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Horses for courses as Liga kicks off

Despite moves to end hegemony, new season promises a two-way fight at top

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Real Madrid players prepare for the new season.

After a summer of little transfer activity and the usual dose of behind-the-scenes wrangling over television rights, La Liga finally kicks off this weekend having successfully averted a new strike, which last season saw the first round of matches postponed.

However, the league’s so-called G-13 of clubs in open rebellion against the allotment of television revenue had soothing words breathed into its ear at last week’s meeting between the disgruntled presidents and Liga honchos, but little of real substance was offered. Therefore, it can be boldly predicted that either Real Madrid or Barcelona will battle for the title, unimpeded by the proletariat and with only the Champions League to distract them. The stable door may be slowly closing, but not swiftly enough to stop the two-horse race this year.

The duel off the field between Real and Barça will be as interesting as that on the grass; José Mourinho will not tarry long in laying the bait for his Barça counterpart Tito Vilanova, who is making his debut at the helm of the first team. Neither will the wait for the first joust be a long one; the sides square off in the season’s first clásico, the Spanish Supercup, next Thursday. Vilanova has probably not forgotten having his eye gouged by the Portuguese in the same fixture last season, and the chance to lay down a marker for the season should provide the requisite dose of spice.

However, the real interest this season lies in the chase for third. Normally the fiefdom of Valencia, the cash-strapped coastal club may struggle to maintain the status quo this year having sold the wonderful Jordi Alba, to Barça while apparently touting his fellow Spain international Pablo Hernández around for a piffling five million euros. Like Barcelona, Valencia is in the hands of a new coach, Mauricio Pellegrino, after the steady four-year stewardship of Unai Emery. Vilanova, however, has an enviable squad and a supportive crowd. Pellegrino will have to be quick out of the blocks to keep the notoriously fickle Mestalla happy.

Atlético's miracle

Atlético Madrid could be the beneficiary of Valencia's new dawn, having somehow found itself in a period of relative stability, no mean feat at a club synonymous with the insanity that has traditionally infected Spanish soccer. In Diego Simeone, it has a coach the fans adore — another relative miracle — and in Radamel Falcao, a world-class striker who seems happy to play for the club. And, for the first time in living memory, the club may have a defense that can actually defend. But, Atlético being Atlético, little will be taken for granted on the banks of the Manzanares.

Málaga is seemingly in financial freefall and Sevilla, so long a top-four fixture, is still engulfed in a lengthy period of transition. Levante is unlikely to repeat last season’s trick of challenging for the Champions League, especially after selling on top scorer Arouna Kone, and there is little else behind them, barring a rare outbreak of consistency at Espanyol. Athletic Bilbao, after a sterling season last term, faces the break-up of its squad with Europe’s top clubs eyeing wantaway striker Fernando Llorente and defensive midfielder Javi Martínez — the latter seemingly about to tempt Bayern Munich to shell out 40 million euros.

Further down the field, it is difficult to see beyond the teams placed 17th to 15th — Granada, Zaragoza and Rayo— last year as decent candidates for the drop on this occasion. Promoted Deportivo, Celta and Valladolid all have recent reasonably recent Primera experience, settled squads and, for the most part, financial structures that Zaragoza, Rayo and Granada can only dream of.

Saturday: Celta vs Málaga, 19:00; Sevilla vs Getafe, 21:00; Mallorca vs Espanyol, 23:00.

Sunday: Real Madrid vs Valencia, 19:00, Athletic Bilbao vs Betis, 19:00; Barcelona vs Real Sociedad, 21:00 (Canal +); Levante vs Atlético, 23:00.

Monday: Deportivo vs Osasuna, 19:00; Rayo vs Granada, 21:00; Zaragoza vs Valladolid, 23:00 (La Sexta).