Stage set for Spain's eternal rivals
The quest for glory begins anew in Spain on Saturday, and it remains as difficult as ever to picture anyone coming between Real Madrid and Barcelona in the race for honours. Champions Madrid will be anxious to retain their crown in Jose Mourinho's third year at the helm, but their great rivals from Catalonia are desperate to clamber back to the summit despite Josep Guardiola having made way for his assistant Tito Vilanova.
After plundering an unprecedented 121 goals and racking up a record 100 points last term, Real Madrid hope to carry on where they left off – without losing sight of their European ambitions. The capital outfit may not have reinforced during the summer, but they have kept their title-winning squad together and prevented the departures of crucial assets such as Gonzalo Higuain. Fresh from breaking Barcelona's stranglehold, Cristiano Ronaldo and co know they have nothing to fear this season.
Realistically, and to no great surprise, Barcelona look to be the only side capable of challenging Los Merengues in 2012/13. The Catalan giants will be setting their course without Guardiola, the man who masterminded the most successful era in their history, but the appointment of Vilanova as his replacement guarantees continuity in the style of play that ushered in those golden years. Barça's impressive playing staff remains largely unchanged too, with left-back and former youth academy talent Jordi Alba brought in to bolster their ranks after shining with Valencia, and Spain at UEFA EURO 2012. Runners-up last time out, Barcelona will settle for nothing less than their fourth title in five seasons.
Did you know?
Two of Spanish football's most storied clubs will be returning to the elite after five years in the wilderness. Galician stalwarts Deportivo La Coruna and Celta de Vigo will contest their fierce rivalry in the top flight this term after Deportivo clinched first place in the second tier ahead of their neighbours.
Spain remains in the grip of an economic crisis and football has by no means escaped its effects, with clubs tending to act with caution in the transfer market. Indeed, the biggest switch of a quiet summer so far has been Jordi Alba's move from Valencia to Barcelona. Madrid could yet opt for a late swoop, but as things stand it is Valencia who appear to have made the shrewdest deals, luring Argentinian midfielder Fernando Gago and Mexican winger Andres Guardado as they attempt to close the gap on the usual suspects at the top. After all, for the past three seasons the leading duo have finished more than 20 points clear of the side in third.
Given the wider financial picture, plenty of clubs can perhaps feel relieved to have held on to their most prized assets, with Atletico Madrid chief among them after retaining both Radamel Falcao and exciting youngster Adrian Rodriguez. Elsewhere, Rayo Vallecano have brought Argentinian midfielder Alejandro 'Chori' Dominguez back to Spain and Athletic Bilbao have snapped up Aritz Aduriz.
8 – The number of years since the title went to a club other than Madrid or Barcelona. Valencia foiled the fearsome duo when they sealed glory under Rafael Benitez in 2003/04, and Los Che again look the most likely candidates to spoil the party after finishing third in each of the last four seasons.
What they said
"I've never looked to do better than Cristiano or to get into a competition with him. I just try to do my job and win titles with the national team and Barça." Lionel Messi, whose 50 goals last season left him four clear of Cristiano Ronaldo in the Liga scoring charts.
Have your say
Can Barcelona reclaim the title under Vilanova? Will Madrid seal a 33rd championship triumph? Do any other clubs stand a chance of lifting the trophy? Let us know your thoughts.