Although the start of the 2011-12 La Liga season has been postponed due to a player strike, there will be football in Spain this year. Real Madrid will be one of the top contenders for the league title, as they look to dethrone reigning champions Barcelona.
In José Mourinho's first year as Madrid manager, Los Blancos finished second behind their rivals from Catalonia. Although they had a successful 2010-11 campaign, the club will expect better results this season. Madrid will be competing for a record 32nd La Liga title.
Mourinho has signed five new players in the summer transfer window, bolstering a squad that has world-class talent at every position.
Although Madrid lost the Supercopa to rivals Barcelona, they were impressive in preseason. Los Blancos had won seven out of seven matches leading up to the Supercopa, and performed well over both legs.
Mourinho has built a squad that is ready to challenge Barcelona and claim domestic glory.
Here are 20 bold predictions for the new La Liga season.
*Note: These "bold" predictions are for league play only, not including the Copa del Rey or UEFA Champions League.
Earlier this summer, Real Madrid signed French starlet Raphaël Varane from Lens for roughly €10 million.
The 19-year-old centre-back has been touted as one of the best young defenders in Europe. Varane is still in the early stages of his development, but he has the talent and potential to become a world-class central defender in the future.
Experienced veterans Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe will be great mentors for the young Frenchman.
Although the two Portuguese defenders have returned as Mourinho's first-choice centre-backs, Varane will have opportunities to make appearances throughout the season. The youngster will compete with Spanish international Raúl Albiol for playing time in central defense.
The Frenchman may not have the experience or strength of Albiol, but he has the athleticism and physical ability to excel in Spain. Although he will most likely feature off the bench, Varane will make 15 appearances in his debut season.
Ángel di María had a solid debut season for Real Madrid. The former Benfica winger scored six goals in 35 appearances, emerging as a key first-team player.
The Argentine international provides quality deliveries from the flank, but has the ability to find the back of the net as well.
Although Di María has yet to score 10 goals in a domestic campaign, he will break that mark this season. With his electric pace and skill on the ball, the winger consistently gets into good positions in and around the box.
Di María is most dangerous when running at defenders with pace, cutting inside from the right wing, and blistering shots on target. As the chemistry among Madrid's attackers continues to improve, the Argentine international will score 10 goals in Madrid's 2011-12 La Liga campaign.
Although he has yet to make his Real Madrid debut, former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Nuri Şahin could become one of the club's best value signings in recent history. Mourinho acquired the 2010-11 Kicker Bundesliga Player of the Season for a bargain €10 million transfer fee.
Injuries have hampered the start to Şahin's Madrid career, but he will undoubtedly be competing for regular first-team football this year. The Turkish international could replace Xabi Alonso or Sami Khedira in Mourinho's favored 4-2-3-1 formation, or start alongside the two Madrid midfielders in a new 4-3-3 system.
Whether he features in the starting XI or off the bench, Şahin will make an immediate impact at the club. With his cultured left foot and precision passing, the 22 year old can score goals from midfield and pick out teammates with killer through-balls.
Although he may play a secondary role to Alonso, Şahin will contribute 5 goals and 10 assists in his debut season.
José Mourinho is arguably the best manager in football, but he is one of the most controversial as well. The Portuguese tactician received multiple suspensions last season, which forced him to watch from the stands and executive boxes.
The Madrid manager was recently involved in the scuffle between Los Blancos and Barcelona during the second leg of the Spanish Supercopa. While images show Mourinho pinching Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova, it looks as though he will not face a ban for his actions.
Although Aitor Karanka is more than capable of assuming managerial responsibilities on match day, the team would benefit from having Mourinho on the touch-line for the entire season.
The former Inter manager understands that Madrid have the best chance of winning with him in the dugout. Mourinho will serve his Champions League ban, but he will not receive any suspensions in La Liga.
Real Madrid signed Hamit Altintop on a free transfer this summer, as Mourinho looked to add versatility and experience to his talented squad.
The former Bayern Munich midfielder had surgery on his back in June, and has yet to make an appearance for Los Blancos. As one of Mourinho's five summer signings, Altintop will find it difficult to get regular first-team football in the Spanish capital.
With wingers Cristiano Ronaldo, Ángel di María and José Callejón looking impressive in preseason, the Turkish international could be Madrid's fourth-choice option out wide. Although he can play in central midfield, Altintop will be competing with last season's first-team regulars Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, as well as Esteban Granero, Fábio Coentrão and Nuri Şahin.
Altintop will struggle to break into the first-team, and force a loan move to Turkey in January.
Fábio Coentrão has emerged as the most expensive utility player in football. Madrid signed the former Benfica left-back for €30 million earlier this summer.
The Portuguese international was impressive in preseason, featuring in multiple positions. Although he has played left-back for the past two years, Mourinho primarily used Coentrão in a defensive midfield role.
