The ‘Manchester City of Spain’? Saudi billions move into Almeria with hopes of joining La Liga elite

Almeria last tasted La Liga action in 2015. Prior to their most recent two-season stint at the top table, the club have only spent four others in Primera under their current guise of UD Almeria – which has been their identity since 1989. New Saudi investor Turki Al-Sheikh is looking to change all that, bankrolling a race to promotion in an attempt to eventually challenge Spain’s giants. Rewards, however, do not come without risks, both financial and those made towards tradition.

Turki paid 15 million euros to take over the Andalusian club this summer after trying his hand at ownership to a degree of success in Africa. Immediately, the aim has been to make a surge for promotion despite Almeria’s modest recent history. Last season saw the club finish 10th, but previously plumbing the depths of 15th and 18th shows how tough it can be for a club to steady themselves after falling from the riches of La Liga.

A new era beckons, armed with new coach Pedro Emanuel and a host of fresh personnel. Almeria have lofty ambitions and the suggestions are that their resources only know the bounds of the Spanish league structure’s rules now that a billionaire is in town.

Who is Almeria’s new owner?

Turki Al-Sheikh pictured at the 2018 World Cup in his role as Saudi sports minister (Getty Images)

Al-Sheikh purchased Egyptian club Alassiouty Sport back in 2018 before changing the club’s name to Pyramids FC and going on an ambitious spending spree to assemble a very expensive set of coaching staff and an equally impressive squad that immediately burst onto the top-flight scene and finished third. A little over a year later, he decided to sell the club on – after previously flip-flopping on doing so back in February.

“Good luck to Pyramids FC in the future,” Turki posted on his Facebook page after deciding to pull the plug on this investments. “It was an enjoyable experiment. I will go into a new experience and I will call it ‘Al Assiouty Part Two’ but at another place and time.” That time and a place has proven to be in southern Spain.

Backed by reported billions, resources are not in question for Almeria. The difficulty comes in how they can invest money without falling foul of the legislation put in place to protect Spanish clubs from irresponsible ownership. Al-Sheikh has experience in a short-term role as Saudi Arabia’s sports minister, while he also has been reported to be a political adviser to his country’s crown prince, as well as being involved in sports as head of the General Authority for Sport, Saudi Olympic Committee and the Union of Arab Football Associations.

While trying to promote the profile of the Saudi league, Al-Sheikh was involved in brokering the deal which saw native players move on loan to La Liga clubs in a strategy which did not have the desired effect either on or off the field. The same aims could apply to purchasing a club in Spain.

Big investments

England youth international Arvin Appiah was Almeria’s most expensive signing of the summer (Getty Images)

This summer, just 37.5 million euros was spent across the entirety of the Spanish second tier. More than half of that total (20.75 million) was shelled out by Almeria. Nottingham Forest’s 18-year-old forward Arvin Appiah joined for 8 million euros, while a transfer policy of recruiting under-23 talent has been roughly adhered to.

Darwin Nunez (4 million euros) signed from Uruguay giants Penarol, while Jonathan (1 million euros) arrived from Botafogo. Former wonderkid Ante Coric has been loaned from Roma during a summer where the club have welcomed 23 new faces – some of whom were deemed surplus to requirements immediately after the takeover was complete.

Their salary cap for the 2019-20 Segunda campaign comes in at a total of 18.12m euros, only bettered by Girona (29.28m euros) and Rayo Vallecano (19.06m euros) who suffered relegation from the Spanish top flight last season. Huesca follow them, who also dropped down a tier over the summer, before recent La Liga participants in the form of Deportivo La Coruna, Sporting Gijon and Malaga.

Last season, Almeria’s salary cap sat at just 6.998m euros, meaning the club have been able to spend more than 11 million euros more on paying their squad for the coming campaign. After the new ownership put a little over 30 million euros of capital into the club, it has freed them up to invest heavily in their playing squad. La Liga’s verdict has been that clubs with Almeria’s financial standing will be able to spend 65 per cent of their incomings on player salaries.

It has been pointed out that the new ownership will not be able to use generous inflated sponsorships from Saudi Arabia in the same manner that Paris Saint-Germain have had success in the past, although new sponsors have invariably got involved with the project owing to the new commercial opportunities at hand. Changing the branding of the club appears to be up for debate too – as shown below – which would be a step down a well-trodden path towards a disillusioned fan base.

‘Manchester City in Spain’

Almeria’s Estadio de Los Juegos Mediterraneos (Getty Images)

More positively, foundations are being laid for the future. New general director of the club Mohamed El Assy has outlined plans for big improvements to be made off the field too. Plans for a stadium renovation and a state-of-the-art training complex are already in the pipeline with discussions underway with the local council to make Turki’s dreams a reality. “The boss doesn’t like to wait, he wants everything now,” explained El Assy in a press conference.

The ambition is to mount an immediate challenge for promotion and to then continue to invest with the intention of becoming a force in La Liga. Interacting with Turki on Twitter Sayed Farouk, the technology expert who has links with Manchester United, suggested his investment could encourage a “similar experience to Manchester City in Spain”. The bar has been set and it doesn’t appear that Turki Al-Sheikh is in the business of building an empire slowly.

Diario de Almeria have reported that the club would like a 200,000 square metre plot to construct their new complex, enough space to ensure that the first team and academy ranks can co-exist.

There are already undertones of a potential online rivalry with Malaga, borne through the fact that their fellow Segunda opponents are under the ownership of Qatar’s Al Thani, while new manager Pedro Emanuel took the managerial reins at the club following a very successful season as coach of Saudi club Al-Taawoun in 2018-19. Getting Almeria into La Liga may be about proving other points away from football.

For now, Almeria have made a record start to the new Segunda campaign. Taking three wins and a draw from their opening four games, conceding just once in the process, things on the field look positive. Following their summer spending spree, new recruits are yet to be blooded into the group, suggesting there is room for plenty of growth yet. The Andalusian club are now well-equipped to make moves towards La Liga, but the scope of Turki Al-Sheikh’s new project is yet to be truly determined.

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Why did Valencia sack Marcelino? Chaos at Mestalla ahead of Barcelona and Chelsea fixtures

Two fourth-placed finishes and a Copa del Rey trophy, Valencia‘s first title in a decade, made for a very successful two seasons in charge for Marcelino.

But just three games into the 2019-20 La Liga season, the 54-year-old was unceremoniously sacked a month after disagreements between himself, general manager Mateu Alemany and owner Peter Lim.

It was believed just weeks ago that both Marcelino and Alemany would resign as a result of their ambitions not being understood by those in positions of power – and those bubbling forces of discontent proved to be enough to result in a messy sacking this week. A lack of investment in the playing squad has been cited as the main reason behind the frustrations at Mestalla despite the club building impressively on the pitch from back-to-back 12th-placed league finishes in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Marcelino’s ability to take a flailing squad from mid-table mediocrity and turn them into organised, disciplined winners after the disappointing appointments of Gary Neville and Nuno Espirito Santo has been one of the quickest transformations in top-level world football over the last couple of years. Although the success on the field has been clear, Lim’s issues with his manager’s public outbursts – implying further disagreements beyond the things seen by the media – outweighed the obvious value that Marcelino brought to Mestalla.

A terrible start to last season left Valencia in 15th place after 12 games, just four points and three places above the relegation zone. Then, many fans were calling for their coach’s head. After the club’s upturn in form, fourth-placed finish and cup triumph, the idea of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone could hit hard this season after the hiring of Albert Celades as Marcelino’s successor. An assistant for Julen Lopetegui at both Real Madrid and Spain, as well as a national youth coach with three different age groups, Celades has no senior management experience.

Frustrations in the transfer market

Valencia snapped up Maxi Gomez for an estimated £13 million this summer (Getty Images)

Despite the late signing of proven La Liga striker Maxi Gomez this summer, Marcelino showed little hesitancy in airing his personal grievances in public. It mirrors a past situation from 2016 where the coach found himself sacked by Villarreal just days before a Champions League play-off against Monaco, a case of getting on the wrong side of those above him in the club’s hierarchy and, in their opinion, biting the hand that feeds him.

