La Liga preview: Barcelona, Real, Atleti figure to fight for title all over again

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The English Premier League may be splashing the cash but as long as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale call La Liga home, then Spain is where the best players will be performing each week.

After Suarez’s league-leading 40 goals from last season, Barcelona begins its campaign for a third straight domestic title on Saturday, when Real Betis comes to Camp Nou.

“We head into the league as reigning champions and with the intention of defending our title,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said.

Champions League winner Real Madrid gets going with a match at Real Sociedad on Sunday, before Atletico Madrid, which has earned its place among preseason contenders, hosts the promoted Alaves.

Luis Enrique has had a near perfect two seasons in charge, sweeping the league and Copa del Rey titles, and winning the Champions League in year one. He added the Spanish Super Cup to his trophy haul on Wednesday when Barcelona completed a 5-0 aggregate victory over Sevilla.

Besides maintaining the same high standards, Luis Enrique’s biggest task will be to make sure Messi moves past this summer, when he hit the low point of his otherwise stellar career.

The club’s all-time leading scorer was embarrassed both on and off the pitch in June. First came a judge’s verdict that found Messi and his father guilty of defrauding the Spanish tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million). Both men will appeal.

That was followed by Messi losing a third consecutive final with Argentina. Distraught, Messi said immediately after the Copa America final defeat to Chile that he was finished playing for his nation, only to later retract and say he would give it another go.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s offseason, by contrast, could not have been sweeter.

The Real Madrid forward is the favorite to win the Ballon d’Or after finally conquering an elusive title for Portugal, which managed without him after he was injured in the European Championship final to beat France.

Bale was also strengthened by Euro 2016 after an excellent performance to lead Wales to the semifinals.

Fewer coaches have entered a season at the Santiago Bernabeu in a securer position than Zinedine Zidane. After a bumpy start to his coaching debut midway through last campaign, Zidane got his team going when it mattered and now has a Champions League title as a manager to solidify his place in club lore that he first earned as a player.

Normally eager to make a splashy summer signing, Madrid president Florentino Perez has limited his purchases to bringing back striker Alvaro Morata from Juventus.

That’s just fine for Zidane, who said: “I am happy with the players I have. We won the European Cup with them.”

Barcelona has beefed up its defense and midfield. Newcomers Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez will join Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, Rafina and Arda Turan as playmakers, while Barcelona’s defense has undergone a quiet upheaval. Dani Alves left along with Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermaelen – in came Frenchmen Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne.

“This is the best squad I have had since I am at Barca,” Luis Enrique said. “We have a greater number of midfielders who are versatile and some who can play in attack. That helps the team a lot.”

Atletico Madrid has solidified its role as the third team in Spain, despite a huge budget difference compared to the two powerhouses.

Coach Diego Simeone will once again try to get his hardworking team to overachieve and be in the title race for a fourth straight year ever since its against-the-odds 2014 title. His biggest hurdle may be keeping his squad convinced the extra effort is worth it after another agonizing loss to Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League last season.

Antoine Griezmann is set to lead Atletico Madrid after a breakout summer with France at the European Championship. Kevin Gameiro has arrived from Sevilla to form a speedy attack with Griezmann, while Nicolas Gaitan joins a midfield led by Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion and Saul Niguez.

The best of the rest of the 20-team field depends on how well Sevilla reboots under new manager Jorge Sampaoli, and if Villarreal can maintain its attacking style after the surprising coaching change of Fran Escriba replacing Marcelino Garcia.

An outsider to keep an eye on is the new-look Espanyol. Long in the shadow of crosstown rival Barcelona and no stranger to the relegation fight, Espanyol under new owner Chen Yansheng has launched an ambitious plan to challenge for a European spot with coach Quique Sanchez Flores.