The 2021-22 La Liga season officially kicks off on Friday with Valencia facing Getafe, while title contenders Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona play this weekend in what’s expected to be another three-horse race for the title after a thrilling finish to last season. Atleti are the reigning champions and are back to win another, while Real and Barca have made some inexpensive moves as they look to return to the Spanish summit.
Ahead of action kicking off, here are five things to watch early on in the season:
1. Where do Barcelona go from here?
A promising 2021-22 season was derailed with the news this month that Barca could not re-sign their superstar Lionel Messi due to financial rules put in place by La Liga, resulting in the legendary player heading to Paris Saint-Germain. They went from La Liga contenders to potentially out of Europe just like that. Without their man, the player that has carried them time and time again, a lot will be asked of guys like Pedri, Sergio Busquets and more.
The team did land Memphis Depay, the talented Dutch attacker, on a free transfer, giving Ronald Koeman some more depth going forward, but he’s hardly Messi. It will be interesting how things look early, but the expectation is a front three of Ousmane Dembele, Griezmann and Depay.
While the defense has needed some help, the addition of Eric Garcia could be important, but all eyes will be on the attack and if it can return to its prolific ways without the best player in the world.
The pressure is on Ronald Koeman right away.
2. Can Real defense cope without Ramos and Varane?
The new-look Real Madrid backline figures to feature Eder Militao and David Alaba. Those are two really good players that most teams would be thrilled to have, but the pressure is on them as they aim to replace the dynamic duo of Sergio Ramos (PSG) and Raphael Varane (Manchester United). And losing Ramos also puts pressure on the Real attack as he’s arguably the most prolific scoring defender in decades. He’s got over 100 career club goals to his name and had double digit goals in three of the last five seasons (he was hurt for a good chunk of last season).
Militao or Alaba are not scoring machines, but the Brazilian can be a threat in the air, while Alaba could take over the attacking set-piece duties for Carlo Ancelotti. They’ll need to build their chemistry quickly, and if Real contend for anything, it will be because they’ve figured out how to fit into this new system as the expectation is for the attack to take a step forward after so many injuries last season.
3. Atleti looking to go back-to-back
Atleti are just never going to get the respect of legendary clubs like Barca and Real, but boy do they deserve it after an incredible run last season, while facing adversity late to hold on. They figure to be even better this season as they haven’t lost anything. In comes Copa America winner Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese who could add some creativity to the midfield, and they return everybody. If Luis Suarez can defeat father time and continue to score, and if Joao Felix can for once live up to his price tag, they can win multiple trophies.
4. Villarreal looking to build off of first major trophy
Mr. Europa League Unai Emery did it again, winning the competition with Villarreal in what was the club’s first major trophy. A strong base of players, though some may be past their prime, this team is now in the UEFA Champions League thanks to winning the Europa League last season. They haven’t been forced to sell any key pieces and should battle Sevilla for fourth place this coming season. With Gerard Moreno leading the attack with his prolific scoring, they are a team to truly watch in Spain.
Don’t be surprised if they get a tough group in UCL, finish third, go to the Europa League and win it again.
5. Can Bordalas work his magic at Valencia?
The glory years of Valencia feel like ages ago, but it was just a few years back where they were trending upwards with Marcelino, beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. Then the team imploded, as it seems to do every other year, with Marcelino fired before the season two campaigns ago, the club being run into the ground by a careless owner in Peter Lim, and the future of the club was hanging in the balance. It’s unclear where things are headed, if a sale could happen, or what, but after toying with relegation, they finally did something right — hired a great manager. Jose Bordelas, the 57-year-old former Getafe manager, knows how to do more with less. He turned Getafe into a Europa League squad after getting them promoted from the second division.
Now, as has been the case lately, the cash-strapped club hasn’t been able to bring in much of anything. But he still has a strong base of players and a ton of young talent to work with. Having guys like Jose Gaya, Carlos Soler, Maxi Gomez, Gonzalo Guedes, American Yunus Musah and more, there is serious potential. He’ll have a tough job pleasing a demanding fan base and a fragmented front office, but don’t be surprised if he has them pushing Europa League spots right away.