La Liga began again on Friday, August 13, as Valencia defeated Getafe in the season’s first game. After a tumultuous 2020-21 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Spanish soccer fans can be excited about the prospect of fans returning to games. On June 24, the Spanish Council of Ministers resolved that spectators would be allowed to return to stadiums as part of the royal decree pushing for the country to return to the “new normal.”
In return to normalcy in Spain, the return of soccer fans to stadiums underscores what should be a fascinating La Liga season. Atletico Madrid is the defending champions as they won their 11th title last season. The newly-promoted Espanyol, Mallorca, and Rayo Vallecano will be fighting for the opportunity to remain in the top flight of Spanish soccer.
Times have gotten hard for Barcelona lately as they are in the midst of a two-year title drought for the first time since 2008 and have been hit with an alarming amount of debt. Lionel Messi has left Barcelona after 17 seasons with the club, and the Argentinian forward will leave a massive hole as the most important player in club history. However, there is still plenty of talent on this roster, and Antoine Griezmann will have a huge season after Messi’s departure. At the same time, the additions of Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero will help with the scoring burden. Ansu Fati, Pedri, and Ousmane Dembele give this team plenty of attacking options, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of the best goalkeepers in the league. Frenkie De Jong should also emerge as one of the best midfielders in the world this season. There may be a lot working against Barcelona this season, but I’ll bet on a bounceback title win despite all of their turmoil.
Most Important Player: Antoine Griezmann
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Memphis Depay
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Lionel Messi
#2 Real Madrid
While Barcelona loses the city’s face in Lionel Messi, Real Madrid may actually be dealing with more harmful changes. Last season’s starting center backs, Sergio Ramos (PSG) and Raphael Varane (Manchester United), have left for greener pastures. Despite the addition of David Alaba, I have serious concerns about this team’s defense. Real Madrid also lost three-time UCL-winning manager Zinedine Zidane. Luka Modric is 35 years old and unable to play in every game, and Marcelo’s role is dwindling. This roster has plenty of talent, but there isn’t a clear hierarchy for who will start other than Casemiro locking down a key defensive midfielder spot for just about every game. The reworking of Real Madrid’s defense and the integration of a new manager in Carlo Ancelloti is enough to keep them out of the top spot this season.
Most Important Player: Casemiro
Most Important Incoming Transfer: David Alaba
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Sergio Ramos
#3 Atletico Madrid
Most of Diego Simeone’s group that won the title is back for this season, putting them firmly back in title contention. So why do I have them ranked third? It’s unlikely Luis Suarez repeats his miraculous 2020-21 campaign as he’s 34 years old entering this season and his 0.75 goals per 90 minutes last year were his highest in the past three seasons. Atletico’s elite defense mitigated what was not a title-side offense – they ranked fifth in expected goals and scored 18 fewer than Barcelona. Jan Oblak is arguably the best goalkeeper globally, but Atletico out-performed what advanced analytics suggested they should be last year. After allowing just 25 goals in 38 matches (fewest in La Liga) and bringing back all of their defensive starters, Atleti should once again be one of the best defenses in the world. Still, their offense figures to take a step back this season, and that will be a blow in what figures to be a tight three-team title race.
Most Important Player: Jan Oblak
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Rodrigo de Paul
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Vitolo
It’s easy to forget that last season’s La Liga was actually a four-team race for the title, as Sevilla was very much in the conversation until the last couple of weeks of the season. They finished with 77 points, just behind Barcelona at 79. Manager Julen Lopetegui has finally found his home in Sevilla and is leading a side with great continuity following a successful fourth-placed finish in 2020. The center-back pairing of Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos helped Sevilla allow the third-fewest goals in La Liga last season and Erik Lamela joins a sneaky-good forward rotation with Lucas Ocampos, Youssef En-Nesyri, Suso, and Papu Gomez. The La Liga title race is wide open, and Sevilla could make some noise this season.
Most Important Player: Jules Kounde
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Erik Lamela
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Bryan Gil
#5 Real Sociedad
The Real Sociedad roster is full of young talent, which is inspiring for the team’s fans. Alexander Isak, a Swedish striker, scored 17 goals for Sociedad last year in his age 20 season and is one of the most exciting young forwards in the world. Mikel Oyarzabal, an attack-minded midfielder, is still 24 years old and contributed 11 goals and 8 assists last season. Sociedad is a fluid, technical side that is extremely well-managed by Imanol Alguacil. A spot in European play is absolutely there for the taking again for this team, and crazier things have happened than a surprise Champions League berth.
