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Barcelona, Real Madrid and LaLiga return to action: What to watch for, top storylines

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President Laporta hopes Messi will play for Barcelona again (0:36)

Barcelona president Joan Laporta expresses his hopes that club legend and freshly crowned world champion Lionel Messi will play in Blaugrana colours again. (0:36)

With the World Cup over, all of Europe's major leagues are gearing up to restart the 2022-23 season. In Spain, LaLiga will be back on Thursday (matches, replays, highlights on ESPN/ESPN+) and, as often is the case, Barcelona and Real Madrid will be battling for the top spot.

It's been six weeks since LaLiga was in action, and you may be a little rusty on where things stand. Who are chasing Barca and Real for those coveted Champions League spots? Are perennial contenders Atletico Madrid and Sevilla in trouble? Which players are looking to shine and which clubs are staring at relegation?

As your home for all things LaLiga, ESPN has you covered. Here's what to keep an eye before the games commence once more.


Can Barcelona fulfill burning desire to win LaLiga?

When LaLiga resumes this week, it will do so with Barcelona sitting top of the table. A 2-1 comeback win against Osasuna in November ensured they spent the World Cup two points clear of Real Madrid. There is then a nine-point gap to third-placed Real Sociedad which means, following brief disturbances from Atletico Madrid in recent years, this season will once again be a Clasico shootout for the title.

Madrid won a LaLiga/Champions League double last season and, on most metrics, are perhaps still slightly ahead of Barca, as their 3-1 win at the Bernabeu showed in October. But Barca have a need and a desire to win the league this season which they will hope to channel to push them over the line.

The Catalans have not won the title since 2019, their longest run without topping LaLiga since 2004. Two of the past three seasons have ended without a trophy -- they won the Copa del Rey in 2020-21 -- and if they had opted to rebuild on a base of youth, another trophyless season could have been forgiven if not completely accepted. However, after some financial juggling allowed signings totalling over €150 million last summer, there is a need to justify that spending with trophies. With the Champions League gone -- Barca dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their group -- that brings LaLiga into focus.

In interviews with Barca TV over the Christmas period, coach Xavi Hernandez and president Joan Laporta both spoke in those terms. "LaLiga is the absolute priority," Laporta said. Xavi has even spoken about knowing a trophy is needed to keep his job. "Winning LaLiga will bring stability to the club," he added, which is no small thing given the rollercoaster ride Barca fans have been on since 2020.

With 12 wins from 14 games so far, they are in a good place ahead of the restart. Young talent is mixed with experience, and Robert Lewandowski's goals -- 13 in 14 league games so far -- should be enough to blow away most opposition, although the Poland striker will serve a three-game ban when action resumes with the Catalan derby against Espanyol on Dec. 31. -- Marsden


Can Benzema help Real Madrid chase down Barca?

It's been a strange season for Real Madrid, and an even stranger one for Karim Benzema. Madrid's start to the campaign was so serene -- going unbeaten in their first 16 games in all competitions, a run that felt like a seamless extension of last season's Double win -- that it's almost a surprise to look at the LaLiga table now and find them two points behind Barcelona, thanks to back-to-back dropped points against Girona and Rayo Vallecano before the World Cup break.

Benzema's personal career high, winning the Ballon d'Or in October, coincided with his most underwhelming start to a season in years. He's played just seven of a possible 14 league games -- albeit scoring a respectable five goals -- with persistent hamstring problems and an ultimately futile desire to protect his recovery in order to star for France at the World Cup severely restricting his impact.

What happened in Qatar, with Benzema seemingly sent home prematurely by Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps, could help fuel the forward's desire to prove himself all over again. Benzema's Champions League goal-scoring exploits last season felt like a one-man mission to finally drag himself over the finish line in the Ballon d'Or voting. The need for post-World Cup vindication might just do the same in LaLiga now.

The reality is that Madrid are two points off the leaders, without a fully firing Benzema. Vinicius Junior (with six league goals), Rodrygo Goes (four) and Federico Valverde (six) have made up the goal-scoring shortfall. Add a fit, hungry Benzema to the mix and that's grounds for encouragement for the rest of the season. -- Kirkland


Champions League: Who makes top four?