Marcelino wanted to bring in Denis Suarez and Rafinha, two players he had worked with in the past, but both opted to return to Celta Vigo. Rodrigo Moreno, meanwhile, one of the players to make the biggest improvements in their game under the Spaniard, even spent time away from the group’s pre-season preparations as talks rumbled on with Atletico Madrid.

“The club have told me that Rafinha will not be coming, the squad is still a bit shallow,” Marcelino complained in a recent press conference. “If Rodrigo ends up leaving we will have to change our objectives. We are seeing the investments made by Sevilla and Betis, next season will be tough.”

Though Rodrigo stayed put in the end, the only extra player signed by the club was 20-year-old right back Thierry Correia from Portuguese giants Sporting. Even then, the deal was made as a reactionary move in a key area, given that Cristiano Piccini picked up a serious injury in training that will see the Italy international sit on the sidelines until at least January. Ever since the sale of Joao Cancelo to Juventus in 2018, Valencia have needed to strengthen in that very same position – an example of where Marcelino would feel frustrated with the club’s transfer strategy.

A distraught dressing room

Marcelino and Dani Parejo formed a strong bond at Mestalla (Getty Images)

Valencia players took to Twitter and Instagram to share their own opinions on Marcelino’s departure. The likes of Piccini and Denis Cheryshev thanked their former boss for his faith in them despite injury problems, while Carlos Soler, Jaume Costa and Rodrigo wished him the best for the future. Ezequiel Garay and Dani Parejo, however, two key leaders in the squad and key pillars of Marcelino’s successes over the last two years had far more stronger words to say.

“Whoever took this decision not only trampled over you, but dragged down a whole fanbase and team, something that I will say loudly and clearly: IS NOT FAIR,” Garay wrote on his Instagram account.

“Boss, I wish you the best,” wrote club captain Parejo. “I am sure that things will go well for you wherever you go and they will let you work. Thank you for making the club bigger and me a better footballer.” The inclusion of “they will let you work” lends itself to suggesting that there has been some perceived meddling in the football side of things at Mestalla that should be left to the manager alone.

It is clear that while Marcelino might have been removed for non-footballing reasons, there are plenty of internal factors at play which could see his departure affect Celades’ start at the club. Rodrigo Moreno and Dani Parejo re-energised their careers under his tutelage, while the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia and Goncalo Guedes shone in 2017-18.

What will Celades bring to Mestalla?

Albert Celades has worked as Julen Lopetegui’s number two at Real Madrid and with Spain (Getty Images)

Club president Anil Murthy detailed that trusting in young players was the motivation behind bringing in Celades, yet Marcelino gave plenty of opportunity to the likes of Carlos Soler (22), Toni Lato (21), Ferran Torres (19) and Kangin Lee (18) over the last 12 months. The aforementioned names owe their former boss for kicking off their fledgling careers, while the older heads in the group have stepped up to a very impressive level after floundering in mid-table obscurity up until the summer of 2017.

Valencia face Barcelona this weekend in La Liga, before a midweek trip to England to face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In terms of timing, there could be no worse time to pull the rug out from underneath their squad. Under Marcelino, Los Che became a demanding, intense and organised opponent whose solid defending and vertical counter-attacking approach posed a big threat for any club. Take away the man responsible for implementing that style and guiding the club back to the continent’s top table and suddenly Valencia look like a banana skin that is far easier to dodge.

Marcelino is known to be a demanding and, at times, abrasive personality, but the rough must be taken with the smooth. His intense approach got the best out of an underachieving group, while his softer side with his players showed that any rough words were only a result of needing to have the competitive edge required to keep on progressing. This isn’t the first time that he has faced the sack for his own frustrations getting the best of him, but it also won’t be the last time that he immeasurably improves a football club.

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‘It was a shock’: Marcus McGuane on his sudden fall from Arsenal and Barcelona to the Dutch second division

BARCELONA — Marcus McGuane looks up from his pasta, a glint in his eye as he remembers the night he became the first Englishman to play for Barcelona’s senior side since Gary Lineker.

“It was quite a big thing,” he tells i, days before completing a surprise loan move to Dutch second division side Telstar last week. “Back home it was on the six o’clock news. I got so many messages. So many. My Whatsapp, my Instagram, you can imagine. It was crazy.”

McGuane, 20, made his Barça debut in the Catalan Super Cup in March 2018. Just 36 days had passed since he had signed from Arsenal, who he made two appearances for in the Europa League. Things weren’t supposed to move so quickly. The idea was that he would spend six months adapting to his new surroundings and learning the language. That blueprint was ripped up when Gerard Lopez handed him his B team bow three days after he arrived.

Ernesto Valverde then called him up to train with the first team, before including him in the squad for the Super Cup game against Espanyol, bringing him on as a second-half substitute as Barca won on penalties.

‘I felt the impact straight away’

“Everything was going smoothly,” McGuane adds, before turning his mind back to the moment when things started to deteriorate. “I still hadn’t gone anywhere near my peak but I felt good. I was playing in my natural position and I felt I was getting better. Then Lopez got sacked and [Garcia Pimienta] replaced him.

“I felt the impact straight away. It happened on a Thursday before a game. We were travelling on the Saturday and I wasn’t even in the squad. It was a bit of a shock. After that it was tough. I never had the same feeling that I had during those first few months.”

McGuane was gutted by the departure of Lopez, a coach that he had struck up a rapport with. The change in management was just one of a succession of incidents which would knock the England youth international’s confidence and eventually see him turn down a number of attractive this offers this summer in favour of relative wilderness in Holland.

Under Pimienta, Barca B were relegated. They went from playing in front of crowds of 20,000 at Osasuna to being lucky to hit 1,000 at Cornella in the regionalised third division. There was then an untimely trip back to England for personal reasons after an impressive pre-season in which he had trained alongside Lionel Messi, who was absent from the first team’s tour of the United States. When he returned, after starring in a central midfield position in two friendlies, he found himself out of the team. He wouldn’t play his favoured role again.

‘Once in a lifetime opportunities’

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When he finally broke back into the team it was a right winger. Then he was ruled out with an injury in October. His season might as well have ended there. When it did end, he’d made just 16 appearances.

McGuane admits there’s frustration at being played out of position — “maybe as a kid I played there, when I was nine or 10, but I am not a right winger” — but he’s not seeking excuses. He’s not bitter about how things turned out as he looks to get his career back on track with Telstar.

“I didn’t play as much as I would have liked, but the training and the level of the boys was good and I had opportunities with the first team,” he reflected. “There have been some once in a lifetime opportunities.

“It’s been good to get away from the distractions you have in London, too. In London everything is so accessible, it’s so easy. For a footballer, it’s so easy to get caught up in the London bubble. Being away from that has been good for me. I’ve matured as a person. You find out the things you like, the things you don’t like. It’s helped me grow in so many ways and come closer to family members. It makes you realise the most important things in life when you don’t always have them around you.

“There have been times when it’s been really hard, but I am strong. I don’t give up easily. I wouldn’t have been in Barcelona for any reason other than football. It didn’t work out with the game time that I wanted, but there are no regrets.”

Familiar face in the Netherlands

Former Arsenal youth team coach Andries Jonker is now in charge of Telstar (Getty Images)

Hadjuk Split, Besiktas and Sassuolo all put together attractive packages this summer but they couldn’t offer what Telstar could: Andries Jonker, Louis van Gaal’s former No 2 and McGuane’s one-time youth coach at Arsenal. The Dutchman had been texting McGuane all summer and convinced him he could offer him what he wants: the chance to enjoy his football again, feel valued and play minutes in his best position.

“The most important thing for me now is feeling comfortable,” McGuane explained. “Being happy where I am, in a good environment with family and friends and the people that I love around me.

