La Liga Preview
Tomorrow begins the start of two major football leagues in Europe, one of which is La Liga in Spain. While most people only know or care about Barcelona and Real Madrid, the league has gone through a major transformation over the past few years. The middle portion of the table has been firmly established and more and more of the smaller clubs have begun to have success against the big boys. So, who will be crowned champions among the three contenders and who will fill the spots for European football? That’s where I come in to break down all 20 of the teams competing in La Liga this season, all of the transfers up to this point who will make an impact, and what players you should be on the lookout for to have a big season.
- Last Season: Champions
- Transfers In: Neto (Valencia), Júnior Firpo (Real Betis), Frenkie de Jong (Ajax), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)
- Transfers Out: Jasper Cillessen (Valencia), Malcom (Zenit St. Petersburg)
It seems as though most Barcelona supporters choose to look at last season as a glass half empty rather than full. Despite the fact that they defended their La Liga title, scoring 27 more goals than the next best tally and only losing three times, their embarrassing collapse to Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League completely undermined their season. A further loss in the Copa del Rey final to Valencia further exacerbated the frustrations of the club and its fans. Enter Antoine Griezmann, one of the stars of France’s World Cup winning side and Atletico Madrid’s best attacking player for the past few years. Barcelona will hope that he can provide the attacking boost that Phillip Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé have failed to do so. The club are still defined by a good, but not great defense at times, but they still have arguably the greatest player in the world, Lionel Messi, who combined with Griezmann and Luis Suarez will form one of the best three-headed attacks around. There is a small chance that Neymar could make a return before the month is over, but Barcelona already have the fire power capable of dominating Spain and Europe once again.
Player to Watch: Frenkie de Jong
Many clubs were itching to get their hands on any one of Ajax’s youthful core after their shocking run to the UCL semi-finals. De Jong was one of the first to make his dream move, fetching a transfer fee of 75 million Euros. The central midfielder isn’t a bona-fide goal scorer yet, but he is excellent in distribution and breaking up opponent’s attacks. The 22-year-old will be under the microscope now that he is at one of the biggest clubs in the world, but the experience from last year’s UCL run should go a long way in helping him make the adjustment to La Liga.
- Last Season: 2nd Place
- Transfers In: Renan Lodi (Athletico-PR), Felipe (FC Porto), Mario Hermoso (Espanyol), Kieran Tripper (Tottenham), Héctor Herrera (FC Porto), João Félix (Benfica)
- Transfers Out: Flipe Luis (Flamengo), Juanfran (Sao Paulo), Diego Godin (Inter Milan), Lucas Hernández (Bayern Munich), Rodri (Manchester City), Antoine Griezmann (Barcelona)
While Atletico Madrid have done well to establish that there are three elite teams in Spain, last season was quite the blow to their ego. They failed to beat Barcelona or Real Madrid in league play and were ousted from the UCL by Juventus and former rival Cristiano Ronaldo. Diego Simeone’s side conceded the fewest amount of goals in La Liga at 29, but they lost a slew of experienced and talented defenders this summer. On the offensive side, the hole left by the departure of Antoine Griezmann is huge and will have to be filled by the likes of Diego Costa, Álvaro Morata, and others.
Player to Watch: João Félix
It’s very easy to compare the way Félix made his presence known to the football world to how Kylain Mbappé captured our attention at Monaco a few years ago. Already dubbed the next Cristiano Ronaldo, the winger burst onto the scene last season scoring 15 goals and adding seven assists in league play for Benfica. This summer, the 19-year-old boy wonder made the move to Atletico Madrid, fetching one of the five largest transfer fees ever at 120 million Euros. With Griezmann out of the picture, Atletico need a new face of the club. If Félix continues on his current trajectory, he could become much more than that.
