2018-19 La Liga Power Rankings: Can FC Barcelona repeat as champs?
Spanish teams have had quite the decade when it comes to domestic football. La Liga teams have dominated both European competitions as Barcelona and Real Madrid have swapped Champions League honors while Sevilla has ran wild with Europa League in that span as well. With the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup completed, it’s time for the La Liga season to begin. There will be some changes in the hierarchy but nothing earth-shattering. Despite expectations for La Liga to go pan out exactly how many expect it to, it doesn’t mean it’s not a fun league to watch. Especially with the growing number of quality teams in the league.
Class 1: Title aspirations
If you have watched any of La Liga in the past couple of years, you already know which teams are going to be in this category. It’s the Big 3 of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. The battle between the three teams is always a slugfest. Each of these games is passionate and filled with excitement.
Barcelona is the expected favorites to repeat as La Liga champions and rightly so. The Catalans made some key reinforcements in the transfer market and held on to Ousmane Dembele as well. Keeping the young French winger was a huge move and credit to Barcelona for not giving up on him so easily. He struggled in his initial season and the injuries didn’t help either. Arturo Vidal, Lenglet, and Malcolm were all good additions despite the large transfer fees. None of the three will likely be starters but they will serve as depth signings. In the case of the latter two, they are young and hopefully can ease their way into the squad later on. Expect Ernesto Valverde to run with his patented 4-3-3 with Suarez, Dembele, and Lionel Messi up top. The real questions will be in the midfield as the backline/goalkeeper will likely be set as well. Who will the third midfielder be alongside Rakitic and Busquets? Arthur will have a shot at being in the starting XI and but his chances look grim. He faces stiff competition in Coutinho as the Brazilian now has the No. 7 shirt and had a great World Cup too. Valverde always seems to take the more stable option so expect Coutinho to be playing in the Iniesta role next season as a playmaker. He also adds his own own offensive threat of being able to curl one into the top corner from outside the box. The Catalans will be defensively compact and stable in possession like last season. While they won La Liga with ease, they still have the bitter taste of the Roma defeat in their mouths. A trophy or two should be in crosshairs for this team.
Both of the Madrid clubs had rather opposite summer transfer markets. Real, as we all know, suffered a huge loss in Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. Both are losses Madrid did not expect to occur and it set them back. It was evident in Madrid transfer plans this summer. No big names other than Thibaut Courtois came in and no replacement for CR7. Now it’s Gareth Bale’s team offensively. Florentino Perez’s favorite Galactico signing will have the full reins in Julen Lopetegui’s system. With Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio likely up top with him in the attack, expect a lot more of the Bale of old or the one we see play for Wales. A guy who is much more comfortable taking on guys 1 v. 1 and burning them with pace. Hopefully, for Madrid’s sake, he can step up and show the quality which commanded his humongous transfer fee. The rest of the lineup should be the same as the same crew who won their 3rd straight Champions League title. This will be a tough year for Real Madrid and their fans. Their core group is a year older and they lost one of their most influential players in Ronaldo. There’s a high chance Real Madrid could walk away from this season with zero trophies to show for it, which in their terms is chaos. The loss against Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup could be a telling sign.
Speaking of Atletico, they had an aggressive transfer market. Particularly in the midfield with the additions of Thomas Lemar from Monaco and Rodri from Villarreal. Both played in the UEFA Super Cup and played well in their competitive debuts. The Frenchman Lemar was a natural fit in his given role and showed how much of a playmaker he could be for this team moving forward. Diego Simeone now has some toys he can play with offensively so expect Atletico to open up just a bit more than they have in the past. With Griezmann and Costa still up top for, they still possess a potent strike force which can strike at any time. We all know about the defense led by Diego Godin and Jon Oblak has shown why he can be a top 5 goalie in the world when he’s on his game. The only question is the right-back position as 33-year-old Juanfran is currently holding the starting role. Simeone’s team is currently the second-best in Spain at the moment and with enough balance in the squad, they can make another run at the La Liga title. Plus they are a dark horse in Champions League play with the signings they have made. Watch out for Atletico Madrid this year, they still have the same grind-it-out/going into battle attitude but with more flair than ever.
