THE REAL ACTION STARTS
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.