Will Barcelona topple Real Madrid? What to watch for ahead of new season

Football fans around the world will tune in as LaLiga returns to action (stream matches, highlights on season on ESPN+). Spain’s top flight kicks off Friday with Osasuna hosting Sevilla, while Barcelona host Rayo Vallecano on Saturday at Camp Nou. On Sunday, Real Madrid begin their title defence against promoted side Almeria.

Coaches have swapped dugouts, players have departed, others have arrived with much fanfare (and lots of controversy), and fans are already debating whether Karim Benzema or Robert Lewandowski will score more goals.

Before the action gets underway, though, let’s examine some of the biggest storylines worth following as the 2022-23 season begins to unfold. ESPN contributers Alex Kirkland, Sam Marsden and Sid Lowe look at players to watch for, and Cesar Hernandez rounds up United States and Mexico players in LaLiga.

– Stream every LaLiga match on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access

Who are the faves? | Who will struggle, who will thrive | Big questions | Players to note | USMNT, Mexico stars in LaLiga

Title favourites?

The euphoria generated by Real Madrid’s 14th Champions League win in May hasn’t faded yet. That victory over Liverpool, close on the heels of a 35th LaLiga title wrapped up a month earlier, left Madrid feeling self-assured and confident about this team’s trajectory. Stability and prudence have been the watchwords this summer, with no panic buying, and a determination to move only for elite players who can genuinely add something to the side.

– Stream LIVE: Real Madrid vs. Almeria, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN+

Antonio Rudiger — a Champions League-winning central defender at Chelsea — fits into that category, and so does top midfield prospect Aurelien Tchouameni, who joined from AS Monaco. Otherwise, Madrid trust in the players who won it all last year — and unflappable coach Carlo Ancelotti — to go out and do it again.

There’s a belief that veterans like Karim Benzema and Luka Modric can deliver for one more year; that up-and-coming stars such as Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo have even more room for improvement; and that generational change is already underway with Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde in midfield. — Kirkland



Julien Laurens and Don Hutchison debate whether Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema or Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski will have the better season this year.

Barcelona finished second last season and it was reluctantly accepted as a success after Xavi Hernandez took over as manager in November with the team languishing ninth in LaLiga. A second-placed finish this time round will not be so highly regarded after what could perhaps be dubbed one of the most remarkable transfer windows of all time.

More on Barcelona’s mess:
– Lowe: How is the club signing, chasing players?
– Marsden: Explaining who can, can’t yet register and why
– Barcelona, reimagined: What if they made no signings after 2016?

After losing Lionel Messi a year ago because they could not afford to keep him, Barca have since sold off 25% of their domestic television rights and 25% of in-house production company Barca Studios for over €600 million.

That money, as well as helping reduce debt, has fuelled the signings of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen. And president Joan Laporta says they are not done yet, either — although a bloated payroll also needs reducing first. As a result, Xavi has been handed a stacked, highly competitive squad. The team looks especially exciting in attack, with Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang complementing Lewandowski and Raphinha. Finishing 13 points behind Madrid this season will not be acceptable. — Marsden

Last year’s LaLiga season was characterised by the failure of any of Real Madrid’s rivals to deliver a proper title race. Nowhere was that more evident than at Atletico Madrid, whose bid to defend the 2020-21 crown fell apart in an identity crisis as coach Diego Simeone struggled to find a balance between defence and attack.

This season could be different, especially with the departure of Luis Suarez — Joao Felix is increasingly influential at one end of the pitch, while Reinildo Mandava has brought back some of the old bite at the other. Summer business has been limited to the free transfer signing of Axel Witsel and the belated arrival of a specialist right-back in Nahuel Molina.

Elsewhere around the league, there are concerns about Sevilla’s readiness for a top four battle, having lost both Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos, although sporting director Monchi looks to be readying a late sweep of the transfer market. Villarreal are strong contenders to follow up last year’s remarkable Champions League semifinals run by pushing for fourth, while Real Betis and Real Sociedad will both expect to challenge. — Marsden

Teams to struggle …

Gennaro Gattuso’s coaching record in Italy (AC Milan and Napoli) was passable, if not exceptional, but Valencia represent a different challenge altogether.

