21st May 2011 saw the conclusion of the 2010-11 Spanish La Liga and fans worldwide expected the new season to commence exactly three months later – 21st August 2011. Unfortunately a strike led to the delay in the start of the most exciting league in the world!
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The 2011 Summer transfer window has been crazy (as usual) and not only did the two Spanish giants strengthen their squad but the likes of Valencia, Atletico Madrid too brought in new faces. However, the overall surprise package has been Malaga, who underwent a complete metamorphosis and now look to be an extremely decent outfit, capable of giving the big guns a run for their money.
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Surprisingly and sadly, the 2011-12 edition will not witness the 1999-2000 La Liga winners Deportivo de La Coruña, fondly known as SuperDepor. After being plagued with issues on and off the pitch, the Galician club finally finished on 18th and subsequently got relegated. Hercules and Almeria too accompanied the former La Liga champions into the ingominy of the Segunda División.
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La Liga Title Race Prediction

FC Barcelona has signed Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas. Many believe that these two young men will find it a cakewalk to be in the starting line-up of any team on the planet except FC Barcelona. So why have the Catalan giants signed them? Definitely not to warm the bench or to play second fiddle to the already established stars in the first eleven. If fans worldwide analyse the fact that in the wake of an imminent Euro 2012, the 2011-12 schedule is extremely compressed and moreover, Barcelona as the Champions of Europe will have to travel half way round the globe to Japan to play the Club World Cup. Cules would know what excessive travelling does to your team’s chances in major competitions and the eruption of the unspellable (well, not exactly, it’s Eyjafjallajokull) Icelandic volcano did play its part in taking away a realistic chance to win two back-to-back Champions Leagues. However, Guardiola has moved on. So has his team and they have more than made up for it by winning the next edition. Their actions and achievements have helped the fans to move on as well. The incorporation of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas will definitely add depth to the squad which can go on to play in as many as 65 matches in about 40 weeks.
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Real Madrid is perhaps the most celebrated club on the planet and is known for the glorious history and tradition. However, in terms of glamor too, the capital club offers a lot to the beautiful game. Legends over the years have donned the pristine white jersey and have helped in enriching the club’s history. Florentino Pérez took over from Ramon Calderon as the president of Real Madrid and ever since the Blancos have underwent a transition like never before. Former World Player Of The Years – Kaka and Ronaldo were brought in for world record fees long with a host of other stars in Alonso, Di Maria, Carvalho et al to stop the Barcelona juggernaut. Besides the terms of the personnel on the pitch, the administration too underwent an overhaul with Jose Mourinho replacing Manuel Pellegrini and Zinedine Zidane taking charge as the Director of Football, replacing Jorge Valdano.
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Nuri Sahin: Prudent signing

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This summer too the Blancos have acquired the services of Nuri Şahin, Hamit Altıntop, José Callejón, Raphaël Varane, Royston Drenthe, David Mateos, Fábio Coentrão – exceptional young talents to say the least and the club administration surely has their eyes set on the future. With an exceptional pre-season and some extremely courageous and potent display of football against FC Barcelona in the Supercopa de España, Madrid are thoroughly prepared to snatch the crown from Guardiola’s men. From the point of view of physical fitness, Real Madrid is perhaps the best squad on the planet as of now and have bridged the gap between them and FC Barcelona considerably. The latter isn’t exactly known for their supreme fitness and a comparatively longer season might just see Mourinho’s men pip them in the title race.
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Malaga is perhaps the best squad in La Liga after the top two. Yes, despite the presence of Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Valencia and the likes, TheHardTackle understands that the Andalusian club has an extremely potent squad and has all it takes to reach the top three. The squad is a perfect mixture of youth, talent, experience and versatility. Moreover, with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, Malaga is certainly the club watch out for. A top three finish might just sound a little outrageous and romantic, but certainly not impossible.
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TheHardTackle’s Title Race Prediction:

1. Real Madrid
2. FC Barcelona
3. Malaga
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Champions League & Europa League Places Prediction

Valencia has had a busy transfer season. Despite being the best team amongst the rest of the 18 playing in Liga, the club has undergone an overhaul courtesy their financial problems. They kept their manager, Unay Emery, and have a much stronger squad than last term. In Diego Alves, they have signed a top quality goalkeeper, something they didn’t have last season. They also signed ex-Lille defender Adil Rami, in addition to Dani Parejo and Sergio Canales – two additions that will make Valencia’s midfield a lot stronger. Finally, they have also roped in Pablo Piatti, who was once touted as the new Messi. While that was an exaggeration, Piatti is undoubtedly a fantastic player, who will finally have the chance to showcase his ability in a top team. However, the loss of Juan Mata will definitely cause problems but the Los Che has a squad which remains quite competent.
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Sergio Canales: The Spanish Justin Bieber