Class 2: European competition contenders
The battle between the big three are slugfests and so is the rotating door of who will finish 4th behind them. It’s same cast of teams who battle for the right. Usually their seasons include an ok Europa League campaign along with the occasional upset against a giant. Most fans are familiar with the Villarreal and Valencia’s of the world but there maybe a new team challenging for a European spot. It’s lesser well known team from Seville: Real Betis.
Betis had a robust transfer market, showing all of Spain they wanted to continue the success they had last year in the league when they finished 6th and qualified for the Europa League as well. Coming into the Benito Villamarin this summer were the likes of William Carvalho, Takashi Inui, Pau Lopez, and Sergio Canales. Add the addition of Marc Bartra in the winter window and you have a splendid year of transfers for Betis. It’s going to be a challenge this season as they have to balance their energy with Europe. Most teams struggle with this adjustment but at the same time, many clubs didn’t make the transfers Betis did. They are going to be in the chase for Europe qualification spots again this season but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.
Despite knocking out Manchester United in the Champions League, Sevilla still had a troubling domestic season by their standards. They finished 6th in the table and have to play in the qualification rounds of the Europa League because of it. Sevilla also bring in a new manager as Pablo Machin arrives from Girona. His 3-5-2 system created some problems for Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup and it bodes well for how they will do in La Liga this season. Obviously, it was different from the style they played last season but change is good sometimes. Ever Banega will still be pinging passes around in the midfield and bringing in Andre Silva from AC Milan was a smart move. Muriel and Pablo Sarabia should be the main attacking threats with the ever speedy Wassim Ben Yedder ready to come off the bench. Losing their second stable presence in midfield in Steven N’Zonzi will really hurt as he left for Roma a few weeks ago. Sevilla will be hoping they can restore some of the quality in the middle but they might struggle to find a guy who can screen the backline like the Frenchman could. Overall Sevilla is still a talented side and always seem to outperform what their squad sheet looks like on paper. Machin will have his side invigorated and revving to go.
After finishing 5th, Villarreal was the best of the Europa League qualifiers in terms of points. Javier Calleja’s men weren’t talked about much this summer although it doesn’t mean they had a poor one. In fact, the Yellow Submarines had a solid transfer window and brought in some decent players. They strengthened their attack by bringing in the likes of Gerard Moreno, and Karl Toko Ekambi while also promoting youngster Daniel Raba from the B team. With Carlos Bacca now back at AC Milan, it was wise to give Enes Unai and Roberto Soriano more attacking support and depth up top. Ekambi will be the man to watch as he is brought in from Angers for a decent fee. Other transfers included Ramiro Funes Mori, Javi Fuego, Miguel Layun, and Santi Cazorla as he made his return back to the Estadio de la Ceramica. Losing Rodri to Atletico Madrid hurt and they will miss having a young CDM in the central area of the park. There were some smart signings by Villarreal and a Europa League spot is in sight. Maybe if they overperform, they can knock on the door of the 4th place Champions League place.
Valencia were the best of this group in terms of points last season, finishing with 73 points, 12 ahead of 5th place Villarreal. In his second summer, Marcelino made some solid additions to Los Che but also raised some questions with this moves as well. He got some depth at center-back with Mouctar Diakhaby arriving from Lyon and Cristiano Picci from Portugal to shore up the right back spot. Geoffrey Kondogbia, who played exceptional for Valencia in the second half of the season, had his loan spell become permanent from Inter Milan. Uros Racic and Daniel Wass were brought in to help the midfield in their own ways. Racic or Kondogbia may slot into the spot which was left by Nemanja Maksimovic who left for Getafe. It will be a fight to see who will play alongside captain Dani Parejo. Wass will have a much tougher time finding a starting role with the abundance of attackers Valencia now have on their hands. Despite losing Goncalo Guedes back to PSG, Valencia still has a lot of guys who they can play up top. They brought in both Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi. They join a group of Simone Zaza, Rodrigo, and Santi Mina. It’s going to be tough to distribute the minutes. It could be a rotating door up front at the two striker positions. Valencia obviously has talent but with some of the teams around them getting better, they will have to scrape to finish 4th again.
