The 2021/22 La Liga season kicks off next weekend with plenty of questions still to be answered as Atletico Madrid look to retain their title while Real Madrid, Barcelona and perhaps Sevilla look to claim the top spot.
The first La Liga season to start without Leo Messi in 18 years will no doubt start under the shadow of the genius after Barca’s failure to fit his contract into the wage structure imposed by La Liga, but it would be unfair to view Barca as the victims in this, with their financial situation down to years of financial mismanagement and only given a ‘coup de grace’ by the effects of the pandemic.
This is going to be an austerity season for all of the clubs in Spain and Barcelona are just one of many whose planning and squad have been affected by the economic problems in the game, reports Xinhua.
Although Messi has gone and the effects on Barca’s self-esteem could be important, the club have actually signed quite well, with Kun Aguero, Memphis Depay, Emerson Royal and Eric Garcia all arriving on free transfers, although the ongoing contract dispute with promising youngster Ilaix Moriba could be a problem for coach Ronald Koeman with Ilaix currently relegated to the B-team after failing to agree new terms.
Despite ongoing rumours about Kylian Mbappe, Real Madrid’s only new arrival this season is coach Carlo Ancelotti, who returns for a second spell after Zinedine Zidane stepped down at the start of the summer.
Ancelotti returns to the Bernabeu after underwhelming spells at Napoli and Everton and inherits a squad that has signed the impressive and versatile David Alaba on a free transfer but lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.
Toni Kroos is also sidelined for an unspecified amount of time with a groin injury and much will depend on whether the Brazilian duo of Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo can turn promise into assists and goals and whether Gareth Bale (who returns from loan) is fit and motivated and can help Karim Benzema with the supply of goals.
Dani Ceballos and Martin Odegaard also have the chance to stake a claim after two years away on loan, but on paper at least Real Madrid look no stronger than last season.
Atletico Madrid were worthy winners of the 2020-21 league title and the arrival of midfielder Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese should add creativity and goals to a midfield, which will still rely on players such as Koke and Marcos Llorente.
Although the future of Kieran Trippier is still uncertain, Atletico can be relied on to keep things tight at the back and the key for Diego Simeone’s side is whether Luis Suarez can repeat his feats of last season.
Suarez’s 21 goals were the key to Atletico’s title, but with the Uruguayan due to celebrate his 35th birthday in December, Simeone knows he will have to treat his striker with care and ration his efforts.
Although the club have signed young Brazilian forward Marcos Paulo, they really need another striker as backup, with Rafa Mir the favorite to join after his successful season at Huelva.
It would be unfair to forget Sevilla’s title hopes after they kept in the race last season until the penultima game of the season and the addition of Erik Lamela will give them more options in the midfield.
Sevilla are another side who perhaps need to add a striker to their squad, but much of their hopes for the coming campaign will rest on keeping central defender Jules Kounde away from the clutches of the Premier League.
Below the top four, there are several sides who will hope to threaten and assure at least a place in Europe. Villarreal, with the addition of Aissa Mandi and Boulaye Dia, will hope playing the Champions League doesn’t derail their league hopes.
Real Sociedad can expect to prosper with their mix of intelligent signings and youth-team products. The best news for the side from San Sebastian is getting striker Alexander Isak to sign a new contract, but the loss of Mikel Merino, Mikel Oyarzabal and Martin Zubimendi for the first 3 weeks of the season after their duty in the Olympic Games is an early handicap for the Basques.
Betis have lost Mandi to Villarreal and Emerson to Barca, but can be relied on to be in the top half of the table thanks to coach Manuel Pellegrini, while coach Eduardo Caudet turned Celta into a swashbuckling side last season and a team with Brais Mendez, Iago Aspas, Santi Mina, Nolito and Denis Suarez could be this season’s big entertainers.
Athletic Club Bilbao will hope that coach Marcelino Garcia Toral can impose his stamp on the side (and pre-season signs are promising) and that youngsters Nico Williams, Unai Vencedor, Dani Vivian and Oihan Sancet can give depth to a side that will be tough to score against.
It has been another season without signings so far for Valencia and the club needs former Getafe boss Pepe Bordalas to impose the character he gave his former club on his new team if they are to avoid a repeat of last season’s struggles.
Elsewhere, Alaves coach Javi Calleja will look to strikers Lucas Perez and Joselu to fire on all cylinders to keep his side out of trouble, while Raul de Tomas will be vital for Espanyol, who return to the top-flight along with Mallorca, who have brought in former Getafe coach poacher Angel Rodriguez.
Fran Escriba needs to organize his scant resources at Elche if they are to avoid trouble, while it remains to be seen whether the more attacking football Michel Gonzalez will try and implant at Getafe will merely make them easier to score against than under Bordalas.
Former Spain coach Roberto Moreno looks to have inherited a weakened squad from Diego Martinez after losing players such as Yangel Herrera, Kenedy and the experienced Roberto Soldado.
Soldado has joined Levante, who once again have a well-balanced side under Paco Lopez, with Jorge de Frutos, Roger Marti and Jose Luis Morales giving something a bit extra in attack in front of a well-balanced midfield and defense, where Jose Campana’s return after injury another boost for the side.
Cadiz will find it hard to repeat last season’s efforts and unless they score more goals, they are clear relegation candidates, while Andoni Iraola will be severely tested as he tries to keep Rayo Vallecano in the top-flight after winning promotion through the play-offs.