Real eye three in a row

La Liga has not been immune to the economic crisis currently afflicting Spain. The days of galáctico signings are now a distant memory and Spanish football has entered a period of austerity, so much so that big-name summer transfers can be counted on one hand. But as club chiefs have been quick to stress, why look abroad for talent when the country can produce stars good enough to win UEFA EURO 2008?

Sixty-one days after that glorious night in Vienna, one that ended a 44-year wait for the long-suffering Furia Roja, the fans are switching back to their club allegiances in preparation for a season in which the usual favourites are expected to push for glory once more.

The champions
Bernd Schuster's Real Madrid are on the hunt for their third consecutive title. Undeniably compact and well-drilled, Los Merengues' downfall this term could be overconfidence. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas provides a rock-solid base for a balanced side that does have one major question mark hanging over it this season: can the veteran strike duo of Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy last the pace as Madrid compete for three major trophies? One thing for sure is that the Bernabeu faithful will not be content with yet another last-16 exit from the UEFA Champions League.

The favourites
Barcelona's pre-season form has been promising to say the least. In a bid to improve the strained atmosphere in the dressing room, new coach Josep Guardiola has already made some big decisions during his short reign to date, discarding Deco, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o as soon as he was unveiled. And while the first two have since moved on, the Cameroonian striker has redeemed himself, earning a place in a squad reinforced by the arrivals of Alexander Hleb, Seydou Keita, Daniel Alves and Gerard Pique to name but a few. Continuing to set the tempo in midfield will be Andres Iniesta and Xavi (Guardiola's natural heir in the Barça engine room), while the invention of Bojan and Lionel Messi will be sure to catch the eye.

Villarreal were the biggest beneficiaries of the listless form that affected many teams at the end of last season, surging into the runners-up slot. Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini has already steered El Submarino Amarillo
to one Champions League semi-final, and is out to do so again after bolstering his squad with the acquisitions of Argentinian midfielder Ariel Ibagaza and the Brazilian Edmilson. One other new addition who could make a mark is teenage American striker Jozy Altidore.

The dark horses
After confirming their presence in the Champions League group phase on Wednesday, Atletico Madrid, coached by the Mexican Javier Aguirre, are aiming to excel themselves and push beyond last term's fourth place in the league. Having retained the services of the fearsome tandem of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, and also brought in French striker Florent Sinama Pongolle, Aguirre has stiffened his rearguard, so often guilty of undoing all the forwards' good work. After seven years of Ligue 1 success with Lyon, veteran French keeper Gregory Coupet has made the switch to the Calderon, while John Heitinga and Tomas Ujfalusi will be manning the heart of defence, with holding midfielder Paulo Assuncao providing cover in front of them.

After the ups and downs of their campaign, which included an unexpected brush with relegation and triumph in the Copa del Rey, Valencia are looking to the two Davids, Silva and Villa, to lead them back to the top. The man given the task of calming habitually troubled waters at the Mestalla is the 37-year-old Unai Emery, who guided newly-promoted Almeria to an admirable eighth-place finish last time out. There were signs of a Valencia upturn in the recent Spanish Super Cup, only for Real Madrid to launch an inspired comeback and steal the season's first trophy.

After renewing Luis Fabiano's contract and hanging on to strike partner Frederic Kanoute, Sevilla have drafted in a crop of newcomers as they look to concoct another winning formula. Mallorca and Deportivo La Coruna are two other sides who could be there or thereabouts in a league where homegrown stars are just as coveted as the galácticos ever were.

Star signings
The Cristiano Ronaldo saga rumbled on throughout the summer before eventually fizzling out. The Portuguese star decided to stay at Manchester United, leaving midfielder Rafael van der Vaart as Real Madrid's highest-profile signing of the close season. The former Hamburg player's arrival takes the club's Dutch contingent up to five.

Players to watch
Following a glorious EURO 2008, Spanish football has entered a brave new era. Although the roster of international stars will still attract a lot of attention, much will also be expected of the heroes of Vienna as the nation assesses whether they have the right stuff to go on and claim another major international trophy at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.

Have your say
What do you expect from the 2008/09 La Liga campaign? Which teams and players do you think will shine? Click 'Add your comment' to make your opinion known.