Spain set for big kick-off

Reigning champions Barcelona are the team to beat when the new Spanish league season starts on Saturday. sets the scene for what promises to be one of the most exciting Liga campaigns for many years, with Barça and Real Madrid expected to go head to head for the title, and Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Villarreal all vying to gatecrash the party.

The champions
Barcelona were in a class of their own last term. Pep Guardiola's side produced some mesmerising football en route to a historic League, Cup and UEFA Champions League treble in his first season in charge. Worryingly for their opponents, the trophy-hungry Catalans are showing no signs of letting up. Having already collected the Spanish Super Cup, Los Azulgranas are hoping to lift the UEFA Super Cup when they take on Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine on Friday.

Guardiola will have the same largely homegrown squad at his disposal once more this season, with one or two new additions. Providing the defensive ballast behind arch midfield schemers Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta will be Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, with Lionel Messi leading the attack alongside the mercurial Frenchman Thierry Henry and strike recruit Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who steps into Samuel Etoo's shoes.

The favourites
Real Madrid have splashed out a serious amount of money in their bid to end Barcelona's reign. After appointing a new coach in Manuel Pellegrini, Los Merengues overhauled their underperforming squad by drafting in eight new faces, including the last two winners of the FIFA World Player of the Year award, Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazilian magician Kaka.

The Chilean tactician now has the job of concocting a winning blend with a richly talented group also comprising French striker Karim Benzema, new Spanish signings Xabi Alonso and Raul Albiol, Bernabeu idols Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Raul, and returning youth graduates Alvaro Arbeloa and Esteban Granero.

Third last season, Sevilla have been widely tipped to challenge once more after retaining their deadly strike tandem of Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanoute. Adding even more firepower up front will be rising star Alvaro Negredo, who has proved his goalscoring worth in recent seasons with Almeria.

Atletico Madrid boosted their confidence ahead of the weekend kick-off by qualifying for the group phase of the Champions League on Tuesday evening. Having held on to their formidable attacking partnership of Sergio Aguero and last season's top scorer Diego Forlan, Los Colchoneros have strengthened their defence by signing Spain's U-21 goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo and experienced centre-half Juanito.

The other contenders
Two sides hoping to force their way into title contention are Valencia and Villarreal, both of whom can count on squads packed with talent. Though Los Chés failed to make any big-name signings over the summer, they have managed to retain the services of the international trio of David Villa, David Silva and Carlos Marchena.

Neighbours Villarreal have been one of the revelations of La Liga in recent times and with Ernesto Valverde taking over from Pellegrini, the Yellow Submarine should stay on course again this season. Joan Capdevilla, Marcos Senna and Santiago Cazorla form the core of a gifted side that will look to the strike power of Giuseppe Rossi, Joseba Llorente and the newly recruited Brazilian Nilmar to fire their challenge.

Best of the rest
Deportivo La Coruna and Athletic Bilbao are two of the sides hoping to push for the UEFA Europa League places, while Malaga have the incentive of building on their promising performances last time out. Aiming to join them and steer clear of the relegation zone are Real Mallorca and Racing Santander.

Espanyol and Getafe have both had a taste of European action in recent seasons but after flirting with the drop last term their immediate aim will be to stay out of trouble. Rocked by tragedy in the close season, Los Periquitos will also be hoping to honour the memory of skipper Daniel Jarque .

Xerez have entrusted former Osasuna coach Jose Angel Ziganda with the task of making their first season in the top flight a successful one, while Tenerife and Zaragoza, the two sides that came up with them, also have their sights set on a successful return to La Liga.

Players to watch
Dubbed La Liga de las Estrellas in recent years, there is no question that the Spanish league deserves star billing this season. The eyes of the world will be firmly focused on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Forlan, while a clutch of homegrown talents will also be out to grab the headlines, among them Sevilla's explosive duo of Diego Capel and Jesus Navas, and Athletic Bilbao's talismanic front man Fernando Llorente.

Swelling the foreign ranks this season are Almeria's new Colombian midfielder Fabian Vargas, while young Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero will be hoping to claim a place in the Villarreal midfield. Valladolid have turned to two African players to boost their goalscoring potential, Angolan international Manuel Alberto Contreiras Manucho teaming up with Nigerian forward Bartholomew Ogbeche in the Pucelano front line.

There is also a healthy eastern European contingent, headed by Valencia's beanpole striker Nicola Zigic, who made his name with Racing Santander, and fellow Serbs Ivan Obradovic and Milan Stepanov, both out to make a mark at Real Zaragoza and Malaga respectively.

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