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Villarreal CF were fourth last season and they should be considered favorites to at least retain that position. However, they’ll be a lot more challenged this coming season, since, as we’ve already seen, the teams immediately below them have strengthened. They might have sold Santi Cazorla (for 25 million) to Malaga, but they managed to retain Giuseppe Rossi, their best player, and Nilmar, their other star striker. So far, they’ve only signed Zapata and Camuñas, but they’ve seen some very promising young players emerge from their excellent youth academy (like Mario Gaspar and Mateo Musacchio), and they’re still active in the market.
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For now, their squad is pretty much at the same level as it was last year. If they don’t make any further additions, at least on paper they’ll have their work cut out to remain in the top 4. Last year, Villarreal’s main problem was the lack of depth in their squad, and that doesn’t seem to have been addressed during the summer. At their best (when their players are all fully-fit), Villarreal can even give Barcelona a run for their money, as they did last season at Camp Nou in one of the best matches of the 2010-11 football season. Their possession-based style of football makes Villarreal one of the best teams to watch in La Liga.
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The Italian holds the key

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Athletic Bilbao are one of the most peculiar clubs in the world. They keep sticking to their philosophy of having only Basque players in their ranks and remarkably, they remain the only club other than Barcelona and Real Madrid never to have been relegated. The San Mamés is one of the toughest grounds in the league, with even Barcelona and Real Madrid usually struggling to win there.

Fernando Llorente: Bilbao Talisman

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The club has managed to gather a very competitive crop of Basque players over the past few years, which is enough to qualify to Europe. This year with the charismatic Marcelo Bielsa at the helm and the addition of the super-talented Ander Herrera (one of the best players in the recent Under 21 European Championships), they definitely have an outside chance of finishing in the top-4. Key players like Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez remain at the club, and the addition of Herrera might just take them to the next level.
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Just a few years ago, Sevilla CF were one of the top clubs in Europe, winning back to back UEFA Cups and seriously challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona in the league. But those days are gone now, with their best players from back then either past their prime (Kanouté, Luis Fabiano) or sold to Barcelona and Real Madrid (Seydou Keita, Daniel Alves and Sergio Ramos).
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That said, Sevilla remain a very good side and they should at least challenge for a top-4 finish, although a top 6 berth looks more likely. This summer, Sevilla signed Bosnia-Herzegovnian defender Emir Spahic from Montpellier, defender Coke from Rayo Vallecano, ex-Getafe forward Manu del Moral, Uruguayan defender Martin Caceres from Barcelona and German midfielder Piotr Trochowski on a free transfer from Hamburger – all solid players who will improve the squad.
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Having managed to retain their key players, Sevilla have it in them to be one of the top sides in this season’s La Liga under new manager Marcelino Toral.
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Atlético Madrid have always managed to at least qualify to Europe (and even to the Champions League on some occasions) over the past few seasons, but they lost two of their best players this summer: David De Gea and their mercurial star Sergio Aguero.
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De Gea- Atletico will miss him

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Atlético might face issues with their goalkeepers. With Asenjo in Malaga, and relatively inexperienced Thibaut Courtois, Joel Robles, the manager might just have a few issues. Nevertheless, they have made some very good signings in Arda Turan, Adrian Lopez, Silvio and Miranda, but will likely to struggle without Kun Aguero. Anyone who has been watching Atlético over the past few years knows that Sergio Aguero was by far the club’s best player and one of the best players in the league. His dribbling, pace, creativity and guaranteed 20+ goals per season will be sorely missed by Atlético.
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New manager Gregorio Manzano will have his work cut out; it won’t be easy to take an Atlético side without Aguero to a European spot. Los Colchoneros need to splash the cash they’ve acquired from sales this summer on an adequate replacement for Aguero. Adrian was a good signing, but that’s not enough to replace Aguero. With Kun gone and Forlán past his prime and supposedly looking for greener pastures, their attacking line looks too thin; they urgently need reinforcements if they wish to battle for the top spots.
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TheHardTackle’s European spots prediction:

