts in Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid
FILE - FC Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele, right, heads the ball away from Real Madrid defender David Alaba, left, and midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, center, during the first half of a Champions Tour soccer match, Saturday, July 29, 2023 at AT T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Photo: AP

 

Real Madrid couldn’t sign Kylian Mbappe — so far at least — and saw veteran striker Karim Benzema leave for Saudi Arabia.

The Spanish league begins this week with the title favorites facing a transition year and squad changes that might open the door for other challengers.

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid could be the team to take advantage after keeping most players in a squad that offered the best soccer in Spain at the end of last season. Real Sociedad is another outsider lurking after a strong fourth-place finish.

Barcelona’s changes

Barcelona, still not fully healthy financially, saw Busquets and Alba join Messi at Inter Miami, but it brought veteran Ilkay Gundogan from Manchester City to try to boost its chances of successfully defending its first league title since Messi left a couple of years ago.

Barcelona coach Xavi is also likely to keep Ousmane Dembélé after rumors of a transfer involving the France forward quietened recently. Dembélé was one of Barcelona’s main weapons in attack last season, along with Robert Lewandowski, the league’s top scorer.

Xavi will still rely on the talent of Pedri and Gavi, who are now more experienced and more mature than when they debuted.

It didn’t hurt Barcelona’s confidence to beat Madrid 3-0 in a preseason game last month in the United States, when Dembélé scored one of the goals.

“It’s always good to win a ‘clasico,’ but there’s still a lot to improve,” Xavi said.

Real Madrid’s loss

Madrid will be without Benzema, last year’s Ballon d’Or winner, for the first time in more than a decade. The French striker was the team’s top player the last few seasons, leading its attack after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.

Benzema’s exit will put more responsibility on the Brazilian duo of Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo, who last season showed some signs that they could be ready to take on greater leadership roles.

Spain striker Joselu came on a loan from Espanyol to try to help make up for Benzema’s absence, and Bellingham will add freshness to a midfield that will likely see the last seasons of veterans Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.

Also leaving the team were Eden Hazard, Marco Asensio and Mariano Díaz.

Coach Carlos Ancelotti stayed to finish his contract despite repeated calls for him to join Brazil’s national team.

Other challengers

Atletico was one of the hottest teams late last season and showed signs it can challenge Barcelona and Madrid for the title.

With Simeone entering his 12th season with the club, Atletico kept the core of its squad in attack and midfield, and boosted its defense with Cesar Azpilicueta and Caglar Soyuncu.

There were doubts about whether João Félix would stay after a lackluster season, but the Portugal forward seemed set to remain in an attack that again will be led by Antoine Griezmann.

“We are excited with the start of the league,” Simeone said. “We know it’s going to be very competitive.”

Sociedad, coming off its first top-four finish in a decade, lost veteran David Silva after he retired following a serious knee injury in the offseason, but it added Portugal forward André Silva and brought back most of the squad that was near the top throughout the year last season.

Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis and Quique Setien’s Villarreal will hope to build from their solid seasons a year ago, while Sevilla and Valencia look to get off to better starts from the ones that left them near the bottom of the table last season.

The teams back in the first division after promotion are Granada, Las Palmas and Alaves. They are replacing relegated clubs Elche, Espanyol and Valladolid, owned by former Brazil star Ronaldo.

More access

The Spanish league this season is debuting its partnership with videogame company EA Sports as its title sponsor, bringing new logos and audiovisual features. There will be a new graphics package, camera angles and “a much more immersive viewing experience,” the league said, “all with a nod to the EA Sports FC video game.”

Clubs that voluntarily give broadcasters more access to players and coaches will earn more in television rights as the league tries to enhance fans’ viewing experience in response to demands from the rights holders for an improved product.

Clubs will earn bigger shares of TV rights by offering “interviews with coaching staff, pre-match footage from inside changing rooms and greater involvement of players across a host of different broadcast formats,” the league said.

The season’s opening match features Almeria playing Rayo Vallecano on Friday. Madrid visits Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, Barcelona is at Getafe on Sunday and Atletico hosts Granada on Monday.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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