With his quickness and defensive tenacity, Coentrão excelled in midfield. He works hard to put pressure on the ball and close down opponents.
The new Madrid star has played out on the wing as well, getting forward in support of the attackers and providing support for Marcelo.
Although Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira remain the first-choice defensive midfielders in Madrid's 4-2-3-1 formation, Coentrão will be challenging for a place in the starting XI. The Portuguese international has the skill-set to be a dynamic winger for Los Blancos, but he will primarily feature as a defensive midfielder.
After recovering from a back injury, Gonzalo Higuaín is fit and ready to compete for first-team football this season. The Argentine international will be competing with Karim Benzema for the lone striker position in Mourinho's 4-2-3-1.
Higuaín may not be the most skillful Madrid player, but he can be clinical in front of goal. He has scored more than 20 goals in two of the past three La Liga campaigns, emerging as one of the top finishers in Europe.
The Madrid hitman has yet to find his best form since returning from injury, which could result in less first-team action.
Benzema had a sensational preseason, netting nine goals in nine matches. The Frenchman looks set to be Mourinho's first-choice striker heading into the new domestic campaign.
Although Higuaín will most likely play a secondary role to Benzema, he will still have opportunities to score in La Liga. With his goalpoacher's instinct and clinical finishing, the Argentine striker will score 15 goals this season.
Marcelo was undoubtedly one of the best players in Spain last year. The Brazilian left-back improved defensively, and continued to burst forward into the final third.
Although he has solidified his place amongst the world's top left-backs, the Madrid defender still receives heavy criticism. There is no denying his attacking skill, but the Brazilian's poor defending has been a liability for Madrid in the past.
Marcelo's positional awareness and timing in the challenge have been identified as two major weaknesses.
The Brazilian has the athleticism and skill to become a more well-rounded and complete fullback. With his outstanding quickness and agility, Marcelo can mark the fastest wingers in Europe and make last-ditch tackles on the stretch. Although he still lunges into challenges, the Madrid left-back has improved his reading of the game.
With another year of training with Mourinho and polishing his defensive skills, Marcelo will silence his critics.
Pepe is one of the most physical defenders in world football. The Portuguese international shows great commitment and strength in the challenge, rarely pulling out of 50-50 challenges.
The Madrid star boasts outstanding athletic ability to complement his work-rate and defensive mentality. Pepe has the speed to make vital interceptions in midfield, and the pace to mark the fastest forwards and wingers in Europe.
The Portuguese star has become an elite centre-back, but his combative style of play can result in the accumulation of yellow and red cards. Pepe's temperament has been his major weakness in the past. The commanding defender was sent off twice last season in 26 La Liga appearences.
Although he received two red cards in all competitions, the Madrid star looked more composed and levelheaded under Mourinho. He still played with unmatched intensity and determination, but Pepe rarely lashed out on opponents or committed cynical fouls.
The Madrid centre-back has shown improved discipline in the past two seasons, working to control his aggression and defensive tenacity.
Pepe will most likely receive around eight yellow cards, but he will not get sent off this season.
Former Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy has returned to La Liga for the 2011-12 season. The 35-year-old Dutchman signed a one-year contract with ambitious, big-spending Málaga.
Following his prolific career at English giants Manchester United, Van Nistelrooy spent three years in Madrid. The striker scored over 60 goals for Los Blancos, firing the club to consecutive La Liga titles (2006-07 and 2007-08).
The new Málaga No. 9 has entered the final stage of his career, but he still knows how to find the back of the net. With his natural goalpoacher's instinct, Van Nistelrooy will capitalize on the slightest opportunity in front of goal.
Van Nistelrooy will be looking to make a statement upon his return to the Santiago Bernabéu, and haunt his former club with a late-winner or clinical finish.
Although Barcelona have some of the world's top playmakers, Real Madrid's Mesut Özil was the best creator in Spain last season.
The German international created 112 goalscoring opportunities in 36 league appearances. He contributed 17 assists for Los Blancos, second only to reigning Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi.
Özil's ability to pick out teammates and play perfectly weighted through-balls distinguishes him as an elite playmaker.
Madrid's new No. 10 looked sharp in preseason, combining well with Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. With their developing chemistry and understanding, Madrid will be a more potent attacking threat this season.
Although Kaká looks fit and ready for the new campaign, Özil has cemented his place in Mourinho's starting XI. Madrid's chief playmaker will benefit from improved stamina, and create at least 130 goalscoring opportunities this season.
Kaká has failed to live up to expectations at Real Madrid. The Spanish giants paid €65 million for the Brazilian playmaker in 2009, as president Florentino Pérez ushered in a new Galacticos era.
