After deposing Barcelona and sending their coach Pep Guardiola into early retirement, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid now face the challenge of defending their Spanish league crown, while seeking that elusive 10th European Cup.
Mourinho was given two objectives when he joined Madrid: Break Barcelona’s domestic hegemony and return Madrid to the heights of European soccer with a first Champions League trophy since 2001.
One down, and one still to go after Madrid were knocked out in the Champions League semi-finals last season.
Mourinho’s biggest challenge during the upcoming Spanish league season, which starts on Saturday, will be keeping his players focused on the weekly domestic grind and a title that Barcelona and the rampant Lionel Messi are eager to reclaim.
“I know that Madrid’s fans are very passionate about the Champions League, but what we want to do is win titles,” Mourinho said. “Barcelona didn’t win last season, and we don’t know what they will do now.”
Madrid rolled through the domestic competition last season, including a rare win at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium that decided the title race, by unleashing their attacking talent. Forward Cristiano Ronaldo scored a club record 46 times to help Madrid set an all-time record of 121 goals en route to winning their 32nd league title with 100 points, also a La Liga milestone.
“I think these are numbers to stay in the history for a long time, but everybody knows it will be a close fight in between my team and the two best teams in the world, in a league where the other opponents are good,” the Portuguese coach said.
After initially failing to better Barcelona with defensive tactics, Mourinho finally found the formula for turning Madrid into the attacking juggernaut that made them winners, with his entire squad returning this season.
Behind their potent attack, Sergio Ramos has consolidated his position in the center of the defense, as did Xabi Alonso in midfield, both having a more prominent role in Spain’s Euro 2012 win than ever before.
“This team has been together for three years now and you can see that we know each other better, and that makes the team perform better,” Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. “We are a much better team than two seasons ago, and what we want to do is surpass what we did last season.”
Meanwhile, Barcelona will bring back the same squad that have enamored the world with their passing attack and slew of trophies over the past four seasons.
However, the big question is whether Tito Vilanova, promoted from assistant to head coach to replace Guardiola, will be able to lead the team back to the top.
“He’s a new coach even though he has been here with us these years,” Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. “This club demands the maximum of each of us and this year will be no different. This club always demands victory.”
New signing Jordi Alba will replace Eric Abidal, who is recovering from a liver transplant, at left back, giving the Catalan club arguably the most dangerous pair of full backs in Europe with Dani Alves on the right.
Messi, fresh off an unprecedented season of 73 goals in all competitions and a record 50 in league play, will again lead the team. And with striker David Villa set to return from a broken leg, the Argentina forward can hope to have more help sharing the scoring burden.
However, Barcelona’s old guard of Carles Puyol (34) and Xavi Hernandez (32) are slowing and there are doubts over Abidal’s ability to return.
“I want to keep on as always,” Xavi said. “Physically, I am fine and I will play as much as I can.”
Madrid and Barcelona have split the past eight league titles — runner-up Barcelona finishing 30 points ahead of third-place Valencia in the last campaign — and this season should be no different given the ongoing financial problems of many of their challengers.
Spain’s recession is adding to the pressure on many of its troubled soccer clubs. Malaga’s Qatari owner Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Thani poured more than 200 million euros (US$245 million) into the Costa del Sol side over the past two seasons, and the investment appeared to pay off with the team making their first Champions League appearance after finishing fourth last spring.
However, the club have been mired in a financial and institutional crisis since then, and any thoughts of raising the bar and making a run at Madrid and Barcelona is out of the question after the club’s sale of playmaker Santi Cazorla and striker Jose Rondon.
For the third year in a row, a Valencia side weighed down with debts and two soccer stadiums — one it cannot sell and another it cannot find the money to finish building — were forced to cash in on their best player in selling Alba to Barcelona.
Also, Deportivo La Coruna, champion in 2000, return to the topflight after one season in the second division along with Celta and Valladolid.
While various clubs face a season of diminished expectations, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao are poised to move up the standings after respective fifth and 10th-place finishes.
Atletico’s Diego Simeone and Bilbao’s Marcelo Bielsa are returning for a second season after impressive coaching starts. Now, both managers will be expected to have even better campaigns as the clubs shoot for a long-awaited top-four finish and Champions League berth.
Mourinho said that despite Madrid and Barcelona’s dominance, the Spanish league is still the strongest in Europe.
“A beautiful league, because the teams are very technical, and that’s the reason I’m in Spain,” Mourinho said. “I want to be where the best league is.”