La Liga: Can Barcelona wrestle back the title from Real Madrid?
With Real Madrid out to defend the crown they claimed so easily last season and Barcelona desperate to return to winning ways through an impressively restocked squad, a fascinating title race looks guaranteed in Spain.
Before this weekend’s kick-off in La Liga, BBC Sport examines the main storylines of the leading contenders.
Real looking strong…but over-reliant on Benzema?
After cruising to last season’s title by 13 points, Real Madrid head into the new campaign with high hopes of claiming consecutive league crowns for the first time since 2008.
Carlo Ancelotti has strengthened his squad with the capture of centre-back Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea and defensive midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco.
And although Ancelotti has historically leaned towards fielding his favoured starting XI more often than not, those new arrivals – along with Eduardo Camavinga, Fede Valverde and Rodrygo – should receive plenty of playing time in a season where squad rotation will be more important than ever considering the interruption of the World Cup.
An exception, however, is Karim Benzema. Real’s unexpected failure to land Kylian Mbappe means Benzema is the squad’s only centre-forward – Luka Jovic has departed to Fiorentina and Ancelotti has never trusted Mariano Diaz.
And the heavy goalscoring reliance on a player who turns 35 in December is the biggest question mark over Real’s title ambitions.
There is, however, a potential X-factor. Eden Hazard has been a massive disappointment since his arrival from Chelsea, with a series of injuries restricting him to a paltry tally of just six goals in three seasons.
But now Hazard is fit, with a full pre-season under his belt and boosted by the endorsement of Ancelotti, who plans to use the Belgian in a false nine role.
If he can take that opportunity to finally become the free-scoring superstar we used to see at Stamford Bridge, it would provide valuable depth in the only area where Real look vulnerable.
Big-spending Barca back in business?
It has been a sensational summer at Barcelona, where club president Joan Laporta has taken a colossal gamble by selling off chunks of the club’s commercial assets to finance a remarkable spending spree.
The arrival of Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessie, Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski – with Marcos Alonso and Bernardo Silva possibly still to come – plus the re-signing of Ousmane Dembele, means boss Xavi’s request for two top-class players in every position has been granted to a greater extent than he could have realistically expected.
They are still to register any new players before this weekend’s opener with Rayo Vallecano, having been wrestling with severe financial issues which need to be addressed to comply with La Liga’s strict financial regulations.
They are confident the issues will be resolved and now the pressure is on the coach to deliver. Barca’s quest for an immediate return to glory hinges on a fundamental but currently largely unanswered question – how good a coach is Xavi?
They gained a decent tally of 56 points from their 26 league games under Xavi last season, with the notable high of a run of seven straight wins between February and April including a fantastic 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
But there were also some poor performances – home losses to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano, and a calamitous Europa League exit to Eintracht Frankfurt – and Xavi’s immediate task is to cut out those inconsistencies which would derail their title challenge.
The former club captain certainly doesn’t lack resources, and on the evidence so far he won’t hesitate to use them.
Although Xavi’s base formation is 4-3-3 he also occasionally opts for a three-man backline, and the versatility of an attack containing Lewandowski, Dembele, Raphinha, Ansu Fati, Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – most of whom can play in multiple positions – is arguably unrivalled anywhere.
This team should definitely deliver plenty of goals, but can they stop them at the other end?
Vulnerability against rapid counter-attacks has been Barca’s weak point for years, but Xavi will hope the pace of Kounde and Ronald Araujo allows his team to play high up the pitch without being excessively exposed on the break.
Can Joao Felix inspire Atletico?
A two-horse race? Maybe not, because Atletico Madrid shouldn’t be ruled out.
Diego Simeone’s men provided a feeble title defence last season, often looking a shadow of their former selves and only securing a top-four berth thanks to a strong late surge.
But there have been encouraging signs for the forthcoming campaign. The arrival of impressive Nahuel Molina from Udinese should fill the Kieran Trippier-shaped hole at right-back, while vastly-experienced Belgium international Axel Witsel will add calm authority in the centre of the field.
Atletico have been in free-scoring form during preseason, culminating in a 4-0 thumping of Juventus last weekend. Joao Felix has been particularly eye-catching, suggesting the gifted Portuguese forward is ready to finally fulfil his undoubted talent on a consistent basis.
If Felix continues to flourish, and Simeone can recapture the defensive solidity that has marked most of his 10-year reign, Atletico could go all the way.