Football: Not just a 2-horse La Liga Race for the 2015/16 season

Cristiano Ronaldo (centre) remains central to Real Madrid's plans to replace Barca as champions in Spain. It will also be a challenge for new Real boss Rafael Benitez to prove that he can banish last season's disappointment of coming up empty-handed
Cristiano Ronaldo (centre) remains central to Real Madrid's plans to replace Barca as champions in Spain. It will also be a challenge for new Real boss Rafael Benitez to prove that he can banish last season's disappointment of coming up empty-handed in La Liga and the Champions League.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Bilbao, Valencia, Sevilla and Atletico can push Real and Barcelona all the way for title

MADRID • Champions Barcelona begin their bid for a sixth Primera Liga title in eight years at Athletic Bilbao tomorrow knowing that fellow heavyweights Real Madrid could, unusually, be just one of several challengers for their crown.

If the Spanish Super Cup was anything to go by, Bilbao proved that Barca can be vulnerable when they thrashed them 4-0 in the first leg, before sealing a 5-1 aggregate success in the return on Monday.

Still, Barcelona's challenge will be to match last term's harvest of Champions League, La Liga and King's Cup titles.

Madrid's will be avoiding another season without major silverware and reinventing themselves, even if the players remain much the same.

Their system, however, has changed. A 4-3-3 has given way to a 4-2-3-1 in which Gareth Bale has become the No. 10.

CONTENDERS APLENTY

In Spain we don't just have Barcelona. There is Atletico, Valencia, Sevilla, who are all performing very well.

RAFAEL BENITEZ, the Real Madrid head coach

One of the most pressing tasks entrusted to the new Real manager, Rafael Benitez, is making the Welshman a central figure, both physically and psychologically.

Cristiano Ronaldo stays as their most important player, though.

He remains on the left, if only as a starting point, even though his evolution into a No. 9 accelerates.

Rodriguez or Isco will play on the right, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos behind, with the new €35 million (S$55 million) signing Mateo Kovacic waiting for his chance.

Atletico Madrid took their La Liga chance in 2013-14 and will be genuine contenders again.

Their inspirational manager Diego Simeone has overseen some canny business in the latest transfer window.

Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco join a forward line that already includes Antoine Griezmann.

Only two Spanish clubs completed their record signing this summer, however, and that was Valencia and Eibar (€500,000).

Flush with cash following last year's takeover by Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, Valencia finalised their purchases of Alvaro Negredo (€28 million) and Rodrigo (€30 million), who were at the club already.

They have also signed forward Santi Mina from Celta Vigo for a sum of €10 million.

Europa League champions Sevilla too should be in the mix at the top of the table come May.

They got the new season under way against Malaga this morning (Singapore time) at the Rosaleda.

"In Spain, we don't just have Barcelona," Benitez told daily El Pais this week. "There is Atletico, Valencia, Sevilla, who are all performing very well. But it's true that Barcelona are the champions and the reference point."

Barca have strengthened with the arrivals of Atletico winger Arda Turan and Sevilla wing-back Aleix Vidal but neither will be able to play until the new year.

Barca manager Luis Enrique will have to do without any new signing due to the ban imposed by Fifa as a result of irregularities over the Barca youth system.

Yet, it is in the first half of the season when they face all the big teams in away clashes.

Athletic, Atletico, Sevilla, Madrid and Valencia are five of their first seven away games.

The Catalan club will once again have to depend on the form of talismanic forward Lionel Messi. He and strike partners Neymar and Luis Suarez plundered a Spanish record 122 goals in all competitions last term.

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'NOT JUST A 2-HORSE LA LIGA RACE'. Print Edition | Subscribe