LaLiga 2021-22 preview: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona minus Lionel Messi or Real Madrid to win it all?

Is everyone excited for the new LaLiga season? While there have been a few notable exits in the summer transfer window -- some guy named Lionel Messi swapped Barcelona for Paris, we hear, and his longtime rival at Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos, joined him in the French capital -- the talent levels are sky-high and the top clubs look set to grapple all the way from first game to last for the title.

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Defending champions Atletico Madrid have had a relatively quiet transfer window, Real Madrid said goodbye to manager Zinedine Zidane and welcomed back an old friend in Carlo Ancelotti -- maybe he can get the best out of disappointing superstars Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale? -- and the rest of the top teams (Sevilla, Villarreal, Real Sociedad) all look eager to fight for the Champions League places as well.

But before we dive headlong into a new season full of suspense and drama, let's have a look at where things stand. ESPN's Sid Lowe and Sam Marsden break down everything you need to know about all 20 teams ahead of the campaign.

Last season: 16th

Key Arrivals: FW Facundo Pellistri (Man United, loan)
Key Departures: MF Manu Garcia (end of contract)

Expectations/History: Mendi mola, they say. "Mendizorroza [their stadium] rocks." Over the past 18 months, it hasn't -- and they have really missed it. Alaves are one of those teams that have a special connection with the crowd. Now they're back, albeit in smaller numbers, for the opening game of the season -- and against Real Madrid.

In the silence, they came worryingly close to relegation, with constant coaching changes. It is early to judge, and certainly won't be easy to do, but it does feel like this is a side seeking to shift its footballing identity a little. In one way, it won't be the same, that's for sure: captain, local man and season ticket holder Manu Garcia has had to leave. Although he has been replaced by, erm, Manu Garcia.

Issues/Challenges: Javi Calleja is a coach whose identity doesn't entirely fit the style of previous managers, and there is an adaptation that needs to be undertaken in playing a more patient, technical game. And it is not like there has been a huge overhaul of players with which to do that. What role will be found for Lucas Perez? More importantly, what happens to Joselu, who was arguably their most significant player in surviving last season and now looks like he may not start? -- Sid Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 18th
Marsden's Prediction: 17th

Last season: 10th

Key Arrivals: DF Alex Petxa (Real Sociedad)
Key Departures: FW Ibai Gomez (end of contract)

Expectations/History: Marcelino replaced Gaizka Garitano as coach mid-season and led Athletic to Super Cup success, surprising Barcelona in the final in January. However, they lost two Copa del Rey finals in April: both the delayed 2019-20 final against Real Sociedad and last season's final against Barca, and their cup exploits led to some inconsistent form in the league -- something they'll be hoping to correct this time out. Marcelino, in his first full season at San Mames, will be expected to have the side fighting for the European places.

Issues/Challenges: Athletic had the sixth-best defence in Spain's top flight last season, but were the lowest scorers in the top half of the table. Winger Alex Berenguer top-scored with eight, while forward Inaki Williams netted only six league goals. The Spain striker possesses lightning pace, but doesn't score enough goals. If Marcelino can help Williams become more clinical, Athletic could surprise people. -- Sam Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 11th
Marsden's Prediction: 6th

Last season: Champions

Key Arrivals: MF Rodrigo de Paul (Udinese)
Key Departures: FW Alvaro Morata (Juventus, loan), FW Moussa Dembele (Lyon, end of loan)

Expectations/History: Champions, and it doesn't feel like a one-off, at least not at the moment. There is a stability about Atletico that, alongside the doubts at Real Madrid and Barcelona, means that many are now wondering if they could actually win back-to-back titles for the first time in 70 years.

There may yet be changes between now and the end of the transfer window, with Kieran Trippier and Saul among those whose departure appears plausible, but the team won't look hugely different to last season -- except for the exciting addition of Rodrigo de Paul. And there should be a forward on the way, too.

