LA LIGA resumes on Friday with Barcelona in apparent crisis and Real Madrid enjoying a rare title triumph. Madrid resident Brendy Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) has analysed the ante-post markets, sharing his best bets ahead of the 2020/21 big kick-off.
WLB Season Preview 2020/21 | La Liga
The dust has barely settled in the wake of the Champions League final and, here in Spain, it feels like nobody is really ready for La Liga to return.
As football fans, it’s not in our nature to be filled with the feeling of “what could have been” and regret on the eve of a new season, but that’s the overriding feeling as La Liga gets ready to kick off.
Regret that the season will begin with how the last ended: empty stadiums full of artificial sounds. Regret at Cadiz’s first game back in the Primera – an occasion which should have been a tremendous celebration, a sea of yellow as the last embers of summer faded away – being played behind closed doors. Regret that both Alavés and Osasuna fans will watch a big chunk of their centenary seasons (a very big deal in Spain) from their sofas.
Add all this to the Lionel Messi saga, and it’s understandable why everyone across the country is a bit weary and deflated even before a ball has been kicked.
COVID-19 has placed a huge financial strain on all leagues across Europe, and Spain has been hit particularly hard. At the time of writing Real Madrid’s star signing is the return of loanee Martin Odegaard while the best player in the league has agreed to stay despite begging to leave.
‘The only thing worse than Messi leaving is Messi staying in these circumstances,’ said Jorge Valdano in El País.
Similar to last season, we have more questions than answers as we head into the new campaign: What version of Messi will we see? Can Karim Benzema continue playing to such a high standard? Will João Felix make the step up? Can Julen Lopetegui lift his Sevilla side to go again so quickly? Will Unai Emery figure out a way to get the best out of Dani Parejo as well as young attacking talent?
With a lot of time remaining in the transfer market Barcelona are still very much an unknown quantity.
It remains to be seen how much faith new coach Ronald Koeman will place in young stars like Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Pedri and Trincão, and whether the club will find the cash for a proven goal scorer to lead the line.
Another key area to be addressed is in the centre of midfield where an athletic, physical presence is badly needed if Barca are to get with the times. It feels very much that what Barca get out of Messi will depend on the younger players stepping up and convincing the Argentine that it’s worth giving it one last shot.
Real Madrid are undoubtedly the most reliable outfit when it comes to the outright title market. The return of Odegaard will relieve Luka Modric of minutes and miles and should inject welcomed vertical creativity from midfield. Doubts persist regarding where the goals will come from, but Madrid will be expecting a big season from both Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio. They may only need one to click to be too strong for the rest of the league.
There has also been zero change of note thus far on the other side of Madrid and Diego Simeone will be depending on João Felix to make the jump to the next level if his team are to make a much more forceful title challenge this time around.
Scoring goals will once again almost certainly prove to be los rojiblancos’ undoing.
Atleti still lack the streetwise operators of yesteryear, the types who knew how to grind their opponents down. By Simeone standards this team is simply too nice to challenge over a 38-game season. They don’t have the mental toughness or guile to be greater than the sum of their parts and it’s highly unlikely they pose any real threat to their city rivals.
It will take a few months to really know where exactly Barca are but everything suggests that Real Madrid, who again look quite a bit away from the likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City, will again be the least worst team in Spain this time around.
Verdict: Real Madrid to win outright
The fight for survival
There’s one key trend that’s always worth remembering in Spain, and that’s the success rate of the newly promoted teams: in four of the last five seasons, at least two of the promoted sides achieved safety.
As we know, games in Spain will continue to be played behind closed doors for the foreseeable future and this needs to be factored into the equation when considering any sort of outright punts, especially when looking towards the bottom of the table.
Elche immediately stand out as the weakest side in the league, while it’s hard to see who will score the goals to keep Huesca in the division. Cadiz look the best-placed promoted side to compete in Spain’s top flight, and will be looking to veteran Alvaro Negredo to fire them up the table.
Looking at value wagers, I’m expecting Osasuna to struggle after a very strong return to the Primera last season. Their main man Chimy Avila returns from a torn ACL and it remains to be seen how he bounces back, and whether a bigger side will swoop in for the Colombian.
