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La Liga season preview: Five things to look out for this season

La Liga returns on Friday night and, ahead of the new season, we’re highlighting five things for fans to look out for, offering pre-season betting tips.

Who will win the title?

Having unexpectedly won the title last season, can Barcelona now retain their trophy?

Last season, Xavi led Barça to their first La Liga title in four seasons, a campaign built on defence, with the Blaugrana conceding just 20 times all season long, nine of which came in May.

However, Barça’s dreadful recent-record in European competitions means Xavi remains under pressure.

In each of the last two seasons, the Catalan giants have crashed out in the Champions League group stages before, back in February, making no progress at all in the Europa League, beaten by Manchester United.

During the summer, both Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have left for Inter Miami, while İlkay Gündoğan, Iñigo Martínez and Oriol Romeu are Barça’s only noteworthy editions, so far.

Los Blancos did win three trophies last season, but they certainly won’t the three they were hoping form, given that they were the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and Copa del Rey, beating Osasuna in May’s final.

Despite being hammered by Manchester City in the Champions League semi-finals, Carlo Ancelotti is still in charge in Madrid, with this, reportedly, his last hurrah, before taking the Brazil job.

Real have said goodbye to a legend this summer, no not you Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema has left for Al-Ittihad, having scored 354 for goals for the club, a figure only bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo.

The big-money signing is Jude Bellingham, adding to los Merengues’ embarrassment of riches in midfield.

Elsewhere, Fran García is a new left-back, Brahim Díaz is back, young winger Arda Güler chose Real over Barça but, right now, the only centre-forward at the club is Joselu, who’s arrived from relegated Espanyol.

The fact that Joselu is their only centre-forward is obviously far from ideal, but right now, Real Madrid are favourites to win the title, and rightly so.

Tip of the season

Can Atlético Madrid challenge the top two?

The days of La Liga being a two-team league are, usually, over, with Atlético Madrid winning the title in 2014 and 2021, also finishing second in 2018 and 2019, last ending up lower than third 11 years ago.

Last season though, los Colchoneros made such a catastrophic start to the campaign that it completely wrecked the rest of their campaign.

Atleti lost five of their first 16 La Liga games, accumulating a measly 26 points from these matches.

During this period, they also finished rock bottom of a not particularly strong Champions League group, failing to win from matchday two onwards against Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge and FC Porto.

So, Atleti had no European football post-World Cup and, despite being unbeaten in 13 league matches from mid-January to mid-April, winning ten of them, they were never involved in the title race.

Despite rumours his reign would end, Diego Simeone remains in situ, desperate to bring silverware back to the Metropolitano.

Çağlar Söyüncü, César Azpilicueta and Javi Galán have all come in to bolster defensive options, but the big question remains: how do you solve a problem like João Félix?

He’s back following an underwhelming loan spell at Chelsea and, unless Atleti can tempt a Saudi club to come in for Félix, the club-record signing will continue to provide the ultimate conundrum.

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Fourth spot remains up for grabs

While the big three have monopolised the top three spots, fourth place continues to be there for the taking.

Last year, having previously finished seventh, fifth and sixth, Real Sociedad clung onto that all-important fourth place, meaning Champions League football will be returning to San Sebastián for the first time in a decade.

Before this, Sevilla had actually finished fourth in three successive seasons, before enduring a nightmare campaign, eventually finishing 12th, their lowest finish since being promoted from the Segunda in 2001.

It mattered not though because Sevilla did what Sevilla do, beating Roma in May’s Europa League Final in Budapest, prevailing on penalties following an attritional 1-1 draw.

So, José Luis Mendilibar’s will compete in the Champions League, one of five Spanish teams eagerly awaiting the draw on 31 August.

Aside from these two, Villarreal, Real Betis and Athletic Club will all fancy their chances of breaking into the top four.

Last, but by no means least, a quick word on Osasuna, who are back in Europe for the first time since 2006/07.

Jagoba Arrasate will, more than likely, face Club Brugge in the Europa Conference League play-off round, taking on a side who were in the Champions League knockout phase earlier this year in a glamour tie.

Will Valencia continue to struggle?

Valencia continue to be one of the biggest storylines in La Liga, as a result of their continued stagnation.

Following back-to-back top four finishes in 2018 and 2019, los Che have since come ninth, 13th, ninth and, last season, 16th, enduring their lowest finish since being relegated in 1986.

Rubén Baraja, who took over in February, remains in charge, but his hands continue to be tied due to the ongoing crippling ownership of Peter Lim.

Los Murciélagos have lost Yunus Musah, Edinson Cavani, Ilaix Moriba, Nico and Justin Kluivert this summer, with €5 million each spent on defender Cenk Özkacar and midfielder Pepelu.

Nevertheless, this Valencia squad appears to be even weaker that last season, so they should be preparing for another relegation battle at Mestalla.

How many newly-promoted clubs will beat the drop?

Returning to the Primera División this season are Granada, Las Palmas and Deportivo Alavés, the latter gaining promotion following a dramatic play-off victory over Levante.

Asier Villalibre the hero, converting a penalty in the 129th minute at Estadi Ciutat de València in June.

So, how many of these teams will avoid immediate relegation?

The omens are good for Alavés under Luis García Plaza, given that each of the last three play-off winners have avoided relegation, very much going against the trend beforehand.

Las Palmas meantime are back after five seasons away, with García Pimienta’s team needing to make Estadio Gran Canaria a fortress.

Lastly, Segunda División champions Granada have Paco López at the helm, and he certainly has something to prove, following Levante’s record-breaking winless run the last time he was in charge of a top-flight outfit.

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Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".

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