Most Important Player: Mikel Oyarzabal
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Mat Ryan
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Martin Merquelanz
In an incredibly dramatic 22-penalty shootout against Manchester United, Villareal lifted its first trophy in team history. They weren’t as impressive in La Liga’s play, but they had the fourth-most expected goals in the league ahead of title winners Atletico Madrid. The arrival of Aissa Mandi will be significant in improving the team’s center back depth, as will the continued development of Pau Torres. Paco Alcaer and Gerard Moreno form a lethal one-two punch at center-forward. This talented team could make a strong push for the top four this season.
Most Important Player: Gerard Moreno
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Juan Foyth
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Manu Morlanes
#7 Real Betis
Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis was elite during the second half of last season as they lost just two of their final 22 league matches after losing 11 of their first 16. Only Barcelona and Sevilla beat them during those final 22 games. That elite second half was enough to earn them a spot in the Europa League. Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir created scoring opportunities for the team, while striker Borja Iglesias regained strength following Christmas with 10 goals in his final 15 games. Betis will need to manage the prospect of more frequent matches as they’re in the Europa League this season, and they may not have the depth to accomplish consistency in all of their competitions.
Most Important Player: Guido Rodriguez
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Youssouf Sabaly
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Aissa Mandi
#8 Celta Vigo
Last season, Eduardo Coudet took Celta Vigo from one point away from relegation to the 8th spot in the table. Iago Aspas was one of the best strikers in La Liga, particularly in terms of passing, as he ranked in the 99th percentile vs. forwards in assists per 90 minutes (0.40). However, Aspas is now 34 years old, and Celta Vigo struggled to generate significant scoring opportunities when he missed last season. Having fans back in the stadium could benefit Celta Vigo with their high-intensity defensive pressure, and the addition of Franco Cervi and Javi Galan give them some nice depth. It will be interesting to see if Celta Vigo can maintain their elevated play from last season.
Most Important Player: Iago Aspas
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Javi Galan
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Jaison Murillo
#9 Athletic Bilbao
Marcelino coaxed some great play out of Athletic Bilbao after taking over as the manager mid-season, particularly in the Super Cup, where Athletic surprised Barcelona in the final. Athletic allowed the sixth-fewest goals in La Liga last season, but they were a below-average team in scoring. Alex Berenguer scored eight goals to lead the team, while Inaki Williams scored only six goals despite his speed and dribbling, allowing him to get into goal-scoring positions. Williams’s ability to be more clinical will dictate how far this team can climb.
Most Important Player: Inaki Williams
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Alex Petxa
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Ibai Gomez
Valencia went into last season with a crazy amount of turnover as they had sold six starters and replaced their manager, Albert Celades, who previously led the team to a Champions League position and a Copa del Rey title. Javi Garcia couldn’t handle the crisis and didn’t last long before a mutual agreement to part ways with the club. New manager Jose Bordalas will bring a new, aggressive style and bring more consistency to a team desperately needing it.
Most Important Player: Carlos Soler
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Omar Alderete
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Kevin Gameiro
Michel, the new manager for Getafe, will be tasked with elevating the team’s offensive play after they scored just 28 goals last season, the fewest in La Liga. Michel’s 4-3-3 system will make Carles Alena more of a focal point as a creator in the middle of the field. At the same time, the addition of Vitolo could help the offensive creativity despite the discouraging end to his time at Atletico Madrid. Despite their poor offensive play, Getafe finished 15th in the table last season, so I’m betting on an even higher finish with closer to league-average offense.
Most Important Player: Maruo Arambarri
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Vitolo
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Angel
If there’s one team that will benefit from the reintroduction of fans in the stadium, Osasuna will be that squad. Their fans are loyal and loud, and it impacts the way the team plays. Of course, COVID-19 hurt that entire concept as the lack of fans in the stadium diminished the team’s energy. Chimy Avila will return as a force at forward and with new signing Enrique Garcia. Osasuna was a below-average scoring offense last season, which could change to elevate their play this year.
