RICH GET RICHER AS LA LIGA’S ALSO-RANS SELL

Big-spend­ing Barca, Real only le­git­i­mate con­tenders for Span­ish crown, writes.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTSSOCCER -

Look­ing at the Span­ish sports pages over the typ­i­cally bak­ing sum­mer months, it would ap­pear the na­tion’s soc­cer was in rude health, on and off the pitch.

In Cat­alo­nia, Ney­mar has dom­i­nated at­ten­tion af­ter his 57 mil­lion euro ($74 mil­lion) move from San­tos to Barcelona was con­firmed in June, while in the cap­i­tal, Real Madrid backed up their 69 mil­lion euro in­vest­ment in the young Span­ish duo of Isco and Asier Il­lar­ra­mendi with an on-go­ing pur­suit of the 100 mil­lion euro rated Gareth Bale in a saga that looks set to run well into the fi­nal days of the trans­fer win­dow.

But be­neath the big two, the game in Spain has con­tin­ued to re­flect the gen­eral aili ng Spani s h econ­omy with even clubs in the Cham­pi­ons League forced to sell their best play­ers.

As a re­sult, the al­ready colos­sal gap be­tween Real and Barca and the rest con­tin­ues to in­crease as do fears that by con­tin­u­ing to use an un­bal­anced TV deal that greatly fa­vors the big two, La Liga will fur­ther de­scend into a turgid twohorse race.

How­ever, whilst both Barca and Real have been ac­tive in the trans­fer mar­ket, there are con­cerns that both have so far failed to bring in the type of play­ers they re­ally needed af­ter fall­ing at the semi­fi­nal stage of the Cham­pi­ons League last sea­son.

Ney­mar’s ar­rival should cer­tainly ease the scor­ing bur­den Lionel Messi has car­ried al­most sin­gle-hand­edly for the past two sea­sons, but the Cata­lans still look thread­bare at the back with cap­tain Car­les Puyol hav­ing un­der­gone two op­er­a­tions dur­ing the close sea­son and he is not due back till at least Septem­ber.

Real, mean­while, has bol­stered an al­ready strong mid­field, but hasn’t so far re­placed Gonzalo Higuain af­ter he joined Napoli last month, leav­ing only Karim Ben­zema and young­ster Al­varo Mo­rata to fill the lone striker’s po­si­tion.

There is though al­ready a great deal more calm around Los Blan­cos fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of Jose Mour­inho with the man­age­ment team of Carlo Ancelotti and Zine­dine Zi­dane highly re­spected by the squad and the play­ers them­selves com­ing to­gether as a unit fol­low­ing the pub­lic clashes and fall­outs that marked the Por­tuguese’s fi­nal sea­son at the Bern­abeu.

That greater unity should mean Real pushes Barca a great deal closer than it did last sea­son, but the ti­tle will again be de­fined by small mar­gins.

Such is their dom­i­nance that first Real and then Barca amassed 100 points in win­ning the ti­tle in the past two sea­sons and with the gap only set to widen be­tween them and the rest, it is highly likely who­ever be­comes cham­pion will need to reg­is­ter a cen­tury of points once more.

In the bat­tle for Cham­pi­ons League places, Atletico Madrid seems the best set de­spite los­ing star Radamel Fal­cao to Monaco. Atletico has ar­guably done the best busi­ness in terms of value for money as it re­placed the 60 mil­lion euro Colom­bian with David Villa for an ini­tal fee of just 2.1 mil­lion eu­ros.

Con­tin­u­ing an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic pe­riod of sta­bil­ity since Diego Sime­one took charge of the club in De­cem­ber 2011, Atletico is the only club to fin­ish in the top six last sea­son that hasn’t changed man­ager over the off­sea­son and it is a heavy fa­vorite to be the best of the rest once more.

Fur­ther down, Va­len­cia, Sevilla, Real Betis and Real So­ciedad are all likely to be in the mix for the Euro­pean places de­spite los­ing key play­ers in re­cent months.

Va­len­cia has re­placed new Spurs sign­ing Roberto Soldado with a for­mer Spurs player, Helder Postiga, for a tenth of the price it sold Soldado, while Sevilla has also seen two Span­ish in­ter­na­tion­als de­part as Je­sus Navas and Al­varo Ne­gredo have joined Manch­ester City.

How­ever, they will still most likely bat­tle it out for the fi­nal Cham­pi­ons League place as last sea­son’s sur­prise pack­age So­ciedad hasn’t in­vested heav­ily in its squad de­spite the 39 mil­lion euro wind­fall it re­ceived from Il­lar­ra­mendi’s de­par­ture.

Betis has lost its key creative lynch­pin in Be­nat Ex­te­bar­ria af­ter he re­joined Ath­letic Bil­bao and the Basques them­selves will be hop­ing for a far more suc­cess­ful cam­paign than their 12th- placed fin­ish last sea­son fol­low­ing the ap­point­ment of the highly-rated Ernesto Valverde as man­ager.

QUIQUE GAR­CIA / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Barcelona for­ward Lionel Messi looks on as he takes part in a train­ing ses­sion at the FC Barcelona Sports Cen­ter Joan Gam­per in Sant Joan De­spi, near Barcelona, on July 29.

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