“Choosing a club this summer has felt like such a big decision. I’m still young, but it feels like a big point in my career. I have just got to get some experience playing. Coming to Barcelona was an easy decision. It felt like the right time. I felt like I was going to have the opportunity to show what I can do.”

His food now finished, McGuane admitted any long-term goals he had of returning to the Premier League or representing England have had to be put on the back-burner.

“With the way football is going, everything is more short-term,” he said. “My mind is just on this season. I just want to play and enjoy football again. Play. I want to get back to the level that I can perform at.”

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Sergio Ramos wants you to change your mind about him – to the backdrop of one of his ‘worst years’ at Real Madrid

If there is one thing you will learn from new Amazon Prime documentary El Corazon de Sergio Ramos, it is that perceptions of the titular hero here and in Spain are worlds apart.

Here, were you to ask a group of football fans to think of the first word they associate with Ramos nine out of 10 of them would probably say ‘shithouse’ (though it should be stated for any Spanish speakers that the term ‘shithouse’ in England is often said with grudging respect). In Spain, or at least much of the old Castilian Spain which has Madrid at its heart, he seems to be treated with the almost transcendent reverence usually reserved for saints, miracle workers and kings.

Ramos has been a miracle worker, in fairness, for both the Spanish national team and Real Madrid. Sometimes even referred to as ‘El Rey’ by Real fans, he has helped to bring four La Liga titles, four Champions League winners’ medals and a host of other honours to the Bernabeu, as well as securing the World Cup and consecutive triumphs in the European Championships for Spain in 2008 and 2012. Among the best defenders in the world for well over a decade, at 33, he has won everything there is to win with both club and country.

Speak to fans outside Spain, however, and they are more likely to recall his fouls, his amateur dramatics, his off-the-ball shenanigans, his fabled number of red cards or his infamous body slam on Mohamed Salah in the 2018 Champions League final than they are to reel off his career honours. He was relentlessly booed when England met Spain in the Uefa Nations League last autumn only a few months after the incident which saw Salah tearfully leave the field in Kiev with a nasty shoulder injury. 

Ramos is not universally loved in his home country either and, World Cup hero as he may be, he is a red flag to a bull for fans of Sevilla, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in particular. To his critics, he may be a serial winner but he is also someone who has pushed the boundaries of sportsmanship so far that the term may as well have been struck from the dictionary.

‘One of the worst years’

Ramos speaking at the London screening of his new docuseries
Ramos speaking at the London screening of his new docuseries (Photo via Amazon Prime)

Now, though, it seems that Ramos wants to clean up his image as a pantomime villain and one of the most ruthless defenders in world football. That’s where El Corazon de Sergio Ramos comes in, with its gentle fly-on-the-wall look at his home life and interests away from football. 

Married to Spanish TV presenter Pilar Rubio with three small children at home, Ramos is shown making dad jokes, playing with his kids, tending to his beloved horses on his ranch, strumming soulfully on acoustic guitars – there is a mild ‘guy ruining a house party’ vibe to this – and generally being a human being as opposed to living his on-pitch persona as a cross between a Muay Thai instructional DVD and high-strength itching powder. Ramos and Rubio were married in June and there is a vague ‘Spanish Beckhams’ overtone to all this, with El Corazon de Sergio Ramos a careful combination of sweet and slick.

At an early screening of the first episode in London, Ramos stresses that there are “no limits” to the level of access in the series and that he has “opened my heart and the doors of my home”, but the result has clearly been closely cultivated. The dialogue is badly stilted at times – not least when Ramos and his brother Rene, also his agent, are on screen together – even if the impression of Ramos the man is still weirdly endearing (which is, after all, the whole idea).

Read more: Sergio Ramos on Gareth Bale: ‘It’s up to each person to go home with a clear conscience or not’

Where things get interesting is in the concurrent narrative on the pitch, which neither Ramos nor Amazon could have predicted at the time the series was commissioned. “In the series you are going to have the chance to see everything, not just the good times of a football player, because there are good parts but also when you hit the bottom,” he says. “We actually started the shooting in one of the worst professional years for my team and I think that’s something people will be able to see – that football is not just victories and joys. Sometimes you go home very sad because things don’t go the way you expect and you go home sad because maybe you weren’t able to make your fans, the Madridistas, happy.”

‘Suffering and pain’

Ramos in action for Real Madrid last month
After the highs of three Champions League triumphs in a row, Real Madrid struggled badly last season (Getty Images)

If Ramos could have picked one season to showcase his legacy as a footballer, last season would surely not have been his first choice. It’s pointed out that, had El Corazon de Sergio Ramos been filmed in any of the three seasons previous, it would have ended with him lifting the Champions League trophy. “You never know when the best time is to start filming a documentary,” he says ruefully. “If I had known, maybe I would have started three years ago to show all the trophies, but I think it’s good to see the suffering and the pain behind being a footballer and also the effort and sacrifice it entails.

“I think from here we [Real Madrid] can only go upwards. But I think they [the viewers] will see a side that maybe can be more moving, they can see more pureness and it will be more entertaining than if it had been just the successful part.”

Instead of showing him basking in the golden glow of European triumph, the series will show Ramos amidst the chaos of a season in which Real had three permanent managers, were knocked out of the Champions League in spectacular fashion by Ajax and failed to win a major trophy (unless we’re counting the Fifa Club World Cup, which we’re not). That should add some tension and a sense of jeopardy to a series which will otherwise appeal mainly to Ramos devotees.

Listening to Ramos speak, he comes across as someone who is sensitive to his image and, far from revelling in the darker side of his footballing persona, maybe even someone who wants to be liked. “Football players are regular people with a family, with feelings and that part is going to be seen from the inside… people will have much more content to have an opinion or make a judgement,” he says when asked why he agreed to make the series. “I think it will come as a big surprise for many people who have a perspective or an opinion of a person just because of what they see in a training session, advertising, on a single game or on TV,” he adds. “You cannot judge a person just by that.”

Read more: Real Sociedad give Martin Odegaard the chance to prove what he could not at Real Madrid

Asked after the screening what exactly it is he doesn’t like about his image, Ramos doesn’t want to go into specifics but says, tellingly: “I like to compete in anything I do in my life, [from when] I wake up until I go to bed.” There is an almost competitive normality to the behind-the-scenes insight of El Corazon de Sergio Ramos, when we all know that the life of a footballer is, in fact, anything but ordinary.

While the production is a little too slick to make Ramos seem like an everyman (he also appears to have two giant ceramic gnomes outside his pristine mansion, which is fairly avant-garde), the series does its best to suggest that he is, deep down, a big, soulful softie. As much as anything else, it’s an interesting insight into how one of the world’s most divisive footballers wants – and doesn’t want – to be perceived.

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Sergio Ramos says Gareth Bale must consult conscience on Real Madrid commitment

Sergio Ramos has said it is up to Gareth Bale “to go home with a clear conscience” over his commitment to Real Madrid.

Bale is still dogged by his unfortunate caricature in the press, with criticism over his competency at speaking Spanish, his supposed diffidence in the dressing room and his love of golf all contributing to his status as something between heroic outsider and outright outcast at the Bernabeu.

Asked about Bale at the London screening of his new fly-on-the-wall docuseries, El Corazon de Sergio Ramos, in August, however, his club captain hardly gave him the most resounding endorsement.

‘Time puts everything in place’

Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos and co walk off the pitch at the Bernabeu
Real Madrid are currently 5th in La Liga (Getty Images)

“I think Bale’s a great player and he’s been really important for the club in the years he’s been with us. You find many things in the press. Some are true, some are not,” Ramos said.

“We live in this world and we have to try to be above all that. Regarding what has been said about Gareth, I think time puts everything in place. 

“Regardless of what each player does in his personal life, I think it should be respected and not even talked about. We’re free to do what we want with our free time. 

