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La Liga preview: Can Barcelona challenge Real Madrid after post-Lionel Messi revamp?

<i>Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images</i><br/>Antonio Rüdiger was Real Madrid's star signing this summer.
Getty Images
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Antonio Rüdiger was Real Madrid's star signing this summer.

By Matias Grez, CNN

There has been one question that has left fans of European football scratching their heads this summer: just how is Barcelona signing all of these players?

The club’s dire financial state has been public knowledge for more than two years now; a combination of financial mismanagement, extortionate player wages and the Covid pandemic led to Barça finding itself well over a billion dollars in debt.

Drastic action was taken in an attempt to begin balancing the books, including a player fire sale, the cutting of the squad’s wages and, the most damning of all, letting Lionel Messi — the greatest player in the club’s history — leave the club for free.

Despite these efforts, last season the Catalan giant still had to cut the squad’s wage bill in order to register any of its new signings.

Most predicted that this summer the club would have to remain frugal to continue untangling itself from these financial constraints entirely of its own making, but that hasn’t been the case.

Barcelona has now spent around $160 million on player transfers and signed some of European football’s most coveted players, including Robert Lewandowski, Jules Koundé and Raphinha.

As Bayern Munich boss Julien Nagelsmann recently described it: “[Barcelona] is the only club in the world that have no money, but then buy all the players they want. I don’t know how they do it. It’s a bit strange, a bit crazy.”

However, in the short team at least, fears around the club’s inability to register its new stars have been allayed slightly by the activation of several economic “levers,” in the words of Barcelona president Joan Laporta.

The levers in question involve the sale of 25% of its La Liga television rights for the next 25 years to US firm Sixth Street Investment, reportedly for around $530 million, and 24.5% of the club’s stake in Barça Studios to for 100 million euros ($102.1M).

The club is reported to have further economic levers at the ready if it finds La Liga doesn’t agree with its accounting and refuses to allow the registration of Barça’s new glut of talent.

“We’re doing our homework to be able to register players,” Laporta told ESPN. “We have done these financial operations to save the club and to sign new players. I hope we don’t have to do anymore.

“It is a controlled risk. If we have to recover the plan of [selling further club assets], we will weigh it up, but we believe we can register the new signings with this deal.

“First, we have to register the players we have signed and resolve the futures of the players not in the manager’s plans [before signing more players],” Laporta added. “After that, we will see what we can do. The coach wants more reinforcements.”

However, earlier this week Spanish press began reporting that Barcelona was still around $40 million short of being able to register all of its new signings, meaning it is now likely the club will have to activate its fourth “lever,” the sale of another 24.5% of the club’s stake in Barça studios.

Talent galore

It remains to be seen how these financial injections will impact the Blaugrana in the long term, but for now it should allow the club to field, on paper at least, a competitive squad that could perhaps narrow the gap on defending La Liga champion Real Madrid.

However, catching Los Blancos and eradicating the 13-point difference that separated the two teams at the end of last season seems like a tall order.

Not only has Real held onto all of the key players involved in last season’s La Liga and Champions League double, in midfield starlet Aurélien Tchouaméni and defensive anchor Antonio Rüdiger it has added two of the most sought-after players in Europe.

With the additions of these stars to an already talented squad — notably rising teenage sensation Eduardo Camavinga — Real’s Brazilian midfielder Casemiro believes the team can challenge for trophies on every front this coming season.

“Last year, Camavinga showed that he can do very well, and I believe that Tchouaméni and Rüdiger are players who can come in and help the squad,” Casemiro told CNN en Español. “They are important players for us.

“Of course, whenever a player of this level arrives, they will help us to win trophies because we know that, to win competitions, you have to have a squad, not just a team. I think we have to have a lot of good players and whenever players arrive with this quality, it always helps us.

“In recent years, we’ve had a good dressing room with good people, they are friendly. It’s a very calm dressing room and it’s very easy to be with the players. I am sure that, from the first day, they will feel very comfortable, they will feel that everyone is very friendly and the locker room is very, very calm.”

Additionally, there is one player in Real Madrid’s ranks who 2022 Champions League Final hero Thibaut Courtois believes can be something of a secret weapon this season.

Ever since his $130 million move to the Spanish capital in 2019, Eden Hazard has been beset by injuries and mustered just 66 appearances in that time. However, having spent several training sessions together with his Belgium teammate during the preseason, Courtois is confident that Real fans will now see the Hazard of old.

“It depends where the coach plays him — the Hazard of Chelsea played out wide and the Hazard of Belgium plays in a 3-4-3 as an interior and not as a forward,” he told reporters during Real’s preseason tour of the US. “But I think he’s doing well and has also had only one week of training, but I’m sure he can help the team a lot.

“We’ll have to see when Karim [Benzema] returns how we can play with Eden, but they are questions for the coach. I trust in him [Hazard], he feels good, he’s been doing well this week in lots of training sessions and has held up physically, so his injuries are in the past.

“The other day, Rodrygo gave him a good kick in training,” Courtois laughed, “and Eden got up quickly. So I think there are no longer any problems.”

Following the best individual season of his career, in which he scored 44 goals in 46 games, Benzema has continued to prove just how important he is to this team, scoring two goals in two games on his return to the side in preseason.

The Frenchman then netted another in Real Madrid’s 2-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday to lift the UEFA Super Cup, his 324th goal for the 14-time European champion, putting him second on the club’s all-time scoring list behind only Cristiano Ronaldo.

Best of the rest

Real’s city rival Atlético, which somehow finished third behind a struggling Barça last season, is yet to find a reliable replacement for veteran striker Luis Suárez, who returned home to Uruguay to play for childhood team Nacional.

Álvaro Morata is returning to the club after his season-long loan at Juventus, but based on his previous performances for the club, it seems unlikely the Spaniard will be the answers to Atleti’s attacking woes.

Nahuel Molina comes in from Udinese to replace stalwart Šime Vrsaljko at right back and Saúl Ñíguez returns from a wholly unsuccessful season on loan at Chelsea, but a Champions League place is likely all Atlético can hope for this season.

Among the rest of La Liga’s usual suspects, Sevilla — despite adding Isco from Real Madrid and Alex Telles from Manchester United — looks considerably weaker than last season after losing its first choice center back pairing of Koundé and Diego Carlos.

New central defender Marcao, signed from Galatasaray, certainly has big shoes to fill and will need to perform immediately if Sevilla want to challenge for the top four once again.

Last season’s Copa del Rey winner Real Betis, which paired that cup success with a fifth-place finish in La Liga, has retained most of the key pieces from its squad, losing only Hector Bellerin back to Arsenal following the end of his loan spell.

The team is also bolstered by the additions of central defender Luiz Felipe and exciting Brazilian prospect Luiz Henrique, who has reportedly been wowing his new club in pre-season training.

But with a stable squad, exciting signings and no off-field distractions, Real Madrid already looks like the team to beat in La Liga this season.

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