La Liga: Can Barcelona reclaim the title from Real Madrid?

Real Madrid's David Alaba and Barcelona's Robert Lewandowski speak during the pre-season friendly July 23, 2022
Can Robert Lewandowski lift Barcelona to the title this season?

With Real Madrid out to defend the crown they so easily claimed last season and Barcelona desperate to get back to winning ways with an impressively restocked squad, expect a great title race in Spain.

Ahead of this weekend’s La Liga kick-off, BBC Sport examines the main storylines of the biggest rivals.

A strong look at a figure…but too much reliance on Benzema?

After a 13-point cruise to the title last season, Real Madrid enter the new campaign with high hopes of claiming back-to-back league crowns for the first time since 2008.

Carlo Ancelotti strengthened his squad with the signings of centre-back Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea and defensive midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco.

And while Ancelotti has historically leaned towards starting his preferred XI more often than not, those new arrivals – along with Eduardo Camavinga, Fede Valverde and Rodrygo – should get plenty of playing time in a season where squad rotation will be more important than ever. interference in the World Cup.

An exception, however, is Karim Benzema. Real’s unexpected failure to land Kylian Mbappe has left Benzema as the only man in the middle of the squad – Luka Jovic has left for Fiorentina and Ancelotti never trusted Mariano Diaz.

And the heavy reliance on a player who will turn 35 in December is the biggest question mark over Real’s title ambitions.

There is, however, a potential X factor. Eden Hazard has been a disappointment since his arrival from Chelsea, with a string of injuries restricting him to just six goals in three seasons.

But now Hazard is fit, with a full pre-season under his belt and boosted by the endorsement of Ancelotti, who plans to use the Belgian in a false nine role.

If he can take that opportunity to become the free-lance superstar we finally saw at Stamford Bridge, he would provide valuable depth in the one area where Real look vulnerable.

Is Barca’s big spender back in business?

It’s been a great summer in Barcelona, ​​where the club’s president, Joan Laporta, took a huge gamble by selling a chunk of the club’s commercial assets to finance a huge spending spree.

The arrival of Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessie, Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski – with Marcos Alonso and Bernardo Silva possibly still to come – as well as the re-signing of Ousmane Dembele, means boss Xavi’s request for two first-class players in every position. that he was granted more than he could realistically expect.

They are yet to sign up any new players ahead of this weekend’s opener with Rayo Vallecano, after struggling with serious financial issues that must be addressed in order to comply with La Liga’s strict financial regulations.

They are confident that the problems will be resolved and now the pressure is on the coach to deliver. Barca’s quest for an immediate return to glory hinges on a fundamental, currently unanswered question – how good is Xavi as a coach?

They picked up a decent 56 points from their 26 league games under Xavi last season, with an impressive run of seven straight wins between February and April including a stunning 4-0 win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

But there have also been some poor performances – home losses to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano, and a disastrous Europa League exit to Eintracht Frankfurt – and Xavi’s immediate task is to cut out those inconsistencies that would end their title challenge.

The former club captain is certainly not short of resources, and on the evidence so far he will not hesitate to use them.

Although Xavi’s base formation is 4-3-3 he also chooses from time to time for a three-man backline, and the attacking flexibility in which Lewandowski, Dembele, Raphinha, Ansu Fati, Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – can most of them play. in multiple positions – arguably unmatched anywhere.

This team should certainly deliver plenty of goals, but can they be stopped at the other end?

Vulnerability to quick counter-attacks has been Barça’s weak point for years, but Xavi hopes the pace of Kounde and Ronald Araujo will allow his side to play high up the pitch without being too exposed on the break.

Can Joao Felix inspire Atletico?

A two horse race? Perhaps not, as Atletico Madrid should not be ruled out.

Diego Simeone’s men produced a feeble title defense last season, often looking a shadow of their former selves and only managing a spot in the top four thanks to a strong late surge.

But there are encouraging signs for the upcoming campaign. The arrival of the impressive Nahuel Molina from Udinese should fill Kieran Trippier’s hole at right-back, while experienced Belgian international Axel Witsel will add calm authority in midfield.

Atletico have been in free-scoring form throughout the season, culminating in a 4-0 drubbing of Juventus last weekend. Joao Felix has been very eye-catching, suggesting that the talented Portuguese forward is ready to fulfill his undoubted talent on a consistent basis.

If Felix continues to flourish, and if Simeone is able to recapture the defensive solidity that has marked most of his 10-year reign, Atletico could go all the way.

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