The former Ballon d'Or winner was one of the best players in world football during his time at AC Milan. However, he has struggled to regain his best form for Los Blancos. Injuries and the meteoric rise of Mesut Özil have made it difficult for Kaká to get regular first-team football.
After a good preseason tour, the Brazilian looks set for a strong domestic campaign. With improved fitness and match sharpness, he can play a significant role for Los Blancos this season as an impact substitute and direct replacement for Özil.
Kaká still has the vision to unlock defenses, and the shooting technique to score goals. Although he will not feature regularly in Mourinho's starting XI, Kaká will contribute 10 goals and 10 assists in the new La Liga campaign.
Real Madrid had the second-best defense in La Liga last season. Los Blancos conceded 33 goals in league play, while Spanish champions Barcelona allowed 21 goals.
Although first-choice centre-backs Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe formed a great defensive partnership, the latter only made 26 appearances in La Liga. Pepe has become a key figure at the back, providing the athleticism and strength to complement Carvalho's technique and craft.
Arguably the club's best defender, Pepe has developed into a world-class centre-back. If the Portuguese enforcer stays fit and avoids getting sent off, Madrid's defensive record will significantly improve this year.
Madrid's back-four will benefit from another preseason working together and developing as a unit. With Carvalho and Pepe in central defense, Los Blancos will concede less than 25 goals this season.
Last year, Barcelona suffered a shocking 2-0 defeat to newly-promoted Hércules. Although Rayo Vallecano, Real Betis and Granada do not have the likes of David Trezeguet and Haedo Valdez, one of the three could shock Madrid this year.
In the last fixture of February, Los Blancos will travel to the Teresa Rivero for a local derby against Rayo Vallecano. The Madrid-based club have not played in the first division since being relegated after the 2002-03 season, and they will be looking to make a statement against Los Blancos.
Two weeks later, Madrid will travel away to Seville for a clash with Real Betis. Los Blancos will most likely rotate the squad against the newly-promoted side, as Mourinho will be focused on the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.
Although Madrid have unbelievable depth in the first-team squad, they will lose to one of the newly-promoted teams.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema both finished in the top 10 for the Pichichi Trophy last season. According to MARCA, the Portuguese winger scored a record-breaking 41 goals in La Liga. Benzema had a decent return as well, bagging 15 goals in 20 league starts.
After a stellar preseason, the two Madrid attackers look set for an outstanding 2011-12 campaign in front of goal. The chemistry between Ronaldo and Benzema has improved exponentially during the summer.
Entering their third year playing together, the two have developed a great understanding on the pitch. Ronaldo and Benzema combine well in the final third, using deft touches and flicks to create space for one another.
The Frenchman will be looking to carry his great preseason form into the start of La Liga. Benzema has found the back of net with regularity during the summer, and will continue to do so once the season starts.
With both players looking sharp and ready for the new campaign, Madrid will be a more potent attacking threat. Ronaldo will remain one of the best goalscorers in Europe, and Benzema will score more than 20 goals in La Liga.
Although Barcelona's David Villa, Sevilla's Álvaro Negredo, Valencia's Roberto Soldado and Villarreal's Giuseppe Rossi scored more goals than the Frenchman last season, Ronaldo and Benzema will finish in the top three for the Pichichi Trophy.
Cristiano Ronaldo has become one of the most dynamic and prolific goalscorers in the world. The Real Madrid No. 7 became the first player to score 40 goals in a single season of top-flight Spanish football.
The 26-year-old winger has been dominant since moving to Spain in 2009. The former Manchester United star was sensational last season, averaging more than one goal per match. He was able to reach the 40-goal mark in only 34 appearances.
Although Ronaldo had a remarkable 2010-11 La Liga campaign, he will strive to break his own records this season. If he makes around three more league starts, the Portuguese winger could make history in consecutive years.
Ronaldo's free-kicks have been great in preseason, which could result in more goals from dead-ball situations. In addition, his evolving chemistry with Benzema will create more goalscoring opportunities for both attackers.
The Portuguese star will score 45 league goals for Los Blancos this season.
Brazilian starlet Neymar has emerged as the country's best young talent, and been touted as "the next Pelé". Although only 19 years of age, the Santos forward has been heavily linked with a big-money move to Real Madrid.
With the end of the summer transfer window fast approaching, Neymar will most likely stay in Brazil until January. Santos want to keep their star forward until the New Year, as they will be taking part in December's FIFA Club World Cup. Neymar will play in the tournament, and then join Madrid in January.
Although the Brazilian has the talent and potential to become one of the best forwards in football, he will struggle in his first season with Los Blancos. Mourinho uses a 4-2-3-1 formation, which puts Neymar in direct competition with Ronaldo and Di María for the two wing positions. The Portuguese tactician will not play the Brazilian as a lone striker, especially with Benzema and Higuaín in the first-team squad.