Los Che are one of the biggest teams in Spain, but it feels like until the continued confrontation between supporters and owner Peter Lim ends, they will struggle to be where they should be in LaLiga: at least competing for the Champions League places.

For years now Valencia have struggled to fill their potential, in part because of that tension between Lim and the fans. Stability has also been a problem as they have raced through coaches. Each of the past four campaigns has now begun with a new manager. Their summer has been low-key, with Samu Castillejo and Samuel Lino interesting signings, but there remains uncertainty around two of their best players. Both Carlos Soler and Jose Luis Gaya are in the final 12 months of their deals, with no immediate resolution to their futures in sight. — Marsden

If there’s a club that has made a virtue of departures, always able to assimilate loss and reinvent itself, that club is Sevilla. And yet, this time feels different: sales are happening because they have to rather than because they are planned per se, both central defenders (Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos) have departed, and they have actually not been very good for quite a while now — look at their results since the turn of the year and they don’t lose often at all but they don’t win much either.

The signing of Isco and the loan of Alex Telles from Manchester United can help, but there’s already a slight sense of loss and maybe even a little mistrust that might accelerate problems if things don’t start well for manager Julen Lopetegui. There are stalwarts such as Ivan Rakitic and Youssef En-Nesyri, but no sign of a new striker yet. Conceding six at Arsenal in a preseason friendly was a warning. — Lowe



New Sevilla signing Isco explains why he decided to join Julen Lopetegui’s side and insists he will give his all for the club.

… and teams to surprise?

Ernesto Valverde is back at San Mames for a third spell in charge of Athletic Club and refreshed after over two years out of the game following his departure from Barcelona. During his second spell in Bilbao, which lasted four years and ended in 2017, he led the Basque side into the Champions League and never failed to finish outside the top seven, qualifying for Europe in every campaign. In the five seasons since he left, Athletic have finished 16th, 8th, 11th, 10th and 8th.

Athletic will always have their hands tied due to the fact they are committed to signing only Basque players, but Valverde knows the club inside and out and how it operates. There is talent in the squad in the form of Inigo Martinez, Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams, and the club’s academy at Lezama continues to produce talent for the first team. — Marsden

Getafe’s transfer window — led by new director of football Ramon Planes — has been quietly excellent. Defender Domingos Duarte, midfielders Jaime Seoane and Luis Milla and forwards Portu and Borja Mayoral are all sensible additions who will strengthen a team that lost a record seven consecutive games at the start of last season.

Quique Sanchez Flores has also steadied the ship after previous coach Michel’s struggles. Sanchez Flores is a seen-it-all, underrated manager who knows how to build a solid, effective team, and will be hoping for a straightforward midtable finish rather than a relegation battle. — Kirkland



Don Hutchison and Julien Laurens discuss Barcelona’s problems with registering their new signings.

Can busy Barcelona stop Real’s repeat?

First of all, let’s assume all of Barcelona’s signings can be registered and there is a satisfactory outcome to the Frenkie de Jong situation. If so, there can be no excuses for Xavi and Barcelona this season. While it’s true Xavi transformed Barca last season after floundering midtable for a part of it, it’s also true he was given much more leeway than his predecessor, Ronald Koeman.

Xavi was backed in January with the signings of Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and has been spectacularly backed this summer. Robert Lewandowski is the standout arrival at €45 million, but big money has also been invested in exciting Brazil winger Raphinha and vibrant defender Jules Kounde. It’s going to be fascinating to see how all the new signings do at Camp Nou, but also to see how Ousmane Dembele progresses after signing a new contract and how youngsters Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati continue to evolve.

Club president Joan Laporta says success is a requirement at Barca and that is why he has sanctioned this summer’s spending. Now it’s up to Xavi to stop Ancelotti’s Madrid, who have also strengthened with the signings of Antonio Rudiger and Aurelien Tchouameni, retaining the title. The Clasico battles (Oct. 16 in Madrid, March 23 in Barcelona) for the top of the table will be full of promise. — Marsden

Will Madrid be fazed by Mbappe snub?

