OBSESSIVE European football fan Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the brand new Ligue 1 season, picking out his favourite ante-post punts ahead of the 2018/19 campaign.
WLB Season Preview 2018/19 | La Liga
Thirteen of the last 14 La Liga titles have been won by either Barcelona or Real Madrid with Atletico Madrid’s wondrous win at 100/1 in 2013/14 the only occasion the superpowers duopoly has been broken. The bookies believe the destination of the 2018/19 title will again be decided by the giants of Spanish football with defending champions Barca chalked up as short 4/5 (Betway).
Should we be banking on the Blaugrana to defend their crown at odds-on quotes? Possibly not according to recent trends with six of the last La Liga seasons seeing the odds-on favourite failing to take top honours on the Iberian peninsula.
Ernesto Valverde’s troops took the title by a 14-point margin in his first campaign at the Camp Nou and the Catalans came ever so close to becoming the first team in Spanish football history to go through a 38-game season unbeaten; Barca were beaten by Levante on the penultimate weekend of 2017/18.
It was a remarkable season for the Blaugrana considering they were written off in pre-season following the departure of Neymar, and two convincing Spanish Super Cup defeats to Real Madrid. But Valverde’s side started La Liga superbly, winning 18 of their opening 21 outings to establish an unassailable advantage.
There’s no doubt Barcelona deserve to be top of the tree in the betting to retain their crown. Although the inspirational and irreplaceable Andres Iniesta has moved on, Philippe Coutinho’s arrival in January, plus the additions of Malcolm, Arturo Vidal and Arthur should add vital strength and ability in midfield.
Big things are still expected from Ousmane Dembele after an injury-hit first season in Catalonia, while highly-rated centre-half Clement Lenglet will give Valverde’s squad more ballast and steel at the back. And that’s without mentioning the heart-skipping genius of Lionel Messi.
Barcelona are the team to beat, for sure.
Real Madrid (7/4 Unibet) begin a new era without all-time leading goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo and head coach Zinedine Zidane.
Zidane abruptly left soon after clinching a third successive Champions League title and the subsequent appointment of Julen Lopetegui caused unnecessary controversy on the eve of the World Cup. Lopetegui was swiftly sacked from the Spain national team and La Roja’s performances plummeted thereafter.
Many pointed the blame at Lopetegui and president Florentino Perez but Real have brushed off criticism and arrive determined to dominate the Spanish football scene despite a relatively quiet (by their standards) transfer window thus far; Thibaut Courtois is the only arrival likely to feature in a preferred first XI.
The early signs suggest Lopetegui will look to combine possession with energetic high-pressing. The former Porto boss has used a 4-2-3-1 in pre-season and may opt for a similar formula with Karim Benzema leading the line ahead of Gareth Bale, Isco and Marco Asensio. Of course, the squad is still packed with stars.
However, Lopetegui failed to impress in two trophy-less years at Porto and will be under enormous pressure to deliver success after his acrimonious unveiling. This could well be a transition campaign for Los Blancos who – it’s easily forgotten – did finish third in domestic matters last term.
Few teams on planet football have as clear an identity as Atletico Madrid (10/1 Betway) and there will be no straying from Diego Simeone's successful formula of ruthlessly organised defending and efficient counter-attacking in 2018/19.
Holding on to Antoine Griezmann was a coup and Los Colchoneros have reinforced their squad with a series of eye-catching signings. The additions of Rodri, Gelson Martins and Thomas Lemar are an indicator of the club's elevation to the European heavyweight division.
Diego Costa will only improve after missing the first half of last term and Los Rojiblancos should also feel more at home at the Wanda Metropolitano following a bedding in period during 2017/18. Indeed, the Europa League winners look perfectly positioned to take advantage should their city counterparts toil once more.
Simeone – in charge for his eighth campaign with Atletico – defies the data each year to deliver a side capable of piercing the Barcelona/Real Madrid dominance and should Los Colchoneros turn a few of their home draws into victories, a major title challenge is within reach.
Atleti are well worth an interest at 10/1 (Betway).
Top 4 Finish
It was a delight to see Valencia secure Champions League qualification under Marcelinho’s astute tutorship last season. Los Che threatened to gatecrash the top three for large swathes of the campaign – going unbeaten in La Liga until December before sliding to a comfortable fourth-placed finish.
The downturn arrived during Valencia’s run in the Copa del Rey as the club’s lack of depth hit their progress hard. So the added demands of European football is an obvious concern for punters looking to support Marcelinho’s men in the Top 4 Finish market at 2/1 (BetVictor).
Kevin Gameiro, Michy Batshuayi and Daniel Wass are all astute captures, and keeping Geoffrey Kondogbia, Rodrigo and Goncalo Guedes was crucial to Los Che’s credentials. The squad now boasts options, versatility and ability.
