When it comes to who will win La Liga, Real Madrid were without doubt the strongest team at the end of last season, and have only increased that strength. Two major signings arrived in Antonio Rüdiger and Aurélien Tchouameni. The former should improve a defence that was for the most part solid but never watertight, as was exhibited throughout the Champions League. Tchouameni might not be used to playing as a solo pivot, but will finally provide an alternative and competition for Casemiro, in addition to the already burgeoning depth in the middle of the park.
Real Madrid will not make any further signings, so says Carlo Ancelotti, meaning more or less the same side will be asked to repeat last season’s feats. There is no doubt that there was room for improvement last campaign and should Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Junior stay the course of their trajectory, it’s a strong challenge they can lay down.
Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that everything fell kindly for Los Blancos last season, at least domestically. Facing the worst title challenge since 2006, they will compete against stronger opponents. Their star core, with the exception of Vinicius, is another year older and despite the previous evidence, there is always the chance that father time gains ground on Karim Benzema and Luka Modric. Ancelotti will also have perhaps the trickiest challenge in elite football – to bring back the hunger after success, a fate that so demonstrably destroyed Atlético Madrid last season.
There will be a response from Los Colchoneros. Diego Simeone’s defence was the worst it has been since he took over and it would be shock to see something similar to that chaos again. At the other end there is a posse of talented but low on confidence forwards. Their true hopes rely on the much-awaited João Félix explosion, which actually threatened to happen in the second half of last season before a hamstring issue. The array of problems and injuries that assaulted Simeone last season should be reduced, but as ever, given the financial imbalances, they would be relying on the big two misfiring to an extent. While they should resemble their stereotypical character more closely, 11/2 odds feel accurate. Some squinting has to be done to see them as winners.
Which brings the debate around to Barcelona. Their floor is considerably higher this year, especially as they were languishing in ninth last November. Exactly how the pieces fit together is the big conundrum at Camp Nou. The club are going all in to ensure that Xavi Hernández has the chips to play with the big boys following the arrivals of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and the re-signing of Ousmane Dembélé, now his mettle as a manager is on the line.
There is an argument that Barcelona exhibited the best two months of football anywhere in Spain between February and March last season, but it evaporated as quickly as it had appeared. The Blaugrana will have their most talented squad in three seasons to compete with, but there are as many questions as answers. Given we are entering a unique season with a World Cup in November, that can be applied to the campaign as a whole. If Barcelona can work out a formula in which to fit their many pieces, then they arguably have the best chance and so it comes down to how much you trust Xavi to do so. Real Madrid (6/5) and Barcelona (6/4) are barely separated by the odds, yet with caution, Barcelona appear to have marginally more reason for optimism, taking into account the only trophy Ancelotti has ever retained is the German Supercup.
At first count, there are nine sides for which you can plot a path to relegation in La Liga, should things go just somewhat sideways.
Beginning with the newly-promoted sides, Segunda Champions Almería can count on larger financial backing and probably the most quality in their side. Manager Rubi is having his fifth go in La Liga with varying levels of success, but in this case it’s not hard to find three teams that are likely to struggle more for goals. Next to Getafe, they both feel like cases of teams that will be forced to sweat for safety, but ultimately will achieve it by hook or crook.
Play-off victors Girona also have goals in 35-year-old Uruguayan veteran Christhian Stuani. Despite his age, he was still top scorer in Segunda last year but perhaps the most interesting part of their survival bid is manager Míchel Sánchez. After getting Rayo Vallecano and then Huesca promoted, on both occasions his bold and aesthetic football struggled to stand up to La Liga, ending in sackings and relegation. The key to their salvation lies in whether you believe Míchel can perfect, or perhaps adjust his methods, or if he is condemned to be undone by his identity again.
After being relegated two seasons back, Real Valladolid were automatically promoted and scored the most goals in the division. Manager Pacheta’s charisma and zest seem to have created a team with more strings to their bow than the one that was relegated. He also has a knack for inspiring the best of his forwards – which is no small talent at the bottom.