- Last Season: 3rd Place
- Transfers In: Ferland Mendy (Lyon), Éder Militão (FC Porto), Rodrygo (Santos FC), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Luka Jovic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
- Transfers Out: Dani Ceballos (Loaned to Arsenal)
Real Madrid had another nightmare season by their standards, finishing nearly 20 points behind their rivals Barcelona in the league. After a 5-1 loss in October to Barcelona concluded a string of five straight league matches without a win, the club sacked manager Julen Lopetegui and replaced him with former player Santiago Solari. He only made it till March when Madrid suffered two losses at the hands of Barcelona and were embarrassed at home by Ajax in the UCL in the span of a week. The return of Zinedine Zidane as manager wasn’t enough to the team’s spirits at the end, as they lost three of their final four matches. Madrid have reloaded this summer at the back end, while all eyes will be on Eden Hazard to see if he can bring his goal-scoring record over from England. With rumors continuing to swirl about the potential addition of Neymar or Paul Pogba, Madrid could find themselves back among Europe’s elite this season.
Player to Watch: Luka Jovic
While Karim Benzema led Madrid with 21 goals in the league last season, the 31-year-old isn’t getting any younger. Enter Jovic, the 21-year-old Serbian who scored 17 goals and added five assists in the German Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt last season. His eye for goal was also displayed in the UEFA Europa League, where he scored 10 goals and led his team to the semi-finals. There are plenty of more experienced options in attack for Real Madrid, but if Jovic given a chance and support, he could lead the line for years to come for the club.
- Last Season: 4th Place
- Transfers In: Jasper Cillessen (Barcelona), Eliaquim Mangala (Manchester City), Maxi Gómez (Celta Vigo), Manuel Vallejo (Cádiz), Jason (Levante)
- Transfers Out: Neto (Barcelona), Santi Mina (Celta Vigo)
Valencia season last year could be deemed a success on three separate fronts. They finished fourth in La Liga, grabbing the final UCL qualifying spot. They made it to the UEL semi-finals before losing to Arsenal. Lastly, they upset Barcelona to win the Spanish Copa del Rey. Valencia’s strength last season was their defense, as they tied for second in the league conceding only 35 goals. They only lost seven league matches because of that defense, a mark only beat by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Now, the club hope that their offense matches the standard set by the defense in order to maintain their status in the top four of Spain.
Player to Watch: Dani Parejo
Parejo missed out on scoring double digit goals by one, but he was able to chip in seven assists as well in league play. The 30-year-old led Valencia in league appearances last season with 36. You can usually find Parejo deployed on the outside in a wing position, as he is just as capable of setting up a goal as scoring one. Valencia’s offense held them back from winning more matches last year, so guys like Parejo will have to step up to improve the club’s ability on that side of the ball.
- Last Season: 5th Place
- Transfers In: Allan Nyom (West Brom), Xabi Etxeita (Athletic), Fayçal Fajr (Caen), Enric Gallego (Huesca)
- Transfers Out: Dmitri Foulquier (Watford)
One of the smallest clubs in the top division of Spain, Getafe’s remarkable season ended with a fifth-place finish, qualifying them for the Europa League. A collection of castoffs and bit-part players, this team struggled to score, but they tied with Valencia in only conceding 35 goals. They only lost nine times in the league, which was a lesser total than Real Madrid. The big question for manager José Bordalás and the club is will they be able to maintain their solid league form again with the added presence of European football?
Player to Watch: David Soria
Soria was the head of the snake that was Getafe’s defense last season. The goalkeeper nearly started every league match, making 102 saves and only conceding 34 of the 35 goals. The club will hope for an improvement on the offensive side of the ball, but they will be a confident team knowing they have a shot stopper like Soria in the net.
- Last Season: 6th Place
- Transfers In: Sergio Rico (Fulham), Sergio Reguilón (Real Madrid), Diego Carlos (Nantes), Jules Koundé (Bordeaux), Fernando (Galatasaray), Joan Jordán (Eibar), Lucas Ocampos (Marseille), Munas Dabbur (RB Salzburg), Luuk de Jong (PSV Eindhoven), Rony Lopes (AS Monaco)
- Transfers Out: Gabriel Mercado (Al Rayyan), Quincy Promes (Ajax), Pablo Sarabia (PSG), André Silva (AC Milan), Wissam Ben Yedder (AS Monaco)
Sevilla have been a part of the top six or so for quite some time, but fans feel as though last season was a disappointment. They were unable to qualify for the UCL in league play and they were eliminated from the Europa League in March, a competition they’ve had plenty of recent success in. Those results eventually led to the sacking of Vincenzo Montella in late April. Former Real Madrid and Spanish national team manager Julen Lopetegui is now in charge of a team that scored the third most goals in La Liga last season but will look different coming into this year. They still have the likes of Éver Banega and Jesús Navas in the midfield, but they will have to replace their top two goal scorers from the last campaign in Wissam Ben Yedder and Pablo Sarabia.
