Football Espana writers make their predictions ahead of the new La Liga season

La Liga gets underway this evening and we’re all incredibly excited here at Football Espana. We asked our team of writers, scattered across Spain and indeed all over Europe and the wider world, their predictions ahead of another keenly-anticipated year.

Alan Feehely

Ivan Rakitic

The top four (in order): Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla.

Atletico look cool and composed this summer, making a couple of intelligent additions to an already strong squad and not losing anyone of real importance. Madrid look set for a season of consolidation, while Barcelona are beginning the post-Lionel Messi era in chaos. Sevilla will be strong again, but haven’t strengthened enough to be confident of a real title challenge.

Surprise team(s) of the season: Real Betis.

I think that they’ll continue their upward trajectory under Manuel Pellegrini and prove themselves the best of the rest, finishing fifth. I also expect them to go deep in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.

Player(s) to watch this season: Ivan Rakitic.

I think the Croatian will enjoy a strong campaign after an underwhelming first season back at the Sanchez-Pizjuan after his spell with Barcelona. He’s got minutes in his legs and was able to enjoy a full summer off. I think he could really step up to the plate this term and deliver one last top-class season.

Best signing of the summer: Rafa Mir.

The frontman will give Luis Suarez much needed respite at the Wanda Metropolitano, allowing the Uruguayan to take time off when he needs to. Surrounded by better players than he was at Huesca, you’d expect the Murcian to capitalise on the higher volume of chances he’ll be served up by his new colleagues.

Which team(s) will underachieve: Granada.

Diego Martinez was a pivotal figure at Los Carmenes, and his departure could unravel Granada’s key strength under him; their unity, their clarity of direction. How the Andalusians do this season will be intriguing; can they prove that their golden era was the result of smart work behind the scenes? Or was it all thanks to the genius of Martinez? Time will tell.

Which teams will be relegated: Alaves, Elche and Getafe.

All three managed to avoid the drop last season but each had to fight through difficult campaigns. In a competitive and pretty evenly-matched division, I think this year could be a step too far.

Alex Fitzpatrick

Take Kubo

The top four (in order): Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.

Atletico tailed away towards the back end of the campaign and Luis Suarez just cannot keep up the incredible goal-to-shots ratio that he had early season – as a result, Atletico will drop away.

Sevilla were touch and go for the title with a few games to go but weren’t able to keep up with the pace of winning week-in and week-out that a title challenge demands. I don’t see that they have done anything to the squad to change that and they still lack the devastating players in attack that the big two boast.

Solid and sturdy, Madrid have a man with a steady hand at the helm in Carlo Ancelotti. With more to come from Eden Hazard, Madrid will be right up there but their star-studded midfield is starting to look a little long in the tooth.

There may be no Lionel Messi but that means it is time for some of the others to come out of his shadow at Barcelona. Quality youth, the return of Ansu Fati, Memphis Depay on fire and, of course, Antoine Griezmann – this will not be a Barcelona mourning the loss of the GOAT for long. For that reason – if Ronald Koeman can get the mix right – they’re my tip for the title.

Surprise team(s) of the season: Osasuna.

Osasuna’s attack has been revolutionised by the arrival of Kike Garcia, the signing of last year’s loanee Ante Budimir and the return from injury of Chimy Avila. The defensive side of the game was sound last season but they were lacking in goals – just 37 in 38 league games. That’s significantly less than teams above them in the table. When the goals start flowing, Osasuna will start climbing the table and with the roar of El Sadar behind them once more, their past incredible home form is set to return.

Player(s) to watch this season: Memphis Depay.

Not a left-field choice or an unknown player, but one who is widely thought to not be up to the task for a club of Barcelona’s size. He brings them something different and has started strongly already in pre-season. Watch him fly.

Best signing of the summer: Javi Galan. 

The left-footed player brings solidity and attacking threat either as an overlapping full-back, wing-back or even as a winger. Last season was his second taste of La Liga action and Celta Vigo had seen enough of him to snap him up from Huesca following their relegation back to Segunda.

Which team(s) will underachieve: Valencia, again.

Not only have they been stripped of much of their talent, Valencia are now managed by their arch-enemy, Jose Bordalas. The clash of styles between Valencia of 2020/21 and Bordalas-ball couldn’t be more pronounced and his squad will struggle to adapt as the season goes on.

