Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (L) controls the ball in front of Los Angeles Galaxy's Rafael Garcia during the second half of their World Football Challenge international friendly soccer match in Carson, California August 2, 2012.
(Photo : REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)
Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas (R) celebrate a goal against Malaga during their Spanish First division soccer match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, May 2, 2012. (Photo : REUTERS/Albert Gea)
When La Liga begins on Saturday, 20 teams will initiate a 10 month competitive journey for Spanish league supremacy. Last season, a three year reign was ended when Real Madrid took its 32nd title with a monstrous season that included 100 points, 121 goals, and stellar plus-89 goal differential.
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While La Liga is usually a two horse race, it is always intriguing to see which squads will join the fray and try to make a run and which fall out of the division all together. Here is a look at all the teams competing and where they stand as contenders.
Barcelona and Real Madrid
These two get a tier all on their own. They have won the last eight titles between the two and 10 of the last 12. With the increasing revenue they obtain from television and broadcast deals, the gap between these two squads and the rest of the league is widening and it does not look like it will close anytime soon.
Barcelona gets a ton better with the return of David Villa and Carles Puyol. Puyol may be on his last legs, but lends a great deal of depth to the squad. Villa however becomes a major weapon and takes pressure off Lionel Messi who was essentially the entire offense for Barcelona last season. Villa could easily have 35 to 40 this season. Expect Messi to flirt with 40-45.
Real Madrid does not look all that different though they are in ardent pursuit of Luka Modric. There hasn't been much luck on that front, but the Merengues have no reason to fret. They have Mesut Ozil who is growing into the top playmaker in the league. They have the top keeper in the world in Iker Casillas. They have the dynamic duo of Pepe and Sergio Ramos to settle their defense. And they have Cristiano Ronaldo, who has unfairly seen himself as second best to Lionel Messi. But Ronaldo has gotten the monkey off his back after a tremendous Euro Cup 2012 tournament that saw him carry the Portuguese within one win of the final. Ask Messi when was the last time he carried Argentina anywhere? Ronaldo has answered his critics and his confidence is sky high. He is the Ballon D'Or frontrunner and will have a tremendous season. Expect him to flirt with 50 goals.
Not contenders for the title, but for third place and the final seed in the Champions League.
Valencia: Valencia retained third place for the fourth straight year in the 2011-12 season but bad debts forced them to get rid of some of their major players. Jordi Alba is now with Barca after a breakout performance at the Euro Cup. Other losses have included David Villa, David Silva, and Juan Mata. Don't they wish they could keep those guys now? Regardless, they still have a strong roster that includes Fernando Gago, Pablo Hernandez, Pablo Piatti, Alberto Costa, Aldi Ramo, Roberto Soldado, Jonas, and Ever Banega amongst others. It is still a team more than capable of competing.
Athletico Madrid: A year ago they wound up in 5th place. But that is only because they fell two points behind an overachieving Malaga squad. With Ramadel Falcao leading the offense again (he was third in goals last season), this squad can take a serious run at third place.
Sevilla FC: They finished with a dreadful 9th place finish last season, but with Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas a year older, this squad is primed for a nice run this season. It is easy to look at the ninth place finish and forget that only eight points separated them from fourth.
Athletic Bilbao: Another underperformer that can make a run. Fernando Llorente looks to be on his way out and Javi Martinez also looks like a departure candidate, but the talents of Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta, and Ander Herrera will than give this squad the boost it needs to improve next season. If they can keep coach Marcelo Biesla, they will definitely improve on the 10th place finish.
Malaga: They over performed a year ago, but they still found a way to finish fourth and that is nothing to overlook. They lack the superstar quality of other clubs, but play a relatively solid all around game. They also have money to make things happen if need be.
Middle of the Pack
These guys are not really squads that have a huge shot at anything other than possibly the Europa League. Levante did alright last season, but money issues will stall their growth. Osasuna has steadily improved on a small budget. Europa League is certainly a possibility for them. Getafe and Espanyol are likely not going anywhere and the same goes for such squads as Real Sociedad and Mallorca. Real Betis might also surprise a few people with the acquisition of Arsenal's Joel Campbell. They already have Ruben Castro to score goals and that addition certainly raises their profile.
Fighting to Stay Away from Last Place
These are the teams that are coming along for the ride and are fighting to stay out of the bottom three spots more than anything else. The three squads that saw promotions this season include Deportivo La Coruna, Celta Vigo, and Real Valladolid. Deportivo La Coruna were the champions in the 1999-00 season, but things have changed drastically in the last 12 years. They did win the second division last year and may be the team with the most chances of staying in the division. The other two squads may be booking a spot back to the second division in June.
Granada scored the fewest goals of the teams remaining but the addition of striker Antonio Floro Florez should help that and this team should stay in the division. Real Zaragoza's -25 goal differential was the worst of the remaining squads and with their poor defense, it is unlikely for that to change much. They might be candidates to exit the division come June. Rayo Vallecano gave up more goals than any squad a year ago and the only saving grace is that they scored enough to make up for it and were saved by a measly two point margin. The addition of Arsenal's Carlos Vela makes them a better squad and could help them stay afloat in the division.
2. Real Madrid
4. Sevilla FC
5. Athletico Madrid
6. Atletico Bilbao
7. Real Betis
11. Real Sociedad
14. Deortivo La Coruna
17. Real Valladolid
18. Real Vallecano
19. Real Zaragoza
20. Celta Vigo
You could flip a coin to determine if Real Madrid or Barca win the title, but the return of Villa and the lack of offseason additions makes Barca a huge favorite.