The pressure's on – time for the Galacticos to shine

As La Liga kicks off tonight, football's biggest spenders know Barcelona will not easily surrender their supremacy. Pete Jenson reports from Madrid
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The Independent Online

Just how many games can you afford to lose after you've spent €258m on new players during one summer? That is the rhetorical question Barcelona fans are asking Madrid supporters as they prepare to open their La Liga season 2009-10 tonight against Deportivo La Coruña.

The answer of course is nought, zero, "ningun partido", no games at all. Having electro-shocked Madrid back into life with signings that twice broke existing world records and stripped Lyons, Manchester United and Liverpool of their most influential players not to mention stealing Chelsea's No1 target from under Roman Abramovich's nose, the most expensive side in the world has to beat everyone this season ... and that includes the best team in the world – Barcelona.

In Madrid they have depicted club president Florentino Perez as some sort of financial He-Man, now his players must become Masters of the Universe and they must do it in their first season. Barcelona became the first team in Spain ever to win the treble last season. A double this time around is the very least Manuel Pellegrini will be expected to deliver – that means Real winning their 32nd league title and a 10th European Cup to be contested at the Bernabeu on 22 May.

Barcelona stand in their way. The antithesis of their eternal rival. Pep Guardiola's team went into last night's European Super Cup in Monaco against Shakhtar Donetsk having scored 17 goals in pre-season – each one netted by a product of the club's youth system. "Madrid buy Ballon d'Or players," Barça president Joan Laporta said this summer, "we produce them." The team that beat Manchester United in last season's European Cup final was two-thirds homegrown and little will change this time around.

Not that Barça have kept their hands in their pockets throughout the entire summer. When the sides' first clasico is played out on 29 November it will be the most expensive fixture in history and not just because of the money Real Madrid have spent. Barça paid out around €40m for striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the deal that also took Samuel Eto'o to Internazionale.

Ibrahimovic's adaptation will go a long way to deciding how smoothly Guardiola's second season as coach goes. It was his personal request that the club replace Eto'o with the former Ajax forward. Guardiola got almost every decision right last season but replacing his mean, lean goal-machine with the always elegant but sometimes ineffective Swede is a gamble – it wouldn't be the first time too much artistic impression and not enough clinical finishing had taken the fizz out of Barcelona.

Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas admitted he was glad to see the back of Eto'o and Real supporters were pleased it was not David Villa who replaced him. They also delighted in Barcelona's belated and half-hearted attempts to sign Cesc Fabregas. With midfielders Seydou Keita and Yaya Touré away for the African Nations Cup, Barça's lack of strength in depth is another potential point in Madrid's favour. Barça's own fans are concerned that summer signings are still being finalised with central defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy due to complete his €25m move today but they believe winning has become a habit that even the combined forces of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema will be unable to break them of.

Of the other contenders Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Valencia and Seville have all improved their squads. Atletico were a team of two halves last year – a shocking defence welded like the back of a Ford Escort onto their Ferrari forward line. But with top Spanish keeper Sergio Asenjo and solid defender Juanito added to the likes of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, they should now defend as well as they attack.

Villarreal have broken their transfer record to bring in young Brazilian striker Nilmar, Valencia have stubbornly kept hold of David Villa, and Seville have added Real Madrid striker Alvaro Negredo to an already strong squad. But all four clubs have as good as admitted they are playing for the "other" league.

Of the 10 players short-listed for last year's Ballon D'Or only four do not now play for Real Madrid or Barcelona. The money has all been spent and the curtain has come down on the Hollywood-style player presentations. In the spirit of "mañana, mañana" the fine-print of TV contracts is still being squabbled over and someone has spotted a betting logo on the official league ball that might have to come off before tonight but Spain is more or less ready for the biggest season in its history.

It will probably be a two-horse race. But what a race.

Follow all the European football action and gossip every week in EuroZone, a new column for the new season

Famous five The league's new signings ready to fire

*Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Barcelona)

No one doubts the super-Swede's ability but some have questioned the decision to replace Samuel Eto'o with a player famed for not hitting the target in big games. Ibrahimovic has not always enjoyed a great relationship with the press. How will he react when they start hitting him with Eto'o goal stats?

*Kaka (Real Madrid)

Kaka has already won over the fans with some Zidanesque cameos during pre-season. Now he needs to emulate the Frenchman and guide Madrid to Champions League success. It will be their 10th European Cup win and they want it this season with the final due to be played at the Bernabeu next May.

*Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)

The man Manchester United tried to sign. The man many say Barcelona should have tried to sign. The man Real Madrid did sign for €35m from Lyon this summer. Since cracking the crossbar after coming on as a substitute against Shamrock Rovers on his debut, Benzema has hit the ground running.

*Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid)

Welcomed home to Spain by fans who love nothing more than a midfield pass master, Alonso is being hailed as the conductor who will lead the expensive Madrid orchestra. With Lassana Diarra alongside him and Benzema, Kaka and Ronaldo to pick out up-front the former Liverpool man surely can't fail.

*Jermaine Pennant (Real Zaragoza)

The last right winger to move from England to Spain scored on his debut and went on to win the league title. Real Zaragoza will will be happy if Pennant can just help to keep them in the top flight. David Beckham lost his England place while in Spain, Pennant will hope a good season earns him another chance.

Rising stars Players ready to make a break-through

*Sergio Asenjo (Atletico Madrid)

As if the Spanish national side did not already have far more top-class goalkeepers than it could possibly fit into next summer's World Cup squad, step forward 20-year-old Asenjo. After just one full season at Valladollid, Asenjo was snapped up by Atletico Madrid and will go straight into La Liga and Champions League action.

*Javi Martinez (Atletic Bilbao)

Athletic Bilbao's young midfield playmaker was on Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez's radar this summer as he searched for a replacement for Xabi Alonso. In the end the Spain Under-21 star stayed and will lead last year's Copa Del Rey finalists domestically and in the Europa League.

*Juan Manuel Mata (Valencia)

The youngest and lesser known of Valencia's front three, Mata goes into his third season at the club alongside David Villa and David Silva. Rejected by Real Madrid, 21-year-old Mata has scored 16 goals in 61 appearances playing wide or as a withdrawn striker and has been capped three times by his country.

*Joseba Llorente (Villarreal)

Pick any one from two. Joseba Llorente scored 15 goals in 32 games last season for Villarreal as well as four in seven Champions League games. However when the name Llorente appeared on Spain coach Vicente del Bosque's international squad list it wasn't the 29-year-old but 24-year-old Athletic Bilbao talisman Fernando Llorente who scored 13 times in 34 games. Both will lead their clubs' attacks next season.

*Alvaro Negredo (Seville)

Hull's loss in failing in their attempt to sign Negredo is Seville's gain. Only the arrival of Benzema at Real Madrid and the various implications of getting rid of Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy meant there was no room for Negredo at Real Madrid. With Freddie Kanouté away in January on African Cup of Nations duty expect 24-year-old Negredo to form a formidable strike partnership with moody Brazilian front man Luis Fabiano.

Cashing in How La Liga stole a march on the Premier League

*Beckham's law

From 2010 a top player in England will pay 50 per cent tax. In Spain, because of a law designed to encourage foreign executives, top-earning foreigners only pay 24 per cent. Real Zaragoza can actually pay Jermaine Pennant less than an English club, but because he is paying less tax, he is still earning more in La Liga than in the Premier League.

*Television rights

There is no collective bargaining with the league in Spain. Each club cuts its own deal with one of the various TV companies that broadcast La Liga. This allows Real Madrid and Barça to gain huge financial advantages over smaller clubs. Real's last deal, with MediaPro, runs from 2008 until 2011-12 and is worth around €1,100m – 15 times more than the average newly promoted side's agreement.

*Members' clubs with unlimited credit

Real Madrid and Barcelona are still run as sporting clubs with each supporter a vote-holding member who elects a president every four years. Barça and Madrid's standing in society is such that banks fall over themselves to extend credit way beyond the levels afforded to clubs who are privately owned by a small group of shareholders. Madrid are an estimated £800m in debt. But it is seen as the club of Spain – no patriotic bank manager will turn them down. Barcelona enjoy similar privileges in Cataluyna.

*Operation Asian Market

The fact the Premier League has stolen a march on La Liga in Asia has not been lost on the Real Madrid president Florentino Perez (pictured) who wants to schedule one game a week at 3pm on a Saturday to go head-to-head with the English league. Five live games a week have been scheduled in Spain with an 8pm and 10pm kick-off on Saturday and a 7pm and 9pm kick-off on Sunday. The fifth game could be in that mid-afternoon Asian market time-slot.

Will Real gel?

By Gerry Armstrong

"Last year Real were left in Barcelona's wake, but new coach Manuel Pellegrini will still be expected to copy Barça's Pep Guardiola and win the treble. That's going to be tough as blending in so many new players will take weeks. By then Barcelona should be several points clear.

"I expect a 4-2-3-1 formation with the front three interchanging. If Cristiano Ronaldo starts on the right Karim Benzema can play through the middle with Kaka behind and Raul on the left. Behind them Lassana Diarra will anchor with Xabi Alonso. This is harsh on last season's top scorer Gonzalo Higuain. I would not be surprised to see him replace Raul a few weeks in."

Gerry Armstrong will be in the studio for Real Madrid v Deportivo La Coruña, Sky Sports 2, 6.55pm, tonight.

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