It’s not been the longest of pre-seasons for the Spanish clubs due to the delayed finish of last season. The 2019/20 campaign was a well fought race between the league’s big two which went down to the final few games of the season. Real Madrid came out on top to end a three year wait for the title as Barcelona fizzled out toward the run in, prompting questions to be asked of their squad.
Undoubtedly the biggest saga coming out of Spain this summer has been surrounding Lionel Messi and his desire the leave the Catalan club. The Argentine joined Barca at the age of 13 and after 20 years has been seeking a new challenge. A reported £600m release clause stood in the way of that new challenge and he’s reluctantly decided to stay for this season at least.
While we’d expect another battle from the ‘Big Two’ again this season, neither squad is as menacing as we’ve become accustomed to in the past and there may be an opportunity for some of the chasing pack to close the gap this season. Los Blancos are odds on favourites this season to take the title again, while there are a whole host of teams that will have top four ambitions and some will just be hoping to survive the season. Our experts take you through their picks for the upcoming campaign.
Title Race (Odds to win)
Real Madrid (6/10) start as heavy odds on favourites to defend their title this season. If they manage to, it’ll be the first time they’ve won back to back titles in 13 years, having failed to defend it each of the last three times they’ve won. While that certainly won’t be on the minds of any players or staff, it leaves us slightly unsure of their price.
While all the talk has been around Barcelona’s ageing squad, a fair few Real stars are coming up to final stages of their career. Sergio Ramos (34), Luka Modric (34), Marcelo (32), Karim Benzema (32), Gareth Bale (31) and Toni Kroos (30) are all past their prime, while Bale is still locking horns with the club and will see very minimal game time. Eden Hazard hardly flourished in his first season at the Bernabeu either, so there’s a lot of questions that need answering from the Champions to be at such a short price.
That’s a devil’s advocate view though, and there are still a lot of positives around the capital. Despite some ageing stars, the likes of Ferland Mendy (25), Marco Asensio (24), Luka Jovic (22), Federico Valverde (22), Martin Odegaard (21), Vinicius Jr. (20) and Rodrygo (19) provide more than just healthy competition for those places and despite a lack of transfer activity, players like Odegaard will feel like new signings so that shouldn’t be too much cause for concern. What’s more, coach Zinedine Zidane is a serial winner, with a domestic double last season taking his trophy haul in charge to 11. The secret to his success last year was cleverly adapting his approach to deal with the lack of firepower the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo has given them.
Indeed, in the five seasons prior to Ronaldo’s departure, Los Blancos scored three or more goals in 22, 21, 20, 20 and 16 games from 2013/14 to 2017/18 respectively. However, since the Portuguese’s departure, they’ve only managed that feat in 10 games in each of the last two seasons. Their sturdy backline helped them scrape though some games last year and if any standards slip there, through complacency or otherwise, it could be detrimental to their title bid.
Barcelona (13/8) are the side best placed to capitalise. Messi remaining for the season is a huge boost for them as even if their magician does leave at the end of the season, it gives them an extra year to both compete and plan for future recruitment. There’s been a lot of talk about their ageing squad too, while in reality there are in a pretty similar position to their rivals from the capital. Gerard Pique (33), Lionel Messi (33), Luis Suarez (33), Sergio Busquets (32), Jordi Alba (31) and Miralem Pjanic (30) are covered by a host of suitable talent in Clement Lenglet (25), Junior Firpo (24), Frenkie de Jong (23), Ousmane Dembele (23), Riqui Puig (21) and Ansu Fati (17), to name a few. What could swing this race in their favour is the introduction of a new manager: Ronald Koeman.
The Dutch manager both played for Barca in the early nineties, and became assistant manager in the late nineties, so he knows the club well. While getting a new manager in comes with its risks, it can also come with serious reward. Koeman is undoubtedly one of the best managers around, having guided his country back to the Euros after missing the 2016 edition and the 2018 World Cup. With Real not as prolific as they once were, we might not see Barca slip back if Koeman can hit the ground running, and we feel they’ve been massively underestimated in the media and in this market.
