Can Barcelona’s La Liga Rivals Close the Gap?

Tyler Everett June 3, 2019 1051 Reads

Before transfer season officially takes over La Liga, let’s look at what the biggest storylines in Spain will be this summer and going into ’19-20.

The initial plan was to cover Barcelona and their top competitors in one piece, but it quickly became apparent that Barça warranted a story of their own.

It’s unclear at this point what Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid will look like next season, but we can rule out either team running it back. We’ll also look at Valencia, and whether they can play the way they did the second half of this year – and in the Copa del Rey — for all of ’19-20.

New-Look Los Blancos

The second RM was eliminated from the Champions League by Ajax in the round of 16 in March, the wheels were already turning on an offseason overhaul. Throughout this entire season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence was beyond glaring. Other than one brief stretch in February, it was hard to believe this team had won the Champions League the last three (!) seasons.

Zinedine Zidane will likely revamp this roster from top to bottom, and there’s a good chance next year’s primary starting XI will barely resemble this year’s. Before getting into the “rampant transfer speculation” portion of this piece, it’s worth pointing out that Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos will all be back.

Let’s start with the players on the way out. We have seen the last of Gareth Bale in Madrid, right? Zidane made it clear he’s unimpressed, giving Bale few opportunities even after the team was locked into third place in La Liga. The problem is that offloading a player with a contract like Bale’s is going to be extremely difficult.

The list of players whose RM tenures are likely over (including a few on loan this season) also features James Rodriguez (on loan at Bayern Munich), Mateo Kovacic (on loan at Chelsea), Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos.

RM are going to need all the money they can get from the sales of those players. Eden Hazard’s move to Madrid is all but a formality, and he could be just one of several splashy additions. Speculation linking Paul Pogba to this team has yet to be put to rest. Rather than list every star who has been “linked” to Los Blancos the last month or two, though, let’s mention the all-but-done deals for Eintracht Frankfurt’s Luka Jovic and Porto’s Eder Militao (that contract has already been signed) and move on.

On a scale of 1-10 (10 being second half at Anfield in the UCL semis-worried), how threatened should Barcelona feel?

Maybe a 6???

Hazard is among the best players in the world, and his impact will be massive. However, this team was too flawed in the midfield and defensively for one attack-minded player – not that Hazard will be the only key addition — to make this group 20-some points better in La Liga.

I can see Zidane getting the players he wants this offseason and righting the ship. Regardless, Los Blancos should not be a major threat to Barcelona until ’20-21.

Atlético enters a new era

Already gone are Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godín (who is expected to sign with Inter Milan). Few players on this roster have played bigger roles for one of the toughest teams in Europe over the last several years. In fact, of Atleti’s four captains this year – Griezmann, Godin, Koke and Juanfran – only Koke is expected to be back. Defender Lucas Hernandez is already out the door as well.

Atlético will surely spend more than usual this summer. That being said, Diego Simeone will almost certainly be working with a less talented group than the one he’s had the last few years. As long as Simeone is the coach, I’d suspect this team will be hard to score on. That will mean they are likely to win more than they lose and remain an opponent nobody wants to face.

However, unless they add some serious star power this summer, it’s hard to imagine Los Rojiblancos challenging Barcelona or making another deep run in the Champions League.

On a scale of 1-10, how threatened should Barcelona feel?

I’ll say 4.

It’s hard to even guess what this roster will look like since Atleti is not nearly as widely discussed as its rivals, but it’s tough to imagine this team bringing in more than it lost. For a group that never really was on Barcelona’s heels this year after February, I’d imagine third or fourth place is more likely than first or second in ’19-20.

Is Valencia quietly the team Barcelona should be most afraid of?

If we go by head-to-head results this year, then yes.

In three games against the Catalans this year, Valencia recorded two draws in La Liga and won the Copa del Rey final — as predicted here. They remain under the radar for most fans, but their goals allowed – just 35 in 38 La Liga matches – makes them a bit of an Atleti-lite, at least at first glance.

On a scale of 1-10, how threatened should Barcelona feel?

I’ll go with a 5. Because of the strong defense they played all season and their solid finish – they played as well as anyone other than Barcelona the last half of the year – Valencia could enter ’19-20 as a dark horse candidate to break up the Barcelona-RM-Atleti trio atop the La Liga table.

I’ll believe that when I see it, though. For one thing, even if they play the way they did over their final 19 games this season, they’re going to have to become much better in the final third. It’s impressive that they won as many games as they did without a go-to scorer, but you’re not going to compete with Barcelona (and probably won’t keep up with RM or ATM, either) if you score just 51 goals in 38 games and your leading scorer (Dani Parejo) only finds the net nine times.

I certainly think, however, that Valencia have a shot to stay near the top of the table. A hard-fought, three-way battle featuring Valencia and the Madrid powerhouses for second, third and fourth place seems likely.

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