Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FOOTBALL - By PAUL LOGOTHETIS

REAL MADRID’S am­bi­tious plan to dis­lodge Barcelona as Europe’s premier team be­gins to­day 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 on the likes of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, Kaka, Karim Ben­zema and Xabi Alonso in a bid to re­vive the team fol­low­ing a bar­ren sea­son.

Ben­zema scored two goals as Real Madrid beat Rosen­borg 4-0 this week in their last warm-up match. Las­sana Diarra and cap­tain Raul Gon­za­lez also scored.

Barcelona re­main favourites to de­fend their ti­tle, with coach Pep Guardi­ola’s team rel­a­tively un­changed from last sea­son when they be­came the first Span­ish club to win the tre­ble of league, Copa del Rey and Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles.

Guardi­ola swopped Sa­muel Eto’o for Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic, Serie A’s lead­ing scorer, in the off­sea­son 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 char­ac­terised 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.

“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 94 mil­lion euro trans­fer from Manch­ester United. “I think La Liga is go­ing to have more qual­ity be­cause of the play­ers that are arriving.”

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 Barca are 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 have 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 de­fence.

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 neigh­bour Va­len­cia, who spurned of­fers from Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona to hang on to striker David Villa.

Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino saved Es­panyol from rel­e­ga­tion and now the young Ar­gen­tine coach – much in the mould of ri­val Guardi­ola – gets a full sea­son to show just what he is ca­pa­ble of.

Es­panyol should stay clear of rel­e­ga­tion con­cerns, un­like Ath­letic Bil­bao, whose Basque-only pol­icy has kept them in Spain’s top-flight. Lately, how­ever, they have strug­gled to avoid the rel­e­ga­tion fight, which this year could also in­clude newly pro­moted clubs Xerez, Tener­ife and Zaragoza. – Sapa-AP

ON TAR­GET: Real Madrid’s Karim Ben­zema scored two.

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