Pacheta had replaced Sergio González, who is now at Cádiz. The other Yellow Submarine achieved a minor miracle and stayed up on the final day of the season by the skin of their teeth. Since his arrival however, Cádiz play not as the humble, hard-working but not especially talented squad they were before. Instead, they became a fast-paced battering ram, which kept up with many of the league’s top sides. If he can inspire the same level of performance, they will no doubt be safe next season.
Also surviving on the final day of the season were Real Mallorca, headed by veteran Javier Aguirre. He provides nous and there are few better in the profession under pressure. Yet much of their revival was inspired by the giant Kosovan striker Vedat Muriqi, who gave the islanders both an emotional and tactical focal point. Unless they can find a similar force to propel them forward, it could be a long campaign.
Also coming up last season was Rayo Vallecano, last season’s surprise side. In spite of a desperate run in 2022, they proved themselves capable and ambitious. Isi Palazón and Álvaro García are as good a wide pairing anywhere outside the European places, only they need someone to provide for. Radamel Falcao is staying, but they are relying on his fitness to improve in order to remain enough of a threat and thus mitigate the inevitable concession of goals that comes with their aggressive pressing.
Elche constructed an entirely solid base from which to collect points under Francisco last campaign, to the surprise of many, finishing 13th. Packed with useful players but few standouts, their ability to hang onto Lucas Boyé could well swing their season one way or the other. Elche will not be cast adrift; their challenge is being as sharp as they are sturdy.
With things so tight, a bold observer would be certain of their relegation picks. One does stand out as having more ground to make up than the others, Aguirre’s Mallorca look a little light on talent currently. Cádiz, Rayo and Elche are facing the task of repeating their trick and the latter may struggle most with that if they don’t secure a competent target man up front. Valladolid have enough about them to stay up if Shon Weissman can replicate his form this season, while Girona fall into the category of serious doubts.
Athletic Club Bilbao
This of course depends on your definition, as some of La Liga’s upper echelons are becoming accustomed to their position, in spite of their budgetary constraints. Both Real Betis and Real Sociedad will likely compete for the European places without the resources employed by either Villarreal or Sevilla. Espanyol have spent their summer winding round the bendy road to revolution, with heads rolling. Ambitious manager Diego Martínez is more than likely to provide a bounce in performance.
Yet to pick one side to take a decisive step forward, without almost any investment, there is a good case to be made for the side that can never spend all the money it has. Athletic Club were only four points off European football last season and came close to the Copa del Rey final too. There won’t be a large jump up the table, but former Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde my well provide the solid footing to take Los Leones into a Europa League place.
The outgoing Marcelino García Toral is amongst the finest managers in Spain and did a largely good job, but consistency became an issue as momentum ebbed away last season. Theoretically all of the contenders around them should edge forward and still, Athletic Club will be debilitated by their lack of a pedigree striker. The addition of 25-year-old Gorka Guruzeta, who scored 13 goals in Segunda for Amorebieta last season, is sign of their desperation to solve the issue.
As good as Marcelino is though, he and his teams operate within strict parameters. The players will adapt to his ideas as far as possible and in a squad that by definition only has certain elements in it, that can be problematic.
Ernesto Valverde is arguably the opposite of that – he will adapt to his resources as well as any manager in world football. Following on from Marcelo Bielsa in his second spell at Athletic and Luis Enrique at Barcelona, Valverde also has a history of success when picking up the pieces from intense personalities.
The limitations up front will not dissolve into thin air around Valverde, but if one manager can work around it, Valverde has a decent shot. The same manager replaced Neymar Junior with Paulinho and configured a team that comfortably won the title. Astute and successful, Valverde can lead Athletic to Europe for the first time since he left in 2017.
The ninth team that you could imagine being relegated, if things plummeted in the wrong direction, is Valencia. Most won’t have high expectations but fans will still be demanding a top-half finish and potentially a cup run, which was what José Bordalás delivered last season.
New manager Gennaro Gattuso will in all likelihood have to do so without some of the key forces dragging the team through sticky moments. Local heroes José Gayá and Carlos Soler are the two clearly international quality players remaining at Los Che, along with Gonçalo Guedes. With the club intent on selling their way out of a financial crisis, at least two of them will likely leave if not all three. For context, Guedes scored or assisted 35.4% of their goals in La Liga and barely played in the last six games due to a bonus clause. Soler scored 12 times and their main strikers, Maxi Gómez and Marcos André, combined for just 8 goals between them. Unless Valencia can hang onto Guedes or unearth several gems, their offensive output will require a miserly defence behind it. One missing their best defender last campaign, Omar Alderete.
