The new LaLiga season, which can be streamed live on ESPN+ in the U.S., kicks off on Friday and despite the blockbuster departure of Lionel Messi to French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, the Spanish league won’t lack for stars.

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Among the players to watch include Alexander Isak and Mikel Oyarzabal, who will be in the driver’s seat for Real Sociedad. Lucas Ocampos, Youssef En-Nesyri and Jules Kounde join new arrival Erik Lamela in helping to lift Sevilla FC. Gerard Moreno, who scored 23 goals last campaign, will look to steer Villarreal to more glory after winning the 2020-21 Europa League.

But it’s within the three title favorites — Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona — where the difference-makers are likely to reside.

Camp Nou awaits Pedri’s emergence and Ansu Fati’s recovery from knee surgery, while the Bernabeu keeps looking to Vinicius Jr. to fully bloom. At the Wanda Metropolitano, home to defending champions Atletico Madrid, Joao Felix will seek to take the next step to superstardom.

Those players will be worth a look, but the true difference-makers comprise a select group — the players capable of leading the teams to the title among a field of three that’s more balanced than ever before.

Age: 33
Club: Real Madrid
Position: Forward

Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid in 2018 placed a lot on the plate of Benzema, and he has responded. His goal production has increased in each of the last three seasons, which have seen him go from a luxury to a unique talent, a role he will continue this season under the direction of manager Carlo Ancelotti. His level of quality, agility, breakout speed and finishing skills are vital to the title aspirations of Real Madrid, who have won LaLiga in three of the last 10 seasons.

Age: 34
Club: Atletico Madrid
Position: Forward

His scoring was fundamental during Atletico’s run to a title that had eluded them since 2014, and goals will once more dictate Diego Simeone’s options. Suarez’s winning attitude, his ferocity and his finishing mentality keep him in the top tier even with reduced speed over the years. The Wanda Metropolitano faithful have blindly placed their trust in him since his arrival from Barcelona last summer, which has seen him turn into a club idol.

Age: 23
Club: Barcelona
Position: Midfielder

Nobody questioned the effort it took to sign him in January 2019, just like nobody questions how the Dutch star will be called upon to lead Barcelona post-Messi. An all-around midfielder of extraordinary quality, De Jong’s flexibility is huge. He can thrive as a holding or attacking player. His field vision is as distinguished as his long-ball movements, and his arrival from the second line is outstanding. His leadership abilities have no time to spare if they are to turn him into a difference-maker.

Age: 30
Club: Barcelona
Position: Forward

With Messi gone, there are no more excuses for Griezmann. He can regain a leadership role with the freedom of movement he enjoyed at Atletico and that he brought with him to Camp Nou in 2019, where he remains a polarising figure. His subtle transcendence belies his production. Barca fans maintain hope that in his third season he can finally fulfill his potential and turn into the difference-maker he has shown he can be.

Age: 28
Club: Atletico Madrid
Position: Goalkeeper

With Oblak’s performance in goal and Suarez’s prime solvency, Atletico showed last season that titles are won in the box. Oblak was the most efficient goalkeeper in the Spanish top flight, allowing just 25 goals to bolster Atletico’s run. Oblak possesses exceptional reflexes, knows how to control himself above ground and is decisive when leaving the posts. His keen understanding of Atletico’s defence make him a reliable leader within that group.

Age: 35
Club: Real Madrid
Position: Midfielder

The creative midfielder is poised to give a memorable final act, nine seasons after his arrival. Real Madrid will no doubt be lost without him when his contract expires next year. At 35, his physical peak is certainly a thing of the past — which is why his outstanding placement, his finishing touch and his field of vision render him indispensable. His high football IQ also allows him to streamline his play.

Age: 29
Club: Barcelona
Position: Goalkeeper

Ter Stegen is in the shadow of the unsinkable Manuel Neuer on Germany’s national team, but with Barcelona he is the undisputed guardian of the defence, even carrying a unit that has seen better days. A decisive keeper, Ter Stegen is quick and agile to react, but balls in the air can be his foil. Still, he remains a true leader in the back with excellent footwork and a superb direction on long passes.

Age: 29
Club: Real Madrid
Position: Defender

After 10 years of formidable performances at Bayern Munich, the Austrian will be called on to lead a Madrid defence looking to fill part of the void left by the departures of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. Alaba, one of the summer window’s key signings, is a flexible player who can inside or out wide in defence and even slot into midfield. That flexibility and combination skills serve to explain Bayern’s success, and one can guess that those characteristics will transcend into his Spanish adventure.

Age: 27
Club: Barcelona
Position: Forward

Barcelona’s top signing arrives at a critical moment, with Messi gone and the challenge to prove he’s much more than a whim for manager Ronald Koeman. Depay reached the zenith at Lyon the last four seasons after his star rose after struggling at Manchester United and turned into a complete forward capable of scoring and adapting to the situation. He is quick with the ball at his feet, excellent on set pieces, magnificent on the finish and outstanding in combination. He is primed to be a key player for Barcelona.

Age: 29
Club: Real Madrid
Position: Goalkeeper

Courtois is a keeper of great magnitude who stands virtually alone on balls in the air. His reflexes are excellent, he has superb focus and he is quick in unexpected situations. The winner of the Zamora Trophy in 2019-20 as the best keeper has emerged as a force in LaLiga and will be a key part of a renovated Real Madrid. With Ramos and Varane gone, his leadership responsibilities will grow.



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