Issues/Challenges: Will Luis Suarez do that again? It seems unlikely, and the role of the other striker -- possibly Rafa Mir, who appears to be on the way -- could be very important. Also, if Trippier was to depart, it would likely have a more significant impact than most assume. His hybrid role was vital in their five-into-four-into-three defensive line last season. It will be fun to see Diego Simeone's son Giuliano too, playing up front while his dad prowls the touchline. No pressure, mate. -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 3rd
Marsden's Prediction: 2nd

Last season: 3rd

Key Arrivals: FW Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), FW Memphis Depay (Lyon)
Key Departures: Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)

Expectations/History: It's a leap into the unknown for Barca this season as they begin the post-Lionel Messi era, and a lot sooner than they'd have anticipated. The Argentine forward has been the key figure as the club dominated Spanish football over the past 15 years, but he's now a Paris Saint-Germain player. In his absence, coach Ronald Koeman will still be expected to mount a title challenge, with Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero brought in to fill the Messi void. Winning the Copa del Rey last season was not deemed a satisfactory season by president Joan Laporta, who considered terminating the Dutchman's contract. He kept him on in the end, although made it clear he must do better this time around.

Issues/Challenges: All the talk will be about how to replace Messi's output, but it's in defence where the most work is needed. Barca conceded 38 goals last season -- 10 more than Madrid and 13 more than champions Atletico, with untimely errors costing them points time and again against teams like Cadiz and Granada. Koeman has no shortage of centre-backs to pick from, but it's not clear who will be his first-choice pairing. None of his options are at an elite level going into the season. Gerard Pique is ageing; Oscar Mingueza, Eric Garcia and Ronald Araujo are in the early years of their career; Clement Lenglet's form dipped last season; and the club are still trying to move on Samuel Umtiti. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: Champions
Marsden's Prediction: Champions

Last season: 8th

Key Arrivals: DF Javi Galan (Huesca), FW Franco Cervi (Benfica)
Key Departures: DF Jeison Murillo (Sampdoria, end of loan)

Expectations/History: By the end of the season, a lot of the attention had turned elsewhere, but Eduardo Coudet did an extraordinary job at Celta, arriving and taking them off the bottom of the table and to the edge of European football with a dynamic, mobile, fluid and very attacking approach that was often a lot of fun to watch and should be again. Iago Aspas always is, of course. That whole approach should be complemented superbly by the arrival of Galan in the (attacking) left-back role. They will have their moments for sure, although it may be that in the tougher games, they add an extra man in the defensive midfield position.

Issues/Challenges: What happens when Aspas is not available? That's the standard question. It can also be posed with Renato Tapia in Aspas's place: his role at the base of midfield is vital in allowing those in front of him the freedom to move and attack and head off up the pitch. They will depend on him heavily. Also, can their high-intensity, all-out style be sustained over a whole season or will there need to be some evolution? In theory, having fans back may help. -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 7th
Marsden's Prediction: 9th

Last season: 12th

Key Arrivals: DF Victor Chust (Real Madrid, loan), DF Santiago Arzamendia (Cerro Porteno), MF Tomas Alarcon (O'Higgins)
Key Departures: FW Ivan Saponjic (Atletico Madrid, end of loan)

Expectations/History: Expectations were well and truly exceeded at Cadiz last season in their first top-flight season since 2005-06. They were among the relegation favourites before the action started, but coach Alvaro Cervera led them to a remarkable 12th-place finish -- season highlights included taking four points off Barcelona and winning away at Real Madrid in October. Their squad is packed with experience. Veteran striker Alvaro Negredo, who netted eight league goals last term, is the big name, but he's supported by a cast of streetwise players. They should have enough to stay up again.

