Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti expects Barcelona to bounce back from their poor start to the season under new head coach Xavi.

Xavi has been tasked with leading embattled LaLiga giants Barca out of their difficult period after his appointment as Ronald Koeman's replacement at Camp Nou.

Barca are 10 points adrift of Madrid after squandering a three-goal lead as Celta Vigo secured a dramatic 3-3 draw in the 96th minute on Saturday, while Ancelotti's league leaders edged Rayo Vallecano 2-1.

Ancelotti was asked about the return of Barca great Xavi to the Catalan giants – who are ninth in the standings – following Madrid's victory at the Santiago Bernabeu.

"Obviously I don't want to talk about Barcelona. I know they're in a tough situation, and I've said that on more than one occasion because I have a lot of respect for them as a club, and I respect Xavi as well," Ancelotti told reporters.

"I wish him the best because I can't say anything personally if Barca have any issues or not, but they have more than enough quality to get out of this tough situation."

Ancelotti added: "It's a surprise that we're 10 points clear of Barcelona, but I think Barcelona can very easily get back into the title race because the season is very long.

"And as I said, this is a very competitive league. You don't need 100 points to win this division. You need many less because it's that competitive."

Madrid continue to set the pace after Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema guided Los Blancos past Rayo in the Spanish capital.

Benzema has reached 10 goals in 11 of his 13 seasons in LaLiga (10 in 2021-22) – only Lionel Messi (15) has scored 10-plus goals in more campaigns in the competition in the 21st century than the Frenchman.

Madrid duo Benzema (10) and Vinicius Junior (seven) have scored 17 goals in LaLiga this term, a figure only surpassed by Bayern Munich (19) pair Robert Lewandowski (13) and Serge Gnabry (six) in the five major European leagues.

"I saw a team that played very well. For about 80 minutes, I think we played very well," Ancelotti said of his team's win. "We had a lot of chances and I think we had to score one more to kill off the game and we still kept creating chances and that third goal didn't come. And then when Rayo scored, we had a few minutes of fear.

"I haven't really got any other word to describe it, and we suffered, but I think we have to analyse everything as a team, and we suffered later on in the game. But we played very well during the majority of the match.

"We also did miss in front of goal, which is something that we don't normally do. It's something very strange that, for example, Karim [Benzema] misses in front of goal, but he scored a second, so he made up for that.

"But overall, I am happy because we picked up the three points and we got three points as well against a Rayo side that play well, they press well, they're very good playing out from the back. And we tried to be very dangerous on the counter when we had the possibility to, but I think the game was maybe over in the 80th minute. It was maybe one of our best performances of the season, but we had to work hard at the end."

Karim Benzema fully merits the plaudits for a stunning start to the season, according to Real Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos.

Benzema scored Madrid's second goal in a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday and leads LaLiga for both goals (10) and assists (seven).

He has now been directly involved in 22 goals in 15 matches for Madrid in all competitions this season, trailing only Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski (25 involvements in 17 matches) of players in Europe's top-five leagues.

"I see what Karim does in training and how he plays and deserves every success," Kroos told Movistar.

"But what matters to me is what you win with us. I am happy with my goal but because it helped us win. The individual awards do not interest me much.

"We came from a tough match in the Champions League and at 2-1 you suffer a little. Vinicius has helped us a lot so far, in difficult times too, and I hope he continues like this."

Benzema has now reached 10 goals in 11 of his 13 seasons in La Liga (10 in 2021-22) and only former Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (15) has scored 10-plus goals in more campaigns in the competition in the 21st century than the French striker.

The 33-year-old Benzema was substituted by Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti with seven minutes left and replaced by Eden Hazard.

Ancelotti felt Benzema could have got more goals – having had one struck off by VAR early in the first half before he netted from close range – but suffered from fatigue in the second half.

"It's quite rare that Karim misses the opportunities we've had," Ancelotti added. "I have removed him because he was tired."

Rayo pulled a goal back through former Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao, who has netted a goal every 67 minutes in LaLiga this season with the best ratio in the competition (five goals after 334 minutes played).

Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois admitted the failure to keep a clean sheet took the gloss of the victory and his team-mates must learn to grind out a victory if they are unable to be prolific in front of goal.

"It was part good and part bittersweet at the end," Courtois said.

"We controlled the game, but in the end they almost ended up drawing. Today the three points were very important. They have pushed and we don't take advantage of our chances to score more goals.

"We managed the game quite well, but in the penultimate corner they almost scored a goal and there we have to improve. The team has shown that it knows how to fight and that we are focused until the end. 

"We have to try to keep a clean sheet and close out the game. It's something we have to change because we have a lot of quality to score more goals."

Karim Benzema continued his fine form in front of goal as Real Madrid went top of LaLiga with a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

Toni Kroos put Madrid ahead when he finished off a counter-attack in the 14th minute, the goal awarded after a VAR review having initially been ruled offside.

Benzema's 10th league goal of the season – and ninth in 10 against Rayo – made it two seven minutes before half-time, but Madrid sat back following the restart and Radamel Falcao's response ensured a tense finish.

Rayo could not quite forge an equaliser, though, and Madrid moved two points ahead of Real Sociedad at the summit at least until their trip to Osasuna on Sunday.

Alvaro Garcia had almost given Rayo a shock early lead when he broke clear of the Madrid defence only to send his shot wide, a chance that jolted Carlo Ancelotti's side into life.

Vinicius Junior had the ball in the net, yet the VAR determined Benzema had been offside in the build-up, and the France forward then lifted a shot over the crossbar from a good position before Kroos scored on the break, rifling in from Marco Asensio's cross and this time seeing the technology work in Madrid's favour.

Madrid went into the interval two goals ahead when Benzema got on the end of a superb teasing cross from David Alaba and calmly nudged the ball into the net at the back post.

Ferland Mendy teed up Benzema to curl over just after the hour, but a brief cameo from Falcao – introduced in the 69th minute before departing in the 81st – brought Rayo back into the reckoning as his header from Garcia's cross deflected off Alaba and deceived Thibaut Courtois.

Madrid fans then had their hearts in their mouths at the death when Oscar Valentin saw his shot blocked by Eduardo Camavinga and Kroos crucially cleared his follow-up effort off the line.

Carlo Ancelotti said "I am not Gareth Bale's father" but launched a defence of the Real Madrid forward and insists he will play if he deserves to when returning from international duty.

Since coming back from a loan stint with Tottenham last season, Bale has made just three appearances for Los Blancos – the same number of times he has played for Wales in 2021-22 – due to a troublesome thigh injury.

Despite including two LaLiga titles, four Champions League medals and a Copa del Rey on an impressive resume with Madrid, the club's fanbase have often made Bale the subject of their ire.

It was put to head coach Ancelotti that he had protected Bale like a father in the past, but the Italian said his achievements at the club should always be remembered.

"I'm not his father, firstly. It may be that Bale's last period was not good, but nobody forgets what Bale has done," he said ahead of Madrid's LaLiga contest with Rayo Vallecano.

"In 2014 he helped us win the Champions League, the Copa del Rey, in 2018 he helped us win the Champions League against Liverpool.

"The fans are not forgetting this. He is not having his best moment, but we have to have faith. When he comes back from the national team, if he deserves to play, he will play."

Bale is set to link up with Wales despite not being available against Vallecano this weekend.

Ancelotti confirmed Madrid cannot prevent Bale from playing during the international break as he has recovered from injury and has been training this week.

"He has trained well, but he is not called up. He goes to Wales and the national team will evaluate whether he can play or not. It will depend on how the player feels. They will decide there," he added.

"The important thing is that Bale is fine, but after two months out it is important what the player feels.

"If the national team calls him, we have to send him. We explain how the situation is and then Wales have a week to assess the situation. I think Wales are not going to take a risk."

Another player who has not always found favour with the fans is Eden Hazard, who has been frustrated in his pursuit of regular football this term with Vinicius Jr preferred on the left of attack.

