The new season in La Liga gets going on the 19th August with Barcelona bidding for a third consecutive Spanish title and the Madrid clubs hoping to get their name back on the trophy. It promises to be another close battle at the top but there is plenty more to look forward to. Seven teams have new coaches including Europa League holders Sevilla who have installed former Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli at the helm while the likes of Juande Ramos, Gus Poyet, Paco Jemez and Quique Sánchez Flores are all starting new jobs. The new campaign will also see Madrid minnows Leganés appear in La Liga for the first time while Alaves and Osasuna are also back in the top flight forming part of a strong Basque contingent.
Spanish La Liga Outright Winner
Just 3 points separated the top three last season in La Liga and it is likely to be very tight again this term and it would take something fairly miraculous to break the stranglehold the top three sides have. Atletico Madrid enjoyed another great season last time around remaining in contention for the title until the penultimate week whilst also knocking out Barcelona and Bayern Munich to reach the UEFA Champions League Final where they suffered penalty heartbreak against city rivals Real Madrid.
What makes their achievements all the more impressive is that they managed them without anything like a top class striker. Jackson Martinez was supposed to be the man to provide the goal touch when he was bought for big money from Porto last summer. He proved to be a massive flop, departing for China in January and leaving Fernando Torres to fill the void for much of the season and once again flatter to deceive. This time around though they are boosted by the returning Borja Bastón, who scored 18 goals on loan at Eibar last season and have added Kevin Gameiro, who is a proven Primera Division goalscorer and someone capable of giving Atleti the cutting edge they at times lack.
As for the rest of the team, there is precious little wrong with it. They are easily the best defensive side in Spain, conceding 11 fewer goals than Barcelona and 16 fewer than Real Madrid in the league last season. The core of their 2013/14 title winning side remains with Koke and Gabi pulling the strings from midfield and they now have very capable support from the likes of Saul and Yannick Carrasco, who are two of the best young players in European football. Antoine Griezmann remains the star turn and has truly stepped up to world class level over the past 12 months and with a top striker to play off, Atleti should be even stronger this season so there is no reason why they can’t go the extra mile and win La Liga again.
Why not Barcelona or Real Madrid?
In years gone by, to suggest someone other than Barca or Real Madrid would win the title would be to suggest something had to go badly wrong at the traditional ‘big two’ clubs. However Atleti are now so strong that that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
We are talking here about three of the best teams in Europe bidding to win a domestic league, where in many games they won’t even seriously be tested. Inevitably the margins are going to be fine and there are enough small doubts lingering over Barcelona and Real Madrid that suggest they may fall just short this time around.
Real Madrid veered from one disaster to another in the first half of last season and all the signs were even deep into the Spring that a major squad overhaul would take place this summer. However an 11th European crown seems to have put that off for a while and you have to wonder if that’s the right move.
Defensively they are still vulnerable, particularly on the road where they kept just 5 clean sheets last term in the league and it is most unlike them to be heading into August having made only one major signing and that was the re-purchase of Alvaro Morata, who could yet be moved on in any case. Cristiano Ronaldo will turn 32 this season and although he is still performing at an outstanding level, he may now be at the point where his game time needs to be managed better, particularly after a long and ultimately very successful summer with Portugal. The likes of Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Luca Modric are all also now the wrong side of 30 and given Los Blancos have only won the title once in the last 8 years, there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason why they will step up this year and clinch top spot so there’s no temptation to back them at 6/4.
8/11 favourites Barcelona meanwhile have added some bodies to their squad with the likes of André Gomes and Samuel Umtiti arriving although most have been bought with an eye on the future. Their first eleven is likely to be identical to what it was last season but for Dani Alves who has left to join Juventus. Of course they are still an exceptionally good side but their success last season was almost entirely down to the front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Defensively they were far from perfect and the midfield trio of Rakitic, Iniesta and Busquets weren’t as impressive as they had been in the previous treble winning campaign. That leaves an enormous amount of pressure on the shoulders of the famous ‘MSN’ but if just one of them was to have a sub-par season this time around, it could open the door firmly ajar to the Madrid clubs.
Leo Messi has had a nightmare summer with a guilty verdict in his tax evasion case followed by his shock retirement from international football. Nobody really knows how all that will have affected him but it has certainly been the toughest few months of his career and it could potentially have a negative effect on his football.
Barcelona faded badly in April last season and you have to say fatigue could well be a problem again this term. Almost all their players were involved in either Copa America or Euro 2016 and the likes of Neymar and Luis Suarez will be making regular trips to South America during this season to play fiercely competitive World Cup qualifiers. Luis Enrique has tended to be very reluctant to rotate his team but will surely have to at times in the 2016/17 Liga. However there is still no-one seriously capable of coming close to filling the gaps left by Messi, Suarez and Neymar when they are absent and this could be the toughest of the 46 year old coach’s three seasons at Camp Nou.