Atletico Madrid (15/2) seem to have slipped behind in recent years. Diego Simeone has come under some criticism for his negative tactics in Europe, while last year it was touch and go for a while as to whether or not they’d even make the top four. They did so with relative ease in the end, going unbeaten from their last 16 games and they’ll be hoping to carry that momentum over into the new campaign. Aside from making Alvaro Morata’s move permanent with a hefty €56m fee, they haven’t made any signings to break into the first team and there’s no reason to think they can do enough to break into the top two this season. Goals are going to be hard to come by unless Alvaro Morata or Diego Costa come up trumps, though there’s little evidence to suggest a prolific season is on the horizon for either, and their firepower will likely be heavily reliant on young Joao Felix. Top four should be no problem for Los Rojiblancos, but that should be all they can manage this year.
Battle for Top Four (Odds for top four)
Aside from the three sides mentioned, who should all be a shoe in for top four, it’s Sevilla (1/2) that lead the betting. Julen Lopetegui won his first piece of silverware as a club manager when his Sevilla side saw off a tough Inter outfit in the Europa League final last year. That would have filled this side with a lot of confidence heading into this season where they’ll be competing on Europe’s biggest stage.
The new signings of Oscar Rodriguez and Ivan Rakitic will help bolster the ranks and keep them moving in the right direction, as well as making Bono and Suso’s loans permanent. They’ll want to have retained Sergio Reguilon after his stellar performances last season, and that might have a big effect on their defence which was so impressive last season.
Whether or not the congested fixture list caused by the late start to the season and European responsibilities will be detrimental to Sevilla’s top four push remains to be seen, though at such a short price we’re not ready to get behind them and a small flutter on an outsider looks a better shout.
Villarreal (15/4) finished a whole ten points behind Sevilla last season, though a fair few changes in personnel have been made during the break. Former Arsenal manager Unai Emery has been given the task of taking them into the top four, as well as winning the clubs first ever piece of major silverware. While the likes of Zambo Anguissa, Bruno and Santi Cazorla have all left the middle of the park, they’ve recruited well in that area by raiding their community neighbours Valencia for Francis Coquelin and Dani Perejo. They’ve also added exciting teenager Take Kubo on loan from Real Madrid and if the Japanese winger can put on the kind of performances he dazzled within Mallorca last year, he could unlock a lot of doors for the potent strike duo of Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer.
Real Sociedad (6/1) have been knocking at the door for a few years now, having achieved top half finishes in four of the last five seasons. They’ll be competing in the Europa League too next season alongside Villarreal, and this could very well be the season that everything begins to click for the Basque side.
Despite losing Martin Odegaard, who shone in an attacking role for them last season, back to Real Madrid, they’ve found more than an ample replacement. David Silva has joined from Man City and is far from done in a creative sense. He was still able to put in quality performances in the fast paced Premier League, and being back home in La Liga should suit his game perfectly. Swedish striker Alexander Isak showed a glimpse of his magic last year when he managed an incredibly prolific spell of 12 goals in as many matches around the turn of the year, and at just 20 years old this could be the season that he makes his mark on the world.
A Copa Del Rey final against Basque neighbours Athletic Bilbao gives them a real chance of Silverware, and a win in that could give them just the momentum they need to push for Europe again. Top four may just be a stretch too far for La Real, though don’t be surprised if they’re right in the mix and could be worth getting behind at a long enough price.
Valencia (7/1) have been one of the most frustratingly inconsistent sides over the last few years. They’ve managed to gain that fourth spot in half of the last six seasons, though the others saw them finish ninth and 12th twice so it’s hard to know which Valencia we’ll get this year.
It’s not looking positive for Los Murcelagos for the coming season though, with a mass exodus leaving them relatively short staffed. Villarreal poached two of their three centre midfielders, while Ferran Torres and Rodrigo are trying their hand in England with Man City and Leeds, respectively.
A carousel of managers and caretakers over the past season lives them slightly in disarray, and their only saving grace is the fact that their ninth placed finish last year has left them with not even the Europa League to contend with. That means their entire focus can be a domestic rebuild under Javi Gracia and they can skirt the congested fixture list that Europe brings for the sides their competing with, though unless they bring in some serious reinforcements it’s hard to see them competing this campaign.
Athletic Bilbao (9/1) are still waiting to play their Copa del Rey final against Sociedad which could set the benchmark for the season ahead, though that could be delayed until the backend of the season to allow fans to attend.
As usual, there’s been next to no transfer movement around the club due to their unwritten policy of only employing players of Basque origin, and stability has been at the forefront of their redevelopment over the last couple of years. Nobody embodies that more than manager Gaizka Garitano, who dragged them from relegation woe when he arrived in 2018 and has provided the foundations on which to build upon.