Issues/Challenges: Cadiz will have to fight against "second season syndrome" if they want to ensure a third straight season in LaLiga. Newly promoted clubs are often riding a wave of momentum when they first come up, and that was true for Cervera's side. They lost just two of their first eight games as they made up for lost time after 15 years away from the Primera Division, only to wilt in mid-season before improving again late on. Complacency is the biggest threat to their survival. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 14th
Marsden's Prediction: 16th

Last season: 17th

Key Arrivals: GK Kiko Casilla (Leeds United, loan), FW Lucas Boye (Torino), MF Ivan Marcone (Boca Juniors)
Key Departures: GK Paulo Gazzaniga (Tottenham, end of loan), FW Nino (retired)

Expectations/History: Back-to-back wins in their final two games secured Elche's survival on a dramatic final day of the season last time out. They had been written off, but victories away at Cadiz and at home to Athletic Bilbao saved them as Huesca dropped instead. In his second spell at the club, coach Fran Escriba can expect more of the same this season. Elche have one of the smallest squads in the division and the signings have not yet arrived. "We need more players," Escriba moaned last week. "The club spoke about up to 10 signings, but we've only made five. It's not ideal so close to the season starting."

Issues/Challenges: Elche were dreadful away from the Estadio Martínez Valero last season, winning just three of 19 games on the road. Only their points haul at home kept them up. They may not be as lucky this season, though, and Escriba desperately needs to address their form away from home if he wants to avoid more final-day drama. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 19th (relegated)
Marsden's Prediction: 20th (relegated)

Last season: Champions, Segunda Division (promoted)

Key Arrivals: DF Sergi Gomez (Sevilla), FW Landry Dimata (Anderlecht), FW Alvaro Vadillo (Celta Vigo)
Key Departures: None

Expectations/History: After being relegated in 2019-20, the second club in the city of Barcelona returned to the top flight at the first time of asking by winning the second division. While relegation hurt at the time, it allowed Espanyol to hit the reset button. Young forward Javi Puado has finally been given a run in the first team and scored 12 league goals last season. He won a silver medal at the Olympic Games this summer, along with Espanyol teammate Oscar Gil. They are complemented by an array of players more than capable of performing in LaLiga, like striker Raul de Tomas and midfielder Sergi Darder.

Issues/Challenges: Vicente Moreno took over last summer and did a great job in his first season in charge, leading them out of the second division immediately. He has previous success in that regard, having taken Mallorca into the top flight in 2019, but he's not yet cracked LaLiga. With Mallorca, he was relegated at the first attempt and the challenge now is to avoid a repeat of that with Espanyol. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 12th
Marsden's Prediction: 13th

Last season: 15th

Key Arrivals: FW Vitolo (Atletico Madrid, loan), DF Stefan Mitrovic (Strasbourg)
Key Departures: FW Angel (Mallorca)

Expectations/History: All change at the Coliseum, where Pepe Bordalas -- a man who has a fixation with the Romans -- achieved extraordinary things but also where things broke down and, with hindsight, perhaps he stayed a season too long. The new manager is Michel, who is back at the club for the second time and could hardly be more different in approach: from tough to technical.

There will be a shift in style and structure, and there have been personnel changes too, although not many of the starters have departed. (Angel is the exception, although he was often employed off the bench). Expect Carles Alena to be more of a focal point in the middle, and a move to 4-3-3.

Issues/Challenges: How quickly can they shift to a different style? For some of the old guard, it might be a big ask. Looking at the squad, there are still limitations. But for all his commitment to a footballing culture in which he wants the ball and to build attacks, Michel is not naive. He wants a shift. Can he recover Vitolo? If so, he could have a very useful player on his hands, but you can't help wondering if it may be too late. -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 15th
Marsden's Prediction: 12th

Last season: 9th

Key Arrivals: FW Carlos Bacca (Villarreal), MF Monchu (Barcelona)
Key Departures: FW Roberto Soldado (Levante), MF Yangel Herrera (Man City, end of loan) DF Nehuen Perez (Atletico Madrid, end of loan)

Expectations/History: There have been few better stories than Granada in Spain over the past three years. After a two-year absence, they returned to LaLiga in 2019, finishing seventh in their first season back -- good enough to qualify for last season's Europa League. They beat Napoli en route to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Manchester United. Despite being distracted by Europe, they managed a second consecutive top-half finish. However, the man responsible for their recent success, coach Diego Martinez, decided not to renew his contract. The bar, therefore, has been set extremely high for new coach Roberto Moreno.