To Finish in the Top Four
The race for the top four or more realistically 4th place could also be really interesting this season. Behind the big three, Sevilla are the 2/1 favourites to finish in the top four but there are a lot of unknowns with them. Unai Emery, who brought so much success to the Andalusian club, has departed for PSG while several key players including top scorer Kevin Gameiro and impressive central midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak have left. Jorge Sampaoli comes with a big reputation but has never previously managed in Europe and may need a year or so before he can properly get this new-look Sevilla team playing the sort of football he wants.
Valencia are next at 7/2 but given they finished 20 points off the top four last season but only 6 above the relegation zone, it’s hard to justify that. They clearly under-achieved but even without the distraction of European football, it’s still a huge gap to bridge and one made tougher by the departure of talented young midfielder André Gomes to Barcelona.
Villarreal, who did finish 4th last year, have had to go through their annual rebuild with star defender Eric Bailly joining Manchester United and the lively Denis Suarez rejoining Barcelona. They rotated their team a lot in the Europa League last term and still enjoyed success but back in the Champions League for 2016/17 they will go strong in that competition and it will be tough for them to replicate their excellent 2015/16 campaign in La Liga when they perhaps over-achieved slightly and certainly benefited from the misfortunes of one or two of the other clubs.
Their closest challengers last season were Athletic Bilbao, who finished just 2 points back in 5th place. At 5/1 they look like a great bet for a top four finish this term. Unlike the other clubs, they are yet to lose any players and are likely to head into the new campaign in very much the same shape as last year with a settled team that at times was very impressive. They started the last campaign very early with Europa League qualifiers and Spanish Super Cup matches dominating their pre-season schedule and it contributed towards a few sluggish displays as the season wore on. This term they have enjoyed a much longer summer break, had only one player involved at Euro 2016 and will go straight into the group stage in Europe’s secondary competition. If Aritz Aduriz can repeat his goalscoring heroics from the last two seasons then Ernesto Valverde’s team will be very well equipped to secure a top four finish.
Spanish La Liga Relegation Predictions
Despite attempts to balance things out with a fairer distribution of TV money, the gulf between the elite clubs and teams at the bottom is still enormous in La Liga. There are numerous cash-strapped clubs and sides that appear low on quality so there are likely to be many sides involved in the relegation battle in 2016/17 but these are the three teams that stand out.
The three newly promoted clubs are all odds on for the drop but given all the sides that came up last season stayed up, there is hope for them. Of the trio, Leganes look the side most likely to head straight back down. They have never previously played in La Liga and were in the 3rd tier as recently as the 2013/14 campaign so their rise has been rapid but it’s hard to see them not being found a little out of their depth in the top flight. Unlike the other two newly promoted clubs Osasuna and Alaves, who can rely on passionate support in atmospheric stadiums, Leganes matches drew crowds of around 5,000 last season and it’s hard to see them turning their fairly uninspiring 8,000 capacity Estadio Butarque into much of a fortress. Home form is key for the sides at the bottom end and Leganes are likely to be turned over too often on their own patch to have a chance of staying in the league so backing Leganes for the drop at 5/6 looks good value.
Sporting Gijon stayed up on the final day last term but they may not be so fortunate this time around. Severe money troubles has meant they’ve had to rely on the loan market to really add any quality to the squad that was promoted from the Segunda Division the season before last. They made two excellent loan signings last year in Barca midfielder Alen Halilović and 20 year old forward Arnaldo Sanabria, who netted 11 goals however neither will be in Gijon this time around and it’s hard to see where their creativity and goals are going to come from.
Granada are masters at the art of the great escape. This will be their 6th consecutive top flight season and they have finished in the bottom six but not the bottom three in each of the previous 5. Given that you’d expect them to be in the frame again and this season may be the one where they finally go. They have sold almost all of their best players already this summer. Youssef El-Arabi, Isaac Success and Ruben Rochina have all departed and between them the trio contributed 61% of Granada’s goals last term. For a side that only beat the drop by a single point and with a little help from a disinterested Sevilla side in their penultimate game, that’s a lot of quality to lose and certainly at 11/4 they look good value for relegation.
Spanish La Liga Top Goalscorer Prediction
Between 2009 and 2015 there were only two men who got their names on the Pichichi Trophy with Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo winning it three times each. However Luis Suarez broke their stranglehold last season with a 40 goal campaign and it looks very much like a 3-horse race again this term. The Uruguayan is still the 3rd favourite but it’s hard to understand why when he has seemingly improved with each passing month since joining Barcelona in 2014. He plays as the central striker so should get more chances than Messi and finished last season in devastating goalscoring form netting a ridiculous 14 goals in Barca’s final 5 league games. Cristiano Ronaldo may see a bit less league game-time this season given his exerts over the summer and the busy season Real Madrid have in multiple competitions therefore Luis Suarez looks the best pick at 5/2 to be the top goalscorer in Spain again.