BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Spanish league starts on Friday. Here is a look at the top contenders expected to fight for the title and top positions in the table.
Atlético Madrid defends the title it won last season with the goals of Luis Suárez and the tireless preparation of coach Diego Simeone. Its position as champion has been strengthened by the exit of top players from both Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atlético has kept all its talent and added Argentine midfielder Rodrigo de Paul. Simeone, who signed a contract extension in July through 2024, will have Suárez back to lead his attack. The Uruguay striker was crucial to Atlético’s title march, leading the team with 21 league goals. Can he, though, at the age of 34, maintain the same production? Expectations are big for João Félix to become a leader with his playmaking in an otherwise workmanlike squad. But Simeone has shown that with a strong defense anchored by goalkeeper Jan Oblak his side can grind out wins without many frills.
Real Madrid enters the season without the two men who led the team in recent seasons: coach Zinedine Zidane and captain Sergio Ramos. Zidane quit after his side finished second in the league. Carlo Ancelotti has returned for a second stint in charge of Madrid, but the Italian coach will have the tough task of meeting the high standard for success left by Zidane. Ramos departed as a free agent for Paris Saint-Germain after contract negotiations broke down. Madrid also sold fellow center-back Raphael Varane to Manchester United. Madrid’s defense will now be anchored by Éder Militão and newcomer David Alaba. Karim Benzema will spearhead the attack along with youngsters Marco Asensio and Vinícius Júnior. But questions remain over the role Gareth Bale will have after returning from his loan spell at Tottenham. Eden Hazard, likewise, will need to stay injury-free and finally live up to his status as a top player.
Life begins without the player who defined an era not only for Barcelona but for the world of soccer. For the first time in 17 years, Messi won’t dress in the burgundy and blue. Filling the void will be impossible, but it falls on coach Ronald Koeman to rebuild a team that has orbited around the Argentine’s unequaled talent. While Antoine Griezmann should be the new focus of the attack, Barcelona will be hoping that Ansu Fati returns strong from his knee injury and can provide the club with a new young star. The wretched financial situation that prevented Barcelona from keeping Messi has also limited it to signing free agents. Sergio Agüero and Memphis Depay join the attack, while Eric García and Emerson Royal will help a defense that proved brittle at key moments last season when Barcelona finished third. Barcelona has high hopes for the 18-year-old Pedri González. He will again team up with Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets to form the team’s strength in midfield.
Sevilla can aspire to contend for the title after a very strong finish last season when it was in the race until the final games. Sevilla is a specialist in bringing in unknown talents, helping them grow and then selling them for a profit. Striker Youssef En-Nesyri blossomed last season, while Jules Kounde has become one of the best young defenders in Europe. Coach Julen Lopetegui should have an experienced and well-honed side to threaten Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are both being reconstructed.
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