Which teams will be relegated: Elche, Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano.

The sides promoted from Segunda this year are in a much more stable and established position than some teams in recent years so it is going to be a tight one down the bottom.

Rayo were promoted through the play-offs and have had little time to prepare. The double signing from Fuenlabrada of Pathe Ciss and Randy Nteka smells of buying up good Segunda players ready for any potential return. They still lack a striker and goals will be hard to come by. Andoni Iraola is an exciting young coach but his first taste of coaching in La Liga won’t be an easy one.

Cadiz came, they saw, they sat back and they countered. Perhaps under-estimated by teams up and down the league last season, opponents will not make that mistake a second season and Cadiz haven’t added enough to make their game plan sustainable in the long term. Unless they evolve they’ll be heading back to Segunda.

Elche have a steely determination but lack the quality they need to stay in the division. Their additions this season have been in the defence, a much-needed area of development. However, their tally of 34 goals last season was the third worst in the division.

Feargal Brennan

Ansu Fati

The top four (in order): Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Villarreal.

The big boys of La Liga have been very quiet in the transfer market this summer with the majority of deals coming in as free transfers. The ongoing issues at Madrid and Barcelona leave a gap for Atletico to defend their title but much depends on their ability to squeeze another goal-filled season from Luis Suarez.

Surprise team(s) of the season: Villarreal.

Unai Emery has added some increased defensive assurance with a permanent deal for Juan Foyth and free transfer swoop for Aissa Mandi. The contract extension for Gerard Moreno is another huge boost and they will want to force their way back into the Champions League conversation.

Player(s) to watch this season: Ansu Fati

Fati’s return to first team action comes with the added pressure of playing without Lionel Messi. The teenage star is the highest rated prospect in Spanish football but he needs to get back out on the pitch to avoid becoming defined by his injury in the early part of his career.

Best signing of the summer: Carles Alena.

2021 has been a summer of very little big-name transfers but Alena’s permanent move to Getafe could prove to be a shrewd deal. The Catalan born midfielder has a real point to prove and Getafe need a creative influence in their engine room.

Which team(s) will underachieve: Real Madrid

Despite the civil war at Barcelona, Madrid have lost another layer of invincibility with the departure of Zinedine Zidane, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. Carlo Ancelotti does not carry the same gravitas as he previously did and an ageing squad is another year older with few reinforcements.

Which teams will be relegated: Elche, Espanyol and Real Mallorca.

Elche benefited from there being three worse teams than them in 2020/21 but they will be in danger again this year, and newly promoted Espanyol and Mallorca will also be at risk with Rayo confident they will have enough fight to stay up.

Cillian Shields

Sergio Canales

The top four (in order): Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and Barcelona.

However, if Atletico can secure a top-level striker to supplement Luis Suarez, perhaps the order of the top two could change. Suarez was in incredible form last season, playing with fire in his belly to get one over Barcelona after they unceremoniously dumped him out of the club.

Will he be able to continue that level and keep up the fitness for another year after already experiencing the euphoria of last season? There’s a fantastic structure at Atletico, and with guaranteed goals they will be a threat.

Surprise team(s) of the season: Real Mallorca.

They have a solid structure in place and have just secured the loan of Take Kubo again, who played with the islanders two years ago in their last top flight campaign. Back in familiar surroundings with two more years of experience behind him, he could light up the league this year in a team that will be expected to struggle, but I think might do alright.

I also think Real Betis will have a season to remember. The appointment of Pellegrini took some time to get going, but after Christmas last year Los Verdiblancos found the right formula and quickly started climbing the table after making themselves a team very difficult to beat.

Player(s) to watch this season: Quite a few.

The obvious ones are the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati and Memphis Depay in a Barcelona team that will each have to take a step up in the absence of Lionel Messi. If Suarez hits the same heights as last year he could land another title at the Wanda Metropolitano this campaign. Karim Benzema is not talked about enough as one of the best players in the world.

Sergio Canales will likely be central to Betis’ plots for success, Chimy Avila could provide explosive entertainment at Osasuna if he’s fully fit after his awful luck in suffering consecutive ACL injuries, while it’s hard to believe that Alexander Isak is still only 21 and will likely only improve on his performances last year.

