Our whirlwind preview of the Primera Division in Spain continues today with a look at the teams that should be chasing European spots -- most likely Europa League -- in the coming season. In case you missed our preview of the relegation battle and the mid-table, you're encouraged to check them out.
Rayo were busy in the summer undergoing a major squad renewal as several familiar faces including leading scorer Piti, Léo Baptistão, Javi Fuego and Alejandro Domínguez all moved on. With the exception of the 20-year-old Baptistão, it was very much an out with the old, in with the new sort of shift as head coach Paco Jémez looks to build on his team's 8th place finish last season.
Nery Castillo arrives from Pachuca to take over the attacking mid role formerly filled by Piti, while the defense has been bolstered by the addition of Leonel Galeano and Johan Mojica (on loan). 24-year-old defensive midfielder Raúl Baena was also signed to strengthen the spine of the formation and young attacking midfielder Saúl Ñíguez was brought in on loan from Atletico.
It's definitely a much younger squad that should play stylish, attacking football, which is always fun to watch. While the talent is there for them to compete for Europe, several new faces will have to step up for Rayo to make a run.
Despite finishing 9th last Sevilla managed to qualify for the Europa League thanks to a convoluted collection of circumstances. Despite that, it was still a disappointing season for the Sevillistas. Head coach Unai Emery -- who joined the club midseason -- has now had a summer to retool the roster and build a team more in line with the type of football he wants to play.
Emery has cleaned house selling Álvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas to Manchester City and sending Gary Medel to Cardiff. All in all Sevilla have moved on over 10 players as Emery looks to rebuild and reload. All those transfers have brought in a big chunk of cash for the club that's been used to retool the roster.
The attack will be lead by new signings Kévin Gameiro, Carlos Bacca and Marko Marin (on loan from Chelsea) while two new central defenders, Nicolás Pareja and Daniel Carriço, and a new right back, Diogo Figueiras, have joined the club as well.
Gone is the wide wing driven play as Emery will look to shift to combination play in the midfield and getting the second lines up into the attack.
The key for Sevilla to move back up the table is their play away from home. 40 of their 50 points last season were earned at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán as Sevilla managed only one road victory all season and 11 losses. That abysmal away form kept them mid-table and if Emery can turn that around, even a little bit, Sevilla should be in good shape.
Betis faded a bit at the end of last season, dropping out on the Champions League race but still managing to qualify for the Europa League. The departure of Beñat Etxebarria, Dorlan Pabón and Joel Campbell means that Betis will have to get goal production from some new sources. Ruben Castro and Jorge Molina will be expected to step-up for Pepe Mel's side. Joan Verdú was signed to help bring some experience into the attack as well. Verdú will be asked to play a deeper role than he did at Espanyol but he has past experience in that role and should be fine.
Braian Rodríguez and Chuli are two new younger center forwards that will likely compete for playing time as well.
Betis' aggressive attacking play was entertaining but ultimately cost them points in games where they should have at least earned a draw. With that in mind, Pepe Mel has replaced all three goalkeepers and made several defensive changes. Jordi Figueras, Markus Steinhöfer and Dídac Vilà are all new back line faces while Xavi Torres was brought in to play a defensive midfield role.
The goal is simple for Betis, defend better and hold on to points late. If they can do that and still score goals, they'll be right in the mix for a European place again.
The story of Valencia's season may end up being how well they are able to cope with the transfer of leading scorer Roberto Soldado to Tottenham. The Spanish international scored 24 league goals and was a big part of Los Che staying in the fight for the Champions League until the final day.
New head coach Miroslav Đukić knows this of course and will have to avoid regressing Sevilla this season. He's bolstered the midfield with the signing of Javi Fuego, Míchel and Oriol Romeu who will join the talented duo of Ever Banega and Sofiane Feghouli. Hélder Postiga was brought in from Zaragoza to replace Soldado up front and will shoulder the heavy weight of trying to replace all that goal production. He'll get help from 19-year-old Paco Alcácer who returns after a loan spell with Getafe.
Valencia's success will likey be determined by whether or not there are enough goals in this roster.
After a tremendous 2011-12 season, Atheltic crashed back down to earth last year spending the season in the bottom half of the table and slowly coming apart at the season. Striker Fernando Llorente was an anchor around the team's neck after he agreed to a deal with Juventus late in the season, hurting the locker room's morale. Llorente is gone, along with Marcelo Bielsa, replaced by Ernesto Valverde who is coaching Athletic for the second time.
During Valverde's introductory press conference he acknowledged the return saying:
"I know this is a second chance for me. It's not the first time I've come to Athletic and we all know what they say about second parts never being as good as the first part...except for The Godfather."
Athletic certainly hope Valverde's second stint as head coach is as successful as the second Godfather film and there's reason to believe they'll rebound.
Beñat Etxebarria and striker Kike Sola arrive to bolster the Athletic attack alongside the immensely talented Iker Munian and Aritz Aduriz. In the defense Mikel Balenziaga returns after several seasons away on loan and should complete for the left back spot.
Athletic were very good at times last season but they were also very bad. If Valverde can bring more consistency to the team's performance, the talent is there to move right back up the table.