La Liga is just around the corner, and ahead of the 2017/18 season's kick-off on Friday, it's time to look at what to expect from Spain's top flight.
The holders are Real Madrid, the newly promoted clubs are Girona, Levante and Getafe and there are another 16 sides beside them filled with quality players and high expectations for the new campaign.
To that end, we've collated the views and predictions of five avid followers of La Liga, those who will be monitoring and commenting on the next 10 months in the Spanish league, to find out which teams they are expecting to triumph and those they believe will fall short.
Along with this writer, taking part are Barcelona-based journalist Richard Fitzpatrick, Sky Sports La Liga commentator Rob Palmer, BeIN Sports La Liga commentator Phil Schoen and La Liga journalist Alexandra Jonson.
What order will the top four fall in come May, and which sides are not going to be able to avoid the drop?
|La Liga 2017/18 Team Predictions|
|Rob Palmer||Real Madrid||Barcelona||Atletico Madrid||Real Sociedad||Girona, Leganes, Getafe|
|Richard Fitzpatrick||Real Madrid||Barcelona||Atletico Madrid||Sevilla||Leganes, Girona, Getafe|
|Phil Schoen||Real Madrid||Barcelona||Atletico Madrid||Sevilla||Girona, Leganes, Levante|
|Alexandra Jonson||Real Madrid||Sevilla||Barcelona||Atletico Madrid||Levante, Leganes, Getafe|
|Karl Matchett||Real Madrid||Barcelona||Sevilla||Atletico Madrid||Leganes, Getafe, Las Palmas|
"Real Madrid are best prepared," Palmer says of his tip for the title. "They'll go through transition but are planning well with signings such as Theo Hernandez, Dani Ceballos and bringing back Jesus Vallejo and Marcos Llorente. The next generation are waiting in the wings, and they have themselves a squad and a half.
"Unless Barcelona go on a spending spree, they'll fall just short because of a lack of depth—not just because of this summer but for not signing sensibly last year. It will take some time for new signings to reach the required standards."
As for fourth, the manager is Real Sociedad's standout factor for Palmer: "Eusebio Sacristan has done a great job with essentially David Moyes' team; they have a good balance and depend more on style and method than individuals. Keep Inigo Martinez. and they have good players in every position."
Fitzpatrick is of a similar mind as far as the title race goes.
"Real Madrid look unbeatable this season," he says. "Any team with Lionel Messi is dangerous, but Barca don't have enough in midfield to challenge Madrid for the title.
"It'll be interesting to see how Sevilla cope without the charismatic Jorge Sampaoli in charge and, more importantly, without Monchi pulling the strings in the background. But they still have enough firepower to make the Champions League spots.
As for Jonson, her choice represents the only one wherein Barca do not attain a top-two finish; it's a bold pick, but it's a justified one because of improvements elsewhere, she feels.
"I'm keeping my prediction that Sevilla will be a contender this season," she says. "It might sound a bit optimistic, but it's a possibility I truly believe in. Sure, Monchi has left, but he's also left a very well-functioning system behind him, and I see no other way for Sevilla than taking new steps forward.
"I also believe Eduardo Berizzo is the perfect coach to do that with them.
"On top of that, we have a Barcelona side that I don't think will be performing at the level we expect from them. They've been awful in the transfer market, but more than that, it's a very unbalanced club right now, and that should and will affect the players as well. What's keeping them this high in the table will be the fact that they have the best player in the world in their team."
Schoen thinks Sevilla might not reach quite that high but clearly feels it will be tight in the race for fourth and their quality will win out—and looking upward is the only way for them right now.
"While I think both Valencia and Villarreal will challenge for the Champions League spots, Sevilla took steps to build on last year's top-four finish," Schoen says. "Sampaoli's style remains with the arrival of Berizzo. While Vitolo and Adil Rami depart, the Andalusians bring in Simon Kjaer and Sebastien Corchia in defence, Luis Muriel and Nolito up front and bring back Jesus Navas and Ever Banega in the midfield.
"If everything goes their way, they could finish even higher."
And a word on Atletico Madrid. Every expert backs them for a top-four finish but not to challenge for the title. The truth is, everything is against them: a new stadium to acclimatise to, their inability to bring new players into the squad until January and the fact Real Madrid are stronger than ever.
Diego Simeone and Co. may benefit from the focus being elsewhere—Real's greatness and Barca's rebuilding—but they fell way short last year and are not immediately able to improve the squad to catch up, let alone keep pace.
A transitional period might be in the offing from 2018/19 onward, so this year simply must be about keeping touch with the elite at home and abroad.
On to the players and coaches set to star.
|La Liga 2017/18 Player and Coach Predictions|
|Expert||Top scorer||Player of the Year||Breakthrough player||Coach of the Year|
|Rob Palmer||Lionel Messi||Steve N'Zonzi||Marco Asensio||Eusebio Sacristan (Real Sociedad)|
|Richard Fitzpatrick||Lionel Messi||Diego Costa||Jesus Vallejo||Eusebio Sacristan (Real Sociedad)|
|Phil Schoen||Lionel Messi||Antoine Griezmann||Luis Muriel||Eduardo Berizzo (Sevilla)|
|Alexandra Jonson||Cristiano Ronaldo||Isco||Marco Asensio||Eduardo Berizzo (Sevilla)|
|Karl Matchett||Lionel Messi||Luka Modric||Marco Asensio||Quique Setien (Real Betis)|
With only one dissenter to the notion Messi will be the top scorer, it's worth taking on board a reason or two why.
While Ronaldo's transition to centre-forward continues apace, and with great success, the Portuguese will miss the opening month of the campaign after landing a five-game suspension—Messi could be half-a-dozen goals ahead by the time he returns.
"If he stays fit, the head start he has on Ronaldo could keep him clear," Palmer says. Schoen adds a caveat: "It could change if Barca add a goalscorer such as Kylian Mbappe to the mix, allowing Messi to continue his metamorphosis into Xavi v2.0."
Player of the year received the most varied responses of all, so here's why in each case.
Palmer: "I'll remain neutral to not upset either big fanbase! I can't believe nobody has picked Steven N'Zonzi up yet."
Fitzpatrick: "What a treat it would be to see Diego Costa return from self-imposed exile in the wilds of Brazil's outback for the second half of the season and help drive Atletico toward the Champions League before Simeone and [Antoine] Griezmann depart the club."
Jonson: "I think we saw at the end of last season just how important Isco can be for Real Madrid. If he gets regular playing time, which I think Zinedine Zidane will give him now, I believe he can take Real Madrid to the next level."
Schoen: "Marcelo might be the most important player, but they will never give the proper accolades to a defender, especially a full-back. So expect Griezmann to sneak into the mix by keeping Atletico in the running."
With Real's midfield slowly becoming more critical than their stellar attack, one of the four or five options there should see recognition for excellence. Luka Modric could have his best year yet, bearing the No. 10 and with unstoppable confidence. The more movement ahead of him the better.
It's worth noting the high regard in which Eusebio is held by several of our contributors. The Real Sociedad boss has the team on an upward curve, and another signing could make a big difference to their top-four prospects. If he takes the team even close to that, he has to be in the running for coach of the year.
And as Fitzpatrick notes, there's a longer-term possibility for Eusebio if he does continue to impress: "It's almost impossible that Zidane emulates last year's success, while Ernesto Valverde will have to operate in the midst of institutional chaos at Barcelona and Simeone is running out of gas at Atletico.
"My guess is that Eusebio will earn the accolade by continuing his good work at Real Sociedad, who will push for a Champions League spot, thus propelling him into the frame for the top job at Barca next summer."
Let the games begin.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless stated.