The 2020-2021 La Liga season that is due to kick off on Friday night promises to be tough to call in many ways, as a busy fixture calendar due to the coronavirus and the chance of players being forced out due to the coronavirus itself, looks likely to test the resources of many teams to the limit.
Meanwhile, playing in front of empty stands (for the opening months of the campaign at least) once again promises to make a mockery of home advantage and make games much harder to predict.
With around 50 players testing positive for COVID-19 in Spain during pre-season it seems obvious that some teams are going to be affected again in the coming weeks and months, despite the efforts of the Spanish football league (La Liga).
In terms of the title race, reigning champions Real Madrid will be confident of defending their crown – not because they look any stronger than they did last season, but because main rivals, FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid (at the moment at least) look weaker.
Madrid claimed last season’s title with an impressive run of results in the last 11 games of the season and with coach Zidane Zidane’s options improved by returning loanees Martin Odegaard and Alvaro Odriozola (and perhaps Sergio Reguilon), he maintains a balanced squad, despite the likely departure of Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez’s move to England, neither of whom contributed much to their title win.
A fully fit Eden Hazard will offer creativity and goals to a side that at time struggled to find the back of the net, while Zidane will also look for continued development from youngsters Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Fede Valverde and, even without transfer activity, Real look to have a well-balanced, young and deep squad.
In contrast to Real Madrid, FC Barcelona have had a nightmare summer when all the problems came home to roost at the same time after their 8-2 thrashing to Bayern Munich highlighted their failure to renovate the squad adequately over recent years.
The Bayern defeat led to new elections for club President being called for March, Ronaldo Koeman replacing Quique Setien as coach, the start of a mass dressing room clear-out and Leo Messi saying he wanted to leave.
Messi last week said he’d stay, but made it clear he was unhappy with both club President, Jose Maria Bartomeu, and the failure to develop a balanced squad and he could be an awkward dressing room presence for the new coach.
Koeman will be keeping his fingers crossed players such as Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann can up their games, while Francisco Trincao looks an interesting addition in attack. However, the hopes of many fans will now rest on the young shoulders of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati, who looks odds on to become the new hero of the Camp Nou despite being just 17 years old.
While Atletico Madrid haven’t been in chaos like Barca, their season ended on a low note after defeat to RB Leipzig in the Champions League and there is a feeling that this could be a make or break season for Diego Simeone, whose negative tactics sometimes cost vital points.
Marcos Llorente impressed for Atletico last season and Diego Costa showed signs of life, but the club needs record signing Joao Felix to step forward and show why they paid 120 million euros for him a year ago.
Aside from the ‘big-three,’ Europa League Champions, Sevilla look to be the main title alternative in Spain. European success was redemption for coach Julen Lopetegui after his struggles at Real Madrid and although Reguilon’s loan from Real Madrid has ended, Sevilla have moved well in the transfer market to bring back Ivan Rakitic from Barca and sign midfielder Oscar Rodriguez, who impressed at Leganes.
Villarreal have also had a good summer after their fifth-place finish last season with the arrival of the experienced Unai Emery as coach followed by the bargain signings of Valencia due Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin, along with a loan for the exciting winger Taka Kobe from Real Madrid.
In contrast to Villarreal, things look grim for Valencia, who as well as losing Parejo and Coquelin have also waved goodbye to Spain international striker Rodrigo Moreno and exciting midfielder Ferran Torres. So far nobody has arrived to replace them and with fans furious with owner Peter Lim, new coach Xavi Garcia will probably be happy the stands at the Mestalla Stadium will be empty for the opening months of the campaign.
Real Sociedad were disappointed to lose Odegaard to Real Madrid but have done well to sign veteran David Silva and their youth system can be relied on to provide a string of impressive local talent.
Unless they can seal the return of Javi Martinez from Bayern Munich, Athletic Club Bilbao will also rely on youngsters such as Jon Morcillo and Unai Vencedor and, like their neighbors, will also hope to challenge for Europe, along with Getafe, who missed out last season after fading in the final weeks.
Meanwhile the arrival of the experienced Manuel Pellegrini at Betis promises the stability that has been missing at the club in recent seasons and that alone should improve a team that underperformed last time around.
At the wrong end of the table, Elche, who did well to earn promotion through the play-offs, will expect to suffer, especially after replacing the popular coach Pacheta with Jorge Almiron, who has never coached in Europe.
Valladolid look to be solid but unspectacular, but should just have enough to stay up, while surely Celta must improve under coach Oscar Garcia after consecutive campaigns fighting to avoid the drop.
The other promoted sides Huesca and Cadiz will also struggle, with Cadiz likely to miss their fans in the Ramon de Caranza Stadium, while Eibar and Alaves might also find life hard after flirting with danger last season. Eibar have lost plyers such as Orellana, Escalante and Di Blasis, while Alaves, who celebrate their centenary this season, will hope a forward line of Joselu, Lucas Perez and Deyverson should have the goals to keep them in the top flight.