Player to Watch: Luuk de Jong
Sevilla’s new star striker is coming off a career year in the Dutch Eredivisie, scoring 27 goals in league play for PSV. The Dutchman has multiple seasons of 20 or more goals but will face a new challenge playing in Spain. The club will be dependent upon him to continue his goal-scoring form considering the offensive departures they’ve suffered from this summer.
- Last Season: 7th Place
- Transfers In: Bernardo Espinosa (Girona), Fernando Calero (Real Valladolid), Matías Vargas (Vélez Sarsfield)
- Transfers Out: Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Mario Hermoso (Atletico Madrid), Sergio Garcia (Free Agent), Borja Iglesias (Real Betis)
Espanyol made the jump from eleventh to seventh last season thanks in large part to winning five of their last eight matches. That was due to the bump received by sacking then manager Quique Sánchez Flores and replacing him with reserve team manager David Gallego. The full-time job was awarded to Rubi in June, but he left three days later to go to Real Betis, which led to Gallego’s full-time appointment. This team was middle of the pack in both goals scored and conceded and they will have their hands full early with Europa League qualification mixing in with league fixtures. It won’t help matters that their leading goal-scorer Borja Iglesias (17 goals) was sold this past week to Real Betis.
Player to Watch: Diego López
Despite being 37 years old, López started every league match for Espanyol last season and made 121 saves, which was near the top in the league. The club have lost significant personnel on both offense and defense, so López might have to step up and bail them out in more games this season.
- Last Season: 8th Place
- Transfers In: None
- Transfers Out: None
Athletic Bilbao finished level on points with Espanyol last season but missed out on Europa League qualifying by a difference of two goals. It was a sign of the club’s biggest weakness as they had one of the lower goal-scoring totals in La Liga. No major changes were made to Gaizka Garitano’s side this summer, but supporters will wonder about the depth of this team in regard to sustaining their stay in the top half of the table.
Player to Watch: Iñaki Williams
Williams was only Bilbao player to reach double digit goals in league play with 13. The 25-year-old has begun to attract attention from the bigger clubs, including Manchester United. It was enough for Bilbao to ink the young forward to a nine-year extension, with a release clause of 135 million Euros. He led the team in appearances last season and fans will hope that his rapid growth continues at its current pace this season.
- Last Season: 9th Place
- Transfers In: Portu (Girona), Martin Ödegaard (Real Madrid), Alexander Isak (Borussia Dortmund)
- Transfers Out: Theo Hernández (Real Madrid), Héctor Moreno (Al Gharafa), Juanmi (Real Betis)
Real Sociedad fans had to be happy with the club jumping up three places in the table last year as well as improvement on the defensive side of the ball. However, the team’s total of goals dropped by more than 20, which led to the mid-table finish. Manager Imanol Alguacil has brought in a couple of young talents in Ödegaard and Isak who could provide a boost, but the improvement will most likely have to come from within to push the club even further up the table this year.
Player to Watch: Willian José
It’s always good to have your defense jump in on the attack, but José was an extremely active participant last season. The defender was second on the team with 11 goals in league play while also leading the team with five assists. Real Sociedad have a solid group of forwards, but they may need more goals from unexpected people like José to help shoulder the load.
- Last Season: 10th Place
- Transfers In: Alfonso Pedraza (Villarreal), Juanmi (Real Sociedad), Nabil Fekir (Lyon), Borja Iglesias (Espanyol)
- Transfers Out: Pau López (AS Roma), Júnior Firpo (Barcelona), Giovani Lo Celso (Tottenham)
While they may have wanted to finish higher in the table, Real Betis’ final match victory vs. Real Madrid was the best possible way to finish the season on a high note. They were able to convince Rudi to abandon his post at Espanyol and join the club as their new manager for this upcoming season. The club will hope that new signings Borja Iglesias and Nabil Fekir help improve upon the goal-scoring totals from last season while also softening the blow of the departed Giovani Lo Celso. This team still has a good group of experienced midfielders as well, led by William Carvalho and Andrés Guardado.