Disastrous was the one word to describe Athletic Bilbao’s season last year. After Ernesto Valverde left for the Nou Camp, things crumbled for the Basque side. They finished a surprising 16th in the table and although they weren’t in any relegation trouble (14 points ahead of 18th place), it was a big drop off from the same Bilbao we have seen. It’s clear this squad still has some quality in Inaki Williams but there are big problems when it comes to how they can bounce back. Their transfer policy doesn’t always allow for much movement but they brought in two Eibar players and Yuri Berchiche from PSG. This is Eduardo Berizzo’s first summer so business might be slow but he needs to figure out how this is all going to work. They won’t have any Europa League games to deal with so they can go all in on getting a solid league spot. There is also a worry of relying a lot on an aged striker such as Aritz Aduriz. Athletic supporters will have to hope Berrizo can come in and get things back on track. Last season may have been a fluke but it also exposed a lot of problems in the squad. They could be in trouble this year as well.
Another team to look out for here could be Getafe. They finished three points behind 7th place and nearly qualified for Europe. It was a final matchday day draw between Sevilla and Betis which sealed their fate. After being promoted in 2016, this was a big jump for Getafe. Most teams who go down after a long spell in the top flight don’t always bounce back. If there is a dark horse, it’s Getafe.
Class 3: Mid-table shufflers
This part is also a tricky one as it’s a shuffle each season between quite of a few of these teams. There are some interesting ones though.
Girona will be one to watch for as they now have lost their manager after having a fantastic season by their standards (10th place). It was a good finish considering they were playing in the Segunda division just two years ago. Now it’s up to see just how much they will miss Machin. Girona has made some very solid transfers by getting two Manchester City players in Aleix Garcia and Patrick Roberts on loan. They also brought in Marc Muniesa from Stoke to shore up their defense. They might not finish as high as the upper mid-table like they did last year but Girona has seemed to make enough moves to at least stay out of the relegation battle.
After two straight 13th place finishes in La Liga, Celta Vigo seem to be sleepwalking through La Liga. It’s odd considering how this club was in a Europa League semi-final not too long ago. They made some moves in the window by picking up Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and a teenager from Rayo Vallecano in Fran Beltran. This is sort of the case we have seen with Southampton in the Premier League. Celta Vigo has let their best talent go to bigger clubs and haven’t exactly been able to replace them. They might not be as in trouble as the Saints are but they are just one bad stretch of games from finding themselves fighting for their La Liga lives
Real Sociedad are also an interesting figure to watch for. They recently picked up Theo Hernandez on loan from Real Madrid and Mikel Merino from Newcastle. The computers also seem to love Sociedad, as 538’s La Liga predictions have them finishing 6th in the table.
Class 4: Relegation zone
As always, the three promoted teams are the ones that should be the most worried about going down. Huesca, Valladolid, and Rayo Vallecano will have to claw their way out of the bottom three and I think one of them will do it. Leganes could be in trouble after finishing a spot out of the relegation zone. Same goes for Alaves as well but the gap between them and the bottom teams was pretty big. Espanyol could be the upset pick to be in trouble for relegation but their defense should be able to save them. Levante is a team which should be worried too. They finished with 46 points last season and it’s not a hot take to say they might not finish around that same range again. It won’t be like last season where the bottom three going down were decided by March or so. This year will be much tougher.
Official table predictions: