Strike threats, two superpowers getting even stronger, plus a team-by-team guide for the new season. It's all here
You can tell the season is about to start when it might not be about to start after all. With barely a fortnight to go, the Spanish players' union called a strike over more than €50m of unpaid wages and on Wednesday morning another meeting between the league and the players' union, the AFE, broke down. According to the AFE president José Luis Rubiales, in the last two years alone 200 players have been affected by salaries that have gone unpaid. So, here we are: three days to go and there's no football.
Another meeting is scheduled for Friday morning. This time Rubiales, who missed Wednesday morning's meeting because he had just become a father, will be there. Game on? Game off. That meeting will be held less than 24 hours before the season starts (or doesn't start) and the strike proposal involves refusing to play in weeks one and two of the league season. Could the league go ahead? Don't rule it out, but the words used on Wednesday morning were: "practically impossible". Meanwhile, the words used by the LFP and the AFE were largely pretty angry ones.
Only, strike threats and last-minute turn around are familiar; threats are easily dismissed. Nah, there's no way they will actually go through with it. Every year it seems like the season won't start for one reason or another. Or that if it does, there will be something wrong, something missing. Like footage.
The obligatory TV disputes have been at the heart of many of the threats and proposed strike action is nothing new. It is also just another manifestation of the dire financial state of football here.
There have been opening weekends when, just days before, no one knew who was playing when. A few years ago, Sevilla were the only team in the league that didn't have a TV deal so they retaliated by banning all cameras from all their games. Real Sociedad got round the problem of their fans not knowing the score when they played Sevilla by recovering the old tradition of letting off fireworks over the Bay of Biscay every time a goal was scored. Trouble was, no one knew which goal had been scored.
Last season there were two proposed strikes; there was even one led by the clubs themselves in a clumsy and frankly baseless protest at the law that protects one game a week on free to air. On both occasions the show went on. For all the threats, it always does.
This threat, though, feels different: a team photo of almost a hundred footballers, with Spain captain Iker Casillas and a load of other big names at its head, was designed to show how serious they are. There really is a chance that this won't happen. If it doesn't, no one really knows how they'll fit in the extra two weeks; will they play over Christmas? Will week one (and week two?) be crowbarred in somewhere else or will the entire fixture list be shifted on a week? (If so, Barcelona will be at the World Club Cup when they are supposed to be playing Real Madrid).
There is huge uncertainty. But then again the only certainty in the Spanish league is uncertainty. La Liga is, as one wit put it, played by geniuses and run by idiots. The strike may happen but the threat of it is nothing new and it is a consequence of deep, structural problems that have been growing by the year – much like the gap between Madrid and Barcelona and the rest. This season there will be games at 6, 8, and 10 on Saturdays, 12, 4, 6, 8, and 10 (yes, 10 at night) on Sundays, and 9 on Mondays. But don't bother asking when they will be and certainly don't bother trying to arrange a trip to see them … no one will know that until eight days before.
Still, there are some certainties. Although Qatari-owned Málaga have built a fascinating and strikingly sensible project that may in the long term be able to compete (but more of them in Sunday's Observer), even an LFP president can see that Madrid and Barcelona will be the top two.
Both have reinforced this summer. Despite winning league and Champions League, Barcelona are conscious of the need to evolve tactically, adding new qualities to their game. They also recognise that, in terms of key injuries in midfield and attack, they got lucky last season. With a compact season – one that might be about to get even more compact if the strike goes ahead – and with the World Club Championships to play, they have signed Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fábregas. Then there is Barcelona B's Thiago Alcántara, whose brilliant performances over the summer suggest that he will have a greater part to play.
Cesc is symbolic of that desire to add depth and variety. Yes, his signing responds to a kind of emotional need, the Catalan boy coming home, and the most pressing necessity is the future one of replacing Xavi Hernandez and maintaining the continuity of progression in the Barcelona midfield (Xavi is 31, Iniesta 27, Thiago 20: at 24, Cesc fits perfectly in the middle, guaranteeing a degree of continuity). But he also gives an element of drive, speed and the ability to shoot from mid-distance that Barcelona arguably lacked. Alexis offers what is often described as profundidad – the directness that helps make the pitch longer, to run at and get beyond defenders.
Madrid's signings have been interesting too. Mourinho's long, public insistence on a third striker last year has disappeared – for now at least. It may be a tactic and privately he has reiterated the desire for one more signing. But Madrid's director general Jorge Valdano, the man who once likened Mourinho's football "to shit on a stick", and the man whose position always appeared untenable from the very start, has gone. Mourinho now has total power – a manager not just a coach.