Best signing of the summer: Quite a few.

With the effects of the pandemic still taking its toll on La Liga clubs’ finances, there’s not a great deal to pick from in this category, in truth. Perhaps Madrid’s acquisition of David Alaba on a free transfer represents good business, even if his wages are high. Rodrigo de Paul could give Atletico a new dimension in their midfield. Kubo could shine in Mallorca on loan. Under the radar, Martín Merquelanz has joined Rayo on loan, and the winger had his best season under the same manager, Andoni Iraola, at Mirandes in 2019/20.

Which team(s) will underachieve: Quite a few.

With or without Messi, Barcelona still have one of the most expensive squads and highest budgets, but they could struggle this season so that has to be considered an underachievement. Athletic Bilbao’s squad is capable of hitting glorious heights, somewhat bizarrely competing in two Copa del Rey finals last April alone, but over the past years have often fallen short of expectation. After some glorious seasons, qualifying for Europe for the first time ever and then reaching the quarter-finals, Granada could suffer a bit more this season without Roberto Soldado leading the line, but in fairness that’s only underachieving in comparison to massively overachieving before.

Which teams will be relegated: Elche, Deportivo Alavés and Cádiz.

Cronan Yu

Memphis Depay

Top four in order: Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla.

Surprise team: Celta Vigo.

When Eduardo Coudet took over as manager in November 2020, Celta were the league’s worst side, sitting dead last with one win from 10 outings. Since then, the side has become one of Spain’s most entertaining to watch and with the club boasting the likes of Brais Mendez, Iago Aspas, Santi Mina, Nolito and Denis Suarez as headline acts, expect this team to push for European contention this season.

Player to Watch: Memphis Depay.

The pressure will be on Memphis to step up in the absence of Lionel Messi at Barcelona. But, if pre-season form is anything to go by, the Dutchman could very well set La Liga alight in the season ahead.

Best signing: Mat Ryan.

After four years away from Spain, Ryan returns to Spain with a point to prove and desperate for silverware, too. Softly-spoken and yet understatedly good between the sticks, the 29-year-old gloveman will be key to La Real’s ambitions this season.

Underachievers: Valencia.

Los Che fans were justifiably disappointed last season after finishing in a lowly 13th position. Following a summer without any reinforcements, the pressure will be on boss Jose Bordalas to avoid a repeat of 2020/21.

Relegation: Cadiz, Rayo Vallecano and Elche.

Ruairidh Barlow

Iker Muniain

The top four (in order): Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla.

Using head over heart, Atletico have to be favourites. The only one of the big three who can claim to have improved over the summer and the others are meant to be playing catch-up. Even if instinct says Atletico don’t win when they’re favourites…

Madrid’s injury crisis should recede and that should help them to challenge better. However, over 18 years at Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Madrid and Bayern Munich, Carlo Ancelotti has [only] won three titles – not Carletto’s forte.

Another season of inconsistency ahead for Ronald Koeman as they try to deal with life after Lionel Messi at Barcelona. That ultimately will cost them a title challenge, but there are other reasons for optimism.

If only Sevilla would push the boat out and sign a reliable goalscorer. That would elevate them into the mix for the league, alas it’s another season of Champions League consolidation on the way. Not to be sniffed at either.

Surprise team(s) of the season: Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna.

As much as any side managed by Marcelino can be a surprise, Athletic to make a European challenge. What they lack in goalscoring, they might make up for by terrorising others with their pressing.

A full El Sadar, cold winter nights and counter-attacking football. Few teams have the continuity that Osasuna do and with a much better start, they could finish top-half. 

Player(s) to watch this season: Iker Muniain and Yeremi Pino.

When Marcelino came in last season, he gave the reigns to Muniain. For a stretch of games, he looked like the player he promised to be a decade ago – it was brilliant.

Composed, disciplined and in possession of great hips. Pino has already won the trust of Unai Emery and that speaks volumes about a supposed street footballer. Expect liquid interplay with Gerard Moreno.

Best signing of the summer: Javi Galan.

Probably the best left-back in Spain last season and picked up for just €4m. The value for money puts him ahead of others, statistically the best dribbler in Spain now that Messi has left the building.

