BARCELONA // Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia have both won Spain's Primera Liga in the last decade, but this season's winner will again come from Barcelona or Real Madrid. Spain's big two have by far the best squads and resources which dwarf the budgets of even Champions League regulars like Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Sevilla.
Optimism is understandably high in Barcelona. A crowd of 94,123 - bigger than the gate for any competitive game last season - watched league champions Barca lose 1-0 to Manchester City in the Gamper pre-season curtain raiser. While debutant and record signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic stressed that Barca are "getting there little by little", fans are confident coach Pep Guardiola can continue to work the miracles of his first season, though they are expecting a greater challenge from Real.
Barca hope for a continuation of the form which won the treble and have made minimal changes. Record signing Ibrahimovic has replaced Samuel Eto'o, who was third in the club's all time leading scorer chart. Officials have taken to praising him now, but Eto'o was pushed out because Guardiola felt his personality did not fit the collective one he was trying to mould - that and he was not as ruthless a finisher as he could be.
Eto'o would argue differently and scored the key opening goal in May's Champions League final against Manchester United, a competition the Swede Ibrahimovic has rarely shone in. Just days before the transfer window closes, technical director Txiki Beguiristain has admitted there are still "one or two pieces needed to complete the jigsaw" but improving Barca is akin to bettering a top-of-the-range Bentley. The Catalans enter the season from a position of strength and it would take a monumental injury crisis or implosion to destabilise them.
"I'm not worried about signing new signing new players," said Guardiola. "If it's possible some reinforcements will arrive and if not they won't. This is a squad you can rely on. Just as I felt last year, I feel that we will be competitive this year as well." Barca have a lot of competition. They beat Athletic Bilbao last Sunday night to lift the Spanish Super, before the European Super Cup in Monaco tonight against Shakhtar Donetsk. Only then will their league season commence with an away game at Sporting Gijon on the final day of August.
Real finished last season trophyless, but the Bernabeu side will receive greater attention in the first months of the season. If they fulfil the massive expectations that have come with the stellar new signings like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaka, then Real will be sublime to watch under new coach Manuel Pellegrini. If they don't, there will be no shortage of critics. Returning club president Florentino Perez claims that he has learned from the mistakes of the indulgences of his last reign. One of those was to lose the Spanish flavour and youthful essence within the club. Real's three biggest signings have not been Spanish, but in Xabi Alonso, Raul Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa, they have also signed three experienced Spanish internationals.
Stung by Catalan criticism that they are attempting to buy success, Real have also been boasting of the success of their cantera graduates like Esteban Granero, Dani Parejo, Alvaro Negredo and Miguel Torres. Midfielder Granero especially has impressed in pre-season and scored a magnificent goal in the 5-0 demolition of Dortmund. "I'm pleased because the coach is treating us all as equals," Granero said, allying fears that Pellegrini is being forced to play the biggest names. "I feel that the team is now ready. We know that the season will be a long one, but we have the talents to win trophies."
Alonso agrees. "The team is ready to start the season," said the midfield signing from Liverpool. "I've only been here for two weeks, but I'm already settled and feel like I am in a settled side. I'm confident about the season ahead." Fans wouldn't expect to hear anything less, but as previous coach Juande Ramos found out last season, it is not only about winning games, but the manner in which they are won.
The tallest orders come at the top of the game and anything less than the league title will be seen as a failure for Barca or Real. firstname.lastname@example.org