Neymar is an exceptionally gifted footballer, but he will not displace Di María in the starting XI. With Ronaldo on the left, Mourinho prefers the Argentine on the opposite flank for his work-rate and blistering pace. Di María gets forward well, but he also tracks back defensively in support of Sergio Ramos. If Neymar were to start on the right flank, Madrid would have two strictly attack-minded wingers.
Starting Ronaldo and Neymar together would go against Mourinho's pragmatic approach. The Portuguese tactician would not start the two wingers, Benzema and Özil on a consistent basis. Mourinho would prefer to have an industrious right-winger like Di María, which would balance Ronaldo's attacking mentality down the left flank.
Neymar has been a great goalscorer for Santos, but he will not enjoy similar success in La Liga. The Brazilian noticeably struggled in the 2011 Copa América when matched up against world-class opposition. He was more focused on beating defenders with a clever trick than finding the back of the net.
Di María had a solid debut season for Madrid, and Mourinho will be expecting much of the same this year. He may not be a prolific goalscoring winger, but the Argentine provides genuine width down the right flank. Although Neymar will give Madrid another dynamic attacking option in the final third, Di María will keep his regular place in Mourinho's starting XI.
The young Brazilian will be a great player for Madrid in the future. However, he will have to adapt to Mourinho's style and system. Neymar will join Los Blancos in January, but he will fail to make an impact.
Real Madrid had a solid 2010-11 La Liga campaign, finishing the season on 92 points. With the new summer signings, and returning first-team players, Los Blancos will expect an improved point total in Mourinho's second year at the club.
Barcelona hold the La Liga record for most points in a season, finishing the 2009-10 campaign with 99 points. Madrid will have to face the reigning Spanish champions twice, but they have the talent to break Barcelona's record.
Madrid's unbelievable depth will be key to their success this season. With the likes of Şahin, Kaká, Higuaín, Coentrão, Arbeloa, Granero, Varane, Albiol and Altintop competing for places in the starting XI, Mourinho has built an exceptionally competitive atmosphere in the Spanish capital. If Özil or Benzema were to get hurt, the Portuguese tactician has world-class replacements looking to make a statement.
Madrid will face serious competition from Barcelona, Villarreal, Málaga, Valencia, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid this season. However, Mourinho is entering his second season in charge, and as the Portuguese manager stated earlier this summer "the second season will be the great season for this Real Madrid team".
Los Blancos were a dominant force in Spain last year, but they had a few poor results as well. Mourinho's men suffered shocking defeats to both Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza. However, with the improvements made over the summer, Los Blancos will expect results this season.
Madrid will finish the 2011-12 season with a record-breaking 100 points.
Real Madrid suffered defeat to Barcelona in the Supercopa, but they will not lose to their fierce rivals in league play this season. With Mourinho at the helm, and the world-class talent in the first-team squad, Los Blancos will earn positive results against the reigning Spanish and European champions.
Madrid are scheduled to host Barcelona on December 11th, but the match will most likely be postponed until after the winter break due to the FIFA Club World Cup. La Blaugrana's participation in the tournament should give Madrid the advantage at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Although Los Blancos were thrashed 5-0 at the Camp Nou last season, Mourinho's team will be significantly more prepared in the corresponding fixture this season. Madrid's last two matches away to Barcelona have been close battles, as they fought for a 1-1 draw in May and lost 3-2 in the second leg of the Supercopa.
After facing Barcelona seven times as Madrid manager, Mourinho will have a system in place to beat the Spanish Champions. Los Blancos have been impressive in the Clásico's of 2011, and will be looking for positive results both home and away.
With the 1-0 win in the Copa del Rey Final, Madrid showed that they could beat their rivals from Catalonia. Los Blancos will win against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu, and draw away at the Camp Nou this season.
Real Madrid are poised to have a sensational 2011-12 La Liga campaign. With Mourinho entering his second year as manager, Los Blancos will overtake rivals Barcelona and win a record 32nd league title this season.
Málaga, Villarreal, Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao all have the quality to test the two Spanish powerhouses. They may not break into the top two, but these contenders will be serious competition in the new campaign.
Although there is an abundance of talent in Spain, Madrid have the depth and world-class players to earn positive results on a weekly basis. After an outstanding preseason, Mourinho has his men motivated and focused on winning La Liga.
Barcelona have undoubtedly been the best team in Spain over the past few years, and they will continue to dominate in league play. However, this will be the season for Madrid to claim domestic glory in May.
With key players having participated in the 2011 Copa América, and the club competing in December's FIFA Club World Cup, Barcelona will suffer from a congested fixture list and fatigue later in the campaign.
Although Barca are favorites to lift the trophy for a fourth consecutive year, Madrid will win La Liga this season.