Which team(s) will underachieve: Real Betis.

This is extremely harsh as it more feels like a regression to the mean than underachievement. However, Betis don’t have the squad for the Europa League and the league and so likely drop out of the European places.

Which teams will be relegated: Elche, Rayo Vallecano and Real Mallorca.

Elche are the most likely candidates. Survived by the skin of their teeth last season and even that felt as much a product of others’ weaknesses as their own strengths. They’re in a dogfight from the start and they don’t score many.

It’s unlikely all three of the promoted sides stay up and despite Andoni Iraola, Rayo seem the weakest of them. Off-field unrest won’t help and Rayo have always been susceptible to the odd desperate run of results.

Originally I’d have said Alaves, but they seem to have retained Joselu, giving them the edge over Mallorca. Comparatively, they lack an obvious source of goals and although it will be solid, Mallorca are perhaps not spectacular enough in the fine margins just like last time.

Jamie Kemble

Gerard Moreno

The top four (in order): Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla.

Atletico Madrid have managed to keep their title-winning group together, something they did not manage the last time they were in this position.

In fact, they are the only team of last season’s top three not to see a major player leave this summer, and that could be top four if Jules Koundé leaves Sevilla.

I get the feeling Barcelona will respond to adversity and finish second – I think the signing of Memphis Depay is a very smart one.

Sevilla were great last season, achieving their best points tally to-date, but something tells me they won’t live up to expectations this season, and if Koundé goes late in the window, that will be a real issue.

If they do lose Koundé, Villarreal might well push them close for fourth. If not, Lopetegui’s men should have no problem securing Champions League football once more.

Surprise team(s) of the season: Real Betis

Celta Vigo seem the obvious option here, given how they finished last season and the strength of their squad following the signing of Javi Galan.

But Manuel Pellegrini systematically improves teams, and I was impressed by how good Real Betis were last season.

It’s going to be an extremely competitive mini league table between fifth and eighth, but I think Betis could well be stronger than last term despite a lack of action in the transfer window.

Player(s) to watch this season: Boulaye Dia and Renato Tapia

Villarreal’s €12million signing of Boulaye Dia did not raise too many eyebrows, but the striker was excellent in their Super Cup final with Chelsea.

He linked brilliantly with Gerard Moreno, and that has the makings of a very good partnership heading into this season.

I also want to give some love to a defensive midfielder, for a change. Renato Tapia was excellent for Celta Vigo last season, holding them together like a glue in front of the back-line.

He is not the stand-out player in that Celta team due to his position, but spend some time watching how he operates and you will be impressed.

Best signing of the summer: Javi Galan.

Most La Liga fans will have this answer.

Galan was incredibly bright for Huesca in their ill-fated season of last.

He now links up with a talented Celta squad where he will have even more licence to show the attacking part of his game.

This has all the makings of a very exciting signing.

Which team(s) will underachieve: Granada

I hate to say it after loving what Granada did last season, but the loss of Diego Martinez is just too much for me to look past and I’m not convinced by Robert Moreno.

Granada won’t have European football to battle with this season but they could well struggle with the change of direction having lost a very talented manager.

It could well be a bottom half finish for the Andalusian side.

Which teams will be relegated: Real Mallorca, Rayo Vallecano and Alaves

Rayo are in for a difficult season. They have an extremely modest budget, with most of their new signings coming in for free or on loan, and they weren’t quite expecting to get back to La Liga so soon. Home fans will be crucial, and the sooner they can get a full crowd in, the better.

Mallorca were very good last season, but the transition to La Liga has been a difficult one previously, and it could be the same here as they continue their bounce between divisions.

The signing of Take Kubo could give them something extra, but it wasn’t enough the last time they were here, and it might not be this time. More quality needed, though experienced head Jaume Costa is another who will help their chances.

Alaves were excellent in the final weeks of last season, Javi Calleja coming in to save the Basque club, but management at top level are too quick to pull the trigger and I fear they might do the same if Calleja attempts to be more expansive and struggles as a result in his first full season.

It’s all about how Alaves transition from fighting for their lives to attempting to play good football across the season, and that’s what Calleja will be looking for. They are another side with limited quality in their ranks as we approach the end of the window.

Tags FC Barcelona La Liga Real Madrid

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