Last season Barcelona stormed to their seventh league title in a decade, finishing seven points ahead of nearest challengers Atletico Madrid and 19 points ahead of third-place Real. 

You would expect Barça to be lightyears ahead of their closest opponents but after a summer full of activity and renewed ambition, the Catalans should expect their rivals to come at them heavier and harder than they’ve become accustomed to over the last two seasons.

Rivals revitalised

The boys from the capital have been busy this summer, not least Real Madrid, as manager Zinedine Zidane attempts to turn Los Blancos into a team worthy of competing domestically once again. 

Zidane, in his second stint at the club, has the honour of winning Real’s last La Liga title back in 2017, only their second in a decade. President Florentino Perez has invested heavily on big-name signings such as Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic up top, while Fernand Mendy and Eder Militao will seriously bolster their defence.

Real have kept the spine of a team that has not only dominated in Europe, but with Zidane at the helm also have the vital experience of what it takes to win La Liga. The likes of captain Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale have been there before. Now Real have a fresh influx of talent, it’s only a matter of time before they mount a serious title challenge.

It’s not exactly been quiet across the road at Atleti either. Los Rojiblancos are undergoing a sea change under manager Diego Simeone as key players have departed over the summer. 

Antoine Griezmann, Rodri and Lucas Hernandez have made big-money moves, while the cornerstone of their highly prized defence has been ripped apart by the departure of long-time servants Diego Godin, Felipe Luis and Juanfran.

That kind of upheaval would spook most fans but Atletico have taken it on the chin. They’ve made smart investments by capturing teenage wonderkid Joao Felix from Benfica, and bringing in Kieran Trippier, Mario Hermoso and Renan Lodi in defence. 

With the breaking up of the old guard it finally feels like Simeone can unleash his attack. A flurry of preseason goals against the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus could signal Atletico going opting for a more forward-thinking style of play and it could prove to be a dangerous prospect. 

It’s no wonder that the La Liga winner odds are the best value for some time. To claim free bets as a welcome bonus ahead of a bet on La Liga make sure to visit a betting expert in the know, and with Barcelona as current favourites at 5/6 to win La Liga, it shows just how open it is.

More consistency on the road

When a team finishes a championship-winning season a whole seven points ahead of their second-place rivals it’s tough to be critical. But the fact is last season in La Liga was punctuated by a series of outlandish victories and frustrating draws. 

Barcelona managed to lose twice on the road to Getafe and Léganes, while maintaining an undefeated record at the Camp Nou. However, with rivals threatening to clip at their heels the club cannot afford as many draws as last term.

A total of nine games, six of them away from home, ended in stalemate. The threat of dropping so many loose points in this manner is worrying, but it also belies the real issue that Barcelona at times struggled to break down teams and are vulnerable on the counter.

That particular problem couldn’t be more relevant. The opening game of the season against Bilbao proved that at times, especially away from home, Barcelona struggle and it’s an issue that needs to be fixed.

Missing without Messi

It was Messi the messiah who pulled Barça out of the fire last season. Whether it was pulling it back at home to Girona or away at Villareal last season, Barcelona still struggle to play without Messi. 

For many it’s mind-boggling as to why a club with such a wealth of resources and talent throughout the ranks can look so lost without one player. Messi is such a mercurial talent that Barcelona have built perhaps three or even four iterations of their starting eleven around Messi over the last decade. It’s no wonder that when he’s taken out of the equation others struggle to fill the gap.

Now with the arrival of Griezmann, it finally looks like Barcelona have a player that not only compliments Messi, but can also potentially lead the line when Messi is sidelined. The World Cup winner proved that in Barça’s 5-2 thumping of Real Betis last week. 

Griezmann forged a comeback after Barcelona went 0-1 down by scoring two and assisting one. What’s more is he provided not only a vital outlet but key movement at the top of the pitch that helped rip Betis apart. This is something that has been sorely missing without Messi in the starting line up. 

September should set the pace

Aside from the beginning of the Champions League, Barcelona have a busy schedule in September. Fixtures against Valencia, Granada, Villareal and Getafe proved to be some of the trickier prospects last season. 

After already dropping the ball in the season opener, nothing other than maximum points will suffice before the true tests against Real Madrid and Sevilla come thick and fast in October.