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Real Madrid’s second successive La Liga title came with the minimum of fuss, and although there was a slight stumble towards the end of the season, an eight point gap over Villarreal, coupled with a +48 goal difference, underlined their undoubted superiority.

Bearing this in mind, coach Bernd Schuster has been relatively quiet in the transfer market, with the recent signing of Dutch playmaker Rafael van der Vaart the most significant piece of transfer activity in or out of the Bernabeu.

Of course, all the talk over the last three months has been surrounding the impending arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and although few would bet against that particular transfer happening some time in the future, it appears less and less likely that the Portuguese winger will be starring for Los Meringues next season.

The other major rumor has seen Chelsea openly declare their interest in Brazilian winger Robinho but that transfer might only happen should Schuster get the green light from Old Trafford.

Another arrival is the return of Spain midfielder Ruben de la Red from a loan spell at Getafe. De la Red, who scored against Greece in the Euro 2008 finals, joins Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos in entering the new season as a European champion.

With Barcelona and Villarreal both strengthening considerably, it will be interesting to see whether Schuster’s policy of keeping a settled squad comes to fruition.

The Challengers

No team in Europe has undergone more of a transition than Barcelona under new coach Pep Guardiola. Seven players have come in and eight have departed for a total cost of $40 million, as Guardiola has wasted little time in making his mark following a dismal final season under Frank Rijkaard.

The biggest signing has seen full-back Daniel Alves arrive from Sevilla for 30 million euros, while the quick feet of former Arsenal winger Alexander Hleb are sure to excite the Nou Camp faithful.

A lowering of the squad’s average age was a major consideration for Guardiola, with veteran Lilian Thuram and over-30s Gianluca Zambrotta, Edmilson and Deco making way along with Ronaldinho, who will hoping a change of scenery will reignite his love affair with the game.

However, with striker Samuel Eto’o now been told he has a future at the Nou Camp, a new forward arrival is not likely to be in the frame.

The Yellow Submarines of Villarreal continue to punch well above their weight amongst their millionaire rivals. Last season saw them finish 10 points above Barcelona in second position, their highest-ever league placing, securing a Champions League spot in the process.

Under the astute stewardship of Manuel Pellegrini, the club have never finished lower than seventh as the Chilean prepares for his fifth season in charge.

Although Pellegrini has made plenty of changes to his squad, unlike in previous seasons he has managed to keep hold of his best players apart from highly-rated Uruguayan defender Martin Caceres, who has joined Barcelona without actually playing a first team match for Villarreal.

Euro 2008 winners Joan Capdevila, Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla form the backbone of the side, with Turkish striker Nihat Kahveci remaining a potent threat.

Point to prove

It does not necessarily follow that a playing hero at a club will automatically succeed as that club’s coach, so former midfielder Pep Guardiola faces a tough task in leading Barcelona back to their prime after a barren two years.

Just one season after being named as coach of Barcelona’s B side, the 37-year-old former midfield maestro was catapulted into the top post after Frank Rijkaard’s departure.

Guardiola has already made his mark, jettisoning stalwarts Deco, Ronaldinho and Thuram and bringing in a host of new players. However, it remains to be seen how the new-look Barca will gel together and whether Guardiola can get the best out of Thierry Henry, after the Frenchman’s mediocre first season with the Catalan giants.

Samuel Eto’o’s future continues to be the subject of debate with the Cameroon striker seemingly on his way, although the choice of destinations appears limited. If Guardiola can find the right blend in attack, he could well become a hero all over again for the club he played over 260 games for.

New Boys

Numancia were promoted to the Primera Liga as champions, with Malaga and Sporting Gijon joining them in the top division.

It will Numancia’s first season back in the top flight since their relegation in 2004-05 and that followed their previous promotion the season before.

With a capacity of under 10,000 and a completely Spanish squad not containing a single foreign import, they will find life tough this season.

After two seasons in the Segunda Division, Malaga are back in the big time. Of the three promoted teams, they certainly have the tradition and facilities to cope with promotion. UEFA Cup quarterfinalists just five years ago, Malaga are owned by former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz.

Sporting Gijon had been knocking on the door of a return to the top flight for 11 long seasons, before finally achieving that target last campaign.

Aside from much-travelled Croatian striker Mate Bilic, Gijon are another squad made up of solely Spanish players and, like Numancia, will struggle this season.

Hello

No club has been busier in the summer transfer market than Champions League qualifiers Atletico Madrid, with a host of new faces for the regulars at the Vicente Calderon stadium to get accustomed to in what should be a successful season for the capital club.

Among coach Javier Aguirre’s acquisitions are Porto central midfielder Paulo Assuncao, who will sit in front of the back four in a similar role than the one played by Marcos Senna at Villarreal.

Goalkeeper Gregory Coupet might be 35 now, but he brings a wealth of experience to the club after winning seven successive French titles with Lyon, as well as continuing to be first choice for the national team.

Another newcomer is Dutch utility defender John Heitinga on a five-year contract. The 24-year-old broke into the Ajax side as a 17-year-old and is a regular in the Dutch squad, appearing in both the last World Cup and Euro 2008.

Goodbye

Dani Guiza’s 17 million euros move from Mallorca to Fenerbahce has robbed La Liga of its top scorer from last season.

Guiza plundered an astonishing 27 goals from 37 games with the island club, after similar impressive spells with Murcia and Getafe, to earn a call-up to the Spanish national side — culminating in him scoring twice in Euro 2008 as Spain lifted the trophy.

When Spain coach Luis Aragones took charge of Fenerbahce, he knew where to go to find a striker and the 27-year-old quickly finalized a move to Istanbul after just one season with Mallorca.

Frank Rijkaard carried on a Dutch tradition when he was appointed Barcelona manager in 2003, following compatriots Louis van Gaal and the great Johan Cruyff in leading the Catalan giants.

Five years somehow seemed about the right length of time for Rijkaard’s tenure — and although by the time he had left Barcelona had ceded bragging rights to Real Madrid in La Liga, there is no doubt that, on the whole, Rijkaard’s time in charge was a success.

A thrilling late comeback against Arsenal in 2006 gave Barcelona only their second Champions League success, the same year as they lifted their second Primera Liga crown under Rijkaard. The Dutchman also led Barca to the title in 2005 and presided over an exciting brand of football that thrilled the football world.

Although he was linked with the Chelsea job for a quite a while, they proved to be just rumors. However, it seems unlikely that Rijkaard will be out of football for very long.

Swapping shirts

Daniel Alves had been linked with a big-money move away from Sevilla for a long time before he finally got his wish this summer with a 30 million euros switch to Barcelona — the biggest Spanish summer transfer

In his six years with Sevilla, Alves gained a reputation as being the finest wing-back in the world, with his marauding runs forward and tenacious tackling proving a valuable commodity in defense and attack alike.

Alves appeared set to join Chelsea in the summer of 2007 but Sevilla rejected two bids for the player, causing a rift which was only settled when Alves agreed to stay at the club following the death of his friend and team-mate Antonio Puerta.

However, a year later, the Brazilian has got his dream transfer to become the most expensive right-back in world football.

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