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La Liga Preview: Barcelona Return To Barcelona Face Athletic Bilbao Demons

Barca-ChampionsBarcelona won’t have to wait long to try to correct the errors that saw them lose the Spanish Super Cup to Athletic Bilbao as they return to San Mames on Sunday in their La Liga opener.

The European champions were thrashed 4-0 in Bilbao just a week ago as an under-manned Catalan defence failed to cope with the presence of Aritz Aduriz, who struck a hat-trick and then also scored in the return leg as the Basques won the final 5-1 on aggregate.

Barcelona coach Luis Enrique has even more defensive problems as his side look for revenge as Gerard Pique has been banned for four matches after being sent off in Monday’s 1-1 draw for verbally abusing the match officials.

Jordi Alba remains a doubt with a hamstring injury, while Neymar hasn’t returned to training since he was diagnosed with the mumps two weeks ago. The coach must also decide who to play in goal. Claudio Bravo made his first appearance of the campaign in the home game against Athletic after Marc-Andre ter Stegen had been selected for the first two matches of the season in which Barcelona conceded eight times.

Athletic have injury problems of their own with Inaki Williams and Ander Iturraspe doubtful and they could pay physically for a busy schedule over the past week as, after a parade through Bilbao to celebrate their first trophy for 31 years, the Basques were back in action in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday away to MSK Zilina in Slovakia.

Rafa’s Real Madrid
The Rafa Benitez era at Real Madrid begins away to newly-promoted Sporting Gijon on Sunday. Los Blancos have had a less than impressive pre-season, adding to doubts over whether Benitez was the right man to replace the popular Carlo Ancelotti after a season in which Madrid failed to win a major trophy.

Benitez is likely to be without both Pepe and Karim Benzema as they have missed the majority of pre-season through injury, so Gareth Bale could be paired with Cristiano Ronaldo in attack with the Welshman expected to play in a more central role this season. Given Real’s unusually quiet summer in the transfer market and Barcelona’s ban on registering players, it is 2014 champions Atletico Madrid who have been the biggest spenders in the close season.

Diego Simeone’s men look well prepared to launch another bid for the title thanks to the signings of Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto from Porto and Villarreal respectively to complement Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres in attack. Atletico face another newly-promoted side in Las Palmas at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday as the islanders make their return to the top flight for the first time in 13 years.

Valencia got their season off to a flying start with a 3-1 win over Monaco on Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League play-off, but face a tricky trip to Rayo Vallecano for their league opener.

Malaga and Sevilla have the honours in getting the league season underway as they face off on Friday night in an Andalusian derby.

Spanish La Liga fixtures

Malaga v Sevilla

Deportivo La Coruna v Real Sociedad, Espanyol v Getafe, Atletico Madrid v Las Palmas, Rayo Vallecano v Valencia

Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona, Sporting Gijon v Real Madrid, Levante v Celta Vigo, Real Betis v Villarreal

Granada v Eibar