Player to Watch: Marc Bartra
Bartra has certainly had a career filled with turbulence. The central defender was meant to be the future for Barcelona, but he was eventually sold to Borussia Dortmund. He had some success there, but the physical and mental damage he suffered during an attack on the team bus a few years ago crippled his career. He’s landed on his feet at Real Betis, as he led all defenders in appearances last season. As long as he continues to anchor the defense, Real Betis can focus on getting the best out of its offense.
- Last Season: 11th Place
- Transfers In: Olivier Verdon (FC Sochaux), Jeando Fuchs (FC Sochaux), Pere Pons (Girona), Luis Rioja (UD Almeria), Joselu (Newcastle), Lucas Pérez (West Ham)
- Transfers Out: Jony (Málaga), Borja Bastón (Swansea City), Jonathan Calleri (Maldonado)
Alavés jumped up three spots in the table last season from the previous year’s finish, posting a nearly identical offensive and defensive record. Many fans will never forget the 1-0 home victory vs. Real Madrid in October that gave them much needed momentum at the time, but a lackluster second half saw them lose any chance at European football. Asier Garitano, who managed Real Sociedad for a few months last season, will have a tough task in replacing the team’s top three goal-scorers from last season, but the likes of Joselu and Lucas Pérez have the pedigree to fill that void.
Player to Watch: Fernando Pacheco
Another one of La Liga’s fine goalkeepers from last season, Pacheco was a big reason why Alavés were able to stay in so many matches. The 27-year-old made 112 saves last season and started in 35 of the club’s 38 league fixtures. If this team wants to continue to climb the table this year, they will need another spectacular season from their shot-stopper.
- Last Season: 12th Place
- Transfers In: Álvaro Tejero (Real Madrid Castilla), Esteban Burgos (Alcorcón), Edu Expósito (Deportivo),
- Transfers Out: Marc Cucurella (Barcelona), Rubén Pena (Villarreal), Joan Jordán (Sevilla)
Eibar dropped three places in the table last season from the previous year’s finish, but nearly broke even on goal differential. Despite their point total, they were able to draw both times vs. Atletico Madrid, once vs. Barcelona, and beat Real Madrid 3-0 at home. It will be difficult to replicate that success vs. the big clubs this season, but Eibar will look to remain competitive vs. everyone else in La Liga. The club’s top goal-scorers Charles and Sergi Enrich return and they were hold onto Marc Cucurella and others at the back as well.
Player to Watch: José Ángel
Ángel was Eibar’s most reliable defender last season, appearing in 35 of their 38 league matches. He only managed to add a goal and assist on the offensive end, but this outside back is capable of going forward to help. It’s a monumental task every year for the smaller clubs in La Liga to play defense, but Eibar might stand a chance better than most with Ángel leading the way.
- Last Season: 13th Place
- Transfers In: Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Roque Mesa (Sevilla), Fede Varela (FC Porto B), Juan Muñoz (Alcorcón), Aitor Ruibal (Real Betis)
- Transfers Out: Juanfran (Deportivo), Allan Nyom (West Brom), Nabil El Zhar (Al Ahli), Mikel Vesga (Athletic), Guido Carillo (Southampton)
Leganes supporters were much happier to find their team finishing higher up the table than the previous season when they were a place away from relegation. While the club struggled to score goals, they had an impeccable defensive record for a club in the bottom half of the table. That defense was the driving force behind a 2-1 victory over Barcelona in September and an impressive 3-0 victory vs. Sevilla at the end of the season. Mauricio Pelligrino and his staff will hope the club’s defensive form remains the same but know that they must get a better output from their attack in order to stay in La Liga.
Player to Watch: Jonathon Silva
You would think that Silva was one of Leganes’ better offensive players after tallying three goals and six assists in league play last season. However, the Argentinian plies his trade in defense, where he made 30 league appearances last season. The 25-year-old’s ability to get forward and put in crosses will need to expand in order to cure this ailing offense at the club and to ensure safety in this upcoming season.
