Predicting the winner of La Liga

December, 21, 2010

As La Liga takes a break for the holidays, let's take a look at the current table and try to determine who will come out on top at the end of the season. This is possible using ESPN's Soccer Power Index (SPI), a predictive algorithm designed to forecast future soccer events internationally and domestically in Europe. SPI can be used to find individual match predictions, international tournament predictions, or domestic club league predictions.

Using team ratings from SPI, we have simulated the remainder of the La Liga season 10,000 times. Here is how SPI sees the top of the table looking at the end of the season.

The "Avg Finish" column takes the average final position of each team over the 10,000 simulations, while the "Win pct" column is the percentage of the time each team finishes first. The "CL pct" column tells us what percentage of the simulations that each team finishes in the top four, qualifying for next season's UEFA Champions League.

As the table stands now, Real Madrid sits two points behind Barcelona, but eight points clear of the next-closest side. To no one's surprise, SPI predicts that La Liga will be won by either Real or Barca, as they finish first in all 10,000 simulations. In fact, Barcelona never finishes below second in the table, winning the league in 85 percent of the simulations. Real Madrid wins the other 15 percent of the time, finishing in the top two in all but eight simulations. The algorithm also calculates that there is little competition for next year's Champions League, as Villarreal and Valencia each finish in the top four in over 71 percent of the simulations.

The reason SPI predicts that the league will come down to just Barcelona and Real Madrid is that, according to the algorithm, these are not only the two top-rated teams in Spain, but in all of Europe, outpacing Manchester United and Chelsea by a wide margin. As a result, we thought it prudent to examine the simulation of the April fixture between the two sides to see how it affects the predicted results.

Despite Barcelona's 5-0 win earlier in the campaign, SPI currently gives a slight advantage to Madrid because the fixture will be played at the Bernabeu. Madrid is predicted to win in 36 percent of the simulations of that match, Barcelona in 31 percent, with the remaining 33 percent ending in a draw. Against most other teams in the league, Madrid's predicted winning percentage is much higher, but Barcelona has been so dominant away from home this season, scoring 29 times while conceding just four, that SPI predicts it will be a more even matchup.

Assuming Madrid does win, SPI increases its chances of winning the league from 15 percent to 27 percent. However, if Barcelona can secure an away win, which they have done in all eight tries so far this season, SPI increases Barca's chances of winning the league to nearly 95 percent. As expected, a draw between the two sides barely moves the predicted results.

Thanks to its unblemished road performance and superior goal differential, Barcelona is the clear favorite at the moment. Based on the current form of both teams, SPI predicts that Real Madrid will likely need to defeat the defending champion to have a realistic shot at the La Liga crown.



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