“Of course, professionally, you owe yourself to a team, to a club, and you try to be as honest as possible. Afterwards, it’s up to each person to go home with a clear conscience or not.”

‘I am going to count on him’

Zinedine Zidane and Bale in happier times
Zinedine Zidane and Bale in happier times (Getty Images)

After six years at Real in which he has scored 104 goals, won four Champions League titles and still somehow ended up as an unloved misfit wandering in the footballing wilderness, this could be Bale’s strangest season yet. Back in July it looked as if there was irreparable rift between Bale and the club, with Zinedine Zidane saying at one point: “If he can go tomorrow, it would be better.”

After a move to the Chinese Super League with Jiangsu Suning collapsed, however, Bale was reintegrated into Real’s pre-season preparations and he has now started their first three La Liga matches. In his last outing against Villarreal, he scored twice and was then sent off in a fickle microcosm of his time with Los Blancos.

Despite the difficult relationship with his manager, Bale seems to have settled into an uneasy truce with Zidane which, given there is nothing either of them can do about the situation until January at the earliest, seems expedient.

Read more: Real Sociedad gives Martin Odegaard the chance to prove what he could not at Real Madrid

“It looked like he was leaving but now he is here and now I’m going to count on him, just like all the other players that are in the squad,” Zidane said last month.

“He has a contract, he’s an important player and I hope all the players want to make it difficult for me to pick the team.”

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Next Barcelona manager: 5 contenders to replace Ernesto Valverde

Ernesto Valverde is just a few games removed from securing back-to-back La Liga titles with Barcelona – you might think his job must be one of the safest in football. But Barcelona aren’t like other clubs.

Continued failures in the Champions League have mounted pressure on Valverde, pressure which reached fever pitch after Liverpool’s stunning 4-0 comeback win in the semi-final last season. A shaky start to this campaign, with an opening day defeat to Athletic Bilbao and a 2-2 draw at Osasuna, only added to calls that a change might be required.

Here are five men the Barça hierarchy could look to if they do decide to move on from Valverde after just two years.

Xavi

Xavi
Xavi is a Barcelona legend (Photo: Getty)

One of Barcelona’s greatest ever players, the club’s top brass shouldn’t have to worry about the fans turning on Xavi if he made a sensational return to the Nou Camp as boss. Xavi played more than 750 times for Barcelona in all competitions – barely anyone could claim to know the club better – but his lack of managerial experience is obviously the main worry. He only retired at the end of last season and was appointed manager of Al Sadd in Qatar – where he spent the last of his playing days – in May.

Odds: 6-1

Roberto Martinez

Martinez
Martinez guided Belgium to a third-place finish at the World Cup (Photo: Getty)

Who would have thought even a few years ago that Roberto Martinez – yes, that Roberto Martinez – could ever even be mentioned as a possible Barcelona manager, let alone be the favourite. He would be the first man to ever manage both Barça and Wigan Athletic. While he has often been derided in England, Martinez’s attacking style of play would appeal to those at the Nou Camp, and he has impressed in international football with Belgium, guiding them to a bronze medal at last summer’s World Cup.

Odds: 5-2

Luis Enrique

Luis Enrique
Luis Enrique would be returning for a second spell at Barcelona (Photo: Getty)

Luis Enrique is a rare man who could claim to know even more about how Barcelona work than Xavi. He spent eight years there as a player, started his managerial career with Barcelona B and has also already run the senior team for three years, only departing in 2017. However, the split was amicable, with Enrique choosing not to renew his contract and taking the Spain job, and a return is certainly on the cards. It could be a fruitful one: Enrique had a win percentage of 76.2 in his first spell, winning La Liga twice, the Copa Del Rey three times and the Champions League in 2014-15 – the club’s last triumph in Europe.

Odds: 5-1

Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag took Ajax on a brilliant Champions League run last season (Photo: Getty)

Ajax coach Ten Hag is a popular left-field choice in Barcelona, and who could be surprised considering the wonderful football he got his young Ajax side playing last season, as they thrilled their way to the Champions League semi-finals. Knocking out Real Madrid during that run certainly won’t hurt his chances. He already has a relationship with midfielder Frenkie de Jong, and has the potential to be every Barça fan’s dream if he can replicate his work in Amsterdam in Catalonia.

Odds: 20-1

Mauricio Pochettino

Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino could be lured away from Tottenham (Photo: Getty)

Spurs fans, look away now. Pochettino may be safe from the grasp of Real Madrid, with Zinedine Zidane having returned in the summer, but the other Spanish giant may still come calling. It’s well documented that Pochettino is frustrated with his transfer budget at Tottenham and is dying for an opportunity to genuinely compete for titles – there may not be a better club in the world to do that than at Barcelona. However it’s just that – a lack of trophies on the CV – plus his affinity for local rivals Espanyol which could scare the Catalans off.

Odds: 12-1

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Kieran Trippier feels a man reborn in the warm embrace of Diego Simeone

The smile has returned to the face of Kieran Trippier. He did not want to leave Spurs, felt the club might have done more to keep him, but would not go back if you paid him. That’s what a couple of months in the Spanish sun in the company of Diego Simeone does for a man.

Trippier does not speak much Spanish, though he is taking lessons. Simeone does not have much English. The love, however, is there, from the manager all the way to the bloke mowing the grass. “All the players, all the staff, even the groundsman giving me big cuddles, that’s what it’s like. It’s crazy, it’s like a big family. It’s mad, I’ve never experienced this before. I think I needed it. I didn’t need an arm around me, I just needed a new environment.”

Trippier’s £20million move to Atletico Madrid in July has restored confidence and transformed his international prospects. The 40 minutes he spent pouring his heart out to Gareth Southgate over the phone after being left out of the England squad ahead of the European Nations League finale in June is a distant memory. Southgate travelled to Spain unannounced to watch him play at Leganes last week and saw enough to merit a recall.

Their previous conversation was the nadir, and a watershed at the end of a season he describes as a car crash. Trippier had heard the whispers about his future in north London. He kept his own counsel during the run to the Champions League final.

‘I gave everything for Spurs’

Trippier says he left on good terms with former boss Mauricio Pochettino (Getty Images)

“I was hearing a few rumours. It wasn’t the right time to speak to the manager or the club about it. That was playing on my mind for a few months. I tried to block it out. I tried to do my best. I spoke to my wife and I spoke to my brother, and decided to pull the manager in pre-season to see what’s going on.” When he finally got to speak with Mauricio Pochettino, he did not get the assurances he sought.

Read more: England squad analysis: Echoes of Joe Hart omission in dropping of Kyle Walker

“I spoke to the manager about his plans and I didn’t get a ‘yes’ and I didn’t get a ‘no’. I tried to speak to the chairman and didn’t really get an answer. It’s disappointing. I gave everything for the club and I wanted to stay, I had another couple of years left. It’s not nice when you know the club want to sell you. But that’s football, it happens. Me and the manager didn’t leave on bad terms, he has done a lot for me and I respect him highly.”

That’s the diplomatic interpretation. Inferring from Trippier’s glowing approval of Simeone, you get the feeling Pochettino might have been more supportive during the alarming downturn in form he suffered in the post-World Cup period. “Cholo [Simeone] is one of the best managers in the world, so when they came knocking, saying they were interested, to work for him, especially the defensive side which I need to improve on.

“Last season, it was there for everybody to see. When you know you’re playing bad, you try to pull yourself out of it and when things are not going right for you week after week, it’s difficult. It’s emotionally draining. Sometimes I was thinking, ‘God, I just wish the season was over’. But I kept on going and tried to do my best.”

‘Simeone is so passionate’

Kieran Trippier takes instructions from his new manager Diego Simeone (Getty Images)

All forgotten now. Trippier has played all three games in Atletico’s winning start to the season. Atletico are the only team on maximum points. The experience has been like a blood transfusion for Trippier, who has bought into the Simeone cult wholeheartedly.

