Barcelona have won eight of the previous 11 La Liga titles. This season, they are overwhelming favourites to win their ninth in 12 years, fifth in six years and third on the bounce
As the English Premier League kicked off this weekend, Spanish La Liga would follow suit next weekend. And where the focus in the English league’s top-end encompasses six teams, in Spain it’s three teams that hog all the talk as far as competing for silverware is concerned.
Even so, where the English Premier League saw the first successful title defence in a decade as Manchester City retained their crown, in La Liga, one team has ruled the roost for the past 11 years - and perhaps, counting.
Barcelona have won eight of the previous 11 La Liga titles. This season, they are overwhelming favourites to win their ninth in 12 years, fifth in six years and third on the bounce.
Given such prolonged dominance, and the fact that they’re looking to complete a hat-trick of league titles, one would’ve assumed Barcelona to be oozing with, at the very least, contentment. Au contraire, the ante has been upped with regards to pressure on FC Barcelona despite back to back league titles.
That’s owing to the club’s continued failures in the Champions League - Europe’s premier club competition which they haven’t won since 2015. What has made their setbacks on the European front all the more ominous is the fact that over the past two seasons they’ve surrendered three goal leads away from home to get knocked out. Last year’s loss in the Copa del Rey final also meant that Barcelona ended a league winning season on a damaging note.
With that in mind, Barcelona’s chief objective this season is to right their recent wrongs outside the league, especially in the Champions League. However, that doesn’t mean winning La Liga won’t feature on Barcelona’s task-list - they almost take it for granted now.
Ernesto Valverde’s side have made their intentions clear with their activity in the transfer window. In Antoine Griezmann (€120m) and Frenkie de Jong (€75m) they have the two finest signings for their respective positions, which will push their multi-pronged assault on silverware.
World Cup winner Griezmann, in addition to being a world class forward, also has the requisite mental toughness that Barcelona have often lacked in clutch stages of the Champions League. His presence should lesson that particular burden on Lionel Messi, who will once again be expected to top all charts in Spain and lead Barcelona’s charge.
Barcelona are likely to face La Liga challenges from two contrasting, and yet similarly transitioning, sides from Madrid. Archenemy Real Madrid had a disastrous campaign last season after the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane in the summer - it took two managerial catastrophes for club president Florentino Perez to succumb and call Zidane back on the Frenchman’s terms.
The first time around Zidane led Real to a hat-trick of Champions League titles - Madrid’s European dominance is among the reasons why the pressure on Barcelona to win the Champions League is high. Under Zidane, Real also managed to win the league in 2016/17.
Even as Madrid were carving out their latest empire in Europe, Zidane maintained that La Liga is the priority for the club. Therefore, in the recent past, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s priorities have been defined by each other’s dominant spheres.
Hence, to chase what in effect is Barcelona’s title, Real Madrid have done decent business in the summer. Spearheaded by the purchase of Eden Hazard (€100m), Madrid have also signed the likes of Luka Jovic (€60m), Eder Militao (€50m) and Ferland Mendy (€48m).
Which Hazard turns up might be the critical question for Real Madrid’s season. If he can finally live up to what many have expected of him and stake his claim to be the close to the very best in the world, Madrid might reap the rewards. However, Hazard would need to significantly increase his goal scoring returns, and would need help from Karim Benzema and/or Jovic up top.
Where Real Madrid are still essentially preparing for life after Cristiano Ronaldo - and now, in all likelihood Gareth Bale - Atletico Madrid have undergone a large-scale revamp across the pitch. Where they’ve lost Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, Rodri and Diego Godin - this window alone - they’ve brought in the likes of Joao Felix (€126m), Marcos Llorente (€30m), Mario Hermoso (€25m) and Kieran Trippier (€22m), all of whom are likely to go straight into the starting 11.
The 19-year-old Portuguese sensation Felix is already being touted as one of the next superstars in the game. He now has the stage to graduate to the next level.
At the time of writing, the future of Bale and Philippe Coutinho is still dominating the transfer news in Spain. However, the biggest talking point is Neymar Jr, who is simultaneously being linked to a return to Barcelona, and a shock move to Real Madrid.
While the Neymar saga would continue till the transfer window closes, as things stand, Spain’s top three would be relatively satisfied with their summer activity. What that means, however, is that Barcelona still remain miles ahead of the two Madrid clubs, both of whom would require quick transitions to do well in La Liga and indeed the Champions League.