La Liga: Real Madrid begin title defence with rivals Barcelona in turmoil

By Andy WestSpanish football writer
Zinedine Zidane and Ronald Koeman
Zinedine Zidane is in his second spell as Real Madrid manager, while Ronald Koeman took over at Barcelona during the summer

Champions Real Madrid kick off their new campaign on Sunday with a trip to Real Sociedad and, with Barcelona in disarray, Zinedine Zidane's men are odds-on favourites to retain the title.

But the big two are not the only compelling storylines to follow, so let's take a quick tour of the new La Liga season.

Stability and sales at Real Madrid

Martin Odegaard in action for Real Sociedad
Is this the season Martin Odegaard makes the breakthrough in the Real Madrid first team?

This has been an extremely calm and quiet off-season for Real, with the reigning champions happy to sit back and let Barcelona hog the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The only addition to Zidane's squad has been the return of gifted attacking midfielder Martin Odegaard from loan at Real Sociedad.

The 21-year-old Norwegian delivered a series of dazzling performances during his time with the Basques, and he will now aim to gradually replace Luka Modric and further revitalise a midfield which has already been boosted by the emergence of Fede Valverde.

Other than that, Real's only moves in the market have been through the out door. Around £100m has been raised through the exits of players like James Rodriguez (Everton), Achraf Hakimi (Inter Milan), Oscar Rodriguez (Sevilla) and, at long last, Gareth Bale.

The club are expected to save those proceeds for a major push to sign Kylian Mbappe next summer, and in the meantime Zidane will continue to rely on his blend of trusted veterans like Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos, along with gifted youngsters Odegaard, Valverde, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.

Turmoil in Barcelona

Lionel Messi and Ronald Koeman
After his appointment as Barcelona boss, Koeman reportedly told Messi "your privileges in the squad are over, you have to do everything for the team", helping Messi decide he wanted to leave

If stability has been the word of the summer for Real, the opposite is true at their eternal rivals Barcelona - embodied in the fact that beleaguered president Josep Maria Bartomeu faces a formal vote of no confidence after more than 20,000 fans signed a motion against him.

Bartomeu was the chief target of Lionel Messi's fury after his failed attempt to leave, and it's clear that many fans feel the same way about the president's running of the club over the past few years.

Barca's embarrassing 8-2 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich made their failings startlingly obvious, and that has been followed by a change in manager with the arrival of Ronald Koeman - who is remembered fondly by Barca fans after scoring the winner in the 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria at Wembley.

Attempts to revitalise the squad are moving slowly. Ivan Rakitic has returned to his old club Sevilla, Arturo Vidal is expected to join Inter Milan and Luis Suarez will probably also leave, but the Catalans' bleak financial situation under Bartomeu means there are few funds for fresh faces.

Lyon forward Memphis Depay and Manchester City defender Eric Garcia are Barca's targets, but even they may prove to be outside the club's price range.

Messi, of course, is staying for now. But the acrimony of his aborted departure, and his obvious disgust with Bartomeu, has left a sour taste which will linger long into the new season.

So Koeman is surrounded by a lot of questions, and very few answers.

Simeone under the microscope

Diego Simeone
Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to the La Liga title in 2013-14

Albeit in a less dramatic manner, there are also question marks over Atletico Madrid following their disappointing Champions League exit against RB Leipzig.

That was seen as a wasted opportunity and strengthened the impression that Diego Simeone - who has spent the past fortnight at home after contracting Covid-19 - needs to introduce a more expansive style of play.

Criticism that Simeone is too negative and does not give his players enough freedom have been circulating for years, but they have sharply intensified following last summer's arrival of gifted youngster Joao Felix.

The Portuguese star generally looked uncomfortable in Simeone's rigid system during his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano, and if Simeone fails to find a way of allowing greater attacking fluency then patience in his methods will soon start to run out.

Villarreal win the transfer market

On the whole it has been a quiet transfer window, with the majority of moves coming for low-cost veterans or promising prospects from the Segunda Division.

The uncertainty engendered by the pandemic means it is unlikely we will see much cash splashed in the last fortnight of the window, although Atletico, Sevilla and Granada are all in the market for a striker, with Watford's Luis Suarez, who spent last season on loan at Real Zaragoza, in their sights.

There has, at least, been plenty of activity at Villarreal, who look set for a serious top-four challenge after the recruitment of Unai Emery as coach, midfield duo Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin (both from near-neighbours Valencia) and Japanese rising star Take Kubo on loan from Real Madrid.

A warmly welcomed move has been David Silva's return to Spain. The former Manchester City man has joined an open and attack-minded Real Sociedad side who should be perfectly suited to his style, and he is in line to make his debut this weekend against Real Madrid after recovering from coronavirus.

Sevilla's double midfield swoop for Oscar and Rakitic has sparked hopes they could narrow the gap on, or even overtake, the top three, while cross-town rivals Real Betis are expecting the appointment of former Villarreal and Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini to reignite a talented but previously underperforming squad.

Uncertainty at Valencia

The waters are choppy at Valencia, where the sale of key players Parejo, Rodrigo and Ferran Torres has led to fresh protests against unpopular owner Peter Lim.

New boss Javi Gracia has already voiced his frustrations at the club's failure to replace those outgoing stars, but Lim is expecting his coach to place his faith in a talented batch of youngsters which includes gifted South Korean teenager Lee Kang-in and 17-year-old Englishman Yunus Musah, who dazzled on debut in last weekend's dramatic opening-night 4-2 derby win over Levante.

That victory showed there is still plenty of talent within Los Che's ranks, but there is also an enormous amount of uncertainty. If anyone can rival Barcelona for unpredictable drama over the coming weeks, it will be Valencia.

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