The forthcoming Spanish season should herald a new era for the nation’s national championship. The high-profile competition can now lay claim to just as many home-grown stars as foreign ones, following Spain’s victory at the FIFA World Cup™ this summer. During the 2010/11 campaign, the country’s domestic top flight will showcase the skills of 19 of the 23 players who lifted the coveted trophy in Johannesburg.

Barcelona and Real Madrid again find themselves in the position of joint favourites, having shared the last six titles between them, four of which have gone to the Catalans. The outcome of last year’s crown was decided in an epic, record-breaking battle between the traditional heavyweights of Spanish football. Both broke the 90-point barrier, with Barcelona triumphing by just three points in the end. Third-placed Valencia never really got close, finishing a massive 25 points off the pace. With the economic downturn having increased the gap between the giants and the rest, another two-horse race appears highly likely.

The defending champions
In their quest for a third consecutive national title, Barcelona will rely on the bulk of a squad whose style and potency have gained many admirers in recent years. A team in the truest sense of the word, none of their stellar names ever consider themselves bigger than the club. In addition, coach Josep Guardiola has the not-insignificant advantage of being able to count on eight players who enjoyed such great success at South Africa 2010. Among them is a new addition for this season, namely former Valencia striker David Villa. The natural finisher joins an extremely dangerous front line for which the imperious Lionel Messi continues to pull the strings, ably aided by Xavi, Iniesta and Co in midfield. The Argentinian’s hat-trick against Sevilla in the return leg of the Spanish Super Cup, which inspired his team to come back from a 3-1 first-leg deficit, was as clear a sign as any that he has got over La Albiceleste’s disappointing exit from the FIFA World Cup and that he is more than ready for the season ahead.

Guardiola’s commitment to the club’s youth system remains strong, and will not hesitate to bring in promising and unheralded youngsters to the starting XI if they meet his high standards. It is by mining this rich seam of talent that the Blaugrana’s 39-year-old coach intends to make up for the pre-season losses of Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Yaya Toure, Dmitry Chigrinsky, as well as for the imminent departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The contenders
Real Madrid, in spite of spectacular goals and points totals in the league last season, were still incapable of dethroning their great Catalan rivals. Their solution to this problem was to call on the services of one of the few men who have managed to get the better of Barcelona in recent times, Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese tactician, after having led Inter Milan to the UEFA Champions League title – his second as a coach following victory with Porto in 2004 – at the Santiago Bernabeu, was clearly impressed by his surroundings, as he promptly decided to make the Spanish capital his new home. Tempted by the challenge of turning Los Merengues back into La Liga’s dominant force, Mourinho will have to make do without two club legends, Raul and Guti, with the former moving on to play in Germany and the latter bound for Turkey. He will, however, still be able to call on Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo, both captains of their respective national sides, and now widely accepted as cornerstones of the team. When the talents of the free-scoring Gonzalo Higuain and the returns from injury of Kaka and Benzema are taken into account, it is clear that Real’s squad will be stronger than ever. As for new signings Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, they will need to continue the sparkling form they showed at the FIFA World Cup in order to win over the club’s demanding home support.

The outsiders
After experiencing an erratic start to a season that ultimately ended in triumph, with victory in the UEFA Europa League final and a runners-up spot in the Spanish Cup final, Atletico Madrid are aiming to maintain this long-awaited run of success. To that end, no effort has been spared in the transfer market, with Tiago, Fran Merida, Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, Mario Suarez and Diego Costa all joining Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero at the Vicente Calderon.

Sevilla, meanwhile, do not go into their opening league fixture in the best of circumstances, after enduring a torrid week that saw them first let slip a seemingly unassailable lead in the final of the Spanish Super Cup and then lose to Sporting Braga in the play-off round of the UEFA Champions League. While current morale may be low, the Andalusians have managed to hold on to their key players, with the exception of Adriano, and will still be aiming for a top-four finish at least.

Valencia, for their part, have their own problems, with financial difficulties having precipitated the departures of three star players – Villa, David Silva and Carlos Marchena – during the summer. Despite these very significant losses, coach Unai Emery is not giving up on the idea of playing a meaningful role in the title race and enjoying a run in Europe, and to this end has brought in a handful of new faces such as Aritz Aduriz, Tino Costa, Roberto Soldado and Mehmet Topal.

Valencia’s neighbours, Villarreal, do not have the same worries and, if pre-season and European results are anything to go by, their promising, revamped side could well end up overshadowing their more celebrated rivals.

Star signings
Not for the first time, Real Madrid have been the most active of all La Liga clubs in the transfer market, bringing in a mixture of big names (Ozil, Khedira, and Ricardo Carvalho) and rising stars, such as Angel Di Maria, Pedro Leon and Sergio Canales, to bolster their squad. Rivals Barcelona have so far just added just two new players: Villa up front and Adriano at the back.

Players to watch
While the attention of fans will be focused on the heroes of South Africa 2010, there will also be many promising young Spanish players on show this season, something that augurs well for the national side. Mourinho has already placed his trust in 19-year-old Canales, one of Racing Santander’s top performers over the past couple of years. Moreover, the Portuguese coach has not held back from giving youth players a chance in Real’s pre-season friendlies, a tactic that could signal a change in the way things are done at the Santiago Bernabeu.

At Camp Nou, supporters are well used to the club’s production line of talent unearthing new gems. Given the relatively few signings made over the summer, it is quite likely that they will be seeing more of young players like Thiago Alcantara, Jonathan dos Santos or Jeffren Suarez, all of whom have impressed Guardiola when called into the first-team squad.

Have your say
Will Jose Mourinho’s first season at Real Madrid be a success or can Barcelona make it three in a row?