Spanish teams are once again the ones to beat in the 2015-16 campaign after emphasising their superiority on the European stage over the past few years. La Liga sides have won seven Champions League and seven Europa League titles since the turn of the century, while providing four of the semi-finalists in both competitions last season.
This year the number of Primera sides competing in the Champions League has swelled to five with Sevilla’s automatic qualification for the group stages, courtesy of their 3-2 Europa League final success against Dnipro in Warsaw last May.
Holders Barcelona will again be the favourites but they must negotiate their group without the added bonus of fresh faces in Luis Enrique’ squad due to the transfer embargo imposed on the club until next January. Even so, the Catalans are a sure-fire bet to reach the knockout stages beginning in February and will presumably have added to the signings of Arda Turan from Atletico Madrid and Aleix Vidal from Sevilla by that time.
Eternal rivals Real Madrid and cross-city neighbours Atletico Madrid will be looking to dethrone Barca and it is sure to be a long road to next year’s showpiece at the San Siro in Milan.
Los Blancos have long considered the competition their Holy Grail and new boss Rafa Benitez will find things no different from his predecessors in that the pressure to win it is intense, although much could depend on the way he handles Cristiano Ronaldo and the host of other stars at Santiago Bernabeu.
Atleti, meanwhile, would love to emulate their final appearance of two years ago even though the nucleus of that squad has departed. Diego Simeone is notorious for constructing a team in his own image and Los Rojiblancos, as usual, will be hard to beat, which will ensure they will be there or thereabouts. Nonetheless, actually winning the trophy may be a bridge too far and in all probability a semi-final spot might be the limit of their ambitions.
Sevilla, on the other hand, return to the Champions League after an absence of five years and boss Unai Emery will be looking to at least qualify from the group stages. The Andalusians will be relying on their strong home form to take them as far as possible and could spring a few surprises along the way, despite the loss of the prolific Carlos Bacca to Milan.
Valencia make up the Spanish contingent in Europe’s premier competition but first need to overcome a tricky play-off tie with Monaco in order to reach the group stages. Nuno Espirito Santo’s men have had a difficult pre-season and have to quickly rediscover the form shown last term, or it could be a short-lived experience.
In the Europa League, Athletic Bilbao disposed of Azerbaijan outfit Inter Baku in the first qualifying round and should be too strong for Slovakian side Zilina in the play-off round for a place in the competition proper. Ernesto Valverde has put together a mixture of youth and experience and the Basques will be regarded as one of the favourites to win it.
Spain’s other representatives are Villarreal, who have finished sixth in their domestic League for the last two seasons and are desperate to add a major trophy to their roll of honour. Luciano Vietto’s departure to Atletico Madrid is a big loss but if replacement Roberto Soldado can rediscover the scoring form he showed at Valencia then the Yellow Submarine have a good chance of reaching next year’s final at St. Jacob-Park in Basel.