It’s been a long and nervy wait (thankfully cushioned by the Copa America Centenario and European Championships), but Spanish football is finally back after 13 weeks away.
Barcelona will be hoping to win their third title on the spin, while Leganes have hopes of staying in La Liga after winning promotion to the top division for the first time in their history.
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will be pushing Barcelona all the way in a bid to put an end to their domestic dominance, while the likes of Sevilla, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad will undoubtedly challenge for the top four.
There are new managers, new players and of course new teams, as the summer break gives teams a chance to rectify last season’s mistakes.
As part of the new season, we will preview each game in La Liga before each gameweek gets underway. 20 teams, 38 gameweeks and 380 games – and we’ll be there every step of the way.
1. Malaga vs. Osasuna (Friday, kick-off 19:45BST)
The first game of the 2016/17 La Liga season takes place at La Rosaleda, with Malaga taking on newly-promoted Osasuna, who return to the top flight after two years away.
There have been a total of 13 signings made between the two clubs, with eight heading to Malaga and the other five to Pamplona. There’s also been a change in manager with the hosts following Javi Gracia’s departure, as Juande Ramos returns to the league for the first time since being sacked by Real Madrid in 2009.
Juande Ramos could have close to a full squad of first-team players back for the game, with any injuries to players seemingly low risk. Sandro Ramirez could be set for a debut up front, while we could see a whole new back line at La Rosaleda.
For Osasuna, there could be a debut for Fran Merida, who hasn’t appeared in the Spanish top flight since 2012. He became somewhat of a journeyman following his move from Atleti, playing at four different clubs before earning his move to Osasuna.
Malaga have lost just five games to Osasuna in the past, the most recent of which came in October 2013. Having said that, my prediction is a comfortable win for Malaga: 2-0.
2. Deportivo vs. Eibar (Friday, kick-off 21:00BST)
In the second game of the opening weekend, the two worst-performing sides in 2016 go head-to-head at Riazor as Depor take on Eibar.
There’s been a managerial change at Depor as well. Following Depor’s abysmal form in 2016, head coach Victor Sanchez lost his job and was eventually replaced by Gaizka Garitano who, ironically, was last in charge at a La Liga club just over a year ago when he managed Friday’s opponents, Eibar.
As with the previous game, there have been transfers aplenty between the two sides – 17 in total (10 to Deportivo, seven to Eibar). The best piece of business done by either club is undoubtedly Depor keeping hold of last season’s top scorer Lucas Perez (at least for now). They’ve so far brushed off interest from Barcelona and Leicester, although they have been told he can be signed for €20million.
Depor could have Faycal Fajr back from injury for the opening game of the season, while Florian Lejeune is banned for the opening game for Eibar.
Prediction: Depor have been the more successful side in games between the two, but this one is a level game for me. 1-1.
3. Barcelona vs. Real Betis (Saturday, kick-off 17:15BST)
Barcelona take on Real Betis at the Camp Nou as they look to retain their La Liga trophy for a third season running.
As seems to be the theme, there has been transfers and change galore at both clubs. For Barcelona, they have somewhat of a new look defence, with Dani Alves departing for Juventus, while Samuel Umtiti joins from Lyon and Lucas Digne from PSG. They have also added Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes to their side, however, a fourth attacking option continues to elude them.
Betis have made eight signings in total, and have also added a new manager, as Gus Poyet takes the reins for the season to come.
Barcelona have a number of injury concerns and look short on the midfield front. Andre Gomes is suspended for the opening game, while Andres Iniesta, Marc Andre ter Stegen and Javier Mascherano all miss out through injury.
The head-to-head record doesn’t make for good reading for Betis – they’ve lost all of their last six games against Barcelona. Can Poyet change that this weekend? I doubt it. 3-0 Barcelona win.
4. Granada vs. Villarreal (Saturday, kick-off 19:15BST)
Granada will be hoping to get off to a good start in the league under newly installed manager Paco Jemez, and they couldn’t be facing Villarreal at a better time.
Having had some of the core of their successful squad from last season torn apart in the transfer window, things got worse for the club when Villarreal head coach Marcelino was sacked last week, with Fran Escriba taking his place.
They also lost the first leg of their Champions League play-off tie at home to Monaco in midweek, and haven’t won a competitive game since May 1st, and also lost their last three pre-season games.
Granada have made some impressive signings so far this summer, and eventually kept hold of their new manager, who had been heavily linked with the Spain job. Guillermo Ochoa, Jon Toral and Ezequiel Ponce are just three of the newly-signed players who could head straight into the first team.
Villarreal will be without last season’s top scorer Cedric Bakambu and new signing Denis Cheryshev through injury, while Roberto Soldado looks set to be sidelined until February after suffering a cruciate ligament injury.
Granada have no injury concerns ahead of the opening game, and facing Villarreal while they are in such a precarious position gives them a big advantage for Saturday. 2-0 Granada is my prediction.
5. Sevilla vs. Espanyol (Saturday, kick-off 21:15BST)
Sevilla, like Villarreal, have struggled recently. Despite bringing in Jorge Sampaoli as their new head coach after Unai Emery’s departure, two finals in under a week have resulted in seven goals conceded and no trophies to show.
Again, both teams have new managers for the season: the aforementioned Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla, and Quique Sanchez Flores making a return to Spanish football with the visitors. The latter has quietly been doing very good business in the transfer market, with Javi Fuego, Martin Demichelis and Leo Baptistao just a few of the players coming in.
