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Barcelona, Madrid set for Spanish title battle

Barcelona, Madrid set for Spanish title battle

Real Madrid's ambitious plan to dislodge Barcelona as Europe's premier team begins Saturday with the start of the La Liga season, where a title contest between the classic rivals will bring the Spanish league into sharp focus.
Since returning as president of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez has spent a quarter of a billion Euros ($360 million) on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso in a bid to revive the galactico following a barren season.
Barcelona remains favorite to defend its title, with coach Pep Guardiola's team relatively unchanged from last season when it became the first Spanish club to win the treble of league, Copa del Rey and European Champions League titles.
Guardiola swapped Samuel Eto'o for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Serie A's leading scorer, in the off season because of a gut "feeling." But Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez return to provide the backbone for the one-touch football that characterized Guardiola's incredible debut season.
"We want to win everything again, we've got the same motivation and belief," Argentina winger Messi said. "I think the team should go step-by-step like last year, which worked out well."
Not only has Perez recruited some of the world's best players, he also hired coach Manuel Pellegrini from Villarreal, where the 55-year-old Chilean was known for his ability to get results.
Although the new signings are settling in, questions have been raised over whether a team of superstars can gel when former galacticos such as Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Luis Figo fell apart after a promising start.
"The galacticos were great football players, but they're gone. We're a new team with a new mentality. We want to win," said Ronaldo, who was presented to 80,000 Bernabeu fans after a three-year chase for his signature ended with a record ⁈lion ($135 million) transfer from Manchester United. "I think La Liga is going to have more quality because of the players that are arriving."
Gerard Pique said Barcelona welcomed the chance to prove its mettle, again.
"We know that (we will be the team to beat), because we won all the titles last year," the Spain defender said. "It is something you have to live with now when you play for Barcelona because it is a big club and you always play with pressure."
Sevilla believes it can challenge the top two after signing striker Alvaro Negredo to reinforce an attack that already includes Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanoute.
But another third place finish looks likely as most clubs accept that the league is unattainable this season, leaving the third and fourth Champions League spots as the top prize for the 18 teams expected to be chasing Barca and Madrid.
"Real Madrid and Barcelona are very, very far from the rest of the Spanish teams in terms of economic power," Atletico Madrid coach Abel Resino said. "After them, there are a group of five or six, including us, Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal. And then the rest."
Atletico Madrid finished fourth again last season and has a largely unchanged squad, with Spain defender Juanito Gutierrez joining from relegated Real Betis and Spain Under-21 goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo arriving from Valladolid to bolster a leaky defense.
Strikers Diego Forlan of Uruguay and Argentina's Sergio Aguero remain the key figures for shaping Atletico's season. The pair, who combined for 49 goals last season, have already started well in Champions League qualifying with a goal each.
Ernesto Valverde takes over at Villarreal after winning the league and cup double at Olympiakos of Greece and is expected to lead Pellegrini's former club into the Champions League fight along with coastal neighbor Valencia, which spurned offers from Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona to hang on to striker David Villa.
Villa could still be gone by Christmas, depending on whether the Spain striker bears any grudge against team management for thwarting a move to Madrid that appeared sealed.
Mauricio Pochettino saved Espanyol from relegation and now the young Argentine coach _ much in the mold of rival Guardiola _ gets a full season to show just what he is capable of.
Espanyol moves into a new 42,000-capacity stadium and has added Japan midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura to its ranks, although the team will have to recover from the unexpected death of captain Daniel Jarque earlier this month.
"We have been through moments of great anguish and despair but we are going back to our routine now," Pochettino said. "We hope that we can find a remedy within the team to alleviate the pain we feel."
Espanyol should stay clear of relegation concerns, unlike Athletic Bilbao, whose Basque-only policy has kept it in Spain's topflight. Lately, however, it has struggled to avoid the relegation fight, which this year could also include newly promoted clubs Xerez, Tenerife and Zaragoza.
Like Pochettino, Hugo Sanchez gets his first full season in charge at Almeria, as does Getafe coach Michel.
Pellegrini and Valverde are among four coaching changes from last season's topflight clubs, with Malaga recruiting Lopez Muniz and Racing Santander opting for Juan Carlos Mandia.


Updated : 2021-04-10 19:10 GMT+08:00