Valencia were excellent operators at the Mestalla last time out (W13-D3-L3) and amassed as many La Liga wins as Real Madrid so are rightly considered favourites to finish in the top-four outside of the Big Three but there’s a punt I prefer at a more appetising price.
Real Betis finished with a flourish to claim a Europa League berth last season and Quique Setien’s swashbuckling side are eye-catching at 11/1 (Betway) quotes to clinch Champions League qualification this time around with a Top 4 Finish.
Los Verdiblancos tabled the same tally of points in the second half of the campaign as Valencia and were clinical when entertaining the lesser lights of La Liga. The Andalusians were competitive on their travels to the big guns and appear to have strengthened significantly in the summer.
Fabian Ruiz’s departure to Napoli is a blow but the arrival of William Carvalho is a statement of intent. Sergio Canales and Takashi Inui are interesting additions, while Riyad Boudebouz is expected to play a more prominent role having completed a full pre-season.
Whether Setien will alter his attack-minded approach to compete in two major competitions remains to be seen, although continental commitments are bound to have an effect on Betis’ output this term. Indeed, Spanish clubs on a similar scale have tended to struggle when asked to compete in two competitions.
Los Verdiblancos qualified for Europe in 2012/13 before getting relegated the next season, while Real Sociedad (twice) and Celta Vigo have both recorded bottom-half finishes the season after Europa League qualification over the past five years alone. With that in mind, I’m happy to dismiss the odds on offer.
City rivals Sevilla (7/2 Betfred) suffered following the departure of sporting director Monchi last season and upheaval in the managerial hot-seat also derailed Los Rojiblancos’ La Liga campaign despite a decent run in the Champions League and a runners-up medal in the Copa del Rey.
Pablo Machin is the new coach in charge having led Girona to a superb top-half finish in their first ever top-flight campaign. Renowned for his preferred use of wing-backs, Sevilla are expected to mirror last season’s Girona side in style and could provide headaches for many sides with their alternative approach.
Ever Banega and Roque Mesa remain key in central midfield but Los Rojiblancos have lost key centre-half Clement Lenglet and winger Joaquin Correa with few inspiring arrivals outside of the loan signing of Andre Silva in attack. It may take time for Machin to work his magic and another year outside the top-four beckons.
Once again, Villarreal are going under the radar. The Yellow Submarine are rated 5/1 shots by Betfair to pierce the top-four this term and there’s plenty of reason to believe the Castello club can outperform pre-season predictions.
Granted, question marks still surround the ability of relatively rookie head coach Javier Calleja but Villarreal are perennially posting top-six finishes and their impressive transfer window should ensure a repeat is on the cards in 2018/19.
The Yellow Submarine lacked the attacking ammunition to challenge towards the top last term and the club have addressed that failing with the capture of forwards Gerard Moreno and Karl Toko Ekambi Martinez from Espanyol and Angers respectively. The duo notched 33 league goals between them last season.
Outstanding defensive midfielder Rodri was snapped up by Atletico Madrid, although Santiago Caseres is a quality like-for-like replacement. Alfonso Pedraza returns from a loan spell, Sergio Asenjo is fit enough to start in goal again and Ramiro Funes Mori enhances their problem position at centre-half.
Since returning to the top-tier in 2013/14, Villarreal haven’t finished below sixth and will undoubtedly again be knocking on the door for Champions League qualification. Their settled squad is underrated and well capable of clinching a top-four berth.
Huesca (13/18 Unibet) are set to embark upon their first ever La Liga season having gained automatic promotion last term as they missed out on winning the league by just a single point.
The debutants are odds-on to head straight back to Segunda despite similarly small clubs such as Eibar, Leganes and Girona defying doom-mongers and establishing themselves in the top-flight in recent years.
The tiny Aragon club have kept a core of last season’s squad together and brought in a raft of new faces but can’t compete financially with their new divisional rivals and so signings have been uninspiring, with a few questionable characters such as Ruben Semedo amongst them.
However, arguably their biggest weakness is losing head coach Rubi to Espanyol at the end of 2017/18. Leo Franco takes charge with no managerial experience, and while there’s no appetite to support Huesca at the odds on offer, it’s hard to see this side surviving at this stage.
Real Valladolid (15/8 Betway) return to La Liga having earned promotion via the Segunda play-offs. Los Blanquivioletas finished eight points shy of the top-two and have appointed Sergio Gonzalez to take charge following the departure of Luis Cesar Sampedro in the summer.