“Kylian who?” That’s been the message from the Bernabeu ever since Madrid missed out on their long-term top target when France star Kylian Mbappe signed a new contract at Paris Saint-Germain. The timing of that abrupt U-turn — a week before the Champions League final — looked awkward at first but turned out to be a godsend when Madrid’s victory over Liverpool helped reassure fans that not signing Mbappe was, perhaps, no big deal. In fact, it’s been remarkable how quickly the saga has disappeared in the rearview mirror.

In any case, Mbappe’s arrival would have caused Ancelotti an unnecessary headache, likely shifting Vinicius Junior from his preferred left-wing berth just as he’d established himself. Nonetheless, Madrid are all-in on Vinicius now. The Brazil winger will do well to repeat his 17-goal haul from last season. With no forward expected to arrive, it will be down to him and Rodrygo to support Karim Benzema (can Eden Hazard rebound from his injuries?) in the goal-scoring department. — Kirkland



Eden Hazard speaks about potentially joining MLS and his hopes for this season with Real Madrid.

What about the coaching carousel?

Appointing a new coach refreshes expectations, and three LaLiga sides will be hoping a change of face on the touchline will improve their fortunes this season. It proved true for Cadiz and Mallorca last term, who dramatically stayed up after appointing Sergio Gonzalez and Javier Aguirre, respectively.

Ambitions will be loftier at Athletic Club, Valencia and Espanyol, though. Ex-Barca boss Ernesto Valverde returns to Athletic with the task of helping the Basque side back into European football. That will also be the task facing Gennaro Gattuso at Valencia. The former AC Milan and Napoli coach replaced Jose Bordalas this summer.

Finally, Diego Martinez is an intriguing appointment at Espanyol. He produced miracles to take Granada to the Europa League, and the Barcelona-based side will want the same success. Realistically, though, they will struggle to break free from the no-man’s land between the relegation battle and the hunt for European places. — Marsden

Promoted sides offer a challenge?

There’s an element of intrigue to the owners of all three promoted teams. Real Valladolid are owned by Brazil legend Ronaldo, Almeria by Saudi Arabian billionaire Turki Al-Sheikh and Girona’s majority owner is the City Football Group. Modern football, eh?

Of the three, Real Valladolid have had the most low-key summer, perhaps because it’s been only a year since they were last in the top flight. However, Almeria have spent over €15 million, which is a fortune in Spanish football for a team outside the top four. Among their key signings is Brazilian defender Kaiky, who is only 18 and was scouted by Barcelona. The real sign of Almeria’s wealth, though, is that they have so far resisted bids for star forward Umar Sadiq, a Nigeria international with over 40 goals in his two years at the club.

Girona, meanwhile, have had a good summer on paper. David Lopez adds experience to a squad that already includes veteran striker Cristhian Stuani. And the City Football Group has used its network of clubs to make some interesting additions, none more so than Valentin “Taty” Castellanos, who joins on loan after winning Major League Soccer’s Golden Boot in 2021 and leading NYCFC to the MLS Cup title.

Yangel Herrera and Yan Couto have been added from Manchester City and Rodrigo Riquelme from Atletico Madrid. Keep an eye on young, versatile defender Arnau Martinez, too. — Marsden

So, who wins LaLiga? Who’ll play in Champions League?

“The hunger is the last thing I am worried about,” Carlo Ancelotti said. If Madrid can maintain the basis of last year, and integrate Rudiger and Tchouameni, plus last season’s big signing Eduardo Camavinga, it feels like they should be the strongest side again — although the absence of another striker might be a concern.

Given the way that they finished last season and how they have signed in the summer, Barcelona really should compete all the way to the finish this time.

And not being defending champions might be good for Atletico Madrid. Sevilla and Real Betis probably won’t be as good as they were. Considering the stability and resources, fourth place should be there for Villarreal. Look for Real Sociedad to aim for fifth place and the Europa League berth.

Looking for a revelation: how good might Athletic Club be with the return of Ernesto Valverde as coach? Or what about Getafe, who impressed once Quique Sanchez Flores took over and seem to have signed well too. — Lowe



New Barcelona signing Robert Lewandowski praises Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema but says he isn’t keen on being in direct competition with him.

Benzema, Lewandowski. Anyone else in Golden Boot mix?

