Barcelona celebrate their 2011 La Liga success

Like two immense superpowers, Real Madrid and Barcelona keep on piling up the arms in the race to outdo each other. Football may never have seen two squads like this head-to-head before and the battle looks set to be fascinating. It may also turn downright nasty again.

The tension of those four clasicos in 18 days has still not subsided altogether, with Barca president Sandro Rosell making more accusations against Real, and a renewal of hostilities is already upon us. The season starts with the two-legged Super Cup – and for the first time in over a decade it will be the big two who meet in August.

Jose Mourinho has promised that his second season will be better than a first in which Madrid reached the semi-final of the Champions League, finished runners-up in La Liga and won the Spanish Cup. The problem
for him is that to do so he must, of course, overthrow a Barcelona team that can now be judged among the very best there has been. Barcelona, in turn, know that the challenge will be stronger than ever before. After a season that ended with a league and European Cup double – the latter clinched with a virtually flawless display against Manchester United – Barca still recognise mistakes were made and improvements needed.

For both clubs, the pursuit of perfection is as relentless as it is costly. For others, the name of the game is survival.

Below the glamour and the sheer talent of the big two, Spanish football is in crisis.

Last season, third-placed Valencia were 21 points behind Madrid – and that was an improvement on the previous season. Their president Manolo Llorente talked of the need to “be closer” to the big two this season; but competing with them is impossible. That is a football reality and an economic one too. Madrid and Barcelona earn more than three times what Valencia do in TV revenue annually and 10 times that of Racing Santander.

As Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido has noted: “We’re chasing third place because of the adulteration of the league.” The reality, Del Nido added, is that “18 teams can’t compete for the league”.

Worse, it is not just about competing to win the league – it is about not going under. The Spanish players’ union calculates that their members are owed well over £25million in unpaid wages, the overall debt of the game in Spain is £3.5billion, and 21 clubs have been in administration, with 11 still there. Real Madrid and Barcelona keep on building as they search to obliterate each other. They have already obliterated the rest.

So who are the candidates for the race for third place? The two other Champions League qualifiers, Valencia and Villarreal, have every chance to repeat their success, but this may depend on their ability to hang on to the majority of their top performers.

Athletic Bilbao’s Basque-only policy always guarantees a certain degree of stability and there is real optimism that they can improve on last season’s Europa League qualification. Traditionally very direct, tough and aggressive, they actually now have a team built for a more technical approach and have already recruited the impressive Ander Herrera from Real Zaragoza. The major unknown is how eccentric Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa will fill the shoes of Joaquin Caparros.

Sevilla continue to search for their missing identity. The miraculous signings seem to be drying up – curiously, the more they spend, the worse their new players are – and there has been a lack of continuity with the coaches. There are reasons to be optimistic though: Marcelino has taken over as boss, Alvaro Negredo had an exceptional end to last season, and the arrival of Ivan Rakitic finally brought control and creativity to midfield. Manu Del Moral and Piotr Trochowski are interesting signings too.

The optimism is certainly overflowing at Malaga, now owned by Sheikh Al Thani. Spearheaded by the goals of Julio Baptista and the masterful guidance of Manuel Pellegrini, they enjoyed a wonderful second half of last season, suggesting a realistic challenge for a European spot this time around…but they have not been satisfied with that. Almost £26m was spent in signings in June alone, on Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Diego Buonanotte, Nacho Monreal, Joris Mathijsen and Jeremy Toulalan.

Getafe, who will not, after all, be called Team Dubai, are another team with rich Arab owners – even if the reported £70m deal does not formally come into effect until next summer. But those that anticipated significant investment and subsequent success have so far been left disappointed. Something does not quite fit. Rather than buying players, Getafe have been selling: Manu, Juan Albon, Derek Boateng and Dani Parejo have all departed with next to nothing spent on signings. The good news is that new coach Luis Garcia is used to working on the tightest of budgets.

In direct contrast, Espanyol were in a Champions League place midway through last season but endured a dreadful second half to the campaign and ended up in eighth. Some fans were critical but, in truth, they had found their level. Two winter departures did not help and the subsequent sales of Jose Callejon and Javier Chica have weakened them further. Mauricio Pochettino is a bright and ambitious coach and the youth system continues to produce sufficient talent to survive, but greater ambitions appear unlikely.