Issues/Challenges: New coach Moreno has experience at the top level with Barcelona and Spain, but he remains unproven as a head coach. He was highly thought of as one of Luis Enrique's assistants at Barca and followed him to Spain, whom he briefly managed in 2019 when Luis Enrique took some time off. He was then appointed Monaco coach in 2019, but was sacked after just five wins in 13 games. Can he finally make the step up? -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 16th
Marsden's Prediction: 14th

Last season: 14th

Key Arrivals: FW Roberto Soldado (Getafe), DF Enric Franquesa (Villarreal)
Key Departures: FW Ruben Rochina (end of contract)

Expectations/History: Capable of the sublime and the ordinary, you never know what you're going to get with Paco Lopez's Levante. They won at Madrid and Atletico last season but followed up both wins with draws at home to Granada and Athletic. They also failed to win in their final eight games, which will be a concern when the season begins this weekend. Roberto Soldado has joined from Granada, and it should be fun to watch him in attack with captain Jose Luis Morales.

Issues/Challenges: The pandemic has taken its toll on Levante's finances and they face a race against time to get their three summer signings registered with LaLiga for the new campaign. As things stand, none of Soldado, Franquesa or Roger Brugue (signed from Segunda Division's CD Mirandes) have been inscribed for the new campaign. President Quico Catalan says he's confident it will all be OK, but the clock is ticking. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 10th
Marsden's Prediction: 11th

Last season: 2nd in Segunda Division, promoted

Key Arrivals: FW Angel (Getafe), DF Pablo Maffeo (Stuttgart, loan), FW Victor Mollejo (Atletico Madrid, loan), DF Jaume Costa (Villarreal)
Key Departures: FW Amath Ndiaye (Getafe, end of loan)

Expectations/History: Back after a year away, having performed superbly in the second division under Luis Garcia, the coach who was keen to return to Spain after a spell in China. Charismatic, clear and experienced, yet close to his players, he oversaw an impressive return but knows that survival is a different matter.

There is a certain institutional stability about the club under Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns, who bought Mallorca in 2016 -- even though they have changed divisions for six consecutive seasons. A sporting culture too: Andy Kohlberg is the president, while Steve Nash and Graeme Le Saux are on the board.

Issues/Challenges: There have been significant arrivals for a team that is conscious that the first division is a different matter, although the middle of the pitch looks like it's staying the same. Costa and Maffeo, the full-backs, have top-flight experience. They have also had Daniel Sturridge working with them, given the chance to prove his fitness and form with a view to signing. How will it all come together? And is the level quite good enough to survive without suffering? -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 17th
Marsden's Prediction: 18th (relegated)

Last season: 11th

Key Arrivals: FW Enrique Garcia (Eibar)
Key Departures: FW Jony (Lazio, end of loan)

Expectations/History: When Osasuna tried to sign Chimy Avila, they didn't send him DVDs of the team; they sent him DVDs of the fans. And that says a lot about this club from Pamplona. Here the fans are loyal and they are loud, and that is explicitly built into the way they play, with coach Jagoba Arrasate, dubbed "our Klopp" by the sporting director, seeking to create a communion and continuity between stands and pitch. Quick, aggressive, direct. That whole idea was hit hard with the pandemic -- and all the more so as it coincided with the redevelopment of the El Sadar, just as steep, just as tight, but higher and more complete than ever before. They're back now. And so is Chimy.