Read more: England squad for Bulgaria and Kosovo Euro 2020 qualifiers – in full

“There is no better person to work under. He is so passionate. I am just so excited to learn off him and work with him. In training, when somebody makes a tackle or somebody makes a mistake you see the passion – you need to be there. He’s amazing. He gets involved, his man-management with the players who are not playing, the young lads who have been playing with us, you can just feel it, I wanted to be a part of that, ‘the family’ as they call it.

“Everyone can see from the outside how close they seem as a team, how close they are in the players, the coach, the staff. When I got there they were unbelievable with me, even though only a few speak English. They tried to make an effort with me, they tried to speak English, which I didn’t understand. They have always been unbelievable with me. I feel like I have been there for years.”

Trippier is in many ways an unlikely standard bearer for the English footballer abroad, the only one operating in La Liga.

“I know players who have had the opportunity to play abroad and have regretted [not doing] it. I didn’t want to be one of those. To live in Spain, for my family and kids, to play in a different league, the experience it will make me a better person and a better man and hopefully my overall game can improve. It is good for English players to go abroad and I would say for more English players to go and experience it.”

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Real Sociedad gives Martin Odegaard the chance to prove what he cannot at Real Madrid

Four years ago, Martin Odegaard made the decision to leave Norway for Spain. Having impressed the global footballing community at the age of just 16, helping Stromgodset impress in his native top-flight after making his debut a year earlier, the creative midfielder had drawn the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Liverpool invited the teenager to take a tour of their facilities, while Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Ajax, Manchester United and Manchester City did the same, before the decision was taken to choose the all white of Real Madrid.

A season with the club’s B team provided the first platform for Los Blancos to understand what kind of talent they had in their grasp and to understand where would be best to help Odegaard take his next steps towards development into a top-level professional. Loan spells at Heerenveen and Vitesse saw him progress each campaign, climaxing in a 2018-19 Eredivisie season which saw the Norway international involved in 19 goals (8 goals, 11 assists).

Having taken the Dutch stepping stone, a division which can nurture technically gifted players in a competitive environment, the time was right to return to his true proving ground – Spain. Only there can the former protégé showcase exactly what he would be capable of in a Real Madrid shirt in a year’s time.

Is San Sebastian the best place for his development?

Odegaard was a star performer during Real Sociedad’s pre-season tour of England (Getty Images)

Real Sociedad were the club who chose to put faith in the long-term ‘wonderkid’. Now 20, Odegaard has a strong amount of experience under his belt for his age and will be playing this season under Imanol Alguacil, the man promoted from his new club’s B team to take the reins after the sacking of Asier Garitano in December 2018. On La Liga‘s opening weekend, the Txuri-urdin used eight under-23 players in their 1-1 draw against Valencia.

Odegaard (20), Robin Le Normand (22), Ander Barrenetxea (17), Mikel Merino (23), Aihen Munoz (22), Mikel Oyarzabal (22), Igor Zubeldia (22) and Alexander Isak (19) got on the field against Los Che, as Alguacil leads a forward-thinking and youth-focused project towards the next level. Much is made of Athletic Bilbao’s Basque-only selection policy, but their close rivals also have an impressive conveyor belt of talented youngsters who get opportunities to prove their worth in Primera. Odegaard is just another one of his peers, possessing talent but needing the track record to justify his coach (at his parent club or otherwise) giving him a further chance to develop at Spain’s top table.

Former Barcelona youngster Roberto Navarro (17) is set to leave Monaco after moving to the French club just last year, but despite his Basque heritage it is likely that the talented Spain U17 international will snub Athletic – a club with a proven pathway to La Liga football. There can’t be a more glowing reference for a youth network in the country at present than turning down an academy such as Athletic’s Lezama in favour of a switch to San Sebastian.

Where will Odegaard be used?

Odegaard celebrates hitting the back of the net for Vitesse versus PSV (Getty Images)

Since the departure of Sergio Canales to Real Betis, Real Sociedad have lacked a creative difference-maker in their midfield three. The likes of Asier Illarramendi and Igor Zubeldia are great in holding roles, while the likes of Mikel Merino and David Zurutuza are quite versatile and forward thinking, but still do not have that silky verve that Canales could offer.

Adnan Januzaj was relied upon as one of the club’s more hard-to-track, drifting creative presences from the right-hand side of midfield, while Oyarzabal offered a more direct goalscoring threat from the left. The door was very much open for a midfielder to step into Alguacil’s squad and steer the tempo and angles of the game, spraying the ball wide or between the lines, looking to offer a vertical way to hit lone striker Willian Jose.

Odegaard can dribble at pace or pick a pass, while playing in the centre of a midfield three demands a level of defensive awareness too. Able to play neatly and quickly in tight spaces, as well as having the agility, centre of gravity and close control to wriggle away from pressure, he has the skill set required to prove useful against teams that sit deep and ask to be picked apart – while his first La Liga goal against Real Mallorca last weekend highlighted that he also has the pace and foresight to get into the penalty area and finish with aplomb.

From Real Madrid’s perspective, they are getting a chance to see the 20-year-old facing relevant opposition, in a roughly similar role that could be up for grabs in the not-so-distant future at the Santiago Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane does currently lack a more adventurous presence in his midfield three, leaving Karim Benzema plenty to do in terms of dropping in and linking up with the rest of his front three. Everything that Odegaard has done thus far in a Real Sociedad shirt suggests that he would fit that mould well.

Will Odegaard play for Real Madrid in the future?

Odegaard in action for Real Madrid back in their 2018 pre-season campaign (Getty Images)

While Los Blancos may have ushered Zidane back to try and get back to winning ways, which can be seen as something of a step back, opportunities should present themselves in the Spanish capital before long. James Rodriguez and Isco cannot be considered as key first-team contributors as it stands, given their stop-start form and rarely getting a consistent run of games owing to technical decisions, distrust from past coaches or injuries, while Luka Modric is rapidly approaching his 34th birthday.

Although Zidane has been hesitant to put too much trust in young players in important roles unless absolutely necessary, a fact that Dani Ceballos can attest to, there is a realistic hole that could appear in Real Madrid’s midfield. Should Ceballos continue to impress during the 2019-20 season at Arsenal, or should the club’s long-term interest in Paul Pogba bear fruit in the summer of 2020, Odegaard will inevitably fall down the pecking order.

The Norwegian has the technical ability and intelligence to thrive in La Liga and is making huge efforts to perfect his Spanish, another important factor to allow him to settle long-term in the country. There is a more than a realistic chance that he will be spat out by Real Madrid once he reaches his five-year milestone at the club, meaning that now is the time to put himself on the market. He is more than talented enough to generate a lot of interest. This will be the season that Odegaard comes of age and proves that he is ready to fly the roost with ambition.

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Barcelona’s Neymar interest makes sense after Ousmane Dembele injury: transfer latest

The opening weeks of Barcelona‘s 2019-20 campaign have shown how fragile the difference between success and failure can be for Ernesto Valverde‘s squad. While two seasons ago, the Catalan club would wait until the penultimate week of the league to suffer their first defeat, the top flight’s match day one witnessed the reigning La Liga champions crash to a loss against Athletic Bilbao.

Without their talisman Lionel Messi due to injury, as well as Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan was forced off with a calf problem, Valverde’s side suddenly looked far less formidable. Throw in Ousmane Dembele going down with a hamstring problem that will see the Frenchman miss over a month of action and summer signing Antoine Griezmann‘s versatility is already looking like a valuable asset at Camp Nou.

Following Philippe Coutinho‘s season-long loan deal to Bayern Munich and the decision to let unwanted forward Malcom move on to pastures new, suddenly the talk surrounding a possible Barça return for Neymar makes a lot more sense. There is an immediate gap he could fill.

What has been said about a potential deal?

