Spanish league keeps growing star power

JOSEPH WILSON
Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Two months after Spain’s national team flopped at the World Cup, the country’s domestic league is ready to shine with even more star power.

Already boasting the sport’s two biggest names in Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the Spanish league got even richer in individual talent with the addition of several players who stood out at the tournament in Brazil, including James Rodriguez and Luis Suarez.

The league will also hope to build on an entertaining finale last season, which saw Atletico Madrid clinch the title in a winner-take-all showdown at Barcelona, and its dominance of European competitions when Real Madrid beat Atletico in the all-Spanish Champions League final. Sevilla won the Europa League.

Madrid has again flexed its monetary muscle as the world’s richest sports club by gobbling up three of the World Cup’s most impactful players.

The club spent about 115 million euros ($154 million) for Rodriguez, the Colombian who led the World Cup in scoring, Germany midfielder Toni Kroos and Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

“This could be the beginning of an important era because I am lucky enough to coach a fantastic squad,” said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who led the team to its 10th European Cup title last season.

But the most talked-about move of the off-season was Barcelona’s deal with Liverpool to add the gifted and volatile Suarez to an attack already featuring Messi and Neymar.

Besides Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil in the semifinals, perhaps the most memorable moment of the World Cup will likely be Suarez’s ignominious bite of an Italian opponent that led to the Uruguay forward receiving his third suspension for sinking his teeth into another player. This most recent ban was softened to let him practice and play friendlies with Barcelona, but Suarez cannot play a competitive match until Oct. 25.

Barcelona’s distractions don’t end with Suarez. Court investigations into Messi’s alleged unpaid taxes and Neymar’s contract are ongoing, while the club is appealing a one-year transfer ban for violating rules regarding youth players.

Stung by its failed quest to keep the winning run established by Pep Guardiola alive, Barcelona replaced coach Gerardo Martino with former player Luis Enrique. The club also brought in several more players as it looks beyond the exit of Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes and the sale of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

“We have done well to reinforce our squad,” Luis Enrique said. “After having important departures, the club has made a big effort so that I have a one-of-a-kind team.”

But the key to the Spanish league remaining a compelling competition will hinge on its defending champion.

Atletico’s title run, as relentless as it was surprising, did much more than give the capital’s “second team” its first league title since 1996. It also was the perfect retort to criticism that the league had become a boring, perennial two-horse race.

Atletico, however, has lost several key players. Striker Diego Costa, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and defender Filipe Luis all joined Chelsea, while David Villa left for Major League Soccer. Atletico coach Diego Simeone will now have to retool his attack around newcomers Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann.

“Our reality in the league is to focus on Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic (Bilbao),” said Simeone, who, like last season, continues to relish the underdog role.

Below the top three, Bilbao, Sevilla and an up-and-coming Villarreal seem set to battle for the fourth and final Champions League spot.

The main goal for at least half of the 20-team competition will again be staying in the top flight.

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