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Leagues: La Liga

La Liga preview and predictions ahead of a season full of hope

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A pulsating end to the 2015-16 La Liga season left the watching world enchanted and similar drama is anticipated in what will be another blockbuster edition of Spanish soccer’s top flight this term.

Eventually, Barcelona clung on to their position at the top of the table and will be favorites to do so again in 2016-17. The goalscoring and link-up play showcased by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar at times in the previous campaign was magnificent. It’s an affinity that’ll be the foundation for their title defense.

The Blaugrana have bolstered their squad significantly too, with Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes all signed in the summer. Manager Luis Enrique is clearly keen to avoid the tired legs that threatened to derail them in the previous season.

Real Madrid have had a comparatively quiet summer, with Alvaro Morata the one major acquisition so far. The influence of manager Zinedine Zidane will be crucial, though. It was clear in the team’s UEFA Champions League triumph last season that he’s looking to add a dash of pragmatism to Los Blancos, something that brought the best from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

The aforementioned duo should be in a positive mindset coming into the campaign, having enjoyed brilliant summers with their countries at the UEFA European Championship.

SEE MORE: Where to watch La Liga on US TV for 2016-17 season

Having come so close in La Liga and the Champions League, Atletico Madrid should be inspired to push on again this term. Diego Simeone’s side were back to their best last season and with the captures of Nicolas Gaitan and Kevin Gameiro, have addressed issues in the squad with substantial quality. Atletico will again be in the running to upset the odds at Playing Legal.

The top three sides look untouchable at this juncture, although the race for fourth should be captivating. Villarreal took that spot in 2015-16, but having parted ways with manager Marcelino, have had their preparations for this campaign severely disrupted.

That could open the door for a side like Sevilla. They may have lost their animated boss Unai Emery and top goalscorer in Gameiro, but former Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli has a lot of pedigree. As is typical for the Andalusians, they’ve recruited well too, with Franco Vazquez, Ganso, Wissam Ben Yedder and Luciano Vietto all exciting attacking options.

Athletic Bilbao will be hoping to break into the top four, having finished in fifth last season following a strong finish. Manager Ernesto Valverde has kept transfer activity to a minimum this summer and he’ll be banking on young players like Aymeric Laporte, Inaki Williams and Iker Munian to push on.

After a tumultuous 2015-16, Valencia fans will want to see a steadier season from their players. Following on from Nuno Santo and Gary Neville, Pako Ayestaran steadied the ship and was handed the manager’s job on a full-time basis. There is talent in his squad, although speculation about the future of Diego Alves and Paco Alcacer has not been helpful, especially after losing Gomes.

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Celta Vigo were the side who capitalized on Los Che’s poor campaign, securing a Europa League place last term. The Galicians struggled without Nolito during his injury and having moved him on to Manchester City, manager Eduardo Berizzo may find attacking incision tough to find.

Having changed their manager last term, Real Sociedad will be looking to bridge the gap from midtable to the European spots with Eusebio Sacristan having overseen a full preseason in charge. Malaga are in a similar position, as they seek to build on an impressive ninth place last year; former Sevilla and Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos is back at the club for a second spell as boss.

Espanyol begin this season with Quique Sanchez Flores in the dugout. The former Atletico Madrid manager will be tasked with improving a defense that shipped more than any other in La Liga last term. Landing Jose Antonio Reyes is clever business on the part of the Catalan club and provided Flores can shore them up, Espanyol should be comfortably clear of relegation trouble.

The same can be said for Real Betis and Deportivo la Coruna. The former finished in the top half after an inconsistent 2015-16, and it’ll be down to new boss Gus Poyet to add some dependability to the Andalusians. Deportivo, meanwhile, will be delighted to have kept hold of star forward Lucas Perez so far, while former Eibar boss Gaizka Garitano looks to be a savvy signing.

Eibar themselves will face up to a third season in the Spanish top flight, having been reinstated to the division last summer and finishing in 14th. They’ve signed well with the likes of Bebe and Pedro Leon signing up and despite the town’s population just 27,000, should have enough to avoid the trapdoor yet again.

A team that many are excited to watch this season are Las Palmas, as they finished with a flourish last term; the Canary Islands club were primed for a relegation battle, but Quique Setien’s side lost just three of their last nine, pulling well clear. Keeping that momentum going is vital to prevent further flirting with the bottom three.

Sporting Gijon and Granada were both able to stay up on the final day of the previous campaign, with each side one point clear of Rayo Vallecano. Gijon’s Molinon stadium remains one of the most atmospheric stadiums in the division and their home form will be vital to the survival effort. Granada have harnessed a reputation for pulling themselves out of trouble at the last minute, yet they’ll want to keep themselves clear of the relegation scrap this time round.

SEE MORE: Schedule of La Liga games on US TV and streaming

The promoted teams each have an intriguing story to tell too. Alaves won the Segunda Division, meaning there will be top flight soccer at Mendizorrotza for the first time in a decade. By comparison, Leganes will play in La Liga for the first time in their history, having progressed as runners-up.

Osasuna ensured their absence from the top tier wasn’t a long one either. Their playoff win over Girona means they’re a La Liga team again following a two-year hiatus.

Predictions

Champions – Barcelona: With Neymar at the Olympics and Messi enduring a difficult summer, it’d be no surprise to see the Blaugrana have a slower start than usual. Nevertheless, the attacking quality at their disposal coupled with the added depth Enrique has will be enough for Barcelona to win another title.

Champions League – Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla: Real, naturally, will push Barca close, although the options available to their big rivals will mean the capital club come up just short. Atletico will be in the mix again as well, although they still lack the star quality to usurp their illustrious rivals. Sevilla, playing vibrant football under Sampaoli, will last the pace for fourth.

Relegation – Leganes, Alaves, Sporting Gijon: For Leganes, La Liga will prove to be tough, especially as they seek to secure a foothold in matches away from home. Alaves also look to be short of the quality required, while Gijon, without the attacking guile of Antonio Sanabria and Alen Halilovic, will struggle to score goals.

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