Many have criticised Mourinho and in many cases for good reason. But one thing that has been forgotten is that on this issue at least Mourinho was right: Madrid's model did need to change. In handing him power, president Florentino Pérez has not only revealed his desperation but also his recognition that the model he built did not work – even if the media is not exactly falling over itself to point that out.
Madrid's signings reflect Mourinho's new role. It is not immediately apparent where any of them fit in the starting eleven – even Nuri Sahin, probably the most exciting of them and, at €10m, a potential bargain too. But Madrid, who already had an extraordinary squad, arguably the best and certainly the most expensive in history (last season they went in to the Champions League semi-final with a bench that included Kaká, Higuaín and Benzema), have an incredible collection of players. And they are players that Mourinho believes he can mould and trust.
Just looking at the fees is frightening: Pepe €30m, Ramos €27m, Di María €25m, Kaká €65m, Diarra €20m, Gago €18m, Ozil €18m, Alonso €30m, Benzema €35m , Ronaldo €95m. And those are the players that were already there. Some of them, unwanted, won't be there for very much longer.
They have been joined by Sahin and Hamit Altintop, who are yet to play; Spanish football's very own Jedward, José Callejón; Raphaël Varane and Fabio Coentrao – who has been perhaps the summer's outstanding player from a variety of positions, but not the left-back slot it was assumed he would play. The best performer, though, has been Karim Benzema. Leaner, faster, he had a wonderful run last season, only to find himself playing 57 minutes in the run of four clásicos against Barcelona that ultimately defined the season. Ozil, too, suddenly slipped out of the side when the moment of truth arrived. The Super Copa first leg against Barcelona suggests a more aggressive, more attacking Real Madrid.
And that's the thing: there may be differences between Madrid and Barcelona but they are nothing like the differences between them and the rest. Both are far too good for La Liga's 'other' clubs. The title may well boil down to the clásicos – two games out of 36, in which the smallest details could have the greatest of impacts – or to the odd unexpected draw in a league where draws are the new defeats. Madrid lost last year's title because Barcelona were the better team, but also because they failed to score against Mallorca, Levante, Osasuna, Sporting, and Deportivo.
What, though, about the other teams? Sadly, the response is too often: what about them? Here's what:
Athletic Bilbao: So much for loyalty. Athletic coach Joaquín Caparrós was criticised for talking to other clubs in the summer rather than committing to Athletic. Then he did, but president Fernando Macua lost the elections and Caparrós was out of a job. His replacement is Marcelo Bielsa and Athletic's style is about to undergo a dramatic change; more technical, more complex, shorter. They have the players, too, with Ander Herrera joining Iker Muniaín, Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente and Andoni Iraola. A European place is likely; maybe even more. Will certainly be fun.
Atlético Madrid: Sergio Agüero has gone, David de Gea has gone and Diego Forlán is going. At Atlético Madrid people are always leaving – except the two men that really should leave. They have though made some interesting signings led by Arda Turan, with a striker likely to come.
Betis: At last they're back. Arguably, the funnest and funniest team in La Liga return to the top flight. And the league kicks off – if it kicks off – with the Seville derby, which should be fantastic and has been missed. Unlike Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, the president who has finally gone. Stuck in administration, they're likely to struggle though.
Espanyol: Callejón, De La Peña, David García, and Chica have all gone and it looks like Osvaldo will be going, Kameni too. The president Daniel Sanchez Llibre has also departed after almost 15 years. Didac, who left last winter, is back though – on loan from Milan. Last year's eighth place may be possible again but looks unlikely.
Getafe: Hang on a minute. Weren't these supposed to be golden days for Getafe? Taken over by Dubai-based owners Royal Emirates, the promise was of €30m a year – enough to establish Getafe as regular challengers for a European place. There were going to be big signings galore. So, Manu, Parejo, Boateng, Víctor Sánchez, Albín, Marcano and a handful of others have … erm, gone?
Granada: Udinese's Spanish branch. Granada, propped up by the Italian club where their president and ubiquitous club administrator Quique Pena worked, had 12 Udinese players on loan last season. That was enough to come up via the play-offs. Will that support be enough to stay up. Back in the First Division 31 years later.
Levante: Last year's miracle, this year's first team down? The lowest budget in the division, they have lost coach Luis García, the motivational genius who brought them together, and they have also lost nine players, including top scorer Felipe Caicedo.
Málaga: Money, money, money. Sheik Abdullah bin Naser al Thani took over last summer and brought in a new manager and new players. Halfway through the season, it wasn't working: they were going down. So they sacked the coach and brought some new players. This time it did work, with Julio Baptista leading the way. Now they have signed a load more players, from Van Nistelrooy to Monreal, from Toulalan to Joaquín and Isco to Cazorla. Cazorla cost €19m: more than Málaga's entire budget a couple of seasons ago. Suddenly their budget has shot to €150m, making it the league's third biggest, and they have spent more than €50m. But it is not just about money: there is solidity to this project that suggests that this might even work.
