La Liga Preview: 20 Players to Watch This Season

Michael CernaCorrespondent IAugust 15, 2012

La Liga Preview: 20 Players to Watch This Season

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    In preparation for the kickoff of the 2012-2013 La Liga season, Bleacher Report continues its preview of Spain's first division by looking at 20 players to watch this season.

    Rather than simply listing the 20 biggest names, this column looks at one player from each first division team that deserves your attention—although Atletico Madrid and Valencia both have two representatives.

    Many are popular players who are just too good not to watch while other names may be foreign to you.

    Regardless of how much you have watched the players on this list, each will be an important part of his respective team and that alone should warrant your attention.

    Read on to see 20 La Liga players that you should watch this season.

Radamel Falcao

1 of 20

    Team: Atletico Madrid

    Why you should watch: if Falcao played for Chelsea or Real Madrid, people would call him the best striker in football.

    Going back to his time at River Plate, Falcao has now won silverware every year since 2008.

    With Atletico playing in the Copa del Rey and Europa League in addition to La Liga, the Colombian could make it five for five.

    He has a great chance to get some much-deserved respect if he can lead his team over Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup.

    Falcao does not have explosive speed and is not much of a creator, but is great with both feet, always puts himself in the right position and can score from almost anywhere.

    Atletico always seems to have world-class strikers on their team and Falcao is no different. This should be another huge year for the South American.

Cicinho

2 of 20

    Team: Sevilla

    Why you should watch: He has been dubbed 'Dani Alves lite' and that is getting fans buzzing with excitement.

    For years Sevilla have been desperate to find a right-back who can bomb forward, but still provide cover at the back.

    Real Madrid took their biggest asset in Sergio Ramos and Los Rojiblancos have had to watch the defender become one of the best in football.

    The Andalusians then had to sell Ramos' world class replacement when Barcelona offered a record fee to take Dani Alves away.

    To expect the Brazilian to mimic the wild success of those two great would be unfair, but Cicinho could surprise everyone with a great campaign this season.

Ignacio Camacho

3 of 20

    Team: Malaga

    Why you should watch: This will be a pivotal year for the former Atletico Madrid flop.

    Coming into this season, Ignacio Camacho has been a bit of a disappointment in Spain. But at 22 years old, it is far too soon to think he can't or won't turn it around.

    Camacho came to Andalusia after failing to make his mark at Atletico Madrid and wasn't extraordinary in his first season with Los Boquerones.

    However, there were glimpses of greatness from the Spaniard and the he is likely to have plenty of chances to shine this season with such a small squad.

    Malaga had one of the best midfields in the league last season, but losing Santi Cazorla will leave a huge void.

    If Camacho can step up and make an impact alongside Jeremy Toulalan, the kid that many thought could one day replace Xabi Alonso could get his career back on track.

Salvador Agra

4 of 20

    Team: Real Betis

    Why you should watch: He is an explosive, pacy young forward who could help put Betis in the top 10.

    Fans were disappointed when the club decided not to keep Jefferson Montero after his loan ended last season. They will be well rewarded when they see Salvador Agra take his place.

    Betis signed the Portuguese international from Olhanense last January, but let him stay at his former club on loan through the end of the season.

    The 20-year-old will arrive in Sevilla with the goal of making the club a permanent part of Spain's first division.

    There are some who see Agra as a future challenger to Nani on the national squad. We could be seeing the start of a great career in Spain.

Javi Marquez

5 of 20

    Team: Mallorca

    Why you should watch: To see how much he can help Mallorca get over their losses.

    Last season Mallorca had one of the best center back pairings in the league with Chico partnering Ivan Ramis in the middle.

    The club lost both players to English clubs while Chori Castro also left for Real Sociedad.

    Antonio Lopez was signed from Atletico Madrid to help the defense, but one player who will play a large role is Javi Marquez.

    The former Espanyol star will need to help shield the defense from midfield while also getting back to the level he was at a few seasons ago.

    Injuries kept Marquez from full strength last campaign and Mallorca are hoping the bug does not rear its ugly head again this term.

Nelson Oliveira

6 of 20

    Team: Deportivo la Coruña

    Why you should watch: He is a skilled player who has a chance to shine now that he will see the pitch.

    At Benifica, Oliveira was likely going to be the third-choice striker.

    Rather than holding the 21-year-old back, the club decided to send him on loan and Deportivo were more than willing to bring him to Spain.

    The Spanish side brought in a few Portuguese players including Pizzi and Andre Santos, but Oliveira will have the most buzz surrounding him.

    The youngster was called up to the Euros and played behind Helder Postiga. If the Benfica star can perform well this season, he may find himself beside Cristiano Ronaldo for the national team soon.