Ousmane Dembele will be out for around five weeks after picking up a hamstring injury (Getty Images)

Diario SPORT have suggested that the club are prepared to loan the Brazilian forward with an option to buy next year for a fee of 160 million euros – owing to the fact Barcelona have already paid in the region of 125m to secure Griezmann’s signature this summer. Add in the decent investments region to bring in Frenkie de Jong and Junior Firpo (ignoring what was essentially a swap deal for Neto) and plenty has already been spent in 2019.

Read more: Sergio Busquets has a problem called Frenkie de Jong; but do not write off Barcelona’s silent man just yet

Catalan radio station RAC1 has shared this week that Barcelona are still trying to pursue a move for their former player and key players in the club’s decision-making process met on Monday to try and find a compromise that would satisfy PSG’s demands – which are understandably very high. RAC1 claim that said meeting could witness a ‘final offer’ that will be formulated and put to the selling club in an attempt to wrap up the saga quickly.

On Wednesday, Cadena SER shared news that Barça could only afford a huge transfer fee for Neymar if they have the opportunity to pay for that player over the course of two years. Given that a club of PSG’s stature would require a considerable chunk to part with a top attacking player, the overall transfer fee would have to be colossal for the selling club to agree to terms which would not be too beneficial in the short term.

Where would Neymar fit in?

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have past experience of linking up to great effect (Getty Images)

As it stands, Barcelona would definitely benefit from an attacking player that plays their best football on the left-hand side of the club’s front three. Neymar has already proven alongside Messi and Suarez that he can form part of a dangerous ‘MSN’ trident. The three worked in harmony together before the Brazilian’s decision to depart for Paris in 2017, though Neymar’s tendency to play in a direct manner and see a lot of the ball did detract from Jordi Alba‘s impact on the overlap.

Coutinho and Dembele have both featured on the left wing for Barça, though the latter didn’t do enough to truly impress in that position before being allowed to move on to Bayern. Dembele has been much more of an impact player off the bench than a truly trusted first-team member under Valverde, a coach who likes a balance to be struck between defence and attack.

Griezmann used to play in wider areas for Real Sociedad as a young player, but since his spell at Atletico Madrid the France international has been more of a central threat – as was the case at the 2018 World Cup.

Read more: Antoine Griezmann transfer: How Barcelona’s new signing could fit in alongside Leo Messi and Luis Suarez

Dembele has received plenty of criticism for his private life and general professionalism over the course of the last 12 months, while Griezmann will invariably have been brought in with a view to picking up the slack at the head of the attacked once 32-year-old Luis Suarez requires rotation and rest. Currently, there isn’t a true, established star to be boasted on the left of Barça’s 4-3-3. A switch to a more balanced 4-4-2 system could follow should the club fail to bring Neymar back before the transfer window shuts.

Last month, signing both Neymar and Griezmann in the same window did not sound viable for Barcelona. It didn’t appear to be a financial possible, nor a shrewd purchase, but following Coutinho and Malcom‘s exits, there is definitely room for the club to be inventive with any financial wiggle room they can find by using a loan deal to their advantage.

Recent injuries to Messi and Suarez have left the squad looking vulnerable and defeat to Athletic Bilbao has only heightened that sense of weakness. Neymar should settle back into his stride at the club with relative ease, fitting naturally into a position which will fall victim to round pegs being used in square holes until the return of Dembele to the first-team fray. What previously looked to be transfer gluttony now looks like a much more sensible target if PSG can be persuaded to receive their big pay-off in 2020.

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Real Madrid’s summer leaves Zinedine Zidane under immediate pressure in La Liga

Zinedine Zidane knows the pressure, he knows his environment and he knows the vast majority of the squad upon his predictable return to Real Madrid.

But after securing just 14 points from a possible 30 after his re-hiring for the last 10 fixtures of the 2018-19 season, the Frenchman needs to quickly steady a lurching ship and guide the club towards a brighter future. Club president Florentino Perez has already spent £270m to arm his manager with the right tools for the job.

Madrid have finished top of the table in just one of their last seven domestic campaigns, with their last title in 2016-17 during Zidane’s first reign. While league success may now be taken for granted at Camp Nou, getting back to being Spanish champions would be a big step forward after the euphoria from their historic Champions League three-peat has subsided. Five players have arrived to take the squad to the next level, while underperforming or underused personnel from 2018-19 (Marcelo, Isco and Gareth Bale) have to rediscover their form on the move.

The Hazard effect

Eden Hazard is Real Madrid’s latest ‘Galactico’ (Getty Images)

Eden Hazard is the face of Zidane’s new Real Madrid. While his old guard won three consecutive European cups under his guidance, this challenge is entirely different. The core of that winning squad has aged and lost their way, while pre-season has done little to illustrate any kind of improvement. Rather, the stats point to his team conceding a lot of early goals. Sergio Ramos complained after his side’s 7-3 defeat to Atletico Madrid that their opponents hadn’t treated the game like a friendly – a worrying difference of opinion and mentality between two squads who should both be battling for La Liga’s title in 2019-20.

Read more: Where will Eden Hazard fit in at Real Madrid and can he lead ‘Galactico’ revival?

If Hazard was wondering what kind of pressure he would find himself under at Real Madrid, the Belgian has already been branded as overweight and out of form after a handful of pre-season fixtures. Not bad going for a player who left Chelsea with god status. The 28-year-old has arrived in the Spanish capital in his prime as one of the best offensive players in the world, a much-needed injection of creativity and end product after a season in which Los Blancos struggled to bridge the gap after losing Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. He has the technical ability to be a game-defining player for his new club, just as he grabbed games by the scruff of the neck at Stamford Bridge. The most important signing of the summer in Spain, given not only what Hazard offers on the pitch, but also the belief that his name has given the club’s fan base.

Replacing Ronaldo’s goals

Luka Jovic will be looking to follow on from his prolific 2018-19 at Frankfurt (Getty Images)

Karim Benzema was the shining light for Real Madrid last season, contributing 21 La Liga goals to the cause as well as his influential link-up play. Bale was next on the list with eight goals in 29 matches, while Vinicius Jr was probably one of the brightest sparks despite not offering huge amounts of end product. His destabilising approach play helped to pull opposing defences around and open up gaps for others. In 2016-17, Ronaldo netted 26 league goals, the season before that 25. Nobody has taken up the slack, a huge issue which Florentino Perez has sought to address with his cheque book.

Read more: Explaining Kubomania: Who is Real Madrid’s Japanese rising star?

Luka Jovic scored 27 goals in 48 competitive appearances last season, showing a cool, hitman-like efficiency in front of goal and providing a wide range of finishes in the process. The Serbia international is a complete forward and while he was very quiet for his country’s Under-21 side at this summer’s European Championship, when inserted into a team that creates a lot of chances and doesn’t leave him to generate a threat for himself, the goals should flow.

Jovic may not be the type of player to cleverly jink through several challenges, but he is the man to smash a remorseless finish into the back of the net after watching Hazard do the dribbling for him.

Zidane’s frayed relationship with Bale and a season-long absence for the injured Marco Asensio are two thorns in their manager’s side, but Jovic’s arrival combined with star man Hazard and an improving Vinicius should make for an interesting concoction alongside Benzema.

Real Madrid fact file

Manager: Zinedine Zidane

Star player: Eden Hazard

Rising star: Vinicius Jr

Transfers in: Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Luka Jovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Eder Militao (Porto), Ferland Mendy (Olympique Lyon), Rodrygo (Santos), Takefusa Kubo (FC Tokyo),

Transfers out: Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea), Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid), Raul de Tomas (Benfica), Theo Hernandez (Milan), Sergio Reguilon (Sevilla, loan), Martin Odegaard (Real Sociedad, loan), Dani Ceballos (Arsenal, loan), Moha (Birmingham City, loan), Jesus Vallejo (Wolves, loan), Borja Mayoral (Levante, loan), Jorge de Frutos (Real Valladolid (loan), Javi Sanchez (Real Valladolid, loan), Luca Zidane (Racing Santander, loan)

Last season finish: 3rd

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Can you watch La Liga on UK TV? ITV deal and broadcast rights stand-off explained

La Liga returns this week – though most of it won’t feature on British screens. Barcelona kick off the Spanish top flight as they travel to the Basque region to face Athletic Bilbao on Friday, before a bumper weekend of action that contains nine games of huge intrigue given the large sums of money invested in many of the division’s squads this summer.

