Real Madrid have spared little expense in attempting to bring Barcelona's domination of the Spanish scene to a hasty end. Los Merengues have splashed out €250m in a spectacular close-season recruitment drive, bringing in a new wave of galácticos to the unconcealed delight of headline writers across the country.
Madrid's liberal use of the cheque book contrasts markedly with the more measured approach of their Catalan rivals, whose squad remains founded on the home-grown idols who helped them land an unprecedented treble last season. The eternal duel between Spain's two titans is always the focal point of the domestic campaign. However, with the new term set to get under way this Saturday, these diametrically opposing philosophies to squad-building have added an extra dimension to their enduring rivalry.
Compared to the big-spenders from the capital, Barcelona have been relatively thrifty over the summer months. Aside from replacing Samuel Eto'o with the similarly gifted Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Los Culés have kept their hands firmly in their pockets, focusing their efforts instead on blooding the talented youngsters that continue to emerge from their famed academy.
It is a policy that has paid rich dividends in recent years. Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Bojan Krkic are all graduates of the Barcelona cantera, which also produced the man who has moulded them into the most stylish outfit on the continent, Pep Guardiola. Not surprisingly, the cultured coach remains committed to mining Barça's rich seams of talent: "The very best players are extremely expensive now and that's why we look to our youth system."
The pre-season performances of exciting tyros such as Bojan, Pedro and Jeffren, all of whom have come up through the ranks, show that the Barcelona production line shows no signs of slowing just yet.
"These kids have got a lot of talent," continues Guardiola. "We believe in them. They've got quality and ability, and it's important for me to see them in action because they could come in very useful during the season. At Barcelona, though, you have to play attractive football, no matter whether you're playing for the youth teams or the first team."
The Barça method has continued to bear fruit during the club's build-up for the 2009/10 campaign. Over half the team's pre-season goals have come from former youth-team players, and for the friendly with Manchester City Guardiola called up no fewer than eight youth products who had yet to figure in his first-team plans. Despite going down to a 1-0 defeat, the new boys did the Azulgrana shirt proud, hitting the woodwork on several occasions and dominating possession against the big-spending English Premier League outfit. Could they hold the key to Barcelona's future?
Great white hopes
In the aftermath of their magnificent treble the greatest threat to Barça's continued dominance had appeared to be complacency. However, after Real Madrid spared no expense in putting together a star-studded unit, Guardiola's men surely have all the motivation they need to try and sweep the board all over again.
There is, however, a subtle difference between the new-look Madrid and the galáctico era that saw the likes of Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham touch down at the Bernabeu. While Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso boast the superstar status the club craves, Los Merengues have also brought in proven young performers with a lower media profile such as Raul Albiol, Esteban Granero and Alvaro Arbeloa.
The return of the home-grown Granero and Arbeloa, who both learnt their trade in Los Blancos' youth teams, marks a sea change in Madrid's recruitment policy. With homespun heroes Raul and Iker Casillas continuing to prove their worth, the nine-time European champions now boast a formidable core of players who are white through and through.
"A club needs to have good players but you also have to have a nucleus of people who have been brought up the Real Madrid way," commented Casillas, a firm believer in rearing local talent. "That's exactly what Barcelona have done and that's just what you want. We've brought some fantastic players in and we've backed our own young players too. People have worked very hard to give us a chance in all three competitions."
Granero made perhaps the most satisfying of all the debuts the Bernabeu faithful has seen over the summer. The former reserve team player has clearly benefited from his two-season stay at Getafe, and was one of his side's outstanding performers in the friendly against Juventus at the start of August. Occupying a relatively free role in central midfield and driving forward at every opportunity, he showcased his passing, ball-winning and shooting skills in a display that bode well for the months ahead.
With the preliminaries now over, the stage is set for the almost inevitable championship duel between Spain's big two. All that remains to be seen is whether it is the likes of Granero or Ibrahimovic who will decide the destiny of the title.
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