Aly Cissokho

7 of 20

    Team: Valencia

    Why you should watch: With Jordi Alba returning home to Barcelona, the Frenchman has some might big shoes to fill.

    Valencia had one of the best transfer windows of any team in Spain and even Europe. They filled all of their major needs and left-back was one of the biggest.

    The man brought in to replace Alba is Aly Cissokho, formerly of Marseille.

    The 25-year-old was one of the most sought-after young defenders in France a few seasons ago, but inconsistent play has seen his stock decline a bit.

    Los Che are hoping they are making a value buy for a player who can still be great and not paying for a pre-determined flop. Only time will tell which it is.

Iker Muniain

8 of 20

    Team: Athletic Bilbao

    Why you should watch: One of the most exciting young players in Europe is entering a very important season.

    Last season Athletic Bilbao was one of Europe's most surprising teams and Iker Muniain was a major reason why.

    Now that it has been made public that Fernando Llorente will not renew his contract with the Basque side, it becomes a pivotal year for the club and players like Muniain.

    Llorente, the Lion King, has long been a symbol of Bilbao's successful cantera policy as well as the loyalty these players typically show.

    By leaving, it means Muniain will need to take on more of a leadership role, but perhaps at the expense of his loyalty.

    In the London Games we saw how short-tempered he can be when things don't go well for his club.

    If by losing Llorente, Bilbao takes a big decline, Muniain could react in a similar fashion and demand a move away from the club.

    That makes this season one of his most important since his loyalty, maturity and leadership are all likely to be tested.

Sergio Ballesteros

9 of 20

    Team: Levante

    Why you should watch: It is likely his last season in Spain.

    Ballesteros is a bit of a journeyman. The Valencian played for four other La LIga teams before finally returning to his youth club in 2008.

    At every one of those teams, he earned fans for the effort and aggression that he has shown well into his thirties.

    Ballesteros will turn 37 in September so we are probably watching the no-nonsense defender in his final season.

    Fittingly, the Levante star will lead his team into Europe for the first time ever.

Gabriel Torje

10 of 20

    Team: Granada

    Why you should watch: He encapsulates what Granada is trying to do this season.

    Torje is a young star who came over due to the shared ownership Granada has with Udinese.

    When word first broke that the Romanian star was going on loan to lowly Granada, more than a few people were left scratching their heads.

    After all, this is a team that should hope just to stay in the first division while Torje was one of Serie A's brighter young stars. He simply seems too good for the Spanish club.

    But this just shows the ambition of the club. They are not foolish enough to think they can challenge for the top six or anything, but a top 10 finish should not surprise you.

    Torje did a fine job of helping Udinese fans get over the loss of Alexis Sanchez. He will now give Granada fans something to be excited about this season.

Patrick Ebert

11 of 20

    Team: Real Valladolid

    Why you should watch: He will be a key player in what will be a surprisingly talented midfield.

    At face value, Valladolid  look to be the weakest of La Liga's newly promoted teams. However, they have a few potentially great players that could inspire a surprising run this season.

    Oscar is a very underrated midfielder who will be the leader in midfield and will provide great leadership for Valladolid's new signing to learn under.

    Patrick Ebert hails from Germany and is a bit of a risky signing for the Spaniards. He always showed great potential in the Bundesliga, but injuries and inconsistent play prevented him from reaching those expected levels.

    Let's see if Ebert turns out to be a flop or a genius signing.

Leo Baptistao

12 of 20

    Team: Rayo Vallecano

    Why you should watch: The highly rated youth player has finally earned his promotion and could be the breakout player of the year.

    Rayo look like they will struggle to stay in the middle of the pack this season, but their young academy star has shown great potential as a goal-scorer.

    Leo Baptistão is just 19-years-old, but will find himself trying to replace the great Michu who left for England this summer.

    The Brazilian was born in Santos and used to train with Neymar and fans would be wise to see what he can do this term.

Chori Castro

13 of 20

    Team: Real Sociedad

    Why you should watch: He was one of La LIga's best midfielders last season and should do even better in Basque Country.

    Gonzalo Castro is one of those players who goes under the radar because he doesn't play for one the Spain's biggest clubs.

    He is always a threat to score five to seven goals with another 10 assists.

    Those numbers could be significantly higher if he played in Madrid or Barcelona. He would also earn more respect from his national side.

    The Uruguayan has managed just three appearances with the national side, but has a great chance to make his way onto the squad as he enters his prime.

Emiliano Armenteros

14 of 20

    Team: Osasuna

    Why you should watch: He finally gets his transfer, but to an Osasuna midfield in a major transitional period.

