A Real title race this time – La Liga season preview
After Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid had successfully broken Barcelona's dominance of Spanish football by winning the 2011-12 La Liga Primera title, Los Blancos were installed as the betting favourites to retain in 2012/13.
After all, Pep Guardiola - the most successful coach in Barcelona's history - had left the club to take a sabbatical and his replacement, Tito Vilanova, while already well respected for his tactical nous as Pep's assistant, was an unknown as a head coach at a very big club.
However, somewhat unexpectedly, Real Madrid proceeded to draw their opening fixture at home to Valencia, with defeats away to Getafe and Sevilla sandwiched in-between a home defeat of lowly Granada.
Barcelona, on the other hand, won their first four games, resulting in an eight point gap between their selves and Jose's Madrid with only a month of the new season played.
Indeed, many a casual observer said that the title race was over already - and they weren't far wrong. Of course, it's fair to say that such a gap so early meant that Jose and Real made the Champions League their top priority in 2013/4, but they - like Barca - failed in Europe and eventually lost the League title to their Catalan rivals by a record fifteen points.
All in all, Barcelona were totally dominant domestically in 2012/13, but heavily dependent on Messi and totally burned out by the time Bayern Munich embarrassingly beat them 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League semi-finals.
To cap off a very bad season for Los Blancos, Real Madrid, of course, also lost the Copa del Rey final to City rivals Atletico at the Bernabeu. Jose - who had been embroiled in a power struggle with club president Perez for some time - even refused to pick up his losers medal.
Put simply, Jose's behaviour, which included refusing to attend a few press conferences (a cardinal sin), dropping the national teams goalkeeper and running across the touchline to flick Tito Vilanova's ear, would only be tolerated if he was winning major trophies - and bar the season opening supercup - he wasn't in 2012/13.
So, what are we to expect in 2013/14? Well, Jose Mourinho has left Real Madrid for Chelsea, with Blancos president Perez replacing the Portuguese with former AC Milan, Chelsea and PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti - a man who, unlike Mounrinho, is going to be somewhat more controllable in his dealings internally and with the press, and is also unlikely to cause problems with the elite Spanish players (Casillas, for example) in the dressing room.
With the sad news that Tito Vilanova's cancer has relapsed and the Spanish coach's resulting decision to step down from his position as head coach, Barcelona have appointed former Newell's Old Boys coach Gerardo Martino.
Whilst this gentleman will be somewhat of an unknown to many fans in Europe, having witnessed more than a handful of Newell's matches last season, I can assure you that he plays attacking football and should fit in well with the clubs philosophy.
Joining Martino at Barca is young Brazilian sensation Neymar, who became the clubs record signing after joining from Santos. Indeed, many wonder how two players who are used to total freedom on the pitch will play together in the same team - only time will tell.
So, who do I fancy to win the 2013/14 La Liga title? Of course, these days it's a two horse race between Real Madrid (EVS) and Barcelona (8/11) - and I go with Real Madrid.
Why? Well, they've been more impressive in pre-season, scoring early and winning every game, and the club currently appears to be operating at a greater level of harmony than it was last season - simply producing results and avoiding controversy. Everybody involved with Real Madrid wants to return the club to winning ways and that starts by winning the 2013/14 La Liga crown.
Barca, bar their defeat to Bayern Munich in an early fixture, haven't been tested in pre-season. Also, at the time of writing, the Catalans have failed to address their biggest need in buying a new centre-back - and we don't yet know how well Messi and Neymar will function on and off the pitch together.
Atletico Madrid (10/11), Valencia (7/2), Sevilla (14/1) and last year's surprise package, Real Sociedad (12/1), are the obvious contenders in this market.
For my money, I would discount Valencia after the sale of Soldado, dismiss Real Sociedad after the loss of their manager, sale of best midfielder and likelihood that they'll struggle to compete on multiple fronts with a small squad - and finally rule out Sevilla under the auspices that they've sold their best striker (Negredo), winger (Navas) and central midfielder (Medel).
Indeed, despite the sale of Falcao, I can't see past Atletico Madrid. Simeone comfortably achieved third place in the league last season and has proved himself to be a great manager in cup competition, so I can't see the Champions League being a distraction - and Falcao dependence was heavily reduced and replaced by the goals of Diego Costa towards the end of last season. A fit David Villa will certainly help too!
In my opinion, Atletico Madrid (1/3) are the only club that look nailed on for a top four finish. However, with a greater level of stability at the club since the sale of Llorente and departure of coach Bielsa, coupled with the fact that the club's squad will not be stretched by UEFA competition in 2013/14 and has added Benat from Betis, I fancy Athletic Bilbao (6/1) as a suitable longshot punt in this market. Athletic can also be backed at 13/8 to finish in the Top 6.
The top scorer award, known as the Pichichi, has been won by Barcelona's Lionel Messi (8/13) for the last two seasons, with the little Argentine also securing the title in 2009-10.
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (11/8) is Messi's most realistic contender, having twice been runner up, along with actually winning the award in 2010-11. Now, given that it's taken 41, 50 and 46 goals to win the Pichichi in the last three seasons and that the now departed Falcao could only get into the late 20's last season, it seems unrealistic to expect anyone who doesn't play for Real or Barca to finish as the league's top scorer.
Of course, the recently signed Neymar (16/1) plays for Barcelona and while he'll need time to adapt, if you're looking for a longshot this appears to the best one.
However, although Ronaldo will take centre stage, taking the penalties and free-kicks that Real will acquire, Benzema (40/1) also has to be considered, especially at the price.
Finally, David Villa (40/1) is the player I wanted to back as my longshot, but in a win only market, while considering that his new coach, Diego Simeone, is the type of boss who grinds out low scoring wins and has no interest in running the score up, I can't see him being Pichichi in 2013/14.
All in all, if you want me to make a firm pick, I'd go with Ronaldo at 11/8 as Messi now has Neymar to share duties with, whilst Bale - at the time of writing - seems unlikely to sign for Los Blancos this season.
2012/13 saw three fairly big names relegated to the Segunda division: Deportivo La Coruna, Real Zaragoza and Real Mallorca. This season, names such as Malaga (12/1) and Real Betis (12/1) are amongst consideration.
Why? Malaga, whilst considering their well-documented financial troubles with ownership, have lost their manager and best players. Ok, you can say that relegation is a stretch, but I expect them to free-fall through the league as a consequence of these changes and at 12/1 it's clearly not rated as out of the question as many punters may think.
As for Betis, well, they have a very small squad, have sold star midfielder Benat to Athletic Bilbao and, from experience, are exactly the type of club who can finish in the top six one season and then wilt under the pressure of competing on multiple fronts the next, making for a possible relegation fight in the league. Largely, this punt offering will depend on how Betis progress in Europe.
Otherwise, the promoted teams: Elche (5/6), Villarreal (7/2) and Almeria (5/6), along with survivors from the 2012/13 Primera Liga season in Granada (7/4), Osasuna (9/4), Rayo (11/4) and Valladolid (3/1) , are favoured to drop into the Segunda division.
In assessment, Granada ended the season well and look to have strengthened their squad enough to be discounted from this category, while Osasuna are always touted for the drop, yet always survive.
Elche look like the most likely team to be relegated in my book, with Rayo - who have lost nearly all of their offensive players - a punt worth considering at 11/4.
Anyway, that's all folks! I hope you've enjoyed my La Liga season preview for 2013/14 and thank you for reading it, but don't forget to read my weekly La Liga betting previews - exclusively here at the Home of Betting.
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