Mark O’Haire’s European Footy Tips – La Liga Outright

A superb summer of business makes Atletico Madrid – the Mattress Makers – the best bet for the 2015/2016 La Liga crown.

Since Valencia were crowned kings of Spain back in 2003/04 under Rafa Benitez, the Barcelona and Real Madrid duopoly have taken top La Liga honours in 10 of the following 11 seasons.

With such a statistic on offer, the financial muscle of Spain’s giants and the superstars filling each side’s squad, it’s no surprise then see the two powers chalked up at such miniscule outright odds.

Treble winners Barcelona are just 4/6 to retain their title whilst Real are 8/5 to top the table for only the second time in the past six years. But there has to be a case for Atletico Madrid at 22/1 to poop the big guns party and repeat their 2013/14 heroics to win La Liga.

The case to oppose Barcelona

Firstly, there’s an unwritten rule that says, ‘winning is the easy part, defending your title is the hard part’ and I have to admit I have my doubts over Barca’s mentality and physical condition.

Key players such as Lionel Messi were away on Copa America duty during the summer and reported back to pre-season training tired. Will they seriously be up for another nine months of toil with Real and Atletico sniping at their heels? Perhaps.

Luis Enrique boasts the world’s best strikeforce and was praised for his tactical tweaks but I still feel the Catalans are a side that play more on instinct, improvisation and inspiration rather than collective philosophy.

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There’s a real reliance on the front three’s individual brilliance and although defensively the Blaugrana’s stats were impressive last season, they never quite looked convincing or comfortable.

Xavi’s departure after 24 years service at the club might have more impact than many expect and Pedro’s exit has to be taken as a negative. The two World Cup winners will leave a void and Barcelona’s squad is starting to look a little thin on the ground. Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal’s arrivals will help to bolster the ranks in January but there are enough question marks for me to turn well away from their 4/6 quotes.

Write Real off at your peril

So are Real Madrid the value at 8/5? No, not particularly although I do expect Los Blancos to feature prominently in the end of season awards. Modern football is often viewed with an incredibly short-term attitude and whilst Real finished trophy-less – an unforgivable sin in the capital that cost Carlo Ancelotti is job – they were unstoppable before Christmas and appeared destined for glory across the board.

Rafa Benitez is now in the hot-seat at the Bernabéu but wasn’t universally welcomed by Real supporters. He’ll be expected to win every trophy on offer but it’s worth noting that he’s failed to land a league title in 11 years and not even finished in the top-two since 2008/09.

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Still, expect Benitez to evolve Madrid into a more tactically astute and disciplined animal. The mooted 4-2-3-1 formation should see Real return to a more counter-attacking style with Gareth Bale being given a free role behind Karim Benzema.

Cristiano Ronaldo will operate from his preferred left-wing position and new arrival Danilo should add further thrust from right-back. All in all, Los Blancos are a settled unit and the lack of a superstar summing signing will work in Madrid’s favour.

Benitez should improve Real’s return against La Liga’s big guns and also stiffen up a porous backline when on the road. The capital club only finished two points behind Barcelona in 2014/15 so write them off at your peril. But I can empathise with those who find parting money with a Benitez-led side for the title difficult.

Atletico too big to ignore

That leaves Atletico and at 22/1, they’re a bet. The Mattress Makers were 100/1 rags when Diego Simeone led them to glory in 2013/14 and despite starting the season as defending champions 12 months ago, Atleti went to post at 14/1. Following a superb summer transfer window, I just cannot ignore the inflated price.

Simeone’s committed his future to the club until 2020 and the board has backed their man to help build a young, aggressive, ambitious and enterprising squad that’s capable of competing at home and abroad. There’s complete clarity in the project at football level, every player knows their job and crucially, they’ve amended last season’s areas of weakness.

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Mario Mandzukic and Miranda were let go and Arda Turan moved to Barcelona but I defy anyone who believes the additions of Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Felipe Luis and Stefan Savic have left the side weaker than 12 months ago.

There’s now serious pace and mobility to play on the counter, a dominant defensive platform with Uruguayan centre-halves Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez plus a solid midfield marshalled by the irrepressible Koke.

Mattress Makers a serious threat

Atletico are just a stronger unit this time around. We know how resilient the side are, how dogged and hard working they can be and we also know they’re more than capable of taking the big teams on, and winning.

Adding that extra firepower alongside Antoine Griezmann (Griezmann, Martinez and Vietto netted a combined 77 goals last season) is a frightening prospect and you can bet your bottom dollar that Barcelona and Real will see Simeone’s side as a serious threat for league honours.

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I’m quite frankly flabbergasted at the lack of respect given to the Mattress Makers in the market and whilst they might be more suited to knockout football, you just can’t go wrong taking a small investment on Atletico to win the league at a bulbous 22/1.

Laugh all you like, La Liga’s not a two team league and Atletico will prove that in 2015/16.