Sergio Gonzalez’s previous experience at Espanyol is a major plus but the new Valladolid coach has little talent to work with. The side top scored in the second-tier but have lost 33-goal striker Jaime Mata and no other squad player scored more than five goals.
Considering Los Blanquivioletas conceded more goals than any side in the top-15 last term and tabled only five away wins, there’s plenty to work on. New additions have largely been loans and free transfers and Valladolid look a decent value bet to suffer immediate demotion.
Fellow new boys Rayo Vallecano (9/4 Bet365) took the Segunda title honours in 2017/18 with Michel in the hot-seat. Los Franjirrojos still play in a fluent, attack-minded style and their vulnerable defence could easily be found at this level if the goals dry up.
Gael Kakuta, Jordi Amat, Jose Pozo and Luis Advincula are all intriguing signings, although the departures of Tomas and Fran Beltran could hurt the Madrid minnows. Michel is unproven at this level but even so, Rayo pack enough punch to suggest survival is within their means.
Leganes (11/4 SkyBet) finished fourth from bottom and picked up only 12 points on their travels. The capital club were a cushy 14 points clear of the drop zone and never looked in major danger following a superb start, tabling five wins from their first nine games.
Mauricio Pellegrino takes charge following a failed spell at Southampton and his spell with Alaves in 2016/17 suggests the Cucumber Growers can continue to punch above their weight despite the departure of Real Sociedad-bound head coach Asier Garitano.
Levante (5/2 Unibet) and Alaves (11/4 BetStars) are expected to be amongst the bottom-half dwellers but showed enough in the latter stages of 2017/18 to suggest they’ll be competitive. Price again dictates here and the odds are fair enough for two unremarkable outfits.
There are three clubs that I’ve considered taking the plunge at tasty prices, starting with Eibar (13/2 888). The miniscule side from the Basque Country have firmly established themselves in La Liga after their first season in the league in 2014/15 and impressed again under Jose Luis Mendilibar last time out.
The fact that Mendilibar remains in situ is the main reason behind overlooking Los Armeros here. The club have lost wonderful right-back Ander Capa, captain and stalwart Dani Garcia, as well as widemen Ivan Alejo and Takashi Inui. On paper, they do look a lot weaker.
Espanyol (6/1 Betfred) routinely post mid-table finishes – the Barcelona-based side have finishing between eighth and 15th in every campaign since 2005/06 – and I’d expect the Budgies to toil amongst the bottom-half dwellers this term having sold star striker Gerard Moreno to Villarreal.
Los Blanquiazules scored just 36 goals in 2017/18 – the fourth fewest in the division – and Moreno netted 16 of those. Borja Iglesias has been brought in to replace him following a superb stint in the Segunda and Espanyol will be heavily reliant on him stepping up and feeding off Sergi Darder’s service.
Rubi is the new man in charge having led Huesca to promotion and, while there are obvious question marks over the squad, the Budgies have a strong enough spine to suggest they’ll escape the relegation trap door.
And so it’s Girona (5/1 William Hill) who are favoured to fall.
Manchester City’s satellite club were a welcome addition to the Spanish top-flight last season and adjusted to La Liga seamlessly. Los Blanquivermell spent most of the season looking towards the European places and eventually finished in 10th, a full 22 points clear of relegation.
However, their performances didn’t go unnoticed and head coach Pablo Machin has joined Sevilla. Former Real Sociedad boss Eusebio Sacristan is the fairly underwhelming replacement in the Montilivi dugout and major question marks surround his ability to repeat their 2017/18 feat.
It’s doubtful whether leading goalscorer Christhian Stuani can follow up his own clinical exploits and there’s an overreliance on the Uruguayan and partner Portu to deliver in the final-third. With few off-season additions, the squad is lacking match-winners and without Machin’s magic touch, regression is on the cards.
Eusebio would be wise to not try and change too much from Girona’s previously tried-and-trusted 3-4-3 formation causing many sides major problems but early indications suggest he’ll be looking to employ his own system and so it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see Los Blanquivermell struggle.
As always, there’s very little value to be found in the Top Goalscorer market. Lionel Messi (4/7 William Hill) has won the award five times in his career already and it would be a major upset if the mini magician didn’t make it six Pichichi trophies now that his greatest rival has moved to Serie A.
Colleague Luis Suarez (5/1 Betfred) is probably Messi’s greatest threat but the Uruguayan is secondary to the Argentine ace and a fit Messi is likely to take some stopping.
La Liga 2018/19 – Atletico Madrid to win outright (10/1 each-way 10BET)
La Liga 2018/19 – Villarreal to finish in the top-four (5/1 Betfair)
La Liga 2018/19 – Real Valladolid to be relegated (15/8 Betway)
La Liga 2018/19 – Girona to be relegated (5/1 William Hill)