Last season, Eleven Sports bought the exclusive UK TV rights for Spanish football, snatching them away from long-term broadcasters Sky Sports. Marketing themselves as a new, forward-thinking streaming service, Eleven offered an accessible product for a low cost.

For fans of the league, it was a cheap, surefire method to make sure that it was possible to get your futbol fix. There is no such plan in place this campaign, not least after the company were forced to share rights with Premier Sports and ITV at the tail end of 2018-19. Eleven didn’t appear to have achieve the far-reaching interest La Liga hoped for.

But if Eleven hadn’t satisfied La Liga chiefs, that certainly looks like a lesser evil than having only three La Liga matches broadcast in the UK over the first three weekends of the new season. They will be free-to-air on ITV4, which is a plus, but given that it’s a stop-gap deal struck with 24 hours to go until the start of the season it still leaves a huge question mark over what happens next.

Given the amount of uncertainty about kick-off times (see below), it is not hard to understand why broadcasters don’t want to break the bank quite yet.

La Liga on ITV 4

Fri 16 Aug: Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona (8pm)

Sun 25 Aug: Barcelona vs Real Betis (8pm)

Sun 1 Sep: Villarreal vs Real Madrid (8pm)

‘La Liga is the laughing stock of the world’

Jose Luis Mendilibar’s truths can’t be denied after a turbulent summer for La Liga (Getty Images)

Eibar boss Jose Luis Mendilibar can often be the old-fashioned voice of reason within La Liga. Outspoken against VAR during its first season, the experienced coach didn’t think twice before criticising the organisation of the country’s top flight as the opening weekend approaches.

“The Spanish league is the laughing stock of the world due to the conflict over the kick-off times. We can have the best players and the best teams, but organisationally we have a lot to learn… it is said that clubs, as they receive the money, must agree with everything. Football isn’t like that. Life isn’t like that. It’s really bad that this is how it is.

“The decision maker will take the holiday weekend. They will go to their house, peacefully. And then they will decide on the Monday. What do we do?”

As of a court ruling on 7 August, it was decided that the opening few match days in La Liga would feature no Monday evening matches. In a move by the Spanish federation, supposedly for the good of match going fans, middle ground was found to allow top-flight games to take place on Friday nights but eliminating the much-maligned Mondays.

No deal… yet

Fans are still waiting to find out whether La Liga matches will be staged on Mondays at all this season (Getty Images)

Protests have become fairly common whenever teams are forced to play outside of traditional hours though, since the court decision on the matter, Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales has been reported to have sent letters to clubs stating that he is open to negotiations regarding the controversial Monday matches. La Liga, as well as many clubs who view the match schedule as key to securing income through broadcast deals, are set on appealing the decisions and continuing last season’s four-day match ‘weekend’.

For broadcasters, not knowing whether they will have a product that will be beamed out on either three or four days of the week is inevitably something that needs to be factored in during the bidding process.

Joris Evers, head of communications for La Liga explained: “After assessing all bids and required additional documentation from participating bidders, La Liga has declared the tender null and void because no satisfactory bids were received.”

La Liga wanted a larger fee, despite the unclear future of the fixture schedule, but broadcasters can’t quite know exactly what they are going to be paying for. Bids were tabled, but La Liga pulled their rights out of the equation in July after deeming all offers as “unsatisfactory”.

So can you watch Spanish football on TV in Britain this week?

Yes, though for how much longer that will be the case is unclear.

This article was updated at 9am on Friday 16 August to acknowledge ITV’s deal for the first three weeks of the La Liga season

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La Liga: 5 players to watch in 2019-20

La Liga kicks off on Friday evening. Although it is still unknown as to what is happening with the TV rights for watching the Spanish top flight in the United Kingdom, there have been plenty of interesting changes over the summer at a managerial level, personnel level and stylistically for many of the 20 clubs involved.

There has been a lot of money spent on the likes of Eden Hazard, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Luka Jovic et al, but there are a lot of other players who will be looking to make a big impact in Spain this campaign.

Many are embarking on a fresh chapter of their career, involving a change of club or country, while one on the shortlist below will be looking to continue to impress after being on Manchester City‘s radar this summer before their choice to instead opt for former Atletico Madrid star Rodri.

Here are five players to follow with interest over the course of the coming months:

Marc Roca – Espanyol (22, central midfielder)

Marc Roca will be in European action for Espanyol this season (Getty Images)

It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Marc Roca. After getting the chance to form a vital part of Espanyol’s midfield three under Rubi in 2018-19, a midfield that helped to take the club into the qualifying stages of the Europa League for the coming season, he also played a key role in Spain Under-21s European Championship win in Armenia.

Offering goals and a knack of controlling the flow and tempo of games, it was little surprise when Man City considered the 22-year-old deep-lying midfielder as a potential deputy for Fernandinho.

Eventually, they opted for Rodri. West Ham and Bayern Munich also took an interest in the Spaniard, but his €30m release clause remains intact. Incredibly intelligent and positionally aware out on the field, Roca plays with the maturity of a far older player.

He helps Espanyol to transition at pace, he can receive the ball under pressure and help his teammates carefully extract the ball from their own half, and he has had the mentality and focus to continue to improve while wearing the highly symbolic No 21 shirt in Cornella – the squad number taken by the sadly deceased former captain of the club Dani Jarque who passed away unexpectedly a decade ago.

Jules Kounde – Sevilla (20, central defender)

Jules Kounde joined Sevilla this summer after impressing in France with Bordeaux (Getty Images)

Sevilla‘s sporting director/transfer guru Monchi likes to spend money in France. This summer alone, the club have sourced Diego Carlos, Lucas Ocampos and Rony Lopes from Ligue 1, but the most exciting transfer from French shores is young central defender Jules Kounde.

Costing around £22.5m, the Frenchman could be one of the bargains of 2019-20 given the evident potential that he possesses. After enjoying a full first-team campaign last year, making 51 appearances in all competitions, the time was right to take another big step up and try and continue to add to his game further in Andalusia.

Centre-back has long been a problem area for Sevilla. Last season, Daniel Carrico and Simon Kjaer were the usual pairing at the heart of defence, but there were obvious deficiencies to their partnership.

Calm in possession and able to pick a pass, Kounde’s ability to conduct play from deep was invariably part of the reason why Monchi brought the 20-year-old in. Competent in the air and athletic, the Frenchman should be a classy and composed individual in a team that needs a solid foundation to build from in possession under new manager Julen Lopetegui.

Renan Lodi – Atletico Madrid (21, left back)

Renan Lodi arrives in the Spanish capital with big boots to fill (Getty Images)

Atletico Madrid‘s new recruits have got the unenviable task of replacing some key Diego Simeone soldiers this season. After the departures of Filipe Luis and Lucas Hernandez this summer, both of whom shared minutes at left back over the last two seasons, Renan Lodi is the man chosen to provide Atleti’s engine on the overlap.

Read more: Atletico Madrid undergo huge renovation to hype up prospect of a proper La Liga title race

The left-back enjoyed a breakout year in the Brazilian league at Athletic Paranaense in 2018 as well as adding experience in the Copa Libertadores. His career trajectory has certainly taken a very upward curve to make an immediate move to a top European club and be expected to start each week as first choice.

The faith placed in Lodi is almost unparalleled in La Liga this campaign – though his teammate Joao Felix might have something to say about that. The Brazilian offers a great deal of pace and athleticism down the left-hand side, a prerequisite for a team who have relied on the endless energies of Filipe Luis. Koke has confirmed that Simeone has experimented with a potential switch to a 4-3-3 system this campaign, too, a change which would see full backs become even more key in the final third.