Another side who fell away badly last term were Mallorca. Having spent much of the season chasing a European place, they suddenly found themselves within a goal of going down on the final day. Question marks still hang over coach Michael Laudrup and although the club is in the best shape it’s been for over a decade – thanks to a takeover by a consortium led by Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, and a steady stream of youth teamers now coming through – the economic reality still bites.

A highly unpleasant form of reality is also enveloping Atletico Madrid. First the coach went and then, one by one, so did players such as Sergio Aguero, David De Gea and Tomas Ujfalusi. In less than a year the club’s Europa League triumph was completely forgotten. Now, any kind of success feels impossible.

They have welcomed back Gregorio Manzano as coach but it is hard to avoid the feeling that this is a club falling apart at every level. As usual, the fans will be there in their thousands. But what will they be watching?

A notable success for Sporting Gijon last season was when they ended Mourinho’s nine-year unbeaten home league record with a 1-0 victory in the Bernabeu. Manolo Preciado’s side survived a poor start to the season to secure their top-flight status with a couple of weeks to spare. Defensively tough, Alberto Botia has been vitally important, as have the fans at El Molinon and, unusually for Spain, away from home. The departure of Diego Castro to Getafe, though, is a huge blow.

For Levante, simply surviving the drop was something of a miracle. The club has gone four years without spending a Euro on a player and they managed to defy the odds once again with a team of aged misfits, has-
beens and never-really-weres. Now, they have lost Luis Garcia, the coach who made it all possible, working his motivational magic. Lots of players have left too and new boss Juan Ignacio Martinez, working with the smallest budget in the league, knows that survival will be tough.

Another team who pulled off an unlikely escape act were Osasuna, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one day relegation will catch up with them. There is little cash and now Josetxo and Monreal have gone too. However, the spirit of the club, embodied in Javier Camunas’ astonishing assist against Sevilla in the dying minutes of the penultimate week, lives on. Punched in the head and bleeding, he carried on to provide a vital goal that clinched survival.

Survival on the final day was not enough to keep Martin Lasarte in the coach’s job at Real Sociedad and he has been replaced by Philippe Montanier at Anoeta. A brilliant start to the season was followed by a collapse and they have lost Diego Rivas. A young, largely home-produced squad provides identity and is led by Mikel Aranburu and the exceptional Xabi Prieto.

When Ali Syed arrived as the new owner of Racing Santander last season he was hailed as a saviour. Instead, he has disappeared and the club have descended into a worrying process of decomposition with arguments over ownership, a coach quitting and unpaid players desperate for a way out. One chink of light came with appointment of former Valencia boss Hector Cuper on a season-long contract but this was countered by the news that the club had gone into administration with reported debts of over £29m. The crisis continues and the trapdoor looms.

Having avoided relegation last term with a 2-1 victory over Levante on the final day, Real Zaragoza are another club with huge financial problems. With Herrera, one of the stars of Spain’s Euro Under-21 triumph in Denmark this summer, having already left, coach Javier Aguirre faces another battle against the drop this term.

Strangely enough, all three of the promoted sides made it out of the second division despite the millstone of administration.

The return of Real Betis will be a welcome addition to La Liga. They are a team with a huge fan base and an important history. After years of presidential mismanagement – and accusations of even worse – administration was the only way out and their capacity to compete in the top flight will be limited, although Pepe Mel is an astute coach who connects well with his players.

Rayo Vallecano join them back in the top flight having easily won promotion from the second division – but with no thanks to the Ruiz Mateos family who owned the club. Last season was marked by protests by unpaid players and, in the end, the family were forced out as Rayo went into administration. The impressive Jose Ramon Sandoval continues as coach but those players that can find buyers are already heading for the exit door.

Thirty-five years after they were relegated, Granada are back in La Liga, thanks largely to the support
of Italian club Udinese. Quique Pina, Granada’s president and chief executive, was working at Udinese before taking over at the financially-stricken club and 12 members of the Granada first-team squad came in on loan from the Serie A club, who have also provided economic assistance. The question is will Italian cast-offs be good enough at La Liga level?

By Sid Lowe

Key Dates
Season starts: August 20, 2011

Season ends: May 13, 2012