- Last Season: 14th Place
- Transfers In: Raúl Albiol (Napoli), Alberto Moreno (Liverpool), André Zambo Anguissa (Fulham), Moi Gómez (Sporting Gijón), Rubén Peña (Eibar)
- Transfers Out: Alfonso Pedraza (Real Betis), Álvaro González (Marseille), Pablo Fornals (West Ham)
Villarreal suffered from the biggest drop-off from any team in La Liga last season when they finished nine spots lower than the previous season. The club was just three points above the relegation zone in December when they sacked manager Javier Calleja and replaced him with Luis García. After a month that netted zero wins, García was out the door and Calleja was reappointed. He managed to keep them up, but the club face an uphill climb to get back into the top half of the table. Villarreal had a solid goal-scoring total, but their defense will have to improve mightily in order to avoid another disastrous season.
Player to Watch: Santi Cazorla
It has been a long time since Cazorla’s name has been mentioned on a watch list for players. After moving from Spain to Arsenal in the EPL, Cazorla’s career was derailed by several severe knee and lower leg injuries. Many thought the midfielder would never rise to the level he was at, but he made 35 appearances in La Liga last season for Villarreal, scoring four goals and leading the team with 10 assists. At 34 years old, he’ll never be quite the same, but if he can continue to have a positive impact for the club, he’ll be a great asset to them once again this season.
- Last Season: 15th Place
- Transfers In: Carlos Clerc (Osasuna), Jorge Miramón (Huesca), Gonzalo Melero (Huesca)
- Transfers Out: Rober Pier (Deportivo), Chema (Nottingham Forrest), Jason (Valencia),
Outside of a memorable victory vs. Real Madrid in October, it was a rocky road for Levante last season. It is strange to see a team that scored the fourth most goals in the league so far down in the table, but Levante’s downfall was due to conceding the second most goals in the league at 66. Manager Paco López can be content in his team’s offensive abilities, but adjustments in style and defensive philosophy will need to happen to ensure Levante avoid relegation this year.
Player to Watch: José Luis Morales
Morales was a large part of what made Levante’s attack so devastating last season. The midfielder was second on the team with 12 goals and five assists. He appeared in all but one league match last season and his versatility as a midfielder was a huge plus. Levante’s issues are on the other end of the field, but they will need guys like Morales to continue their goal-scoring form into this season in order to be successful.
- Last Season: 16th Place
- Transfers In: Federico Barba (Chievo Verona), Pedro Porro (Manchester City)
- Transfers Out: Fernando Calero (Espanyol), Keko (Málaga)
After earning promotion to La Liga the previous season, Real Valladolid were able to maintain their top division status after finishing two places above the relegation zone last season. They can credit a strong start, where they picked up points in eight of their first 10 league matches, as well as a strong finish for their survival. As lower level sides tend to do, they struggled to score goals more so than concede them. They managed to hold onto their best goal scorers this summer, but someone will have to step up and beat the team’s best total of six from last year if they wish to remain in La Liga for another season.
Player to Watch: Jordi Masip
Masip obviously didn’t receive much help from his offense last season, but the goalkeeper still managed to make 101 saves and only concede 45 goals. He’ll receive some competition this season from Real Madrid’s Andriy Lunin, who was loaned to the club for this season. However, Masip was the one to help get Valladolid promoted and kept them in La Liga last season, and he will most likely have to stand on his head in order to maintain their status.
- Last Season: 17th Place
- Transfers In: Jorge Sáenz (Valencia), Joseph Aidoo (Genk), Denis Suárez (Barcelona), Santi Mina (Valencia)
- Transfers Out: Gustavo Cabral (Pachuca), Sofiane Boufal (Southampton), Maxi Gómez (Valencia)
Celta Vigo were the last team to avoid relegation in La Liga last summer. It took them two managerial changes to make something happen, but Fran Escribá would be the man to help keep them up, thanks in large part to a 2-0 win vs. Barcelona in the third to last league match of the season. A club that historically is solid at scoring goals, Celta Vigo were able to bring in a couple of defenders to help solidify their backline. The loss of Maxi Gómez in the midfield will be tough, but it could be an excellent opportunity for Barcelona academy product Dennis Suárez to finally realize his potential.
