Spanish La Liga Preview

Three Way Race For La Liga Gets Underway

Spain's Primera Division kicks off this weekend with three teams in the mix for the title in what promises to be another fascinating campaign. Like last season, Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid are again in the running, in what is now no longer considered a two-horse race for the La Liga title. Atleti are the defending champions, after surprisingly breaking up the Clasico's domestic duopoly, but Diego Simeone's side must overcome the loss of several key players. Meanwhile, Barca are starting a new project under Luis Enrique and European champions Madrid look strong after a summer of heavy investment as they start a second campaign under Carlo Ancelotti.

Malaga 18/10 draw 21/10 Athletic Bilbao 29/20
 Malaga and Athletic Bilbao get things started on Saturday. Malaga lost three important players in goalkeeper Willy Caballero to Manchester City, Defender Jesus Gamez to Atletico Madrid and midfielder Eliseu to Benfica. However, they have strengthened in the transfer window signing Mexico’s World Cup shot stopper Guillermo Ochoa along with five outfield players including Ivorian defender Authur Boka from Stuttgart and forward Luis Alberto from Liverpool. Bilbao did excellently to clinch the last Champions League spot last season. They have managed to keep the majority of their squad together, with Ander Herrera the only key player leaving to join Manchester United. Highly rated Bilbao boss Ernesto Valverde will hope that the young players that performed well last season will be able to keep it up on a more consistent basis. Bilbao managed to win both league meetings last season but Malaga will be pumped up to do better in their opening match. The draw is tipped. 

Sevilla 21/20 draw 22/10 Valencia 24/10
Europa League champions Sevilla, who had to settle with a fifth place finish last season, host a Valencia side who were inconsistent last season and finished eighth. Sevilla lost key man and captain Ivan Rakitic to Barcelona in the off season, so the immediate focus for Los Rojiblancos will be on who they've found to replace him. They brought in Denis Suarez from Barcelona B, a tidy but raw midfield playmaker, on loan for two years in return for Rakitic. Highly rated winger Gerard Deulofeu also joins from Barca after spending last season at Everton while Iago Aspas comes in from Liverpool with Sevilla hoping the three new acquisitions can fill the void left by Rakitic. Valencia have been busy in the transfer market on both the buying and selling side. After losing two defenders in Juan Bernat to Bayern Munich and Jeremy Mathieu to Barcelona they have brought in Argentine backline duo, Lucas Orban and Nicolas Otamendi. Mexican midfielder Andres Guardado returns from his loan spell at Leverkusen while they have also beefed up the attack with the signing of Rodrigo from Benfica. The 23-year-old returns to Spain following three seasons in Portugal where he made 66 appearances, scoring 33 goals and became Los Che’s second signing from Benfica after the capture of midfielder Andre Gomes. All in all Valencia have strengthened and look strong contenders for a Champions League berth. However, they will need to improve on their away performances. Valencia managed just three wins out of their 19 travels last season, losing nine times. Sevilla won 11 of their 19 home games last season, losing just four times and should be backed here. 

Granada 21/20 draw 22/10 Deportivo 26/10
Last season’s relegation survivors Granada host newly promoted Deportivo who make an immediate return to the top tier after spending just one season in the Segunda. Granada have gone for quantity over quality by signing 10 new players, most of which are Spanish.  Deportivo made their main focus strengthening their midfield by signing five players in that position. Joining them is Benfica whizkid Ivan Cavaleiro. The 20 year-old striker is highly rated across Europe, and after being limited to six starts last season will be eager make his name in La Liga. Granada were poor at home last season, winning just seven of their 17 matches, losing 11. Deportivo managed 11 wins on the road from 21 travels last season and are tipped to start their season with a point earned. 

Almeria 29/20 draw 21/10 Espanyol 18/10
Almeria will hope to build on last season’s ‘great escape’ and have a tough first fixture against Espanyol on Saturday evening. Highlighting Almeria’s off season business is the acquisition of Ghanaian midfielder Thomas Teye Partey, who they acquired on loan from Atletico Madrid. Partey scored five times in 37 appearances from midfield for Mallorca last term. Espanyol finished just two points above Almeria last season. Once safety was assured the Catalan side semmed to take their foot off the pedal, settling for 14th spot. Almeria were inconsistent at home while Espanyol were poor on the road, winning just four of their 19 travels, losing 11. Almeria were unbeaten against Espanyol last season, getting four points from this fixture. The home win is tipped.