4. Valencia
5. Villarreal
6. Atletico Madrid
7. Sevilla

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Relegation – Fight To Avoid The Dreaded Drop

It’s unfortunate that every year, out of the 20 teams, three are shown the door to a subordinate league but the good thing is that three deserving teams from the Segunda are given the chance to prove their mettle in the top division. This season, the three promoted teams are Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada CF. Of these, Real Betis has a comparatively better squad and a win against FC Barcelona in last season’s Copa del Rey bears testimony to the fact that the Verdiblancos are ready for the big stage. Despite the fact that Betis are stuck in administration, they are expected to stay afloat.
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Rayo Vallecano is in administration and almost half their squad has been taken away by different clubs. In the wake of another pay-cut, to the tune of as much as 70% of the present, few more are expected to leave. The predicament is too big to overcome and Rayo can be expected to be one of the firm contenders to go back to the Segunda, come May 2012!
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Racing Santander saw a gleam of hope after being taken over by Indian business tycoon Ahsan Ali Syed. However the light in the tunnel turned out to be an onrushing train as Racing found itself in dire straits. Despite the fact that they have an able manager in Héctor Cúper, Santander looks to be going down.
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Granada last played in La Liga way back in 1975-76. According to Sid Lowe, Granada was Udinese’s Spanish branch last season and quite rightly so. The Andalusian club had as many as 12 players on-loan from Udinese. However, whether the current squad is capable of sustaining itself in the top division is yet to be seen, but apparently it’s highly unlikely. They are almost certain to return to the league where they stayed for more than three decades before getting promoted to the top division.
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TheHardTackle’s Relegation Prediction

18. Rayo Vallecano
19. Racing Santander
20. Granada CF

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New La Liga Player To Watch Out For

Cesc Fabregas (FC Barcelona)

Cesc Fabregas: With his first trophy at Camp Nou

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After a protracted transfer saga, Cesc has finally joined his dream club. And not only that, he ended his trophy drought (well, at the club level of course) by winning the Super Copa against arch-rivals Real Madrid. This season Barcelona plays more matches than any other team and their schedule also incorporates a lot of travelling. Fabregas will definitely get his chances and from his performance in the first match he’s shown that he’s ready to get into the groove.
Did you know: Even though Cesc is right-footed, he’s left-handed.

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Best Young Player Signing To Watch Out For

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Sergio Canales (Valencia): Valencia got Canales in a two-year loan from Real Madrid (with a 12 million purchase option), in what might turn out to be one of the smartest acquisitions of the summer in Spain. Often compared to Rafael Van der Vaart, Canales seems to be the future of the Spanish national team.
Did you know: Sergio Canales is often termed as the “Spanish Justin Beiber”

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Best ‘Bargain’ Signing

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Nuri Sahin (Real Madrid): After getting Mezut Ozil for 10 million last summer, Nuri Sahin might very well turn to be another great bargain for Real Madrid. The Turkish midfielder led Borussia Dortmund to the German title last season and was selected as the best player in the Bundesliga. It remains to be seen whether Sahin will be a regular starter in a Real Madrid midfield already packed with world class talent, but he will surely play an important role this season. He looks set to one day take over Xabi Alonso’s role at Real Madrid.
Did you know: Sahin is the youngest player to have played and scored for Turkey, ironically scoring against Germany, the country of his birth.

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Best/Worst Rants To Watch Out For

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Jose Mourinho has already started his war of words by calling FC Barcelona a ‘small club.’ After being humiliated at the hands of the Catalans, the Portuguese restored some pride after beating Barca in the Copa del Rey finals. However, the former Chelsea manager, did something outrageous in the Super Cup loss against Barca. He poked Tito Vilanova, Barcelona’s assistant coach, and promptly got slapped by the latter. The entire world can expect some more caustic remarks about Barca from the Portuguese man.

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

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Did you know: Jose Mourinho is the third manager in the history of football to win two UEFA Champions League with two different teams, after Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld.

