La Liga 2019-20 preview: Can either Madrid giant bring down Barcelona?

In this all-time era for Barcelona football, one of eight La Liga titles in 11 years, 10 this century and four of the last five, the question is less who can defeat Barcelona and more what storm of circumstance can allow another club to summit the Spanish top flight.

Let’s take a look at those potential circumstances, shall we?

Did Barca strengthen or weaken over the summer?

Strengthen. Definitely strengthen. The Catalans matched striker Antoine Griezmann’s release clause for $135 million, which simultaneously strengthened their squad and weakened Atlético Madrid. They reconnected the Ajax pipeline by bringing in midfield prodigy Frenkie de Jong. They also plundered lesser La Liga clubs for reinforcements at fullback and goalkeeper.

Barcelona also still employs Lionel Messi, who can lay convincing claim to the “greatest player ever” mantle and is still the most important player by far in the Blaugrana side. What’s more, he’s feisty after an infuriating summer with Argentina. (Does he have any other kind?)

The champions are strong in the spine, with central midfielder Sergio Busquets, defenders Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti, and goalkeeper Marc-André Ter Stegen. There’s no shortage of riches on the flanks, either, and Barcelona still might wind up with Neymar.

There are different conversations to be had about Barcelona’s shortcomings in the Champions League, but they look as ready as ever to win La Liga again.

El astro de Barcelona Lionel Messi, derecha, mira junto a rsu compañero Antoine Griezman antes el partido por el trofeo Joan Gamper conra Arsenal en el Camp Nou  el domingo, 4 de agosto del 2019. (AP Foto/Joan Monfort)
Why bet against Lionel Messi and Barcelona at this point? Especially with Antonie Griezmann now in the fold? (AP)

Will Real Madrid challenge Barcelona?

Maybe? Real Madrid seems to exist in a near-constant pendulum of chaos, but when that pendulum swings toward success, look out.

Manager Zinedine Zidane oversaw the most recent run of trophies at the Bernabeu, which included a La Liga crown in 2017. For various reasons — including the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zidane’s own resignation — Real Madrid fell apart to start last season, only to watch Zidane return in March and guide the club safely into the top three.

With a momentous summer window under his belt, Zidane looks to scale La Liga with Real Madrid once again. The prize transfer is $111 million superstar Eden Hazard, but strikers Luka Jović and Rodrygo, 21 and 18 years old, respectively, were signed with the intention of anchoring the attack well into the next decade. Center back Éder Militão, 20, and left back Ferland Mendy, 24, are expected to do the same in the back.

And the truth is, Real Madrid didn’t restock for the future (at least primarily) as much as it injected some fuel for the current core to recapture previous form. Sergio Ramos is still one of the world’s best defenders, Luka Modrić and Casemiro are still hugely influential in the midfield, Karim Benzema scored 21 goals last season, and there’s talent to spare in Real’s ranks. Can they produce enough consistency to challenge Barcelona?

What about Atlético Madrid?

In any other league, Atlético Madrid would have way more trophies. As it stands, they’ve finished top three each of the past seven seasons and won La Liga in 2014, the only non-El Clásico participant to do so in the past 15 seasons.

Repeating such a feat will be tough, as this is widely viewed as a transitional season for Atléti. The defense, which has been the club’s calling card for the past decade, was absolutely gutted this summer. Atléti allowed aging staples Diego Godín, Juanfran and Filipe Luís to leave on free transfers, and sold promising defender Lucas Hernandez to Bayern Munich for $89 million.

The club did recoup over $211 million on the sales of Griezmann and midfield fulcrum Rodri to Manchester City, and that need for fiscal responsibility is also a reality at Atlético Madrid, which operates on a smaller budget than Real Madrid and Barcelona and just moved into the glimmering Wanda Metropolitano stadium two years ago.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JULY 26: Head Coach Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid tries to help players from Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid try to stop Daniel Carvajal #2 of Real Madrid and Diego Costa #19 of Atletico Madrid from getting into a fight  during the International Champions Cup Friendly match between Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid.  The match was held at MetLife Stadium on July 26, 2019 in East Rutherford, NJ USA. Atletico de Madrid won the match with a score of 7 to 3.   (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)
Zinedine Zidane (left) and Real Madrid already lost 7-3 to Atlético Madrid in a fireworks-laden friendly in July. (Getty)

It’s hardly doom and gloom, though. As great as Atléti has been recently, a revamp was coming and the club attacked it head on. Anyone who’s watched 19-year-old João Félix knows the hype is real, and so does Atléti, which forked over $140 million to Benfica for his services. The additions of Marcos Llorente from Real Madrid and Mexican international Hector Herrera will steady the midfield, while Kieran Trippier brings his tenacity and formidable wide play over from Tottenham Hotspur.

Moreover, lightning-rod striker Diego Costa is firing again, and Diego Simeone is still one of the most capable managers in the world. It’s too much to ask this mix to win the league this season, but it could signal a reascension toward the summit of Spain.

Who will nab the last Champions League spot?

The choice here is probably Valencia, which started slowly last campaign before clinching fourth place on the final day of the season. Valencia had a net expenditure of over $70 million last summer, but was a bit more frugal this window, with goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and forward Maxi Gómez representing the signature captures.

Once the new additions gelled, Valencia won nine of 13 matches from March onward. If they can find enough goals, they should breeze into fourth.

If not, Sevilla has loaded up with a $167 million outlay across 11 new players. Even then, their biggest strength might be in the combination of returning sporting director Monchi and new manager Julen Lopetegui, whose calamitous exits from both the Spanish national team and Real Madrid last term belie his acuity.

Getafe will also threaten the Champions League spots, with a defensively sound side led by Djene Dakonam that can grind out results all season.

Who’s going to be relegated?

Granada and Mallorca claimed the second and third promotion spots from the Segunda División a season ago, but neither look as equipped as fellow promoted side Osasuna to stay in La Liga. They’re probably going right back down, and Real Vallodolid looks the most likely candidate to join them, after doing enough to stay up last campaign but lacking quality in too many key areas.

Otherwise, defensive issues with Celta Vigo and Levante could lead either side crashing this party nobody wants to crash.

How can I watch La Liga in the United States?

BeIN Sports has the American television rights, and can be found through most cable and streaming providers.

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