It would be a remarkable achievement for Bilbao to make top four considering they’ve finished 11, 8th and 16th in the past three seasons. We fully expect a solid campaign from the Basque side, and a return to the top half should be a requirement with a push for Europa League the realistic ambition, though a first top four since 2013/14 seems a touch too far.
The final side we’ll consider in the hunt for top four have established themselves as something of a force in La Liga over the past three seasons. Getafe’s (12/1) 8th placed finish last year isn’t entirely reflective of their campaign as a whole as they were actually breaking the top three with just 12 games to go. However, just one victory in those last 12 matches saw them drop all the way out of the European places.
Two eighths and a fifth since their return to the top flight shows they’re here to stay, while summer addition Enes Unal could provide more of a spark up front and making Marc Cucurella’s move from Barca permanent is good business. Only Real, Atletico and Sevilla conceded fewer goals than Getafe last year and Djene Dakonam is the key to that. The centre half was rumoured to be moving away this summer, but his retention coupled with some attacking acquisitions could boost Jose Bordalas’ side into the European spots again having missed out on the final day last year, and at their price, they might be worth a small punt to join Europe’s elite in 2021/22.
Relegation battle (Odds to be relegated)
Last season’s relegation scrap saw Espanyol, Mallorca and Leganes’ time in La Liga come to an end to be replaced by Segunda trio Huesca, Cadiz and Elche, and it’s those three that unsurprisingly start as favourites for the drop.
Elche (4/9) got promoted via the play-offs, much to the shock of the league having just scraped 6th by the skin of their teeth, though we don’t give them much chance of surviving the drop. Despite bringing in Huesca youngster Dani Escriche back on loan, his three goals last season in the Segunda isn’t going to strike fear into La Liga defences, and neither is 40-year-old Nino leading the line.
While the scale of their achievement reaching La Liga for the first time since 2014/15 shouldn’t be understated, they look a shoe in to go down and that’s reflected in their price.
Cadiz (Evs) have ended a 14 year wait for top flight football by scrambling over the line in 2nd place in last year’s Segunda. Their campaign started off brightly with 10 wins from 12 matches to kick off the season, though compare that to the back end where they won just two of their final 12, a big summer was needed in the transfer market and that’s exactly what they’ve got.
11 new signings really shows their intent, while they also showed their loyalty to the players that got them to this point by making all six loanees from last season permanent. Sergio Sanchez is the only notable departure and their squad depth could really come in handy next year.
While Cadiz doesn’t have the best record of staying up when promoted, going straight back down in four of their last five such seasons, promoted teams often fair well when coming up to La Liga. Indeed, of the 30 sides promoted since 2010/11, only seven have gone straight back down and only once (2018/19) have more than one dropped out, and there’s every hope that Cadiz can show just enough to survive here.
Huesca (13/10) came up as Segunda champions and relied heavily on their home form to do so. A whopping 69% of their points came on home soil and a table based on away results alone would have seen them not even make the top half last year. While they pipped Cadiz to the title after their competitors lost their last three matches, Cadiz look the more balanced and prepared side for this level.
Huesca have had slight squad refurbishment since they were relegated from this division two seasons ago, and though acquisitions such as young Sergio Gomez from Dortmund and Pablo Insua from Schalke will help them on their way, it may be touch and go for them to survive and they should be prepared for a real relegation scrap.
Eibar (15/8) have been stalwarts in La Liga by constantly defying the odds and surviving to face another year. For a club of their stature a six-year stint in the top flight is not easy going, though it’s looking increasingly difficult to maintain.
Last season they flirted with relegation for the entire campaign without actually dropping into the bottom three at any point from gameweek six, though they were heavily reliant on Fabio Orellana who will be plying his trade for Real Valladolid this coming season. Damian Kadzior has arrived from Dinamo Zagreb as his replacement, though with an unproven record at this level it’s unclear how effective of a replacement he’ll turn out to be.
With that said, Eibar always seem to have another trick up their sleeve, and we wouldn’t want to put money on them to not be here for an eighth successive season at their price.
Levante (13/5) are a massive shock to see at this price. While they’re not one of the bigger teams in the league, they finished in 12th last season and never dropped below 13th after the first game of the campaign. Their home record speaks for itself, beating both Barca and Real at Estadi Ciutat de Valencia, while they didn’t suffer defeat there against any of the top eight sides last season.
They’ve made some exciting recruitments in Jorge de Fruitos and Dani Gomez from Real Madrid, and don’t look like a side that have any intent on going backwards this season so it’s a bit of a headscratcher to see them at this price. If they replicate any kind of the home form that they showed last term, they’ll be just fine.