Ancelotti is planning to give Hazard some game time this weekend, and the coach applauded the Belgium star's professionalism.

 

"Hazard is not happy, because he has quality, he is professional and he is training well. He deserves to have minutes and he will have minutes, by the way," he said.

"If he continues to have faith, he will have minutes. If he will have them on Saturday, I don't know. The important thing is that he is plugged in. 

"I am sorry because Hazard is very professional. Whether he will play from the beginning, I have to think about it."

Ronald Koeman said poor finishing cost Barcelona at Rayo Vallecano as he insisted their overall performance meant it was "incredible" they lost the game. 

A first-half goal from Radamel Falcao condemned the Catalans to a 1-0 defeat in Madrid, their first to Rayo since December 2002, and left them six points from the top of the table. 

Barca had won all 13 of their most recent LaLiga meetings with Rayo, scoring an average of 4.3 goals per game, but they failed to capitalise on their chances at Estadio de Vallecas. 

Memphis Depay missed a penalty, Sergio Aguero and Sergino Dest spurned good opportunities and Gavi scuffed a shot wide in the dying minutes with the goal at his mercy. They ended the contest with 2.95 expected goals compared to Rayo's 0.99. 

Barca have now gone four away league games without a win and failed to score in the past three of those, something they last did back in February 2003. 

For Koeman, an inability to take their chances was the only real negative about Barca's performance. 

"Normally, we have players who can score. I can't complain about the team," he said. 

"The start of the game was costly for us. Rayo pressed us a lot. We were better and each side had chances. The result isn't fair, although that's how it is and we can't change it. 

 

"It's not attitude, it's not the play. It's a question of not scoring, and I can't say anything more. 

"I don't know their [other] players. It could be they have more balanced squads. What we've shown is that we can compete with them. 

"It could be bad luck, injuries... they are excuses. The team showed today and against Real Madrid that they were at a good level, but that's not enough. What matters is the result. Analysing the game today, it's incredible to have lost." 

Barca are ninth in the table after 10 matches, having gone without a win in their first four away league games of a season for the first time since 1991-92. 

Commenting on their league position, Koeman said: "That means we're not okay, that the team has dipped, we've lost very effective players. 

"In recent years, those at the top have been able to strengthen, and we have not been able to. That also counts, although not for today's game. 

"In spite of the absences, we played a good game, although if we don't score... that's what we're missing. 

"There are many games to go. I'm worried about our effectiveness, but not our play. We played at a good level, but I know that, in Spain, that doesn't count." 

Barcelona saw their long winning run against Rayo Vallecano end on Wednesday as they lost 1-0 at Estadio de Vallecas.

In need of a positive result after their 2-1 Clasico defeat, Ronald Koeman's men instead suffered a fifth defeat of the season in all competitions courtesy of Radamel Falcao's first-half goal.

Barca went into this latest contest on a run of 13 consecutive LaLiga wins over Rayo in which they had averaged 4.3 goals per game, yet they paid the price for Memphis Depay's missed penalty midway through the second half.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a desperate early save to keep out Oscar Trejo's ambitious long-range chip, but it began to look like Barca would keep up that formidable scoring record, Depay going close and Sergio Aguero seeing vague penalty appeals against goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski dismissed.

Yet it was Rayo who took the lead on the half-hour mark, Trejo robbing Sergio Busquets and threading the ball to Falcao, who turned away from Gerard Pique before finishing low to Ter Stegen's right.

Sergino Dest missed a golden chance to equalise before the break, turning over the bar from point-blank range after some brilliant play from Depay down the left, and Aguero blasted high and wide from inside the box after the United States international had teed him up.

Depay earned the chance to level from the spot after he was clipped from behind by Oscar Valentin, but Dimitrievski saved superbly to his right before bravely gathering the rebound as the Barca forward closed in.

Dimitrievski was more hesitant with a loose ball outside the Rayo box in injury time, but substitute Luuk de Jong's attempted lob landed on the roof of the net.

In eight minutes of injury time, Aguero glanced a diving header wide and then set up Gavi for what looked a simple finish, but the young midfielder scuffed his effort wide.