Sevilla's struggles and Atletico Madrid's hot and cold form makes the race for the European places one of the most fascinating elements of the Spanish league this season. Two Basque rivals, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, occupy third and fourth at the moment, but just seven points separate third from 11th. Things can change quickly.

Real Sociedad have been knocking on the Champions League door for the past three years under coach Imanol Alguacil, finishing sixth, fifth and sixth. With Mikel Oyarzabal due to return from injury, this could be the season La Real finally crack the top four. Atletico would be expected to join Barca and Madrid in Europe's elite competition, too, but they are in a real fight for that privilege.

After Real Sociedad with 26 points, Athletic, Atletico and Real Betis are all locked on 24 points in the push for Champions League football. Osasuna (23 points) and Rayo Vallecano (22 points) are both having exceptional seasons, but the Champions League may prove a step too far. A Europa League spot may be a possibility.

Below them, Villarreal (21 points) and Valencia (19 points) both have the quality in their squad to make a run with 24 games still to be played. They meet on New Year's Eve. -- Marsden


Simeone's time up at Atletico Madrid?

An optimistic Atletico fan might look at the second half of the LaLiga season and see an opportunity: A vision of a team, refreshed and energised by the World Cup break, with newly crowned world champions Rodrigo de Paul, Nahuel Molina and Angel Correa among their ranks alongside beaten finalist and tournament standout Antoine Griezmann. Without the distraction of European football, they will be able to find the consistency they've lacked so far to cement a top four place and maybe win the Copa del Rey, too.

A pessimist would point to the departure of Matheus Cunha, a possible exit for a disenchanted Joao Felix and the potential for further, financially driven January sales, coupled with a lethargic performance in a second round cup win at Arenteiro last week, and suggest that there's no indication that what's to come will be any better than what we've seen so far.

Atletico's elimination from the Champions League was humiliating for a club that has worked so hard for their place among Europe's elite, finishing bottom of the group behind FC Porto, Club Brugge and Bayer Leverkusen to miss out on the Europa League. Their LaLiga form has been maddening too, with one win in five league games before the World Cup break including losses away at Cadiz and Mallorca. Still though, they're fifth, level on points with fourth-placed Athletic Club.

Atletico manager Diego Simeone's targets were spelled out in CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin's open letter to fans after the Champions League debacle: Qualify for next season's tournament to secure the club's financial future and make a serious challenge for the Copa del Rey. The manager spoke last week about feeling "excited and enthusiastic" after the break, but it remains to be seen if that excitement translates onto the pitch.

Simeone has been written off multiple times during his 11 years in charge and, until now, has always turned things around. This might be the biggest test he's faced yet. -- Kirkland


The World Cup hangover

No league had more representation in the World Cup final. Ten players from LaLiga featured as Argentina beat France, five on each side. Another five were unused substitutes for Argentina. Semifinalists Croatia and Morocco both had players from the Spanish league, too, including Real Madrid's 37-year-old midfielder Luka Modric, who played 704 minutes, including added time, across his country's seven games in Qatar.

Barcelona had 17 players at the tournament, the most of any club, but all of them, with the exception of French duo Jules Kounde and Ousmane Dembele, were back before the quarterfinals. Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola commented that those who had been at the World Cup were in much better shape than those who had not. The majority of Barca's squad has the benefit of being at the finals without the pain and extra minutes of losing in the semifinal or final or the hangover of winning the trophy.

With that in mind, the 10 LaLiga-based Argentina players -- three each from Sevilla and Atletico and two each from Villarreal and Real Betis -- may need a couple of weeks to ease themselves back into club football if they ever make it back from partying in Buenos Aires.

In general, though, speaking to sources at several Spanish clubs, they don't expect immediate consequences. In fact, they predict the combination of the break for some, the World Cup for others and the feel of a fresh start to lead to high-level matches. However, they do see potential ramifications later in the season -- be that injuries, fatigue or a dip in form -- as the effects of a World Cup and a compressed campaign catch up with some clubs who are fighting on multiple fronts. -- Marsden


The relegation battle

Take a look at the LaLiga table, and there's no doubt which team is up against it: With 14 games played, Elche are rock-bottom with four points and no wins. They've got the worst defence in LaLiga, with 31 goals conceded, and the second-worst attack.

