MADRID (AP) — Five things to know about the Spanish League as it prepares to kick off this week:
NEW LOOK AT THE NOU CAMP
Barcelona has a couple of key new pieces as it tries to restore its reputation as the dominant team in Europe, having been humbled by Bayern Munich in the Champions League last season. With Tito Vilanova having stepped down as coach because of throat cancer, successor Gerardo Martino has pledged to continue the team’s quick-passing and attack-minded style of play while shoring up its defensive stability. He’ll have a new weapon in Brazilian forward Neymar to play alongside Lionel Messi up front, creating what is on paper the most formidable attacking duo in club football. However, the defensive frailties that were exposed by Bayern still need addressing. The club has said it would like to buy a world-class central defender, but has reportedly had bids turned down for Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva and Chelsea’s David Luiz. Martino seems unlikely to tamper with the team’s lineup on the field. Sergio Busquets looks set to continue as a midfield lynchpin, with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta acting as the creative geniuses in front of him. One change that Martino instigated during preseason matches was getting two midfielders to chase down each ball lost in midfield, attempting to suffocate an opponent’s attack before it hits the defensive back four.
MADRID POST MOU
Real Madrid also has a new coach in Carlo Ancelotti, who has been busy this offseason healing some of the rifts caused by the contentious three-year tenure of Jose Mourinho. While the club is still trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo to renew his contract, Ancelotti seems to have restored Iker Casillas as the No. 1 goalkeeper, a move that should placate fans who were furious about Mourinho relegating the beloved club captain to the bench in favor of Diego Lopez. The club has also reportedly made a world-record bid for Tottenham winger Gareth Bale, which could give the club a 1-2 punch in attack to rival that of Barcelona’s Messi-Neymar pairing.
NO MIDDLE CLASS
Barcelona and Real Madrid continue getting richer and their dressing rooms are brimming with world-class talent. Other clubs have not ridden Europe’s financial crisis as well. Spanish clubs have raised some 384 million euros ($509 million) from transfers this offseason, 75 percent of which came from sales to other leagues. Around 80 players have left Spain, and only 25 are doing so because their contracts ran out. Much of the money earned has not gone to reinforce squads through replacement purchases, but rather to try and cover debts. The top destination for has been England, which has seen an influx of players from La Liga — 14 of them Spanish. Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev’s arrival at Monaco and that of Sheikh Nasser Al-Khelaifi at Paris Saint-Germain have aided Spain’s talent drain. Rybolovlev’s nearly unlimited funds recruited Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid, Monaco plucked former Barcelona defender Eric Abidal and Fernando Llorente has left Athletic Bilbao to join Juventus.
ATHLETIC BILBAO’S NEW STADIUM
After 100 years playing at its San Mames Stadium, Athletic Bilbao was due to begin the season at its new venue, but building work hasn’t been completed according to schedule. The club’s opening home game against Osasuna on Aug. 23 will have to be played at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta Stadium, with the club expecting some 13,500 fans to attend. With the departure of Fernando Llorente, coach Ernesto Valverde only has Ariz Aduriz and Gaizka Toquero as strikers, unless he acquires new firepower.
ANOTHER TWO-HORSE RACE
The Spanish league looks likely to be another duel between Barcelona and Real Madrid for the 10th season in a row. Since 2001, only Rafa Benitez’s Valencia has interrupted the two giants from claiming the league championship by winning in 2002 and 2004.