MADRID (AP) – Barcelona will head into the Spanish league season with a fourth straight title within sight and rival Real Madrid as its most likely obstacle to the record-tying feat.
Barcelona opens its season Saturday at revamped Malaga, while Madrid hosts new-look Athletic Bilbao, which has Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa at the helm. But all eyes will be on the season-long tussle between Barcelona and Madrid since no other club has been able to dislodge the top-two since Valencia in 2004.
Barcelona has reinforced the already potent offense led by two-time world player of the year Lionel Messi with new reinforcements Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez. Spain internationals Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez add to the attack but the Catalans seems exposed in defense with Carles Puyol recovering from knee surgery and few natural center backs to partner Gerard Pique.
There will also be the wear-and-tear of another season battling against Madrid's results on the field and mental games of coach Jose Mourinho off of it.
The Portuguese coach has promised Madrid spoils going into his second season at the helm, and now Mourinho has taken control of football operations. With Mourinho firmly planted in charge and led by a loyal troop of players that include Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Mesut Oezil and Kaka, Madrid knows it must dislodge Barcelona or endure further humiliation of finishing runner-up to its biggest rival.
Pep Guardiola's future as coach of Barcelona, which is coming off its second Champions League victory in three seasons, may also depend on what silverware the club comes away with in May.
''I don't think he'll go if Barca keeps playing like it is up to now, if it wins the Champions League or the league,'' former Barcelona coach Carles Rexach told The Associated Press. ''He needs to seek out new solutions and I think Pep is very aware of this. Every year it's more difficult for him because it's the team to beat and has become the world reference in football.''
While a record 10th European Cup is top priority, a 32nd league title is the minimum Madrid expects after Mourinho managed to beat Barcelona in only one competition last season, the Copa del Rey.
Mourinho made five signings and although no big names were added, midfielder Nuri Sahin and Fabio Coentrao should make an impact.
''We might not have added so much more quality but we're definitely more mature,'' Mourinho said.
After the top-two, the race for the last two Champions League places and the league's Europa League qualifying spots are wide open with Malaga and Athletic Bilbao expected to be season-long threats.
Valencia is a strong contender to maintain its third-place finish from last season after adding Argentine playmaker Pablo Piatti in offense and Brazil goalkeeper Diego Alves in defense. The coastal club has looked strong in preseason, including a 3-0 win over AS Roma.
While Villarreal hung on to striker Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar, the departure of Santi Cazorla to Malaga could be a hindering as it vies to for a top-four finish again.
Malaga has spent a reported ?60 million ($86 million) to bring in international talent such as Cazorla, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jeremy Toulalan. Expectations are set on Europe for a club that has never finished higher then eighth in the top division.
Sevilla and Atletico Madrid will be hoping new coaches provide a spark to their own European ambitions as Gregorio Manzano bolted Sevilla for the Spanish capital and Marcelino Garcia Toral swapped Racing Santander for the Andalucian club.
Atletico has brought Argentine striker Eduardo Salvio back from loan and added Turkey playmaker Arda Turan to its team, but Diego Forlan will be expected to carry the weight of the attack after Argentina striker Sergio Aguero's departure to Manchester City.
Bielsa's arrival at Bilbao fuses two distinct mindsets: Bielsa's nickname ''El Loco'' (The Crazy One) comes from his obsession over tactics and passionate performances on the touchline while Bilbao has a staunch policy of only using Basque players.
But the current crop is perhaps its best since its last league title 27 years ago as Spanish internationals Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Andoni Iraiola lead a young squad made up of recent Spain Under-21 European champions like Iker Munian and Ander Herrera.
Bielsa has promised high-intensity, attacking football already.
The start to the season has come under strike threat as the top two divisions have threatened to boycott if a collective bargaining agreement is not signed before Saturday to guarantee player wages.
All three newly promoted clubs - Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada - are in bankruptcy protection alongside Racing Santander, Levante and Zaragoza. All six can expect to be in the relegation mix until the end.
The new term will also see early afternoon games played on Sunday to try and capture further interest overseas in the Asian market.