Can anyone stop Barca in La Liga this season?


FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, Neymar, centre, and Luis Suarez. (Siu Wu/AP)

When Atletico Madrid won the La Liga title in 2013-14, there was hope that the Spanish first division was finally turning into a three-team league. Then Atletico beat Real six times in a row, all but confirming La Liga’s duopoly was over for the time being.

And yet to this day, Atletico are still a sideshow in the Spanish press. Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate the front pages every morning, and that won’t change as long as they employ, respectively, the best and second-best player on the planet.

If there was anything that the 2014-15 campaign settled beyond Atletico’s status as a force to be reckoned with, it was the hierarchy of its two icons. Lionel Messi has unequivocally bested Cristiano Ronaldo at this point. No other athlete in professional sport provides as many “did you see that” moments as Messi does on a week-to-week basis. Ronaldo is still scoring, but time is catching up with him.

With all that in mind, here are five storylines to watch for in La Liga this season.

Can anyone stop Barcelona?
If we’re talking about Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, no. But if the pre-season’s two cup results are any indication, Barcelona appears to have issues at the back. Let’s start in goal, where Marc-Andre ter Stegen was angling to be this year’s starter after winning the Champions League and Copa Del Rey competitions last season. First, he was lacklustre during Barca’s U.S. tour, then he was lit up for eight goals in two games—four versus Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup (which the Catalan side won 5-4) and four against Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup’s first leg (which Bilbao went on to win 5-1 on aggregate). That all but ensures Claudio Bravo will start in the team’s Week 1 La Liga fixture, also against Bilbao. Gerard Pique’s pre-season, meanwhile, suggests he might be in for one of *those* years, and neither Jeremy Mathieu nor Thomas Vermaalen have the ability needed for this level of play. So yes, Barcelona are stoppable, but they could just as soon outscore everyone.

More on La Liga: There’s no keeping Sevilla down || Analytics: The race for third in La Liga || Casillas-Real Madrid cord had to be severed || European Football Weekly podcast: La Liga season preview

Questions over Ronaldo’s health linger
The divisive Portuguese star converted himself to a pseudo-striker in 2014-15 in an effort to lessen the wear and tear on a degenerative knee issue. That problem slowed CR7 to a halt at the end of the 2013-14 season, when Real Madrid let the league title slip away and took the Champions League and Copa Del Rey titles thanks mostly to Angel di Maria, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos. Ronaldo has already missed pre-season action with mystery ailments, and Real has looked positively pedestrian without him. (It probably doesn’t help that Karim Benzema has also been battling to get to full fitness at the same time.) All of which is to say Ronaldo will probably be himself when the curtain goes up on the 2015-16 campaign, but rest assured Florentino Perez is already plotting for a future without the soon-to-be 31-year-old.

Wasn’t Barca not allowed to buy players?
Probably the funniest subplot of the summer was Barcelona thumbing its nose at FIFA’s year-long transfer ban, signing two very good players it can’t use until said ban expires in January. Knowing it would be impossible to do business with Liga rivals halfway through the season, Barca signed Atletico’s Arda Turan and Sevilla’s Aleix Vidal, ostensibly to replace Xavi and Dani Alves. But neither will be able to step on the pitch at Camp Nou for another three months. And unlike Suarez, who was banned from football until October last year, FIFA has declared Turan and Vidal ineligible for even friendly competition. Ultimately, Alves re-signed, which sort of mooted the Vidal signing, and Turan is in as both a first sub and put pressure on Andres Iniesta, but Luis Enrique has other homegrown options available in the meantime.

No Galacticos, no problem?
Even if Real pull off a last-minute deal for David De Gea, this will be Perez’s quietest summer since 2012-13. In Jose Mourinho’s last season, the only acquisition of note was Luka Modric — the squad was otherwise unchanged in any significant way. The summer after that, it was Gareth Bale and Isco; last year, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. This year, Brazilian right back Danilo is the “biggest” name so far. The rest of the new faces are old ones. The club exercised cheap buyback clauses on Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez, while Denis Cheryshev returns after successful loan spells with Villarreal and Sevilla. Mateo Kovacic is in from Inter Milan so that Lucas Silva and Asier Illarramendi can be turfed. Everything about this summer, from the quiet signings to the hiring of Rafa Benitez suggests Perez is lying in wait. If nothing goes his way, there are always fresh faces on the horizon.

New faces, same Atletico
Spare a thought for Diego Simeone’s squad. They beat the life out of Real everywhere except the Champions League last season. They’ll once again be Liga’s third team to beat, thanks in large part to two replacements and one returnee. First the replacements: Jackson Martinez is an upgrade over Mario Mandzukic, whose issues with Simeone were evident toward the end of last season. And in Argentine Luciano Vietto, Atletico managed to snag one of the quickest goal scorers in Europe, and one who appeared destined for one of the big two Spanish teams. The returnee, though, is the engine of Atletico’s offence. Antoine Griezmann scored 22 goals in 37 games last season, and the club’s ability to keep him in the fold for another season will be a major key to its success this year. With Barca’s defensive issues and Real’s health concerns, Atletico could be poised for another run at the title.

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