Issues/Challenges: After a second terrible knee injury, Chimy is now back -- and that is huge for Osasuna. The doubt, of course, will be whether he remains that one-man human wrecking ball he was before. And indeed, whether they can hold on to him in the final days of the transfer window. He felt like the embodiment of Osasuna, despite coming from outside, and now the fans that fuel it all at last return. But will it feel a little odd this time? How fast can they reconnect? -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 13th
Marsden's Prediction: 15th

Last season: 6th in Segunda Division, promoted via playoffs

Key Arrivals: MF Randy Nteka (Fuenlabrada), MF Pathe Ciss (Fuenlabrada), DF Fran Garcia (Real Madrid Castilla)
Key Departures: DF Luis Advincula (Boca Juniors)

Expectations/History: Talented young coach Andoni Iraola steered Rayo Vallecano back into LaLiga in his first season at the club after joining from Mirandes. The former Athletic Bilbao and New York City full-back is highly rated in Spain and if he can keep Rayo up, his reputation will go through the roof. The Madrid-based club have become a bit of a yo-yo team in recent seasons, promoted to the top flight on three occasions since 2010 and relegated twice.

Issues/Challenges: Promotion may have come too early for Iraola's side. They sneaked back into the playoffs in the final weeks of the season before beating Leganes and Girona to book their place back in LaLiga. However, the squad looks short of quality, with the only real signings coming from the modest Madrid side Fuenlabrada. Can they defy the odds? -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 20th (relegated)
Marsden's Prediction: 19th (relegated)

Last season: 6th

Key Arrivals: DF Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), DF Juan Miranda (Barcelona)
Key Departures: DF Emerson Royal (Barcelona), DF Aissa Mandi (Villarreal)

Expectations/History: It almost went unnoticed how good Real Betis were in the second half of last season as Manuel Pellegrini's side clinched a Europa League spot. The side from Seville lost just two of their last 22 matches in the league, having lost 11 of their first 16. Only Barca and Sevilla beat them in the second half of the campaign. At their best, with players like Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir, they're fun to watch, while striker Borja Iglesias re-found his shooting boots after Christmas. He ended the season with 10 goals in his last 15 appearances.

Issues/Challenges: Betis have the added excitement of European football this season, but it's also an added pressure. The games will come thick and fast, every Thursday and Sunday, and Pellegrini will have to make good use of his squad to balance the Europa League with LaLiga. There is depth available, and Villarreal showed it is possible last season, but many clubs have struggled to balance the two competitions. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 8th
Marsden's Prediction: 8th

Last season: 2nd

Key Arrivals: FW Gareth Bale (Tottenham, end of loan), DF David Alaba (Bayern Munich), MF Martin Odegaard (Arsenal, end of loan)
Key Departures: Zinedine Zidane (Manager), DF Sergio Ramos (PSG after end of contract), DF Raphael Varane (Manchester United)

Expectations/History: Zidane has gone, Sergio Ramos has gone, Varane has gone. That generation is going -- Luka Modric can't play every game any more, Cristiano Ronaldo already left, Marcelo seems unlikely to play much of a part. But Carlo Ancelotti is back, and some of them are still around, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema especially.

"Nothing changes except the managers," Ancelotti joked on his presentation. He knows he can't change things further: money is tight, and signings are likely to be few as they save toward signing Kylian Mbappe, probably next summer. His job, he knows, is to work with what he has got. And he's just happy to be here.

Issues/Challenges: There is still talent there and a younger generation that might yet be brought definitively into the team -- Vinicius, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde -- but it's not yet clear how much of a role they will play. Lots of loanees have returned: Martin Odegaard, Gareth Bale, Dani Ceballos. Could they have a role now without Zidane? Bale in particular is an intriguing one: can he be recovered for the cause, helping them to overcome the paucity of goals from last season? On the face of it, the centre-back partnership will be Eder Militao and Alaba, which is strong, but how to you rebuild a defence after the departure of the two men who sustained it for so long? -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 2nd
Marsden's Prediction: 3rd

Last season: 5th

Key Arrivals: GK Mat Ryan (Brighton), FW Willian Jose (Wolves, end of loan)
Key Departures: None

Expectations/History: Real Sociedad are based in San Sebastian, arguably the most beautiful city in Spain; the only club with their B team in the second division; and Copa del Rey winners last season (well, the season before), even if they held the title for only two weeks. A lovely team to watch too: fluid, technical and a lot of fun, packed with graduates of the club's youth system. Their manager is from there too, a fan as well as a coach. Blessed with a clear identity, they will be very recognisable from last season -- although less so in the opening weeks because of injury and the Olympics. And in Alexander Isak they have a hugely exciting striker.