Eibar 21/10 draw 9/4 Real Sociedad 5/4
Eibar, a tiny club from a tiny place, won last season’s Segunda to gain promotion to La Liga. Some of La Liga’s star players will soon discover the challenge of playing at their tiny hillside stadium with 5,250 seats. The new kids on the block won Spain’s second division with a budget and a stadium smaller than those of any of its rivals. The year before, it won promotion from Spain’s third division, known as Segunda B. Playing against an average team like Sociedad will be unreal for some of Eibar’s players who have brought the club up to the top level. Derek Boateng is a notable signing for Eibar. The younger brother of Jerome and Kevin-Prince Boateng, is a midfielder who spent last season with Fulham but was restricted to just three appearances. Real Sociedad are one of the Spanish clubs who can be formidable at their best, however, lack consistency. They finished seventh on the log last season and will be aiming for a Champions League spot this time around. Carlos Vela is arguably the club's biggest star following the departure of Antoine Griezmann, but that doesn't mean the Basques don't field a quality squad. Sociedad replced Griezmann with Alfred Finnbogason from Heerenveen. The 25-year-old striker finished the 2013/14 campaign as the Dutch Eredivisie's top goal scorer with a massive 29 goals. Eibar only managed to win 11 of their 22 home matches last season. These sides have met twice in the past two seasons in friendly matches with Sociedad coming away victors in both, 1-0 and 2-0. The away win looks good value for money at 5/4. 

Barcelona 1/10 draw 73/10 Elche 20/1
Elche, who narrowly avoided relegation last season, will be the visitors to the Camp Nou for their opening game of the season. Barcelona limbered up for their La Liga campaign with a 6-0 win over Mexican club Leon in the Joan Gamper Trophy on Monday. In the 49th iteration of Barca’s traditional curtain-raiser, Lionel Messi and Neymar were in dazzling form for the Catalans. Luis Suarez was introduced to the crowd prior to the game, and he was given 15 minutes in the spotlight, but Barcelona showed that they will be in safe hands while the Uruguayan serves his suspension. Barcelona were excellent at home when clinching second spot last season. They won 16 of their 19 games at Camp Nou, smashing in 64 goals and conceding just 15. Elche finished two places above relegation, winning just three away matches from 19, losing 11 times and scoring just 17 goals. Barca won this fixture 4-0 last season and a similar result is expected. Back Barca on the handicap (-1) at 3/10.

Celta Vigo 8/10 draw 5/2 Getafe 31/10
Celta Vigo ended last season in ninth position, and to finish the campaign on an even higher note, the side beat Real Madrid 2-0 in their last home match of the season. The new season at Balaídos, however, starts with a new man steering the ship. Liked and respected coach Luis Enrique moved to Barcelona at the beginning of the summer and the side is now managed by Argentine Eduardo “Toto” Berrizo. The way of playing, mind you, could still stay very much the same. Upon his presentation, Berrizo admitted to being a fan of attacking game. Despite the changes in personnel, the club will be glad to have been able to hold on to some of the building blocks of last season’s successes. The side’s top scorers Nolito and Charles Dias remain in the club despite reported interest from other clubs, and the pair who scored over half (26) of Celta’s goals in the league last season (49) will once more be given a large role. Their defence has been strengthened during the summer with Carles Planas and Sergi Gomez arriving from Barcelona B to strengthen the backline, and Joaquín Larrivey joined from Rayo Vallecano to add attacking firepower. Getafe is a club which has surpassed all expectations and obstacles, to remain in the Spanish top-flight. They had no option but to pluck their signings from lower divisions and lost at least one key player from their midfield. Celta were inconsistent at home last season but will fancy their chances against a side who managed just 15 goals in 19 travels last season, winning five of those matches and losing 11. The home win is tipped. 

