When 17,000 Betis fans turned up at the club’s Benito Villamarin stadium this week to watch a training session, and duly blasted out the club anthem as if this was a big European night, it was a reminder of just how much football has been missed in Spain since LaLiga shutdown for the World Cup and for Christmas.
Things get restarted on Thursday night and Sportsmail focuses on what there is to look out for.
Pete Jenson rounds up everything from Real Madrid star Karim Benzema’s revenge, to the card-happy whistler who missed out on the World Cup final in Qatar but gets the biggest game of this round of fixtures, plus Barcelona looking the team to beat.
When 17,000 Real Betis fans turned up at the club’s Benito Villamarin stadium this week to watch a training session, it was a reminder of just how much football has been missed in Spain
LaLiga action is set to return on Thursday afternoon, which will please fans and players alike
Below, Sportsmail‘s Pete Jenson rounds up 10 things to look out for ahead of LaLiga’s return
Benzema out to prove a point
This was meant to be Karim Benzema’s perfect year with a Ballon d’Or, Champions League and World Cup hat-trick.
Some say he was denied the third item on that treble menu by injury, others argue it was Didier Deschamps who could have used him in the final and denied him that opportunity.
Top sports doctor Pedro Ripoll has spoken in the last few days about how Benzema’s injury was not enough to keep him out for the duration of the tournament.
What better way for Benzema to show that the France coach had other things on his mind when he sent him home as early as he did than to finish the season scoring for Real Madrid?
Benzema might have won the World Cup for France in extra time. He can’t do anything about that now but he can ensure that his club end 2022 with a win away at Real Valladolid to keep the pressure up on leaders Barcelona.
Real Madrid star Karim Benzema will have a point to prove after France lost the World Cup final
Barcelona to end the year top of La Liga
A win over neighbours Espanyol will mean Xavi starts 2023 on top. In the new Amazon Prime series ‘A New Era’, the spotlight is shone on how shambolic the club and dressing room has been in recent times.
The documentary starts in January 2020 with Quique Setien taking over and complaining about the lateness to training of Jordi Alba, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.
When Xavi replaces Setien, he is stunned when told by Sergio Busquets that there is no player code of conduct.
The Barça legend has changed the mentality of a group that appeared to have lost its ultra-professional edge. The table says they are the team to beat and they can prove that against Espanyol on New Year’s Eve.
A win against rivals Espanyol would mean Barcelona will end the year top of the league table
Martinez trying to match Poch
Diego Martinez takes his Espanyol team into the game against Barcelona knowing they have not won at the Camp Nou since Mauricio Pochettino was their manager.
They were bottom of the table coming into the game in 2009 but won 2-1 with headers from diminutive midfielder Ivan de la Peña. They have met 24 times since in the league home and away and have not picked up a victory since.
It’s not top versus bottom this time but there are 25 points between the two teams. The odds are stacked against them but they have one thing in their favour – Robert Lewandowski is out injured.
Barça have scored 100 goals in 2022 but it’s the Pole who has scored 18 of them and he will be missed.
Do Barça have a back-up number nine?
With Lewandowski suspended the spotlight will shine on the three candidates to take his place. Ansu Fati had a disappointing World Cup looking short of sharpness and not starting for Luis Enrique. Ferran Torres was used and may get the nod.
The strongest option could be Memphis Depay but as the club are trying to sell him this January before he leaves for a free, he is more likely to be watching from the bench.
Barca’s Robert Lewandowski is suspended and there are questions over who will replace him
No more excuses for Diego Simeone
The Atletico Madrid coach admitted as much when speaking before Atletico’s game vs Elche on Thursday, when he said: ‘Five of our players have reached the World Cup final and four have played a big part in that so that shows we have a great squad.’
The Argentinians will not be available but one of the stars of Qatar, Antoine Griezmann, will be as Atletico look to finish the year with a win.
Adios for Joao Felix?
All eyes will be on the Portuguese at the Civitas Metropolitano. Will he wave goodbye to home supporters? And how will the home fans respond to him?
They saw him play well at the World Cup free from Simeone’s shackles but they also heard the club’s chief executive Miguel Angel Gil suggest he did not want to play for Atletico anymore so will it be hostile when he gets his first touch?
Felix has a market and an agent who knows how to place him in that market – if there is bad feeling between supporters and the player on Thursday night it could make a move even more likely.
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has admitted there are ‘no more excuses’ for him
All eyes will be on forward Joao Felix, who could play his last game for Atletico on Thursday
Borja leaving Betis for Atletico?
Atletico will not only be about moving players out this January – they want to make signings too. Betis’ big centre-forward Borja Iglesias is a target and Manuel Pellegrini refused to rule out the club’s top scorer leaving this January.
‘He’ll be focused on playing for us’, said Pellegrini before Thursday night’s big home game against Athletic Bilbao.
This could be the match of the first round of fixtures and the winner will become the favourite to get back into the Champions League at the end of the season.
Back to work time for Monchi
Sevilla are where they never expected to be at the end of 2022 – in a relegation battle. On the bright side they have Monchi to put things right in the transfer window.
Loic Bade has already arrived on loan from Rennes to strengthen the centre of defence. He was at Nottingham Forest, but having failed to adapt now finds himself in Jorge Sampaoli’s squad until the end of the season.
It will not be the last as the club look to sign as many as five new players. On the pitch, their battle to beat the drop starts away at Celta Vigo on Friday.
Loic Bade has arrived from Rennes as director of football Monchi looks to arrest Sevilla’s slump
Madrid’s future up in the air
While the Jude Bellingham rumours rumble on, Madrid also go into the second half of the season with six players all out of contract at the end of the campaign.
In the summer of 2023 Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos and Nacho will all be free agents.
What they do between now and the end of the season will go a long way to deciding what they are offered to prolong their stay at the club. The cases of Modric and Kroos are particularly relevant to what Madrid can offer Bellingham.
Madrid still fear being outbid by Premier League clubs and if one of the heavyweights frees up salary space it will help make it happen.
Mateu Lahoz (right) missed out on taking charge of the World Cup final – the Spanish Federation gave him the Catalan derby between Barcelona and Espanyol on New Year’s Eve
And finally… Mateu Lahoz gets a late gift from Spanish Football Federation
No one will have given more Christmas cards than Lahoz, who dished out 17 cautions in the Argentina vs Holland quarter-final in Qatar. His erratic display cost him a shot at taking charge of the final.
The Spanish Federation have done their best to lift his spirits by giving him the Catalan derby between Barcelona and Espanyol on New Year’s Eve.