Austerity hits new La Liga season hard

It is not a good sign for a league’s competitive level when many of its better teams are forced to sell their best players in the off-season. But that is what has just happened in Spain’s Primera Division, where many of the clubs behind Barcelona and Real Madrid have had to tighten their belts this summer.

Atletico Madrid had its best campaign in almost two decades last season — spending six months in the second spot, and joyously beating their city rivals Real in May’s Copa del Rey final. Then just days later leading scorer Radamel Falcao was sold.

Real Sociedad also had a great year — coming out of the pack to finish fourth and earning a shot at the UEFA Champions League. But Real Madrid soon paid the €39 million release clause to snap up the Basque side’s key midfield dynamo Asier Illarramendi.

And on it goes; fifth placed Valencia lost its club captain and striker Roberto Soldado to Tottenham; Malaga [sixth] said goodbye to Isco, Jeremy Toulalan, Martin Demichelis and Joaquin Sanchez; Real Betis saw its midfield general Beñat Etxebarria leave, as well as other key members of last year’s starting XI; Rayo Vallecano bid adios to top scorer Piti and fellow attacker Leo Baptistao; while Sevilla sold Spanish internationals Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo to Manchester City. We could go on.

Barcelona and Real Madrid opened their wallets for young stars Neymar and Isco this summer (Photo: David Ramos/Gonzalo Arroyo/Getty Images).

Deep-rooted financial and structural problems are to blame for this exodus, including a TV revenue arrangement which massively favors Barcelona and Real Madrid, owners and presidents who for years wrote checks their clubs could not cash, and a countrywide economic crisis which has seriously hit ticket and merchandising revenues.

The crash has been coming for a while, but the austerity now being imposed is no less painful for being widely foreseen. Fans of Valencia and Sevilla, accustomed until recently to signing international quality players, have watched in shock as their heavily indebted club’s rummaged through the transfer window’s bargain basement. Betis, Malaga and Rayo have been forced to rely on free transfers and loan deals.

There are however some, just a few, clubs where supporters have been able to enjoy the summer window. For just as the one-eyed man is king in the kingdom of the blind, any Spanish outfit which can fund a minor outlay on players can see their fortunes turn quickly around.

Atletico might not push Madrid and Barca as close this year, but Champions League cash has allowed coach Diego Simeone to mop up talent and experience in Demichelis, Baptistao and Spain striker David Villa. Los Colchoneros should finish best of the rest again.

Athletic Bilbao — the biggest spender outside of the big two — has strengthened its squad in defense, midfield and attack. With steady hand Ernesto Valverde returning to helm a ship which listed badly under Marcelo Bielsa last term, Los Leones look well set for fourth.

Villarreal has bought Giovanni dos Santos to play alongside his Mexican international colleague Javier Aquino in midfield, and should do well on its return to the top flight. Celta Vigo has invested the money raised by selling Iago Aspas to Liverpool in re-uniting its new coach Luis Enrique with a number of his promising former charges in Barca’s youth team. Granada’s links to Serie A side Udinese have again borne fruit with some clever signings. Given the issues elsewhere, each of these teams will be targeting a top half finish at least.

But none of the other 18 clubs are likely to unduly bother Barca or Madrid, who have both strengthened already formidable rosters during the close season. Money was no issue at the Camp Nou as €57 million was spent on Neymar, or at the Bernabeu as Isco and Illarramendi were seized up for a combined €70 million.

Madrid did lose Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli, and Josep Guardiola tempted Thiago Alcantara from Barca to Bayern Munich, but neither was a certain starter for the new campaign.

In fact, the most important change at both of Spain’s giants has been on the bench, and that is where the 2013-14 title could well be decided.

Barca’s new boss Gerardo Martino, who did impress when winning titles in Paraguay and Argentina, and also with the Paraguay national team, will have to adapt quickly to European football.

Meanwhile Madrid’s new man, Carlo Ancelotti, boasts championship wins in Italy, England and France on his résumé. The Italian has already smoothed over many of the problems he inherited from Jose Mourinho’s turbulent final year at the Bernabeu, and has perhaps a more balanced squad all round.

So the prediction. Madrid to win the 2012-13 Primera Division trophy while Barcelona comes a close second. And the rest — to nobody’s surprise — will finish nowhere.