Levante 23/10 draw 21/10 Villarreal 12/10
Levante, La Liga’s ever-present mid-table finishers who have the knack of accumulating draws, kick-start their season against Villarreal, one of a few sides looking to claim fourth spot this season. After winning promotion in the 2012-13 season, the “Yellow Submarine” had a memorable return to La Liga, and alongside Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was one of the bright sights of last year’s Spanish league. They ended in 6th position in the league, and will look to make it to the Europa League through qualifiers. The core of the team has remained largely the same, despite sizable additions. The side’s top attacking threat Giovani dos Santos remains at the club and after a positive World Cup campaign with Mexico, is expected to be the attack’s leader. His brother, Jonathan dos Santos joins from Barcelona B and an attacking partnership between the brothers is on the cards. Levante have signed Brazilian forward Rafael Martins on a free transfer. The 25-year-old, who has spent the majority of his career with Audax Esporte Club on loan, scored 15 times in 28 games for Portuguese outfit Vitoria Setubal last season. Levante lost their inspirational goalkeepers Keylor Navas to Real madrid and replaces him with Real's third choice keeper Jesus Fernandez. Levante lost only six home matches last season, winning seven and drawing six. However, Villarreal were one of those six sides who won at Levante with the Yellow Submarines completing the double over Levante in the league. Villarreal are priced up at 12/10 favourites and are tipped to live up to that tag with a win. 

Real Madrid 1/16 draw 87/10 Cordoba 26/10
Real Madrid will only open their La Liga campaign on Monday night as they play Atletico Madrid in the second leg of the Supercup this Friday night. The UEFA Champions League title holders will host Cordoba in the first fixture of La Liga this season. Despite capturing the club's 10th European title in May, Carlo Ancelotti will be eager to improve upon Los Blancos' underwhelming third-placed league finish behind Atletico Madrid and Barcelona last season. All Real Madrid fans are optimistic after a successful transfer window so far, with mainly James Rodriguez and Tony Kroos joining the group of stars like Ronaldo, Bale, Ramos, Benzema and Di Maria. That Cordoba are returning to the first division of Spanish football for the first time since the 1971-72 season is a minor miracle in and of itself. Their epic playoff final in which they edged past Las Palmas thanks to a goal scored during time added on due to a chaotic pitch invasion was reminiscent of their season in the Segunda, where they performed just well enough to remain in contention for the final playoff position, without ever looking like a safe bet to win promotion. In preparation for their upcoming season, Cordoba have brought in a plethora of new players. Ten of their 16 additions so far have been loan deals, and crucially, the majority of them have previously played in the Spanish first or second division at one point or another and so will not have too much trouble getting accustomed to Spanish football. Real Madrid were impeccable at home last season and with no value for the home win in 90 minutes, halftime or on the cap, the Over 1.5 goals in 1st Half looks a good bet at 15/20. 

Rayo Vallecano 48/10 draw 31/10 Atletico Madrid 5/10
Atletico Madrid were European football’s fairytale story in 2013/2014, courageously winning La Liga on the final match-day against Barcelona. Repeating that success story is an enormous task for Diego Simeone, but the charismatic Argentine coach has proven a combination of talent and an unwavering commitment to a collective philosophy can still go a long way in today’s game. Atleti’s biggest challenge was always going to be holding on to their star names, but the club has done a relatively good job of adding depth to their squad while limiting their losses. The significance of the losses of Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa at opposite ends of the park cannot be exaggerated. Both players were crucial to Simeone’s tactical system and the club’s first La Liga in almost 20 years. Holding on to the likes of Koke and Diego Godin, however, is as valuable as any signing they have made and indicates a positive shift in mentality for the Madrid based club. Los Colchoneros have spent €91.5M, a record-breaking figure, in restocking their squad with the likes of Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann. The hosts finished in a respectable 12th position in La Liga last season, however, only four points above the drop. There has been a lot of turnover in the squad. Notable signings include Mexican winger Javier Aquino from Villarreal on loan and Angolan striker Manucho who signed from Valladolid. Vallecano managed eight wins at home last season but lost the other 11. Atletico won 13 of their 19 travels last season but won this fixture 4-2 and the other one 5-0 at home. The champions should start the season with maximum points. 

Written by Wayde Dorkin
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Soccer Pro’s La Liga Picks
Malaga DRAW 21/10
Sevilla WIN 21/20
Granada DRAW 22/10
Almeria WIN 14/10
Sociedad WIN 13/10
Barcelona WIN 3/10
Celta Vigo WIN 8/10
Villarreal WIN 12/10
R. Madrid OVER 1.5 
Atletico WIN 5/10