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Madrid and Barca set to dominate again

Challengers likely to remain adrift of top two

Image Credit: Reuters
Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho (left) talks to Cristiano Ronaldo (centre) and Fabio Coentrao during a training session at RealMadrid’s training grounds in Valdebebas, outside Madrid on Thursday.
Gulf News

Madrid: Arch rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona are the obvious candidates to battle it out for La Liga bragging rights, as a host of pretenders attempt to put pressure on the outright favourites when the new campaign kicks off on Saturday.

The two sides finished 39 and 30 points ahead of third-placed Valencia last season and with no challengers having significantly strengthened, the battle at the top is likely to have a familiar look to it.

Champions Real Madrid will begin with almost the same squad that ended Barcelona’s run of three consecutive titles last term.

Coach Jose Mourinho fended off early interest in his Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain from big spenders Paris Saint-Germain, while Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa and Angel Di Maria have all signed extensions to their contracts.

Mourinho’s efforts to strengthen a squad that accumulated 100 points, while losing only two games, appear to be focused solely on the capture of Croatian playmaker Luka Modric from Tottenham.

Negotiations have continued all summer, but Madrid president Florentino Perez is well-known for his patience and the deal may only be struck towards the closure of the transfer window on August 31.

Their Catalan rivals finished nine points adrift last season and the team will have a brand new look as Tito Vilanova replaces Pep Guardiola as coach after four glittering years at the Camp Nou.

The only addition so far to their squad is the return of full-back Jordi Alba from Valencia for a fee of €14 million (Dh63.62 million).

The return of David Villa after eight months out with a broken tibia will be like a new signing for a Barca side that relied heavily on Lionel Messi’s 50 league goals in his absence.

Valencia start the new term with former defender Mauricio Pellegrino taking over as coach from Unai Emery, who has left the club to take over at Spartak Moscow after a trio of third-place finishes in four years.

New signings include former Real Madrid central midfielder Fernando Gago and Mexican winger Andres Guardado from Deportivo La Coruna.

Centre-forward Roberto Soldado will again lead the line after finishing last season as the top Spanish-born player with 17 goals.

Malaga fans have abruptly stopped celebrating their club’s first ever qualification for the Champions League after a fourth place finish.

Star players Santi Cazorla and Salomon Rondon have left for Arsenal and Rubin Kazan respectively amid the withdrawal of financial support from the club’s Arab owners.

Atletico Madrid have again been busy in the transfer market as Diego Simeone attempts to stamp his style on a side he much improved on his return as coach in January.

The Argentine wasted little time in signing Cristian Rodriguez from Oporto, Cata Diaz from Getafe and ex-Newcastle midfielder Emre from Fenerbahce while bringing back Raul Garcia after a successful season on-loan at Osasuna.

After leading the club to its second Europa League title in three years, Simeone may have done his best bit of business in convincing Colombian striker Gustavo Falcao that his future remains at the Vicente Calderon after he notched 24 goals in his debut season.

Levante go into their first ever season of European football with hopes of mounting another spectacular campaign after coming sixth last term.

Meanwhile, Sevilla have signed almost a whole new defence in Dutch centre-half Hedwiges Maduro from Valencia, Brazilian left-back Cicinho from Palmeiras, Alberto Botia from Gijon and Spanish international goalkeeper Diego Lopez from Villarreal.

After appearances in the Europa League and Spanish Cup finals, Athletic Bilbao are expected by many to improve on last season’s 10th place.

However, the Basques have not enjoyed a stable pre-season.

They first had to convince Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa to remain in his post and also overcome the news they may be forced to sell star striker Fernando Llorente after he rejected a contract extension.

Newly-promoted Deportivo La Coruna, Celta Vigo and Valladollid will all be looking to re-establish themselves in the top flight, which may mean a battle for the lower places between such clubs as Granada, Rayo Vallecano, Getafe and Mallorca.