Jorge Sampaoli has added his fair share of Argentine players to the Sevilla squad this summer, with four joining in total (Joaquin Correa, Matias Kranevitter, Gabriel Mercato and Luciano Vietto coming in so far). There have been five other signings for Sevilla this summer, but the biggest concern for their fans will be the outgoings. Kevin Gameiro and Grzegorz Krychowiak have been an integral part of Sevilla the past two season, but have swapped southern Spain for pastures new.
Espanyol have a very good chance of getting something from this game, despite an abysmal recent record against Sevilla. I’m going for a 1-1 draw for this game.
6. Sporting Gijon vs. Athletic Club (Sunday, kick-off 17:15BST)
It’s been six games in the making, but we finally have a game this week where neither team have changed manager.
Last season was a struggle for Sporting. They survived by the skin of their teeth when they beat Villarreal on the final day of last season, a result that came as a huge relief for a team who looked to be dead and buried by February. In at attempt to avoid such a situation this season, Sporting have made the second highest amount of signings out of any La Liga team, bringing in 11 new players, one of whom is former Athletic defender Fernando Amorebieta.
It’s quite a contrast to Athletic’s summer in the transfer sense, as they are currently the only team not to have made a signing this summer and with no injuries ahead of the game, we could see Ernesto Valverde play a familiar starting XI to games last season.
Neither team have any real injury concerns, and both will be hopeful of getting off to the best possible start. I’m predicting yet another draw in this one, but the first 0-0 prediction of the weekend.
7. Real Sociedad vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, kick-off 19:15BST)
We’ve made it to what is arguably the game of the opening weekend as Real Sociedad take on Real Madrid at Anoeta, and the beginning of Eusebio and Zinedine Zidane’s first full seasons in charge of their respective clubs.
Things have been very quiet on the transfer front for both teams, with just five signings being made between the two clubs. Real Madrid’s sole incoming this summer is Alvaro Morata, who returns from Juventus after two years away.
For Real Sociedad, most would argue that there wasn’t much change needed after such a strong end to last season. They’ve brought in two forwards in the shape of Juanmi and Willian Jose, while Tono Ramirez and Geronimo Rulli (yes, again) coming in as goalkeepers for the season.
Real Sociedad have endured a torrid time against Real Madrid in recent seasons, winning one of their previous 19 games against Los Blancos. That was also an August game, when they overturned a 2-0 deficit to run out 4-2 winners.
This game almost guarantees goals every season, and despite Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo missing out for Real on Sunday, this should be no different. 3-1 to Real Madrid.
8. Atletico Madrid vs. Alaves (Sunday, kick-off 21:15BST)
Alaves returned to the Spanish top flight for the first time since 2006, and they couldn’t have been given a tougher first game as they travel to the Vicente Calderon to take on Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
The visitors have changed a lot since clawing their way to the Segunda Division title last season. They sacked manager José Bordalás and replaced him with Mauricio Pellegrino, and signed an incredible 17 new players with two weeks of the window still to go.
For Diego Simeone, there has been little change to the starting XI. After failed attempts to bring Diego Costa back to Spain, Kevin Gameiro signed for Los Rojiblancos, with Nico Gaitan and Sime Vrsaljko also signing for the club.
Atleti had the best defensive home record last season, conceding just seven times in 19 games. While there are no injury concerns, Antoine Griezmann could play a part from the bench after returning early from his holiday.
It’ll be a very tough ask for Alaves to get anything from this game, and unfortunately, I feel like it’ll be Atleti who shoot them back down to reality. 3-0 win for Simeone’s men.
9. Celta vs. Leganes (Monday, kick-off 19:00BST)
The first Monday night football of the season sees Celta Vigo take on newly-promoted Leganes in the visitors’ first-ever top flight game.
Leganes won promotion on the final day of last season and have added eight players to their ranks in the hope of following in Eibar’s footsteps and surviving a first season in the top flight. Five of the eight signings have come in on loan, while two permanent signings have joined from Segunda Division clubs.
Celta, on the other hand, achieved a sixth-place finish last season and enter the Europa League at the group stages. However, as seems to be the theme in recent seasons, they have lost a key player to a bigger club. This time it was Nolito, who joined Manchester City after being linked with a move away throughout last season.
Despite Celta floating between the top two leagues in the past 15 years, the two have never played one another in a competitive game. Neither have any new injury concerns ahead of the game, which goes down as a narrow Celta win for me. 1-0 to Os Celestes for me.
10. Valencia vs. Las Palmas (Monday, kick-off 21:00BST)
It’s been a tough year for Valencia fans. After going through three different managers last season, the club looked close to relegation at one point, eventually finishing 12th and achieving their worst points tally (44) since the rule change in 1995. To make matters worse, they’ve lost a number of high-profile players already, with more set to follow.
Andre Gomes, Alvaro Negredo and Javi Fuego have left the club, Dani Parejo wants out, Shkodran Mustafi could be headed elsewhere and both Paco Alcacer and Diego Alves could be on their way to Barcelona. Hardly what you want before the season’s even begun.
Las Palmas will look to build on a relatively successful first season back in La Liga, where they finished above Monday’s opponents in 11th place. However, they have lost top goalscorer Willian Jose after his loan deal expired, but they have brought in one high-profile name as Kevin Prince Boateng looks set for a debut on Monday.
Neither side have any injury concerns ahead of the game, and there could be debuts for new signings Martin Montoya and Mario Suarez.
Las Palmas have only ever beaten Valencia once in a competitive game, a 2-1 victory last season. This game will be far from easy for the hosts, and Las Palmas could very well get something at the Mestalla on Monday. 2-2 draw is my prediction.