Playing behind closed doors will arguably be the biggest handicap to Osasuna out of all teams in La Liga and the absence of their 12th man will make a huge difference. The loss of left back Pervis Estupiñan should also prove to be a strong blow – he was in many pundits’ Team of the Season last time around.
In the Basque Country, another summer has gone by and another handful of experienced, quality players have departed from Eibar. Last year they saw Joan Jordan, Marca Cucurella and Rubén Peña leave, while this time around they have lost the services of Fabián Orellana and Gonzalo Escalante, as well as the experienced striker Charles. Reinforcements have been few and far between thus far and it remains to be seen if those left are up for another season under the abrasive José Luis Mendilibar.
When looking for the last struggler I only have to look less than an hour south of Ipurua: Alavés. New manager Pablo Machin has a very defined way of playing, and if the squad don’t adjust quickly, they could be in for a very long season. The men from the Basque Capital are another side who will be hugely affected of playing behind closed doors and they will be hoping local fans can return to Mendizorroza ASAP.
In recent years they have relied on quality in wide areas from the likes of Jony, Ibai Gomez and Aleix Vidal and they look to lack the necessary creativity in midfield to create chances. They were my value pick for the drop last season where they managed to survive by three points. Everything points to them struggling once again.
Verdict: Alavés, Osasuna and Eibar to be relegated
It's hard to look beyond Villarreal as the main challenger to disrupt last season’s top-four. They lost Santi Cazorla but gained both Francis Coquelin and Dani Parejo from Valencia, along with Take Kubo to bolster their already potent attack, and the Yellow Submarine once again promise to be arguably the most entertaining team in Spain.
Real Betis will be looking for a vast improvement this season, but the arrivals under new manager Manuel Pellegrini have hardly been inspiring: Claudio Bravo, Martin Montoya and Victor Ruiz.
However, with the likes of Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir los verdiblancos still have real quality going forward. Getting things right up front is the biggest task facing the veteran Chilean coach and if Borja Iglesias can return to some resemblance of his 2018/19 self, Betis should be back challenging for a Europa League place.
A farcical 12 months at Valencia has culminated with the extraordinary sale of Francis Coquelin and captain Dani Parejo for a total of €8m. Rodrigo was sold to Leeds, Ferran Torres joined Manchester City for around half of his estimated market value and another Marcelino loyalist, Ezequiel Garay´s contract was allowed to expire.
Fifteen months after a special ending to their centenary season which culminated with Parejo lifting the Copa del Rey, the Valencia project has once again blown up. Javi Gracia has a very difficult job on his hands. Anywhere around mid-table would be a decent season all things considered.
Similar to the last campaign, the ones to watch will be Villarreal and Real Sociedad, both will be looking to challenge Sevilla for a top-four spot, but in all likelihood will fall just short. Celta Vigo should be slightly improved and the Galicians will be looking for far more consistency in attack.
Overall, it looks like being another very tight season in Spain. The money has dropped significantly, and so too has the quality. It has the feel of another season where 6-8 points could be the difference between challenging for Europe and being dragged into a relegation fight.
Most La Liga fans right now are just counting down the days to have stadiums open again. It will not only mean proper football again, but it will also be a sign that the coronavirus situation has improved significantly. Fingers crossed.
What the pundits think
Robbie Dunne (HayLiga.com): Winner: Barcelona. Relegation: Alavés, Elche, Valladolid
Sam Leveridge (La Liga Lowdown): Winner: Real Madrid. Relegation: Alavés, Elche, Cádiz
Euan McTear (Marca): Winner: Real Madrid. Relegation: Alavés, Elche, Huesca
La Liga 2020/21 – Real Madrid to win La Liga (8/11 Betfair)
La Liga 2020/21 – Osasuna to be relegated (6/1 Betfair)
La Liga 2020/21 – Eibar to be relegated (15/8 Betfair)
La Liga 2020/21 – Alavés to be relegated (4/1 Betfair)
La Liga 2020/21 – Villarreal for a Top-Six Finish (8/11 Betfair)