 

What does it mean? Barca title challenge looking bleak

The end of their LaLiga dominance over Rayo feels like a watershed moment for Barca and their hopes of quickly becoming a major force again.

With four wins from 10 games, they are six points off the top of the table and have now gone five away matches in all competitions without a victory.

Falcao still has the magic touch

After scoring in three of his past four league games against Barca, it was little surprise to see Falcao convert his one chance with the kind of poise he showed in his best days with Atletico Madrid.

He had lost all four of those previous meetings with the Blaugrana, so this was a sweet moment indeed for the Colombia striker.

Aguero off-colour

It looked like Aguero would mark his first Barca start with a goal when he lined up the kind of high near-post finish that became a trademark of his at Manchester City. He missed, though – and by a long way.

With just 31 touches throughout, by far the fewest of any starting Barca player, this was not a match to bring the best out of the Argentina striker.

What's next?

The pressure will be even greater on Barca when they host Deportivo Alaves on Saturday, with Rayo heading to Celta Vigo on November 1.

Barcelona forward Ansu Fati has been ruled out of Wednesday's LaLiga clash against Rayo Vallecano with a knee injury.

The Spain international, who signed a new long-term deal at Camp Nou last week, was substituted 16 minutes from time in Barca's Clasico defeat to Real Madrid on Sunday after sustaining a knock.

Ronald Koeman revealed at his pre-match news conference ahead of the meeting with Vallecano that Fati was considered a doubt.

He was not pictured travelling to Madrid with the Barca squad on Wednesday and the LaLiga heavyweights have confirmed the youngster will play no part at Estadio de Vallecas.

A statement on Barcelona's official website read: "Ansu Fati has pain in his right knee. He is unavailable for selection and his recovery will dictate his return".

 

Fati only returned from a 10-month knee injury lay-off, which saw him suffer a number of setbacks along the way, in Barca's 3-0 win over Levante on September 26.

The teenage forward scored in that match and has featured a further five times in all competitions this term, with his only other goal coming against Valencia 10 days ago.

He has scored 15 goals in 49 appearances for the Catalan giants in all competitions, a tally that is bettered only by Luis Suarez (21), Antoine Griezmann (35) and Messi (69) – none of whom are still at the club – since his debut 26 months ago.

Koeman is also without fellow forwards Ousmane Dembele and Martin Braithwaite for the match with Vallecano, while Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araujo are also nursing injuries.

Barca enter the match ninth in LaLiga, with their return of 15 goals after their first nine games their lowest tally at this stage of the campaign since 2003-04 when scoring 11 times.

Ronald Koeman says he has no intention of stepping down as Barcelona head coach.

Koeman has endured a difficult start to the new season, with Barca ninth in LaLiga and suffering back-to-back Champions League group stage defeats for the first time since 2000-01.

The Catalan side went down 2-1 to Real Madrid on Sunday, Koeman becoming just the second manager to lose all three of his opening El Clasico meetings.

Koeman's car was mobbed by fans as he left Camp Nou following that defeat to Barca's fierce rivals.

However, the former Netherlands boss assured that he remains committed to his role as he prepares to take on Rayo Vallecano, who Barca have won their last 13 LaLiga games against.

"I am older in this, I want to enjoy the atmosphere that there was the other day on the field [for El Clasico]," Koeman told reporters at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"I accept the results. I want to enjoy [my time here], if it is eight years, if it is one year and yes if it's three months.

"There are things as a coach that you don't like, but I like being with the players, preparing the games, analysing and having to decide is what I like.

"The other day I loved the game, Not the result because it was a Clasico, but the atmosphere. We made merits for another result, we need a little luck.

"These things are the ones I like, and if a day comes when I don't enjoy it, I'll go and dedicate myself to playing golf five days a week. I understand that it is a delicate situation, but there is a future in this club."

Barca are winless in three LaLiga away games, failing to score in their last two trips. They have not gone three consecutive games on the road without scoring since February 2003.