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Manager Most Likely To Have ‘Fans On His Back’

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Marcelo Bielsa (Athletic Bilbao)

Madman Bielsa

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Marcelo Bielsa is often known as Loco Bielsa – which means ‘Madman’ Bielsa. The eccentric Argentine is known for his out of the box thinking and no holds barred attitude. It’s without doubt that Bilbao has an able coach, but it’s also true that they perhaps have one of the most bizarre characters in World Football. If things don’t go their way, it’s difficult to predict how the former Chile coach would retort.
Did you know: This is the second time Bielsa is managing a European team. Last time he managed a team in Europe was way back in 1998. He managed Espanyol and Barcelona won the league and Espanyol finished 7th

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‘Spanish Kids’ To Watch Out For

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Thiago Alcantara of FC Barcelona, Sergio Canales of Valencia and Ander Herrera of Athletic Bilbao are perhaps three of the most sought after kids in Spain and subsequently in Europe. Alcantara is Barca’s golden boy and has recently had a contract extension. A fabulous pre-season should help his cause further. Canales is definitely the future of the Spanish national team and with Alcantara, the future seems to be in good hands. Ander Herrera is one of the most promising talents of a generation of Spanish players that has swept every youth trophy available. The Basque midfielder was one of the best players in the Under 21 European Championship, recently won by Spain.

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New Manager To Watch Out For

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Despite the fact that Manuel Pellegrini isn’t exactly a new manager, but he’s as good as one because last season he had only a little more than half the season to work with Malaga. With proper reinforcements and time, Pellegrini surely has all eyes set on him as the manager of the nouveau riche Malaga.
Did you know: As a footballer, Pellegrini played in only one club – Universidad de Chile, for 13 years.

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‘Dark Horse’ Signing To Watch Out For

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Pablo Piatti was once touted as the “New Messi”. While that was a clear exaggeration, the Argentine’s talent is undeniable. He was the only bright spark last season for Almeria, and this season he’ll get to display his talents in one of Spain’s best teams. For €7.5 million, Valencia surely has a fabulous player in hand.
Did you know: Pablo Piatti is just 5’4” which even shorter than Messi, who is 5’7”

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‘Big Gamble’ Signings To Keep An Eye Out For

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Santi Cazorla signed for Malaga from Villarreal for €21 million; albeit the price seems to be fair in the inflated transfer market, nonetheless, it’s quite a sum and all eyes will be on the Spaniard, who’ll be expected to fire right from day one.
Did you know: Cazorla won the Euro 2008 with Spain but missed out on the FIFA World Cup 2010 due to hernia

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Newly-Promoted Club To Watch Out For

Clearly out of the three, two are already expected to go down. Hence expectations will be solely from Real Betis, who played some scintillating football under Pepe Mel when they defeated FC Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. They might not be able to re-scale those heights (however, they can take heart from Hercules) but look decent to be able to sustain themselves in the top division.
Did you know: The motto of Real Betis is – “Viva er Betis manque pierda!” This means – “Long live Betis even when they lose!

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Newly-Promoted Player To Watch Out For

Rubén Castro Martín has been with Betis for a year and has had a phenomenal impact on the club’s fortune. Castro combined with Jorge Molina and midfielder Achille Emana and notched up as many as 50 goals among them, eventually helping the Verdiblancos to the top division.
Did you know: From 2004 to 2010, Castro was actually a Deportivo player, but he hardly played for them. In these six years, he was on-loan to as many as five clubs.

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Club Most Likely To Improve The Most From Last Season

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Undoubtedly Malaga. The Andalusians now have class, quality, youth, money, experience and everything required to succeed. After a disastrous start to their last campaign, they finished well and Pellegrini has his task cut out. Malaga looks extremely potent, at least on paper, and the squad is an amalgamation of the top quality.
Did you know: Santi Cazorla cost Malaga €21 million, which is more than their entire transfer budget even a couple of years back.

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Best Signing(s) On A Free Transfer

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Without a shadow of doubt, it’s the legendary Dutch striker – Ruud Van Nistelrooy. In the former Holland striker, Malaga has a veteran. With over 150 goals for Manchester United and Real Madrid, two of the biggest clubs, the Dutchman has been there and done that. Injury and over-ambition might just have cut short his Real Madrid-career, but even today, the 35-year old Dutchman is as good as veterans come.
Did you know: Ruud Van Nistelrooy is the second-highest goalscorer in Champions League history with 60 goals.

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Most Likely Tag Of ‘Worst Owners’ After The Season

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TheHardTackle would like to take the opportunity to quote Sid Lowe here. Without an iota of doubt, this ‘honour’ goes to Ahsan Ali Syed of Racing Santander. According to Sid, “Remember Ali Syed? He arrived at Racing as the saviour, going bonkers in the directors’ box and promising big things. Well, now he has disappeared and refuses to answer the phone. Racing are in administration, their coach has gone and so have a load of their players – most of them a little worse off after going unpaid.
We at TheHardTackle, concur!