Barça searching for European glory, while Espanyol begin new era
La Liga 2019/20 season preview: How the Catalan teams will fare this campaign
The new 2019/20 La Liga campaign kicks off on Friday with FC Barcelona, bookmakers’ favourites to win a third consecutive title, travelling to San Mamés to play Athletic Bilbao.
Ernesto Valverde’s record in the Camp Nou dugout in La Liga is fantastic, losing just four matches in his entire tenure so far, with two of those losses coming when league titles had already been wrapped up, but most fans would agree that his legacy will be made or broken by what the Blaugrana do in Champions League, rather than in domestic competition.
New faces for European push
New arrivals Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong have been brought in to help push the Catalans over the line in Europe, after two dramatic comeback defeats in the latter stages of the last two campaigns have left the club desperate for continental silverware for the first time in five years.
Club captain and record goalscorer Lionel Messi announced in his speech at the Gamper trophy match against Arsenal that he regretted nothing about last season, and reiterated his and his team’s ambition to become kings of Europe once again.
At 32 years of age, it is expected that the Argentine star only has a few more seasons of playing at his highest level before the natural signs of aging will begin to show, and there is urgency in the club to win another Champions League title while he’s still at the club.
Undoubtedly, the forward line will be how Barcelona find success this year if they are to fulfill all of their ambitions. How the team will line up could prove to be a week-to-week mystery, as all of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, will all be competing for spots in the starting XI as things stand, as well as the emerging talent of Carles Aleñá breathing down his teammates’ necks.
Valverde is also spoilt for choice in midfield options, having to choose probably a trio between Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Arthur Melo, and Arturo Vidal. There are also whispers around the Camp Nou that the manager wants to give Sergi Roberto, used far more often as a right-back, more playing time higher up the pitch this season, while Rafinha is also still at the club and provides another option in the center of the field.
Espanyol's new era
Across the city, Espanyol are also in European competition this year, for the first time in over a decade, and under the guidance of a new coach.
David Gallego, formerly the B team manager, took over from Rubi in the summer, and will hope to continue the progression of players in the squad that he helped develop in the youth academy of the Periquitos, such as Oscar Melendo, Javi Puado, and Marc Roca, who is also linked with a move to Bayern Munich.
Gallego was previously at the helm of the first team before for the final few games of the 2017/18 season, where he won four games and drew one. This season will be the biggest test in the inexperienced coach’s career, however, and the pressure of competing in the league, cup, and in Europe, could take its toll on the Espanyol squad.
New signing Matías Vargas, an Argentina international, will have big boots to fill if Borja Iglesias follows Rubi to Real Betis as is widely rumoured, as Iglesias’s 17 goals in the league were pivotal to Espanyol’s success last year. Mario Hermoso, who traded the RCDE Stadium for Atletico Madrid this summer, will also leave a huge hole at the back.
The emergence of Wu Lei as a potent attacking threat in the second half of last season will give the Catalan side much reason to be hopeful, as his energetic performances impressed many last year.
Former Athletic Bilbao stalwart Ander Iturraspe is another new face in the team this year. The defensive midfielder will provide another option of security in the middle of the park this campaign, as well as bringing bags of wisdom with him to a squad with little experience playing at the continental level.
Girona fight for immediate return
In northern Catalonia, Girona begin their fight to return to the top flight after a bitterly disappointing relegation last year. They are the only Catalan team in the second division and will be managed by Juan Carlos Unzué this campaign, the former assistant to Luis Enrique at Barcelona.
Uruguayan goal machine Cristhian Stuani has so far remained with the Gironistes, and his ability to bully opposition defenses and find the back of the net will be vital if Girona are to make a promotion push. He scored a goal every 144 minutes in 2018/19, a record that will have many La Liga clubs considering bringing him on board, but the Catalans will be desperate for Stuani to stay for at least one more year.