The Blaugrana, however, have won on their past two visits to newly-promoted top-flight teams without conceding a goal and Koeman appreciates the importance of a reaction on Wednesday.

"There is always a need to win, especially after the defeat the other day," he continued. "The team is able to react well."

Asked whether he was not enjoying his time with Barca and whether a new coach would withstand the pressure he is under, Koeman responded: "It depends, if the results are good or bad and the team you are in.

"[Madrid boss Carlo] Ancelotti encouraged me, he knows perfectly well about the situation because he has been in great teams.

"I don't know, it is important to know the situation, be a former player from here and have character if the wind comes against. I am like that and I want to see how far I can go."

Ronald Koeman says he has no intention of stepping down as Barcelona head coach.

Koeman has endured a difficult start to the new season, with Barca ninth in LaLiga and suffering back-to-back Champions League group stage defeats for the first time since 2000-01.

The Catalan side went down 2-1 to Real Madrid on Sunday, Koeman becoming just the second manager to lose all three of his opening El Clasico meetings.

Koeman's car was mobbed by fans as he left Camp Nou following that defeat to Barca's fierce rivals.

However, the former Netherlands boss assured that he remains committed to his role as he prepares to take on Rayo Vallecano, who Barca have won their last 13 LaLiga games against.

"I am older in this, I want to enjoy the atmosphere that there was the other day on the field [for El Clasico]," Koeman told reporters at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"I accept the results. I want to enjoy [my time here], if it is eight years, if it is one year and yes if it's three months.

"There are things as a coach that you don't like, but I like being with the players, preparing the games, analysing and having to decide is what I like.

"The other day I loved the game, Not the result because it was a Clasico, but the atmosphere. We made merits for another result, we need a little luck.

"These things are the ones I like, and if a day comes when I don't enjoy it, I'll go and dedicate myself to playing golf five days a week. I understand that it is a delicate situation, but there is a future in this club."

Barca are winless in three LaLiga away games, failing to score in their last two trips. They have not gone three consecutive games on the road without scoring since February 2003.

The Blaugrana, however, have won on their past two visits to newly-promoted top-flight teams without conceding a goal and Koeman appreciates the importance of a reaction on Wednesday.

"There is always a need to win, especially after the defeat the other day," he continued. "The team is able to react well."

Asked whether he was not enjoying his time with Barca and whether a new coach would withstand the pressure he is under, Koeman responded: "It depends, if the results are good or bad and the team you are in.

"[Madrid boss Carlo] Ancelotti encouraged me, he knows perfectly well about the situation because he has been in great teams.

"I don't know, it is important to know the situation, be a former player from here and have character if the wind comes against. I am like that and I want to see how far I can go."

Ronald Koeman claimed the unsavoury scenes as he left Camp Nou after the defeat against Real Madrid reflect greater social issues.

Barcelona sit ninth in LaLiga after a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid on Sunday, Koeman becoming just the second coach to suffer defeat in his first three Clasico meetings.

The Blaugrana also made it five wins without a LaLiga Clasico victory, their longest winless run against any team in the Spanish top flight since May 2008.

After the game at Camp Nou at the weekend, under-fire Barca boss Koeman had his car mobbed by a crowd of fans as he attempted to depart the stadium.

The Catalan club released a statement to condemn those actions and Koeman suggested the incident reflected wider problems as he prepares to face Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday.

"I don't think there is a solution," Koeman told reporters at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"For me, it is more a social problem, it is not a matter of them being Catalans. It is more a matter of education, they have no values. 

"We don't have to pay much attention, and it seems that it was only with me, but it has been with many players, with their families.

"It may be that with me it has been more exaggerated, but even Carles Puyol had to suffer.

"The club knows that this cannot be repeated and has to find another formula. It should not be given more attention, it is a social problem that happens all over the world, not just here."

Koeman, who has seen his side go winless in his three top-flight away trips, then echoed a similar sentiment as he reaffirmed the social issues causing the unnerving scenes.

"I have the images because there were two people in the back [of the car] filming for a documentary, my wife next door," he continued.

