BSP-13 La Liga moves into post-Ronaldo era as Atletico threaten Real, Barcelona

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La Liga moves into post-Ronaldo era as Atletico threaten Real, Barcelona

MADRID, Aug 16, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – The Spanish season kicks off this weekend
with La Liga entering a new era following the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo
and Andres Iniesta, and with Atletico Madrid posing a huge threat to the big
two.

Spain’s preeminence on the European stage was cemented by Real Madrid
winning the Champions League in May while Atletico won the Europa League,
just as Barcelona won another domestic double.

But much has changed since, and Ronaldo’s move to Juventus after 450 goals
in nine years leaves a gaping chasm at Real, who also saw Zinedine Zidane
quit as coach.

After 15 brilliant years at the Camp Nou, Iniesta has gone to Japan,
although at least Barcelona still have Lionel Messi.

Nevertheless, while Real and Barcelona have won the last five Champions
Leagues between them, neither looks quite as strong as they have been in the
recent past.

– Pressure on Lopetegui –

Julen Lopetegui is the new coach at the Bernabeu, the announcement of his
appointment leading to his messy sacking from the Spain job before the World
Cup.

Lopetegui will need to quickly show he can live up to the standards set by
Zidane in the Champions League while also making Real contenders in La Liga –
– they have won the title just twice in the last decade.

His new charges lost 4-2 after extra time to Atletico in the UEFA Super
Cup in midweek, but skipper Sergio Ramos insists Real will cope without
Ronaldo.

“Throughout history, stars have come and gone and Real have kept winning.
The decision has been made to move on to a new phase and I hope all goes well
for him and for us,” he said.

President Florentino Perez is hoping Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema will
now stand up and be counted, while Luka Modric remains and is a contender for
the Ballon d’Or after his brilliant World Cup with Croatia.

– Captain Messi –

Messi is now the captain of a Barcelona side who have won seven titles in
the last 10 seasons and began this campaign by beating Sevilla 2-1 to lift
the Spanish Super Cup.

The Catalans have added depth to their squad with the signings of
Brazilian duo Arthur and Malcom, French defender Clement Lenglet and Chile
midfielder Arturo Vidal.

They will also hope for big impacts from Ousmane Dembele and Philippe
Coutinho, two big-money buys last season, as they look to retain the domestic
crown and end Real’s European hegemony.

“Last year we won the league and the cup, but the Champions League stuck
in our throats, especially with how we were knocked out,” said Messi this
week.

The Champions League final will be played at Atletico’s Wanda
Metropolitano stadium, giving Diego Simeone’s side huge incentive to go all
the way in that competition.

However, after finishing 14 points adrift of Barca in second place last
season, they also look well equipped to seriously challenge for the league,
which they last won in 2014.

Antoine Griezmann, the French World Cup winner and another Ballon d’Or
contender, rejected Barcelona’s overtures to stay put on improved terms.

Atletico also made the biggest signing of the Spanish summer by spending
72 million euros ($84m) on Monaco’s France winger Thomas Lemar. The narrative
that Atleti are the impoverished underdogs against the big two no longer
holds true.

“We need to improve on what we did last season. Obviously expectations are
high and we need to incorporate and work with the new players who have
arrived,” said Simeone.

While they aim big, the biggest fixture remains the Clasico, and Barca and
Real’s first meeting will come at the Camp Nou in late October.

Nevertheless, La Liga, which will use Video Assistant Referees this
season, offers plenty of interest below the leading trio. Valencia have
strengthened for their return to the Champions League with strikers Kevin
Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi both enrolled.

Villarreal, Betis and Sevilla will all hope to be stronger too, with the
latter under a new coach in Pablo Machin, while Huesca, the small side from
Aragon, are preparing for their first ever top-flight campaign.

BSS/AFP/MSY/1423 hrs