Player to Watch: Iago Aspas
It is pretty unusual to find a 20 goal-scorer on a team at the bottom of the table, but that makes the accomplishments of Aspas so remarkable. In addition to those 20 goals, Aspas also provided six assists in league play, the second most on the team. The Spanish forward has scored 19 or more goals the past three seasons in La Liga, as he will most likely be the main source of goals for Celta Vigo as they try to climb back up the table this season.
- Last Season: 1st in Segunda Division
- Transfers In: Pervis Estupiñán (Watford), Darko Brasanac (Real Betis)
- Transfers Out: Carlos Clerc (Levante), Xisco (Free Agent)
Osasuna will be one of the newly promoted teams in La Liga this season after winning the Spanish Segunda Division last season. They were a top five defensive team, but their bread and butter was offense, as they scored the most goals in the league at 59. Continuity will be key for manager Jagoba Arrasate, as the club were able to hold onto many of their best players on a permanent basis after they were loaned to them by other clubs last season. La Liga obviously offers much tougher competition, but teams like Real Valladolid have recently shown its possible to survive for more than just one season.
Player to Watch: Juan Villar Vazquez
While Vazquez is listed as a defender, he led Osasuna last season with 12 goals in league play. The 31-year-old made 29 appearances last season for the club and was as good on the defensive end as he was going forward. He’ll be joined in defense by likes of Unai García and Oier as they attempt to make the club’s first season back in the top flight a special one.
- Last Season: 2nd in Segunda Division
- Transfers In: Domingos Duarte (Sporting CP), Neyder Lozano (Elche), Darwin Machís (Udinese), Yan Brice (Sevilla), Carlos Fernández (Sevilla), Roberto Soldado (Fenerbache)
- Transfers Out: Alejandro Pozo (Sevilla), Fede San Emeterio (Real Valladolid)
Granada were able to secure the second automatic promotion spot in the Segunda Division last season, finishing eight points behind Osasuna. The club had the best defensive record in the league by only conceding 28 goals. The team hopes to get a boost from some of their new, experienced signings, including former Tottenham and Valencia forward Roberto Soldado. Manager Diego Martínez Penas will hope that his team’s defensive pedigree can transfer over vs. the more potent attacks in La Liga.
Player to Watch: Antonio Puertas
While Granada managed to score enough goals to earn promotion, Puertas was the only one to hit the double-digit mark at 10. He made 38 league appearances last season for the club as the 27-year-old is in the prime of his career. He will have to step up his game vs. the stiffer defenses of La Liga, but if he can do so, Granada stand a much better chance of staying up.
- Last Season: 5th in Segunda Division
- Transfers In: Aleksandar Trajkovski (Palermo), Pablo Chavarría (Reims), Aleix Febas (Real Madrid Castilla),
- Transfers Out: Pervis Estupiñán (Watford), Álex López (Extremadura)
The most amazing story in La Liga this season has to be the return of Mallorca. The proud Spanish club declared bankruptcy in 2010 and were eventually relegated from the top flight three years later. Last year, the club finished in fifth place, but advanced to the playoff final for a chance at promotion. They lost the first leg on the road 2-0 vs. Deportivo but won the second leg at home 3-0 to complete the comeback and earn promotion to La Liga. What this team lacks in star power on the field they make up for in the ownership group. Led by Phoenix Suns’ owner Robert Saver, NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash, former United States international Stuart Holden, and current EPL analyst for NBC Kyle Martino all have a minor stake in the club. The odds are stacked against them, but the club’s supporters will cherish every moment of their return to the big-time this season.
Player to Watch: Lago Junior
It took a total team effort to get Mallorca back to La Liga, but the primary credit on offense must go to Junior. The 28-year-old led the team with 11 goals in league play last season. The forward is only 5’11” and 172 lbs., but his speed and ability to read where the ball is going make up for his lack of physical superiority. There will be a time that Mallorca struggle this season, but it will be up to players like Junior to make sure the club don’t go through long stretches without results in order to avoid going right back down to the second divison.
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