Mallorca: Safe all season, the project finally looking secure on and off the pitch, suddenly Mallorca found themselves within a goal of going down on the final day. Should not suffer the same fate this season but if Jonathan de Guzman gets his wish of a move to Villarreal, it will be a mighty blow.
Osasuna: Osasuna were in relegation trouble right to the end of the league and finished ninth. Which kind of says it all about the different strata in Spain. They're used to suffering, which is a good job really. Josetxo has gone but, somehow, Patxi Puñal – the man who used to cycle to training after his morning shift at the factory - is still around. Osasuna have signed Nino from Tenerife, which sounds like a good idea when you consider the 17 and 14 goals he has score in the least two years, but then it hits you: he was relegated both times.
Racing: Remember Ali Syed? He arrived at Racing as the saviour, going bonkers in the directors' box and promising big things. Well, now he has disappeared and refuses to answer the phone. Racing are in administration, their coach has gone and so have a load of their players – most of them a little worse off after going unpaid. The new coach is Hector Cúper, the man who if there was a competition for coming second would still come second. Sadly, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he did it again. Second bottom.
Rayo Vallecano: Madrid's self-consciously left-wing club from the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Rayo's players went on strike last season. Their owners - the, erm, 'controversial' Ruiz-Mateos family - were finally kicked out after 20 years. And they ended up in administration. Still they came up, eight years later. Great fun in their three-sided ground (the fourth is just a huge board covered with adverts), the thing is they are almost certain to go straight back down again. Half the team have gone and there are rumours that the coach may yet walk with four more players after administrators tried to enforce a 70% pay cut upon them.
Real Sociedad: The departure of coach Martín Lasarte came as a surprise – not only had he brought la Real up but for much of last season they over-performed. But his relationship with the club's directors had long been difficult. The new man in charge is Philippe Montanier from Valenciennes and the man who achieved three promotions in a row with Boulogne. His ability to bring through young players is a key reason for la Real turning to him – 19 of the first team squad have come up from Real Sociedad B.
Sevilla: Fredi is staying. The legs are creaking and he's slower than ever but Sevilla could not be happier. Kanouté is, some fans insist, the best signing the club has ever made. This summer he talked about finally walking away, six seasons two Copa del Reys and two Uefa Cups later. Such is the respect that Sevilla said they would let him decide and simply wait for him. One day, he announced he was staying. In a team that has desperately lacked a touch of quality of late, he may be important too. Under new management – Marcelino has joined from Racing – and with Rakitic giving a degree of control, the aim will be Champions League football.
Sporting: They've been arguing all summer about the new kit at Sporting. And in the end the fans got their way, too. The team is a different matter: José Ángel has gone to Roma, Javi Poves decided to ditch football all together for moral and political reasons and by far their best player Diego Castro has gone to Getafe. Not one of their current players got more than 10 goals last season. It won't be easy to do so this campaign either.
Valencia: Amidst all the talk of Madrid, Barcelona and Málaga, few have noticed Valencia slowly adding to an already impressive squad – and last season they were the only team that consistently caused Barcelona problems. Joaquín and Isco have gone, but Parejo, Piatti and Canales have all joined (even though Canales won't be able to play against Real Madrid). Lille's Adil Rami, at centre-back, is a vital addition too. Coach Unai Emery never seems especially well liked at the club, but he's starting his fourth successive season.
Villarreal: It has been a difficult summer for Villarreal. Joan Capdevila and Santi Cazorla both departed – two of the funniest, nicest guys you could wish to meet in football and the impact on the squad has been genuinely important. Financially, Villarreal are struggling after years of being one of Spain's most stable clubs and departures were inevitable. Cazorla was Villarreal's key creative player last season. The good news is that Giuseppe Rossi didn't join Barcelona and Borja Valero is still around.
Zaragoza: Zaragoza haven't got any money and are in voluntary administration having racked up debts in excess of €130m. In Spain, administration brings no footballing penalties. In fact, Zaragoza have been largely unaffected. They signed goalkeeper Roberto from Benfica for €8m. Only they paid 1% of that: the goalkeeper was instead bought by an investment fund in which Jorge Mendes and Peter Kenyon are involved. Other clubs were annoyed but suggested they would do the same, bringing the prospect of widespread third-party ownership (which is not illegal) to Spain. Five others have joined, including three from Madrid and Barcelona's B teams. Aguirre dragged them out of relegation trouble last season. It is likely to be much the same battle this time round.