La Liga began life post-Lionel Messi at the weekend, but it was business as usual for the heavyweights.
Barcelona, despite a slight wobble in the final 10 minutes, put Real Sociedad to the sword 4-2, while there were also big results for Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, who thrashed Alaves 4-1, and reigning champions Atlético Madrid, who kickstarted their title defence with a 2-1 win over Celta Vigo.
We’re in for a fascinating 2021/22 as fans get to grips with a Messi-less La Liga campaign, and we’ve put together five key predictions for it.
Winners: Atlético Madrid
Diego Simeone admitted that every team wants to ‘bite them on the backside’ as the reigning champions, but there are many reasons to back them to retain the title for the first time in 70 years. While Barcelona and Real Madrid are adapting to life without their iconic talismen, Atleti’s squad looks even stronger than it did last season.
They have kept hold of their key players, including Kieran Trippier (barring a late-window move), and have strengthened in central areas through the acquisition of Rodrigo De Paul. Add in a re-energised Marcos Llorente, ready to showcase his master-of-all-trades performances, and João Félix returning from injury. There is optimism in the red-and-white half of the Spanish capital. Plus, in Jan Oblak they have probably the best goalkeeper in the world, arguably the MVP of La Liga post-Leo Messi.
The only question marks are about attacking depth in support of Luis Suárez, and dealing with the tag of favourites. ‘Cholo’ Simeone has always worked best when presenting an underdog mentality to his players. If they can keep Suárez fresh and cope with the pressure that comes with being defending champions, there is every chance they will be celebrating again next May.
Surprise Package: Celta Vigo
Celta Vigo finished last season in fine form, winning five of their last six matches and almost forcing their way into Europe. In a hypothetical table, since the arrival of coach ‘Chacho’ Coudet, Celta were the sixth-best team in Spain, and they will be looking to cement that form over the course of 38 games.
With an exciting attack, a deeper squad, and a full pre-season to hone the expansive tactical plans, they can be the revelation team of the season. Renato Tapia had a strong claim to be the best signing of 2020/21 and his performances at the base of midfield are crucial for the high-risk, high-reward approach. They have a wealth of attacking options, from evergreen Iago Aspas to free-scoring Santi Mina and young talents like Fran Beltrán.
Their defence may be their weak link, but they will fancy themselves to outscore most opponents. The addition of Javi Galán for just €4m looks an absolute steal, and he will bring creativity and flair to their left flank. Only Messi completed more dribbles than the former Huesca man last season, and only Guido Rodríguez won more tackles. Their main rivals in the race for European positions all have continental competition to contend with this campaign, so Celta could steal a march and finish in the top six.
Player of the Season: Pedri
If people were unfamiliar with the talented teenager last season, his summer exploits at Euro 2020 and the Olympics will surely have made them stand up and take notice. The player who played more matches than anyone else since the start of 2020-21 (76), Pedri looked tired but was simply undroppable for all of his coaches. That isn’t likely to change for Ronald Koeman any time soon either. A full 90 minutes in Barça’s opening game is indicative of his continued importance to a side adjusting to life after Leo. His vision and technical appreciation bely his tender age, and he appears to have a very calm and measured mentality to compliment his footballing skill. His understanding of when, where and how to pass make him the perfect accompaniment to Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong in the midfield.
Pedri clearly has a star-studded future, but his ability in the present day is already something truly special. If he can somehow stay fit for the entirety of the campaign, he will be integral to any success Barça have.
Top Scorer: Karim Benzema
The faithful servant to Cristiano Ronaldo for so long, Karim Benzema has enjoyed the responsibility and the adulation of being the main man in Madrid for the last few seasons. Now Messi has departed too, ‘El Gato’ has a strong claim to be the biggest name and best forward in the division. He is now the highest-scoring active player in the division, with 194 goals.
Benzema has reached double figures in each of the last 11 seasons across all competitions, and like a fine wine, he is getting better with age. He has almost single-handedly carried Real Madrid’s post-Ronaldo attack and he is likely to be the attacking fulcrum once again. If Eden Hazard can stay fit and provide the quality service we know he is capable of, there will be plenty of Benzema goals to celebrate this campaign.
The challenge for the Pichichi is most likely to come from Villarreal star Gerard Moreno, Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri and Alexander Isak of Real Sociedad. One note of caution for Benzema: continued involvement with France after his summer recall could complicate things if he is unable to rest during the international breaks. However, if he continues with the form he has shown over the last couple of seasons, he is surely odds-on to be standing on top of the goalscoring podium.
Relegation Certainty: Rayo Vallecano
Rayo are a likeable club with a raucous and passionate fanbase, but their promotion shocked most observers, not least their own fans. Squeaking into the play-offs and then going all the way was not in the Segunda script, and their squad does look light and lacking in top-flight quality.
However, in young coach Andoni Iraola they have a forward-thinking dynamic leader who will give them a chance. He performed wonders two years ago with Mirandés, keeping them in the second division and knocking out three La Liga sides in their run to the Copa del Rey semi-finals. If they are to have a chance, they will need a strong start, and their opening night could scarcely have gone worse. Away to Sevilla, they suffered a red card for their goalkeeper (Luca Zidane, son of Zinedine) after just 15 minutes and had to sacrifice their captain. Playing with 10 men in extremely stifling conditions was a nightmare debut, but 3-0 wasn’t the humiliation it threatened to be.
Despite some positives, even the most optimistic of Rayo supporters sees them struggling in a dogfight this season. Most predictions have them rock bottom of the table.