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La Liga Preview: Barcelona, Real Madrid spend big to combat Atletico

Real Madrid and Barcelona paid hefty prices to bring James Rodriguez, left, and Luis Suarez to their respective clubs after both fell short of Atletico Madrid in La Liga last season. Photo:

Real Madrid and Barcelona paid hefty prices to bring James Rodriguez, left, and Luis Suarez to their respective clubs after both fell short of Atletico Madrid in La Liga last season.

James Rodriguez, to Gareth Bale, to Cristiano Ronaldo: Goal. It took less than 10 minutes for three of Real Madrid’s world-class stars to combine for the first goal in the European champion’s 2-0 UEFA SuperCup win over Europa League winner Sevilla last week while sending out a clear message.

Real Madrid’s summer showings, in which fellow new signing Toni Kroos has also been outstanding in a midfield three, announced to its La Liga rivals that the reigning Champions League winner is not taking the upcoming campaign lightly. But if you were expecting, after last season’s dramatic title triumph by Atletico Madrid, normal service in La Liga to resume and that the league would return to a two-horse race between Real and Barcelona, you may be surprised.

Let’s look at the contenders ahead of this weekend's season-opening matches:

Real Madrid

President Florentino Perez has signed his key players early in the summer (unlike last year, when Bale’s move was completed on the day before the window closed) and more, like Radamel Falcao, may yet follow. Crucially, coach Carlo Ancelotti is still in charge and it seems unthinkable now but before the Champions League final (and even during it, until Sergio Ramos’s 93rd minute winner), his position was in doubt. Such is life under Perez.

​Ancelotti is the right man for this squad; no one can manage talent quite like he can, and the challenge for him, with more top players competing for positions, is to keep everyone happy and motivated: not so easy when you have three places for Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez, Isco, Asier Illaramendi, and, if they stay, Sami Khedira and Angel di Maria.

But Ancelotti did it at AC Milan and Chelsea. This should be a breeze for him. His most important player remains Ronaldo, who claims to have recovered from the knee injury that disrupted the end of last season, forcing him to miss the Copa del Rey and play the Champions League final and World Cup only half-fit.

ANCELOTTI: Di Maria wants out of Real Madrid

The arrival of James, and the return of Jese (when fit again), should release some of the burden from Ronaldo, who, still competing with Lionel Messi, remains obsessed with playing and scoring as much as possible. Ronaldo is now 29, and has scored more than 50 goals in each of the last four seasons.

Ancelotti might have to rotate him more this season – even if the Portuguese star does not want to sit it out – and that will be a storyline to watch this season. 

Prediction: La Liga winner, Champions League semifinalist

La Liga preview: Can Atletico repeat as champions?

SI's Grant Wahl handicaps the race for the title in Spain.

Barcelona

A similar situation is unfolding at Barcelona, where Messi had his worst season since 2008-09, scoring (only!) 41 goals in 46 games. He has faced some new challenges (a faction of Barcelona directors who wanted to sell him, and the possibility of tax evasion charges), struggled to find full fitness and has seen the club sign Neymar and now Luis Suarez to threaten his status as its major superstar.

The remedy will lie in his relationship with new coach Luis Enrique, a former teammate of Pep Guardiola and ex-coach of Barcelona B, Roma and Celta Vigo. It is down to the coach to rediscover Messi’s mojo, and that might involve a positional shift further away from goal. Suarez is not the only arrival at Barcelona: midfielder Ivan Rakitic has joined from Sevilla and in defense, Jeremy Mathieu, 30, and Thomas Vermaelen, 28, have signed.

Both defenders are curate’s egg-like, and while the back line certainly needed new faces, there is an inescapable feeling that Barcelona has strengthened the right positions but not necessarily with the right players. The club was linked to Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Mehdi Benatia but ended up with two players who seem genuinely surprised to be at Camp Nou. Douglas, the Sao Paulo right back, is expected to join in December as an eventual replacement for Dani Alves as well.

There's a change in goal too, where Victor Valdes has left and three goalkeepers – new signings Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo and former Barcelona B keeper Joel Masip – will fight it out for the No. 1 jersey.

This is a season of transition at Barcelona, and while the front trio is as exciting as anything a PlayStation game could deliver, the success of the campaign will come down to what happens behind the Neymar-Messi-Suarez trident.

Prediction: Third place in La Liga; Champions League quarterfinalist; Copa del Rey winner

Barcelona's Big Three

On Tuesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl discusses how strong Barcelona's offense is with Luis Suárez joining the team and who their biggest competition is this season.

Atletico Madrid

The reigning champion has had a difficult summer spent, unsurprisingly, trying to hold onto its best players. Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luis and Diego Costa have all joined Chelsea while David Villa is at New York City FC (after a loan spell at Australia's Melbourne City). A heavy blow, yes, but it was not the dismantling that many feared.

First, Atletico has replaced those players sensibly: with Jan Oblak, Guilherme Siquiera, Cristian Ansaldi, Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez and Antoine Griezmann. More significant are the players it has kept: Miranda, Arda Turan, Gabi, Mario Suarez and Raul Garcia were all tipped to leave but have not stayed. So too has Koke, the midfield maestro who scored seven and set up 18 goals last season; Atletico rejected a €50 million offer from Barcelona for him (Manchester United was also interested) and made him its best-paid player.

TRANSFER TRACKER: All the major summer moves across Europe

There may yet be a twist to come; reports in Italy suggest Atletico is closing in on Alessio Cerci from Roma, while others have claimed that Marco Reus could join in a shock deal from Borussia Dortmund. If it happens, that would be one of the bombs of the summer market. Amongst all this, though, is the great unspoken question: what happens to Atletico if coach Diego Simeone leaves?

The Argentine has won the Europa League, the Spanish SuperCup, the European SuperCup, the Copa del Rey, La Liga – and reached the Champions League final – and done so despite selling its best players every summer. His side is in the mix for another Spanish SuperCup after playing Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the opening leg this week.

“Atletico is prepared for everything, except for the day that Simeone goes,” said Ruben Gonzalez, who covers the club for Eurosport and COPE radio. “He took over a team that was dead and turned them into a champion. He is an absolute leader, and if he leaves the club will have an enormous void.”

The clincher for the title was that neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona could beat Atletico in their four league games. Perhaps the mini-league between the three will decide the title again.

But one thing seems certain – despite the high-profile players leaving the club, Atletico will continue to challenge the big boys in Spain this season.

Prediction: Second place in La Liga; Champions League quarterfinalist

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