Most Important Player: Ruben Garcia
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Ante Budimir
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Adrian Lopez
It’s been an inspiring couple of years for Granada as they finished seventh and ninth in their first two years back in La Liga following a two-year absence from the top flight. However, there are some new faces in play this season. Manager Diego Martinez has departed, and his replacement Roberto Moreno will have a high bar to live up to. Roberto Soldado, Yangel Herrera, and Nehuen Perez have left the team, although Carlos Bacca and Monchu could help replenish some depth. Ultimately, I don’t think this team quite lives up to the form they’ve played at over the last two years.
Most Important Player: Domingos Duarte
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Carlos Bacca
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Roberto Soldado
Levante recognized their need to add defensive reinforcements after allowing the fourth-most goals in La Liga last season, and Enric Franquesa, a likely starter at left-back, could help that effort. The addition of forward Roberto Soldado will also help the offense, and it will be fun to see his interplay with team captain Jose Luis Morales. Levante failed to win in their final eight games last season, but their fans have decent optimism for this season.
Most Important Player: Jose Luis Morales
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Roberto Soldado
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Ruben Rochina
The 2019-20 season was devastating, to say the least, for Espanyol, as they were relegated. However, it allowed the team to hit the reset button as they re-invested in youth, particularly forward Javi Puado, who scored 12 league goals last season. Vicente Moreno did a great job in his first season as the manager, and he previously took Mallorca into the top flight, but Mallorca was relegated in that first season in La Liga. However, Espanyol has more talent than most promotion sides, and I see them finishing at a decent spot this year.
Most Important Player: Raul de Tomas
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Sergio Gomez
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: N/A
Mallorca is clearly on the rise after performing superbly in the second division under new manager Luis Garcia to be promoted after one year out of La Liga. The team has strong stability with owner Robert Sarver (owner of the Phoenix Suns), president Andy Kohlberg (former pro tennis player), and board members Steve Nash (Brooklyn Nets’ head coach and former basketball player) and Graeme Le Saux (former English soccer player and media pundit). Significant arrivals in Angel, Pablo Maffeo, Victor Mollejo, and Jaume Costa help this team prepare for another run in the top flight.
Most Important Player: Takefusa Kubo
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Angel
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Amath Ndiaye
In Cadiz’s first top-flight season since 2005-06 last year, they finished 12th in the table as Alvaro Cervera outperformed expectations. However, Cadiz finished third-worst with a goal differential of -22 as they allowed 58 goals, the second-most in the table. The additions of defenders Victor Chust and Santiago Arzamendia should help that some. Veteran striker Alvaro Negredo is coming off an 8-goal season. This team is good enough to avoid relegation but likely not much more.
Most Important Player: Alvaro Negredo
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Victor Chust
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Ivan Saponjic
Alaves barely held onto its spot in the top flight last season, and after a long stretch with no fans in its stadium, they will be hoping the crowd can help them avoid relegation for a second-straight season. Javi Calleja brings in a new coaching style that will require some adaptation from the players. Quite a few question marks are surrounding the roles of players on the squad, so the lack of continuity could ruin this team’s chances to avoid relegation again.
Most Important Player: Joselu
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Facundo Pellistri
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Manu Garcia
#19 Rayo Vallecano
It’s been a decade of massive pendulum swings for Rayo Vallecano as they have been promoted three times since 2010 and relegated twice. The introduction of young manager Andoni Iraola helped the team regain a spot in La Liga last season. Still, they are short of quality and didn’t do enough to mitigate that issue over the summer. A 3-0 home loss to Sevilla to open the season could set the tone for what is ultimately another disappointing relegation year for Rayo Vallecano.
Most Important Player: Kevin Rodrigues
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Randy Nteka
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Luis Advincula
It was a nail-biting finish to last season for Elche as they survived from the clutches of relegation with back-to-back wins to end the year. With one of the smallest rosters in the division and a disappointing summer transfer window, manager Fran Escriba is left saying, “we need more players. The club spoke about up to 10 signings, but we’ve only made five.” Whether or not the team makes more signings remains to be seen, but I don’t see this club getting as lucky this year as they did last year in avoiding relegation.
Most Important Player: Raul Guti
Most Important Incoming Transfer: Lucas Boye
Most Important Outgoing Transfer: Paulo Gazzaniga