By JOSEPH WILSON
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Real Madrid starts the Spanish league season overflowing with confidence that it can retain the domestic title despite Barcelona spending big to add top talent to its team.
Barcelona hosts Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, a day before Madrid visits the newly promoted Almería in the opening round of the league.
Led by Ballon d’Or favorite Karim Benzema, Madrid delivered an outstanding campaign last season by winning the Champions League for a record-extending 14th time and running away from Barcelona and Atlético Madrid in the league.
After retaining all its starters and important reserves, as well as making select reinforcements to its midfield and defense, Carlo Ancelotti’s team is openly talking about their aspirations to sweep up all the titles in play.
Madrid was in championship form on Wednesday when it won the UEFA Super Cup after easing past Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 thanks to goals by Benzema and David Alaba. Now it wants to not only defend its European and Spanish titles, but also win the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup.
“When you’re successful, it’s difficult to do it again,” Madrid defender Dani Carvajal said after the victory over Frankfurt. “We’re going to fight for everything. Barcelona, Atlético and Sevilla will make life difficult in La Liga. We have to approach the Champions League game by game. We’ve won one title and we’re aiming for the next five.”
Madrid will start its league title defense on Sunday in southern Spain at Almería, which won the second division last season. The modest Almería’s biggest threat is Nigeria forward Umar Sadiq.
Ancelotti, who exceeded expectations last season after returning for a second stint in charge of the team, should have more to work with from the bench this season. Little-used veterans Gareth Bale, Isco Alarcón and Marcelo have all left. Madrid has added defender Antonio Rüdiger and defending midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni.
Madrid will still boast its mix of proven winners in Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Thibaut Courtois, along with younger players Vinícius Júnior, Federico Valverde, Éder Militão and Rodrygo.
Ancelotti praised the team spirit his players have forged, saying that “this is the healthiest (locker room) I have coached” in his long career that has included success at AC Milan, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.
Madrid, however, should have to face a tougher challenge from Barcelona, which finished 13 points adrift in second place after a tumultuous season following the exit of Lionel Messi.
Unable to contemplate another year without a title, the highly indebted Barcelona sold 25% of its Spanish league television rights for the next 25 years and part of its own production company to get the money needed to reinforce its squad.
So instead of fielding an attack led by Memphis Depay and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, former Bayern star Robert Lewandowski will be its top striker. Winger Raphinha has arrived from Leeds to compete with Ousmane Dembélé, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati for playing time on either side of Lewandowski, while Jules Koundé moved from Sevilla to greatly boost its defense. Those three signings cost the club 160 million euros ($165 million). Barcelona also bulked up in defense with Andreas Christensen and in midfield with Franck Kessie, who arrived as free agents.
“We have to admit that (Barcelona) has added some quality players, with Raphinha, who I know well, with Lewandowski, who is another world-class player,” Madrid midfielder Casemiro said. “They will try to play their best. We will also want to play better, so let the best team finish on top.”
It remains unclear if Barcelona’s new signings will be able to make their competitive debuts against Rayo due to the league’s salary cap rules that limit how much clubs can spend on players relative to their financial balance. With Barcelona still holding 1 billion euros ($1 billion) in debt, it has seen its salary cap shrink dramatically.
Club president Joan Laporta has said that his club will be able to register its new signings but two days before the home opener at Camp Nou, Barcelona has yet to officially register Lewandowski and its other new players with the league. Madrid, Atlético and Sevilla, along with most of the other clubs, have registered their new players. The deadline is the end of August to play in the 2022-23 league season.
So Barcelona’s busy off-season is likely not over. The club may need to sell players or more club assets to get its new transfers in league action as it tries to give Madrid a genuine challenge.
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