Koeman added: "When you go out there are many cameras, many telephones, a lot on TikTok for their followers ... it is a social problem that we have and it is better to put energy in other things."

Gavi has fast become the talk of Spanish football.

The 17-year-old is a regular for Barcelona and now an international for Luis Enrique's Spain.

His exploits have reportedly attracted interest from Europe's elite.

 

TOP STORY – TRIO CHASING GAVI

Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Manchester United are interested in Barcelona and Spain sensation Gavi, according to El Nacional.

Gavi has enjoyed a rapid rise at Camp Nou this season, while he earned his first international cap in Spain's Nations League semi-final success against Italy on Wednesday.

PSG, Liverpool and United are eyeing Gavi as Barca try to extend the 17-year-old's contract, claims Mundo Deportivo.

 

ROUND-UP

- ABC claims Liverpool have set their sights on Real Madrid attacker Marco Asensio, who is reportedly unhappy at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Juventus and Inter are eyeing Bayern Munich centre-back Niklas Sule, says Calciomercato. The Germany international, who is out of contract at the end of the season, has also been linked with Chelsea.

- Bundesliga champions Bayern are monitoring PSV winger Cody Gakpo. The 22-year-old is seen as an ideal replacement Kingsley Coman, who is reportedly wanted by the likes of Liverpool and United.

Valencia and Real Betis are battling to sign out-of-favour Inter forward Alexis Sanchez, per Calciomercato. The Chilean forward has also emerged as a target for Rayo Vallecano.

Mauro Icardi could swap PSG for Juve as the Serie A side view the former Inter captain as an alternative to Fiorentina star Dusan Vlahovic, according to Gazzetta dello Sport. Vlahovic is set to leave Fiorentina amid links with Manchester City, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal and Inter.

Radamel Falcao has completed a move to Rayo Vallecano after Galatasaray agreed to terminate his contract at the start of the month.

The Colombia striker, 35, left Galatasaray having played just 25 minutes across three games in three competitions so far this season.

Falcao scored 20 goals in 43 matches in all for the Turkish giants, having signed as a free agent in 2019.

He now returns to LaLiga with Rayo, who were promoted through the play-offs last season.

Rayo registered their first win of the campaign ahead of the international break, beating Granada 4-0.

And they will now be boosted by the experience of Falcao, whose previous stint in Spain saw him star for Atletico Madrid between 2011 and 2013.

Over two seasons, only Lionel Messi (96) and Cristiano Ronaldo (80) scored more LaLiga goals than Falcao's 52.

He averaged a goal every 112.4 minutes, scoring with 21.1 per cent of his 247 shots and marginally outperforming his expected goals value of 51.4.

Falcao, signed from Porto, went on to play for Monaco, Manchester United and Chelsea, ending his eight-year stay in Europe's top five leagues when he joined Galatasaray.

Between 2011 and 2019, his 122 goals in 212 games ranked 14th across Europe.

LaLiga is arguably harder to call than ever before heading into 2021-22 – Barcelona no longer have Lionel Messi to guide the way and Real Madrid have seen significant upheaval, so surely the smart money is on defending champions Atletico Madrid?

Diego Simeone's men won the title in 2020-21 after watching Barca and Madrid trade success for seven years and look in good shape given they've not lost any major players. But can you really write off the 'big two'?

Well, you shouldn't, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Without further ado, let's look at what could occur over the 2021-22 LaLiga season.

 

ANCELOTTI DELIVERS THE GOODS

Carlo Ancelotti's back at the Santiago Bernabeu, and so – it seems – will the Spanish title. The Stats Perform model calculates Madrid have a 42.3 per cent chance of taking the crown back from their local rivals.

In fact, if the model proves accurate, Atletico may not even finish in the top two, as their 18.7 per cent chance is a fair bit smaller than Barca's 30.4 per cent likelihood of winning LaLiga.

However, it's worth pointing out that, because the model is based on historical data points and results, the Barcelona that appears here is one that has had Messi in the team for past 17 years.