Issues/Challenges: It is something of a cliche to wonder about a young team and consistency, so let's not. Not least because this side have shown that if they have flaws, that's not really it. No, they're not super tough, but they are competitive and quick, and don't lack character. If there is a doubt it might be more about their ability to finish teams off. -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 5th
Marsden's Prediction: 7th

Last season: 4th

Key Arrivals: FW Erik Lamela (Tottenham)
Key Departures: FW Bryan Gil (Tottenham), DF Sergi Gomez (Espanyol)

Expectations/History: Against the odds, Julen Lopetegui kept Sevilla firmly in the title race all the way into the final weeks of last season. They came up short in the end, but finishing fourth, just two points behind Barca, was better than anyone had expected and once again sealed their place in the Champions League. Player turnover is usually quite high at Sevilla -- their director of football, Monchi, is an astute presence in every transfer window -- but they've had a quiet summer by their standards and that continuity could benefit them in a wide-open title race.

Issues/Challenges: Sevilla are in a tricky position whereby they have more to lose than to gain. Everyone expects them to finish fourth, so anything less would be considered a failure. But can they kick on and haul in Atletico, Madrid and Barca this season? Last year proved the gap is closing, but it would still be unrealistic to demand Lopetegui's side breach the top three. -- Marsden

Lowe's Prediction: 4th
Marsden's Prediction: 4th

Last season: 13th

Key Arrivals: None
Key Departures: FW Kevin Gameiro (Strasbourg)

Expectations/History: At the start of last season, Valencia were dismantled, selling six starters and sacking the coach that had taken them to a Champions League position and won the Copa del Rey. A sense of crisis took over that Javi Gracia, the manager, couldn't control. In fact, he quickly decided that he wanted to leave, and they wanted to sack him -- it was only the cost of the payoff that prevented it from happening until very late when Valencia feared for their first-division survival.

Those departures did at least anticipate a more general crisis, and so this summer there have not been more. New manager Jose Bordalas, an enemy before, has been brought in to deliver a tougher, more aggressive style supposedly more in keeping with the new reality.

Issues/Challenges: The emergence of a new and sometimes genuinely nasty Spanish football rivalry, Getafe vs. Valencia, was fuelled by Bordalas and his team's bruising approach, and the often bitter reaction to him. So, signing him might even have felt provocative to fans who are already openly in conflict with the club's ownership. The question then will be how he will win them over (and how long it takes him), what he does to make things work again. European football is the aim, but is that realistic? -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 9th
Marsden's Prediction: 10th

Last season: 7th

Key Arrivals: DF Aissa Mandi (Real Betis)
Key Departures: DF Jaume Costa (Mallorca), FW Carlos Bacca (Granada)

Expectations/History: Villarreal finally won their first-ever trophy when they defeated Manchester United in the most dramatic Europa League final, with its 22-penalty shootout. A tiny, indebted and largely insignificant club that was transformed when Fernando Roig took over, it soon became a fixture in Europe, and that success was overdue. A second trophy shouldn't really be so far behind. The arrival of Mandi strengthens them at centre-back, although the doubt lingers that someone will come in for Pau Torres, a youth team product and the only player from the town of 50,000 where they are based.

Issues/Challenges: Villarreal should be a case of picking up where they left off, and there are few real doubts about personnel or the way they will play, but it has not been a good preseason, with injuries and COVID-19 meaning that some of the preparation had to be put on hold and games canceled. They should overcome that soon enough, as good news came in the form of a renewal for Gerard Moreno, the squad has quality and depth, and coach Unai Emery is in a strong position having finally delivered that first trophy -- after a debut season in which there were occasionally doubts. -- Lowe

Lowe's Prediction: 6th
Marsden's Prediction: 5th