Defensively, question marks have been pulled up as to what Lodi truly offers. This season should be a huge learning experience for the youngster, but there is no better mentor for defensive improvement that Simeone.

Martin Odegaard – Real Sociedad (20, midfielder)

Martin Odegaard has plenty to prove in Spain after a successful Dutch loan (Getty Images)

Somehow, Martin Odegaard is still just 20 years of age. The former Norwegian ‘wonderkid’ is back in Spain with a point to prove. Vitesse was a great home during the 2018-19 season where Odegaard chipped in with 11 goals and 12 assists in 39 first-team appearances in the Netherlands, highlighting himself as a genuinely exciting young talent for those who had written him off due to the previous hype machine surrounding his decision to leave Stromsgodset.

His parent club is still Real Madrid, but Real Sociedad will be the team to benefit from his services until May. After bringing in several good young talents over the last two seasons, they are an interesting project.

Odegaard has featured heavily during pre-season in central midfield, helping to pull the strings from deep and stretch play with his excellent vision and range of passing. Unafraid to get up in close support of Real Sociedad’s lone striker in their 4-3-3 system, there is no reason why the Norway international can’t supplement his side’s goalscoring tally for the campaign either.

Following two good years in the Netherlands, the time is right for a very technically gifted playmaker to step up and prove what he can do in a top European league. He will get the minutes and faith in him required to perform, now is the time to start judging at which level Odegaard can end up later in his career.

Borja Iglesias – Real Betis (26, striker)

Borja Iglesias’ ascent to the top of the pyramid in Spain has been remarkable (Getty Images)

Real Betis needed a cold-blooded, clinical hit man. Borja Iglesias needed a new challenge, just a season after he embarked on his last. Across three seasons in the Spanish third division, ‘the Panda’ scored 61 goals for Celta Vigo‘s B team, before going on to net 22 times while at Real Zaragoza in Segunda back in 2017-18.

Last season, Iglesias took the step up to the top flight after making just one 11-minute appearance for Celta in La Liga back in the 2014-15 campaign and netted 17 goals in 37 appearances for Espanyol – firing them back into Europe in the process. The perfect professional, as well as a clinical striker, means that his £25m move to Betis is one of the best deals of the summer.

Betis’ top scorer last season was Giovani Lo Celso. The Argentine scored nine league goals, earning himself a move to Tottenham after a great spell in Andalusia. Loren Moron, Quique Setien’s most-used striker, netted just six times in 33 appearances. Iglesias lands in Seville having worked with Betis boss Rubi last season at Espanyol. His style of play is intense and attacking, while summer recruit Nabil Fekir should offer the class and cutting edge required to take the club’s chance creation to another level.

For the last two years, Betis have played nice football and often entertained – but they have lacked the top-class striker required to take the step up to becoming genuine European challengers. The Panda changes all of that.

Honourable mentions: Marc Cucurella (21, left back/midfielder, Getafe), Pedro Porro (19, right back/midfielder, Real Valladolid), Alberto Moreno (27, left back, Villarreal), Jorge Saenz (22, centre back, Celta Vigo), Matias Vargas (22, left winger, Espanyol), Luis Rioja (25, left winger, Deportivo Alaves), Takefusa Kubo (18, midfielder, Real Madrid), Oliver Torres (24, midfielder, Sevilla)

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Atletico Madrid undergo huge renovation to hype up prospect of a proper La Liga title race

Times they are a changin’. Diego Simeone has been Atletico Madrid manager since 2011, but this summer has boasted the most in the way of transition.

When challenging for major trophies appeared to be a little less realistic over the last couple of years, the question was how the Argentine coach could change his style of play to better suit the players at his disposal.

In 2019, a different predicament has emerged: how to gel a new group quickly and excite the club’s fanbase at the same time. As the La Liga season looms, both appear to be going well.

Changing of the guard

Defender and talisman Diego Godin waved goodbye to Atleti this summer (Getty Images)

Simeone is known for the faith and loyalty he shows his long-term servants. But this summer the likes of Diego Godin (389 games), Juanfran (355 games), Filipe Luis (333 games) and Antoine Griezmann (257 games) have all moved on to pastures new, while promising talents Lucas Hernandez, 23, and Rodri, 23, have been prised away from the Wanda Metropolitano by Bayern Munich and Manchester City respectively. That kind of experience and understanding of Atleti’s set-up, mentality and system will be tough to replace.

Felipe, 30, has been sourced from Porto as a reliable, experienced central defensive option, while Espanyol’s excellent Mario Hermoso should be a long-term partner for Jose Maria Gimenez. Brazilian starlet Renan Lodi, 21, has been sourced as a replacement for Filipe Luis at left back, armed with bags of athleticism, a real engine and plenty of pace. Kieran Trippier is Atleti’s new first-choice right back and should provide an extra arm of attack with his crossing from the wing.

Read more: Will Kieran Tripper be a success under Diego Simeone?

In midfield, too, Marcos Llorente, 24, is a more tenacious replacement, for Rodri, capable of sitting deepest in midfield to connect the dots in build-up play or offer a constant source of energy when hunting down loose balls. Hector Herrera is arguably one of the bargains of the transfer window after signing on a free from Porto and will aid Saul Niguez in his attempts to support the attack with his endeavour to get forward and let fly. Although stars have been lost, the club’s recruitment department have acted quickly and sensibly with the fees paid to bring in high-quality replacements.

Putting faith in Felix

Joao Felix holds up his new shirt during his official presentation (Getty Images)

Griezmann’s long-awaited departure from Atleti posed the most questions. How would Simeone cope with a player who not only scores goals and creates, but also is so key without the ball when tracking back? Enter Portuguese wonderkid Joao Felix, a 19-year-old attacking midfielder with just one senior campaign under his belt and an £113m price tag to go with it. That’s what scoring 20 goals and providing 11 assists in 43 competitive games will do to your reputation.

Read more: Has Joao Felix made a mistake in joining Atletico Madrid over Manchester City or United?

An electric start to pre-season during Atleti’s tour of the States has helped both the club and the player’s cause. A 7-3 thrashing of Real Madrid put down a marker for just how ruthless and competitive Simeone’s side are prepared to be this campaign, with Felix chipping in with creation and end product. Although he is far less adept on the defensive side of his game in comparison to the man he is theoretically replacing, the teenager is already entertaining in a red and white shirt. Technically very strong, armed with great vision and able to glide across the turf with a real ease and elegance, Felix is the best chance that the club have of bridging the Griezmann gap. His chemistry with Diego Costa will be key.

Costa and Alvaro Morata remain as the club’s main striking options, but they will need to step up considerably if they are to turn Simeone’s unlikely new mix of talent into a force that is capable of surpassing the eerily consistent Barcelona. Costa managed just five goals in 21 games during an injury-hit 2018-19 campaign, while Morata chipped in with six goals in 15 Spanish top-flight games after arriving at Los Rojiblancos in January. Griezmann scored 15 in LaLiga last campaign – more than both of the teammates he has left behind. If Atleti can manage to supplement their goals tally to make up for the Frenchman’s departure, they should be in excellent shape to run both Barça and a resurgent Real Madrid close for the title.

Atletico Madrid fact file

Manager: Diego Simeone

Star player: Jan Oblak

Rising star: Mario Hermoso

Transfers in: Joao Felix (Benfica), Marcos Llorente (Real Madrid), Mario Hermoso (Espanyol), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Felipe (Porto), Renan Lodi (Athletico Paranaense), Ivan Saponjic (Benfica), Hector Herrera (Porto, free)

Transfers out: Antoine Griezmann (Barcelona) , Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Rodri (Manchester City), Gelson Martins (Monaco), Luciano Vietto (Sporting CP), Bernard Mensah (Kayserispor), Diego Godin (Inter, free), Juanfran (released), Filipe Luis (Flamengo, free)

Last season finish: 2nd

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