It's entirely reasonable to expect Barca to see a significant drop-off given they'll no longer have the greatest player of all time on their books – as such, a 30.4 per cent chance of winning the title might actually be quite generous.

THE BIG FOUR?

The 2020-21 season was the tightest LaLiga title fight in recent memory. Although Atletico were 11 points clear at one point, with five matches left there were just three points separating first from fourth.

In that respect, it was the closest title race LaLiga had ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present) and the least predictable since 2006-07, when Madrid, Barca and Sevilla could all win the league on the final day of the season.

Sevilla's challenge ultimately faded before that stage in 2020-21 but they've managed to keep Julen Lopetegui, their coach, and their squad is largely unaltered for the time being.

The prediction model makes them fourth favourites for the title (6.8 per cent) and far better placed to take the final Champions League spot (69.4 per cent) for the third year in a row than their likeliest challengers Villarreal (36.2 per cent).

There was a 15-point gap between fourth and fifth last season – this is the closest to a 'big four' Spain has had in years.

 

FOUR TIPPED FOR RELEGATION TUSSLE

Rayo Vallecano, Real Mallorca and Espanyol were the three to come up from the Segunda last season. While most people would ordinarily point to the promoted sides as the most likely to be relegated, the prediction model disagrees.

It gives Mallorca a 30.7 per cent likelihood of going straight back down, and Espanyol are at 17.6 per cent – neither of those are among the bottom three, though Rayo (45.9 per cent) are seen as the second favourites to head back to the second tier.

But it's Elche (57.9 per cent) who are the clear front-runners in this regard, and then it looks agonisingly close for the third and final relegation spot.

According to the predictor, it's likely to be neck-and-neck between Deportivo Alaves (41.1 per cent) and Cadiz (41.9 per cent).

Rayo Vallecano secured a return to LaLiga with a 2-0 victory at Girona to complete a stunning aggregate comeback in the Segunda Division play-off final.

Girona took a 2-1 advantage back to Montilivi on Sunday but it was swiftly all square when Alvaro Garcia dispatched Emiliano Velazquez's througball in the seventh minute.

Andoni Iraola's men led the tie in first-half stoppage time when captain Oscar Trejo snaffled a close-range chance.

Rayo's hopes suffered a blow in the 56th minute when Velazquez was given a second yellow card for a foul on Ramon Terrats but the Madrid club held out to end a two-season absence from the top flight.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said his team are trying to win the Copa del Rey as they attempt to overhaul LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.

Barca came from behind to beat second-tier side Rayo Vallecano 2-1 in Wednesday's last-16 showdown in the Copa del Rey.

Fran Garcia gave Vallecano a 63rd-minute lead before Lionel Messi equalised six minutes later and Frenkie de Jong completed Barca's comeback 10 minutes from time midweek.

It has been a challenging season for Barca amid doubts over Messi's future, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and a struggle for form as the Spanish giants sit third and 10 points behind Atletico, while they also lost the Supercopa de Espana final.

But Koeman and Barca remain focused on the goal of silverware, with the Catalan club set to face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16.

"I am very happy," Koeman said post-match after reaching the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey. "From the beginning we played a good game. In the first part we forgave them on several occasions, in the last pass, there were plays in which there could be penalties.

"Yes, we had problems in the first half. In the second one, especially with the score against, I think we've showed our personality, scoring quality goals, we came back in the game. At the end you always suffer with such a tight result with just one goal difference. Overall, the team played very well.

"We know these are complicated games, it does not matter the category of the opponent. They played a great game, they complicated us. But, in the first half we forgave them, we should've scored one or two goals."

"Our goal is to go game by game, try to win every game in order to try to move up in the table," Koeman added. "Cut the gap we have now [in the league], play in the Champions League.

"We want to win the Copa [del Rey]. I think this is the mentality our team has shown in all competitions and try to get the most out of it. It is important, we are Barca, but there are no easy games.

"We know how the Copa games are, it doesn't depend on the category of your opponent. You have to work a lot and play well. The field was not very good to play our game. Despite the state of the field, we played a very good game. Also, the team had the right mentality to overcome this play-off."

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