By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Change is in the air as the new La Liga season begins on Friday without one of its most emblematic players, Cristiano Ronaldo, and with video technology (VAR) being introduced for the first time in Spain’s top flight.
Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid to Serie A giants Juventus deprives Madrid of one of their best players ever and ends the compelling rivalry between the prolific Portuguese and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi which has defined La Liga over the last nine years.
Madrid must not only cope without the man who scored 451 goals for them in all competitions and got them out of many holes, they must also adapt to life without hugely popular coach Zinedine Zidane, who walked out after winning a remarkable third Champions League triumph.
Real’s new coach Julen Lopetegui faces a mammoth task in following Zidane, especially given his poor record at club level and his undignified sacking from the Spain team on the eve of the World Cup for the manner in which he signed for Madrid.
Real have yet to reinvest the 105 million euros (93.7 million pounds) they received for Ronaldo in new attackers — their biggest signing of the close season was Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois — and Lopetegui looks set to make Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio his leading forwards this campaign.
The huge changes at the Santiago Bernabeu should play into the hands of last year’s champions Barcelona, who swept to a Liga and Copa del Rey double and finished a staggering 17 points clear of Madrid.
Barca have adjustments of their own to make, however, with Andres Iniesta, one of the flagbearers of their style of play for much of the 21st century, having left after 16 silverware-filled seasons to see out his career in Japan.
Coach Ernesto Valverde has replenished the midfield by adding Brazilian duo Arthur Melo and Malcom and the highly experienced yet volatile Chile international Arturo Vidal, while getting rid of under-performing players such as Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne, Yerry Mina and Aleix Vidal.
Barca will want to improve on their recent disappointments in the Champions League, having fallen three times in a row at the quarter-final stage while eternal rivals Madrid have monopolised the trophy.
The upheaval at Real Madrid also boosts the hopes of last year’s runners-up Atletico Madrid’s that they could repeat their unlikely title triumph of 2014.
Atletico have had a busy transfer window in signing electric French winger Thomas Lemar for a club-record 65 million euros and adding Colombia international Santiago Arias and Portugal’s Gelson Martins.
Diego Simeone’s side have lost influential dressing-room figures Gabi Fernandez and Fernando Torres but, crucially, they have clung on to top scorer Antoine Griezmann when he looked certain to join Barcelona.
The introduction of VAR will put to the test the idea that Spanish referees give more favourable decisions to the biggest clubs.
“It will make this sport a little more fair,” said Barcelona defender Gerard Pique.
“I’ve been in favour of it for a long time. There will still be lots of controversy because we love controversy in this country, but it will decrease. It will help referees.”
Below the big three, Valencia will try to balance a Champions League campaign with finishing fourth again but will face stiff competition from a renewed Sevilla as well as Real Betis and Villarreal.
At the other end of the spectrum, tiny Huesca will be competing in Spain’s top fight for the first time while Real Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano make welcome returns to the division.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Clare Fallon)