La Liga preview: Subdued atmosphere grips new season

Fans are not expected to return to Spanish stadiums until 2021 at the earliest as infection rates continue to rise across the country.

The new La Liga season kickoffs this weekend.   -  Getty Images

After a brief yet turbulent close-season marked by the attempted departure of Lionel Messi, little transfer activity and the renewed threat of the coronavirus in Spain, La Liga returns on Friday with a decidedly gloomy outlook.

Fans are not expected to return to Spanish stadiums until 2021 at the earliest as infection rates continue to rise across the country, depriving the game of the noise and colour for which it is renowned.

There is also a subdued feeling as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are among six teams missing the opening weekend due to finishing last season late, with the latter three sides also missing the second weekend.

READ | Spanish clubs allowed five substitutions next season

Old tensions have resurfaced at institutional level, meanwhile, creating yet more uncertainty.

The federation delayed the release of fixtures and this week threatened to block the first match of the season between Granada and Athletic Bilbao due to a ban on Friday matches, although La Liga is certain the game will go ahead.

The financial impact of the pandemic, meanwhile, is being keenly felt across the league, even afflicting the wealthiest clubs.

Champion Real Madrid, which usually spends its summers parading big money signings at glitzy presentation ceremonies, is not expected to bring in anyone new. Instead it is focusing on recalling loanees such as Martin Odegaard while clearing out unwanted players.

Still, Zinedine Zidane's side is the favourite to lift the title after last season's relentless run of 10 straight victories and given the turmoil at Barcelona.

Barca may have clung on to Messi after a two-week saga but are still in deep trouble on a sporting, institutional and financial level.

READ | Bid to oust Barcelona chief Bartomeu gathers pace

President Josep Maria Bartomeu is threatened by a potential vote of no-confidence, while the club is trying to ease a colossal wage bill, shown by its willingness to part with Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal for cut-price deals.

New coach Ronald Koeman, a beloved former Barca player but with a patchy record as a club manager, faces a daunting task in reshaping an ageing side whose weaknesses were woefully exposed by the 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

Unlike predecessors Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien, the Dutchman will look to impose his authority on a dressing room that many believe has had too much power for too long and it will be fascinating to see how he gels with the players.

Hope for Barca comes in excitement around teenage forward Ansu Fati, who recently became Spain's youngest goalscorer and had a highly promising debut campaign.

Sevilla, Villareal out to challenge Atletico

Atletico Madrid is used to being Spain's third force but faces competition from Sevilla, which could even challenge the usual suspects in the title race if it builds on an excellent season in which it finished fourth and won the Europa League.

Sevilla has crucially held together most of its squad after getting accustomed to parting with 10 or more players each summer.

Villarreal is also one to watch after recruiting Unai Emery as coach and making some eye-catching signings including midfielders Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin from Valencia plus exciting playmaker Takefusa Kubo, on loan from Real Madrid.

READ | Malaga resort to first-team redundancies as financial strife deepens

Valencia is braced for a testing season after parting with captain Parejo plus Spain forward Rodrigo due to a dire financial situation which meant it was unable to pay its players.

Elsewhere, David Silva is back in La Liga for the first time in a decade after joining Real Sociedad, while much-loved Cadiz make a welcome return to the top-flight after a 14-year absence, joining Huesca and Elche in being promoted.

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