La Liga preview: Lamine Yamal set for Barcelona lift-off, Jude Bellingham gives Real boost

Big two look to young guns ahead of new season while Simeone starts 12th year in charge at Atletico

Real Madrid's Jude Bellingham celebrates after scoring against Manchester United in the pre-season tour match at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, on July 26, 2023. AFP
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Lamine Yamal had barely been on the pitch for three minutes. He turned 16 less than a month ago.

He is not yet mature enough to hide his obvious preference for his left foot over his right, but then that left foot has magic in it and there are many, many years of learning ahead for Yamal, a prodigy who approaches the beginning of the new Spanish Liga season as eagerly as anybody.

Yamal, of Barcelona, made quite a statement on Tuesday evening up on Montjuic, where the city’s Olympic Stadium was making its debut as Barca’s temporary new home – Camp Nou is being redeveloped – for the Joan Gamper Trophy match, a traditional pre-season curtain-raiser. The occasion was in danger of turning a little flat after the night’s guests, Tottenham Hotspur, took a 2-1 lead into half-time.

Spurs held that scoreline until the 80th minute. Cue Yamal, one of the tyros brought off the Barca bench, a kid born just up the Catalan coast, the son of a Moroccan father and a Equatoguinean mother.

His impact would be immediate. Darting in from the right flank, he took three – left-footed – touches to set up his cross for Ferran Torres’ equaliser. A neat Yamal pirouette on the touchline would be the take-off point for Barcelona’s third goal, scored by Ansu Fati, 20.

Yamal then played a part in 21-year-old Abde Ezzalzouli’s late strike, for a 4-2 victory.

It made for an uplifting last summer outing for Barca, who begin their Liga title defence against Getafe this weekend, and a reassuring reminder that, while Barcelona are constrained by huge debts accumulated over the past decade, and effectively homeless for at least a season, there is one parcel of their property that keeps giving.

Yamal is the latest would-be sensation from the club’s La Masia academy, where Lionel Messi and current Barca manager Xavi Hernandez were nurtured as footballers and where Ansu and Abde have a past.

Xavi needs a productive La Masia. As with last summer, Barcelona are limited in how many new signings they can make because of La Liga’s Financial Fair-Play rules, which require every club to keep within a ratio of outgoings to revenue.

Although Xavi is hugely enthused by what the best of the summer recruits, Ilkay Gundogan – fresh from guiding Manchester City to their Treble – can give to his side, the younger, home-developed cadre are vital, be they established youngsters such as Pedri or Gavi, or, further into the future, Yamal, who Xavi gave a competitive debut last season, when the winger was 15.

Across La Liga, youth is to the fore, partly out of necessity – Spanish top divisions clubs are generally not flush with wealth; so far overall spending by La Liga in the current transfer window trails that of the four other major European leagues and Saudi Arabia’s Pro League – and partly because Spain so trusts its talent nurseries.

Valencia, one of the traditional grandees of the top flight, will kick off their campaign on Friday against Sevilla with a squad whose average age is 22.

The leading duo of superclubs are also obliged to rejuvenate. Barca began the close-season clutching at the hope Messi, 36, would return to the club after his two years at Paris Saint-Germain. The club legend chose Inter Miami instead. Real Madrid began the summer saying a reluctant good-bye to Karim Benzema, the 36-year-old holder of the Ballon d’Or electing to see out his elite career in Jeddah with Al Ittihad.

In Madrid’s case, that means – pending a possible late window bid for PSG’s Kylian Mbappe – greater attacking responsibility on the electric Vinicius Junior, 22. And on the costliest newcomer so far to La Liga. Jude Bellingham was 19 when he signed for Madrid from Borussia Dortmund for more than €100 million.

The England international has an opportunity both to galvanise a midfield built to last – colleagues Edu Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Fede Valverde are all in their early 20s – and to study the experts, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric being, still, vital members of the Madrid squad.

At Atletico Madrid, youthful promise can seem more of a burden. Joao Felix, whom Atletico made the game’s most expensive teenager back in 2019, is no longer wanted there. He is keen to leave, but so far unable to find a buyer who will meet the high price Atletico seek to protect their investment of four years ago.

Joao Felix is on record as saying he would prefer a more fluid, possession-focused style than Atletico’s, which is an argument that only goes so far.

The methods of Atletico manager Diego Simeone have yielded two Liga titles in the past 10 years, upstart interruptions to the dual reign of Real Madrid or Barcelona, and the club have faith in the Argentine far more than in any player. He will celebrate a towering 12 years in command of Atletico this December.

Nor would it astonish if Simeone’s Atletico challenge strongly again for a title that has had three different winners in the past three seasons. With Barcelona homeless, Madrid in a post-Benzema transition, there may be space for an outsider to make the running.

Updated: August 10, 2023, 3:42 AM