There’s nothing like a head-to-head Golden Boot race between two of the biggest names in world football to get people’s attention. That’s been absent since Cristiano Ronaldo and then Lionel Messi left LaLiga, but the arrival of Robert Lewandowski from Bayern means it’s back with a vengeance.

Last season, Karim Benzema walked it — his 27 goals were nine more than second-placed Iago Aspas’ 18, with Vinicius Junior and Raul de Tomas each having 17 — but this year will be a different story altogether. Lewandowski won the European Golden Shoe in both 2021 and 2022, and if anyone can outgun Ballon d’Or favourite Benzema, it’s he.

Otherwise, expect Celta Vigo icon Aspas to retain his crown as the top-scoring Spaniard. De Tomas’ prospects depend on whether he’s still at Espanyol come the end of the transfer window, and three players who disappointed in terms of numbers last season — Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno (9), Real Sociedad’s Alexander Isak (6) and Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann (3) — should all improve their tallies significantly. — Kirkland

‘Taty’ to keep Girona up?

Girona’s signing of Valentin “Taty” Castellanos from Major League Soccer champions New York City FC would have been more out of left field if both clubs were not owned by the City Football Group. However, despite that fact, the Argentine forward’s loan move to Catalonia still has the potential to be one of the most exciting deals in Spain this summer.

Castellanos, 23, who won the MLS Golden Boot last year and was leading this season’s race before leaving, already has Girona fans excited after preseason goals against Andorra and Napoli. If you have goals in your side, you have a good chance of staying in LaLiga, and with Castellanos and veteran Cristhian Stuani, Girona should have them in abundance. — Marsden

Morales key to Villarreal’s top four hopes?

The player known as “El Comandante” built a reputation as one of LaLiga’s most fun-to-watch players at Levante. Jose Luis Morales’ best efforts — and 13 goals — couldn’t keep them up last season, and his tears of frustration on the pitch when relegation was eventually confirmed were hard to watch.

The 35-year-old’s initial insistence on staying at Levante in Segunda was admirable, but he shouldn’t be judged too harshly for the change of heart that saw him join Villarreal. Morales deserves a late-career crack at European football, playing alongside footballers of a similar calibre. His quality might help Villarreal break into the top four. — Kirkland

U.S., Mexico players in Spain

The two traditional powerhouses from the CONCACAF region will each have a handful of representatives in LaLiga for the 2022-23 season.

Starting with the United States, 24-year-old midfielder Luca de la Torre is the newest USMNT player in LaLiga, making the move over to Celta Vigo this summer. Fullback Sergino Dest will be entering his third season with Barcelona, and midfielder Yunus Musah should feature more for Valencia. All three appear to be USMNT roster locks for the upcoming World Cup.

Another name to keep an eye on is Espanyol’s 17-year-old midfielder Luca Koleosho. Last season, Koleosho became the youngest American-born player to debut in Spain’s top flight. Also eligible for Canada, Koleosho hasn’t made a decision just yet regarding his national team future.



The Futbol Americas team discuss the USMNT’s Luca de la Torre moving to Celta Vigo with the World Cup on the horizon.

As for Mexico, Sevilla’s Jesus “Tecatito” Corona is the most noteworthy name from the El Tri contingent. The 29-year-old winger has looked promising in the preseason with a couple of goals during July friendlies. Mexico captain and veteran Andres Guardado will be entering his sixth year with Real Betis, helping the team win the Copa del Rey last season.

Over at Real Sociedad, fullback Jonathan Gomez will aim to break into the first team after earning consistent minutes for Real Sociedad B last season. Gomez has represented both the United States and Mexico at the youth and senior level, but last featured for El Tri during a friendly in April. He has yet to commit to either side.

Both Corona and Guardado are shoo-ins for Mexico’s World Cup roster. Gomez is unlikely to be included due to his national team status being up in the air, but plenty could change if he establishes himself with Real Sociedad’s first team.

Also of note for Mexico are three newcomers in Spain’s second division. Real Oviedo have brought in Daniel Aceves and Arsenal academy product Marcelo Flores, while Gijon have added Liga MX Rookie of the Year Jordan Carrillo from Santo Laguna.