Although Gattuso cuts the character of someone you want fighting adversity, his record doesn’t inspire total confidence. While he has not done a bad job at either Milan or Napoli in his last two attempts, neither could he call it a success. The situation at Valencia is a headache for most managers at this point and Gattuso, having walked out on three separate occasions due to disagreements with ownership, is not known for his extensive temper.
Both of his predecessors, Javi Gracia and Bordalás, were beaten into submission by the poor leadership from the top and the lack of resources with which to make a change. Taking into account the continued weakening of the squad, an explosive manager and a disillusioned fanbase, it’s not hard to write a recipe for disaster. While they should have enough to keep clear of the drop, a slide from ninth-place appears probable.
Top Goal Scorer
The Pichichi award, as it is known in Spain, had a new victor for the first time since 2009 last season. An entire ten goals separated Karim Benzema from the chasing pack, which confirmed the French striker was by some distance the best striker in the division last year, finishing with 27 goals in 32 games.
Teammate Vinícius Junior, Raúl de Tomás and Iago Aspas all finished level on 17 goals behind Benzema. None of them are in possession of reasons to say they will increase their input much more either. Benzema was the top goalscorer in the best team last season and there is a good chance that will remain the case. Leading the race for this year’s Ballon d’Or, his supply chain has suffered no major losses and as mentioned, Vinícius and Rodrygo should only improve. His greatest risk of a drop-off in numbers naturally comes from injury at 34, but that assessment is more based on generic rules of thought rather than anything seen in Benzema’s game, which only appears to improve. Additionally, he only missed six games last season.
His greatest competition will likely come from Robert Lewandowski. He too turns 34 in August but shows equally little sign of a slowdown, scoring 35 times in the Bundesliga alone and registering his seventh Torjäger award. Lewandowski no doubt has the quality to compete and arguably is more of pure goalscorer than Benzema. However, he will have to find his place in Xavi’s Barcelona and they will have to adapt to him too. Nobody is quite sure of the degree to which all of Barcelona’s new pieces will be suffering from teething problems at the start and Lewandowski should lead the way for them, but those initial stages perhaps give Benzema the edge. Barcelona also have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to call off the bench, whereas Benzema is rarely rested or taken off.
For an outside shout, Gerard Moreno has the talent to challenge. Throughout the last campaign Moreno battled against injury more than defenders, but a fully-fit Moreno scored 23 times the previous season. Now part of a stronger Villarreal side, if things fall right for the Yellow Submarine, he will be at the heart of it.
Player to Watch
Doubling down on the idea that Athletic Club will be a force to contend with, several players could look to make a jump forward. Perhaps the best-placed to do so is Oihan Sancet.
Brought through Athletic’s Lezama academy as a deeper central midfielder, he found a second wind last season as a playmaker behind the striker last season. Blessed with all of the touch and poise of your typical technical Spanish midfielder, Sancet blends that with Basque physicality. Standing at six feet two inches, he had presence in the area and the strength to hold off defenders too.
This curious combination makes him tricky to deal with and worked well in an Athletic side that often lacks the final pass. Last season he scored six times and assisted four goals, even though he only started 16 games. The highlight was a brilliant hat-trick away to Osasuna, firm evidence Sancet can do it all in the final third. Ranking amongst the top 10% in his position for progressive passes, progressive passes received and shot-creating actions, the threat bore out on both paper and pitch.
There is some doubt about where he will play next season, if as predicted Valverde opts for a 4-2-3-1. Iker Muniain is the key creative force at Athletic and may play behind the forward, but Valverde will be forced to find a place for Sancet somewhere, given his effectiveness. It may be that Sancet returns to his deeper position or Muniain continues from the left side, but Valverde has always emphasized late runs from midfield into the box, something Sancet would excel at.
Sancet stands out for his ability to move between the lines and has the talent to exploit it when he receives the ball. If Athletic can harness it, Sancet will probably be their next Spain international.