Real Valladolid (13/5) are another that look slightly too short for us. Despite posting the worst expected goals in the league last year at just 1.06 per game, their defence more than makes up for it. Only the top four, Getafe and Bilbao had a better defensive record than the Castile and Leon side.
They’ve made numerous recruitments to bolster their ranks for the coming season despite their small budget and, like Levante, don’t look at all like going backwards. They made their campaign from picking up points against the smaller sides in the division as all nine of their wins came against side that finished below them, which is much more sustainable than trying to rely on points against the likes of Real and Barca so we’re inclined to ignore them for this market too.
Pablo Machin is the new man at the helm for Alaves (4/1) this year, though that’s not exactly an inspiring appointment given his downfall with Espanyol last year which ultimately led to their relegation. They’ve also not been too busy in the transfer market this summer and look set to rely on Joselu and Sergio Perez once again to muster up some goals.
The Basque side had the worst expected goal difference last season (-20) of any side in the division, showing there are issues at both ends of the pitch and that reinforcements are likely needed if they want to avoid a relegation scrap. Machin’s three at the back system has failed at both Sevilla and Espanyol, so it’s hard to see it working out here and at the price, Alaves get our vote to end their stint at the top level.
Osasuna (6/1) will be hoping to establish themselves as a La Liga side after an extremely promising first campaign back. A top half finish is no mean feat and they’ll be hoping signings Lucas Torro and Juan Cruz can help them achieve that. Cruz comes in to replace the on loan Pervis Estupinan who has now returned to Watford, while the return of Chimy Avilla up top after a lengthy spell on the sideline will feel like a new signing. There’s a reason Osasuna are at the price they are, and their balanced home and away record shows they’re not heavily reliant on their home venue and we’d expect another solid season from the Navarre side.
Celta Vigo (10/1) look slightly long for us considering their performances in recent years. Admittedly, they’ve underperformed in relation the quality of players at their disposal, though finishing just one place outside relegation for the second successive season and keeping faith in manager Oscar Garcia doesn’t fill us with confidence ahead of this campaign.
The addition of Nolito from Sevilla should add further firepower to an already potent attacking force in Denis Suarez, Iago Aspas and Santi Mina. However, it’s yet to really gel in the final third as Celta averaged under a goal per game over the season and there’s no suggestion that it will here and at such a hefty price they’re worth getting behind.
Real Betis and Grenada will be looking to break into the Europa League places, with the latter having done so at the first attempt last season. Neither have the facilities to go any further than that, though, and neither should be anywhere near the relegation zone and a top half finish for both would be the most likely outcome for the coming season.
Barcelona get our nod over Real Madrid this year, based largely on the fact that, despite what’s been said in the media, both sides have their problems and the prices don’t reflect that. Sevilla and Atletico are likely to make the top four, though there is value to be had elsewhere if either are to slip up. Villareal takes on a new look in the middle of the park but still possess a lot of quality to challenge after their Valencia raid, though it’s Real Sociedad that looks a better bet for us. David Silva will bring immense quality and experience in the absence of Odegaard, while Aleksander Isaak could announce himself as one of the best young strikers in world football this campaign so at 6/1 look worth a punt.
As do Getafe. They’ve constantly defied odds since their arrival back in this division with three consecutive top eight finishes. They proved they can mix it with the best after knocking Ajax out of the Europa League over two legs, before eventually losing to finalists Inter Milan in a one-off tie.
Elche look the most likely of the promoted teams to go straight back down, though are probably not worth backing at the prices and instead it’s two existing teams that we don’t fancy to stay up. Alaves don’t look like they have the capability to progress here, which leaves them going backwards. Their new managerial appointment doesn’t set pulses racing and comes in with question marks already and may really struggle.
Celta Vigo are at a much longer price but again don’t look like moving forward. Their squad is certainly too good to face the drop, but that’s been the case for the last couple of seasons and if they can’t gel this campaign, 10/1 starts to look like immense value.
Barcelona to win @ 13/8
Real Sociedad Top 4 finish @ 6/1
Alaves relegated @ 4/1
0.5 pts: Tricast Barcelona / Real Madrid / Atletico Madrid (1st / 2nd / 3rd) @ –
0.5 pts: Getafe Top 4 finish @ 12/1
0.5 pts: Celta Vigo relegated @ 10/1