Even more worryingly, they picked up just one point from their past four games before the break, all winnable fixtures against bottom-half rivals: Espanyol, Getafe, Real Valladolid and Girona. Pablo Machin -- their third full-time coach this season -- failed in his past three LaLiga jobs at Sevilla, Espanyol and Alaves, and his appointment inspires little confidence of conjuring what would be a historic escape from the drop.

Elsewhere in the bottom three, Cadiz can draw confidence from some eye-catching recent friendly results which have seen them beat Manchester United 4-2 and Roma 3-0. Celta Vigo, just a point above Cadiz and Sevilla, have a new manager in Carlos Carvalhal after sacking Eduardo Coudet, and will be hoping that the evergreen talent of talisman Iago Aspas -- as well as youngster Gabri Veiga -- helps them find a way out of trouble.

That leaves Espanyol and Getafe, who are one and three points off relegation, respectively. Diego Martinez is a highly rated coach, but his Espanyol revolution hasn't quite taken off. Forward Joselu's goals -- seven in LaLiga so far -- might be enough to keep them safe. Getafe were many people's (including this writer's) tips to push for Europe, but instead find themselves in a relegation scrap. And further up the table, you wouldn't rule out Real Valladolid (currently 12th), Girona (13th) or Almeria (14th) getting caught up in it either. -- Kirkland


Can Sampaoli save Sevilla from relegation?

The most remarkable story in Spain so far this season features Sevilla. This time last year, they were the biggest threat to Real Madrid's title hopes. They tailed off in the end, though, and eventually finished fourth, below Barca and Atletico, too. That dip proved a sign of things to come this season.

A difficult start led to the dismissal of Julen Lopetegui. The charismatic Argentine Jorge Sampaoli returned for a second spell at the Sanchez Pizjuan, but results have not improved. After 14 games, Sevilla have just 11 points and reside in the bottom three. Only Cadiz (also 11 points) and Elche (four points) are below them.

Since returning to the top flight in 2001, Sevilla have never ended outside the top 10 in LaLiga. They have finished in the top four in four of the past six seasons, including each of the past three campaigns. Surely, to use that old cliche, they are too good to go down?

In theory, yes. Their squad boasts three World Cup-winning Argentines, including Gonzalo Montiel, who scored the winning penalty in the final against France, and Moroccan stars Yassine Bounou and Youssef En-Nesyri. There is also bags of experience in Ivan Rakitic and Jesus Navas.

However, there are increasing signs of a team crisis, with the club terminating Isco's contract this month after the midfielder fell out with members of staff. He had only joined from Real Madrid in the summer.

Sampaoli has a massive job on his hands. A trip to Celta Vigo on Dec. 30 is far from the easiest restart. -- Marsden


Players to watch

If you were the best player -- Lionel Messi aside -- at the World Cup, there's no reason you can't come home and be the best player in LaLiga, is there? Griezmann's start to the season was disrupted by the row between Atletico and former club Barca that led to him being benched game after the game, but he's still contributed five goals and will be the undisputed creative fulcrum of the team if Felix does indeed depart.

At Barcelona, the jury is still out on whether Ansu Fati will become the player he looked destined to be before his long-term injuries. It would be great news for club, country and LaLiga itself if he could make a consistent impact.

Real Madrid will want Valverde to get back to the form that made him Europe's most exciting goal-scoring midfielder in September and October, while Marco Asensio is playing for a new contract with his deal due to expire in June.

Oyarzabal hasn't played a minute this season as he recovers from a knee ligament injury. His return is a major boost in Real Sociedad's quest to break into the top four. Nico Williams comes back to Athletic Club with his reputation and confidence soaring after his contribution for Spain, while Borja Iglesias will look to make up for his own World Cup absence by adding to the eight goals he's already scored for Real Betis.

Forgotten man Raul de Tomas will be able to feature for Rayo Vallecano after his delayed post-transfer deadline move from Espanyol, and youngsters Alex Baena and Nicolas Jackson will be needed to add some spark to Quique Setien's slow-starting Villarreal. And don't forget Valencia's flying winger Samuel Lino, who might be the most consistently fun player to watch in LaLiga. -- Kirkland