    Armenteros has struggled to gain consistent first-team action.

    Now he goes to Osasuna when the team is in great need of consistently great play from the midfield.

    Long-time leader Javad Nekounam left the team, Raul Garcia returned to Atletico Madrid after a fantastic loan, and Francisco Puñal will be 37 in September.

    That leaves a big void in the middle of the pitch and no clear leader to step up.

    Armenteros will not be expected to take on that role, at least not immediately. But he has a chance to provide stability to a team in need.

Koke

15 of 20

    Team: Atletico Madrid

    Why you should watch: If Atleti can get their finances under control, Koke represents the future of club.

    Atletico Madrid has one of the best youth academies in Spain. It seems they are constantly able to churn out talented young stars at nearly every position.

    The problem is that, in recent years, they have been unable to hold on to their greatest stars due to financial issues.

    After watching Alvaro Dominguez leave for Germany, Madrid fans are desperately hoping that Koke is not the next to go.

    The midfielder was misused and played out of position before Diego Simeone, but under the Argentinian's great leadership, the 20-year-old can become an inspiration for an ambitious Atleti team.

Vicente Guaita

16 of 20

    Team: Valencia

    Why you should watch: He'll be one of the very best keepers in La Liga this season, but might not even be first-choice.

    Last season Guaita allowed the fewest goals of any keeper in Spain, but was one match short of qualifying for the Zamora trophy.

    The 25-year-old had one of the two best goals per game ratios and save percentage in the entire league according to WhoScored.com and more of the same is expected this term.

    When looking his progression and growth over the last two seasons,  I see the 25-year-old becoming Spain's best keeper in a few years.

Apoño

17 of 20

    Team: Real Zaragoza

    Why you should watch: He has permanently moved to the club he saved last season and will  now be expected to lead an exciting and potentially great midfield.

    Through the first half of last season, Real Zaragoza was on their way to becoming the worst team in league history.

    Then Apoño—who was brought in on loan from Malaga—led the team to a historic rebound that saw them avoid relegation in the final week of play..

    Now the 28-year-old will step up and help guide two former La Masia products and help them put their careers back on track.

    Victor Rodriguez and Francisco Montañés have both generally been seen as flops, but can prove otherwise this season alongside new club hero Apoño.

Iago Aspas

18 of 20

    Team: Celta Vigo

    Why you should watch: The 25-year-old was one of the best players in Liga Adelante and is tipped by me to be the breakout star of the league this season.

    Anyone who did not watch Celta's great rise to the first division last season will be impressed by Iago Aspas immediately.

    The versatile forward is the one great gem in Galicia and is the main reason Celta were promoted last season.

    He scored 25 goals last term and proved impossible to stop at times. He plays as a center forward, but is as much a creator of goals as a scorer.

    Aspas would be very useful as a false nine and may get the chance to prove it this season.

    Keep an eye on this guy, trust me.

Andres Iniesta

19 of 20

    Team: Barcelona

    Why you should watch: He is the best midfielder in football.

    Andres Iniesta is one the most successful midfielders of his generation.

    He has a World Cup title, two European Championships, three Champions League titles and five domestic trophies—24 team trophies in all.

    This season, Iniesta will be in his prime and will further show that while other midfielders—such as Mezut Ozil—are improving and getting close to his level, none are as complete or as consistently world class as Don Andres.

    Xavi may be slowing down very slightly this season, but Iniesta will only get better. El Ilusionista is the best at what he does and is the current standard for his game.

Mezut Ozil

20 of 20

    Team: Real Madrid

    Why you should watch: He has gotten better with each passing season and is now one of the best midfielders in the world.

    Andres Iniesta is the best midfielder in La Liga, but most unbiased fans will struggle to tell you who is second.

    The obvious answer is Xavi as he has more than proven that he is still the best. Cesc Fabregas is another possibility and he has very few flaws in his game.

    Most Real Madrid fans have another player in mind, though—Mezut Ozil.

    While many Madrid fans would like to think Ozil is already at least on Iniesta's level, he is not quite there yet—but he is well on his way.

    The German national still has too many moments where he fails to impact matches and cannot yet dominate an elite midfield like a Xavi or Iniesta can.

    Let's also not forget that the last two Clasicos were the first where Ozil had been able to play a major role.

    But let's keep one major point in mind here—Ozil is about to turn 24 in October.

    The fact that we are comparing a 23-year-old to the greatest midfielder in the league speaks volumes.

    He was still the most influential Real Madrid player last season behind Ronaldo and should only get better this season.

    We are past the point of waiting to see Ozil's potential. Now we are just enjoying him as he perfects his game.