Football

Barca face uncertainty over La Liga defence

Pedro's exit and wobbly early-season form put pressure on Messi and Co

Champions Barcelona will begin their bid for a sixth La Liga title in eight years at Athletic Bilbao on Monday morning (Singapore time) without forward Pedro Rodriguez.

The Spain international yesterday moved to English Premiership defending champions Chelsea in a deal believed to be worth £21 million ($46m).

The Blues swooped in to sign the 28-year-old after Manchester United withdrew their interest.

The departure of Pedro adds to the uncertainty hovering over the team that won it all in spectacular fashion last season.

A shaky backline, sloppy passes, and even a self-destructive outburst from the team's best defender Gerard Pique have given coach Luis Enrique more than enough to muddle over before the league opener.

Bilbao exposed Barca's vulnerability when they thrashed them 4-0 in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup last week, going on to seal a 5-1 aggregate success in the return leg on Monday.

The attacking verve and disciplined defence that swept the La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey titles last season seem to be lacking, judging by their pre-season form.

Before the Bilbao debacle, the European champions' fitness had already been tested by Sevilla, when Barcelona squandered a 4-1 second-half lead before Pedro secured the Uefa Super Cup with a 5-4 victory in extra time.

Andres Iniesta, Barcelona's new team captain following Xavi Hernandez's departure after 17 seasons, has called for calm.

"We have only lost one title," Iniesta said. "Now it is time to pick ourselves up and focus on the league. Nobody is tired and there is no lack of heart."

Enrique will not have Neymar or Pique for the Bilbao trip.

Brazil striker Neymar has the mumps, while Pique was suspended for the first four games of the season after he earned a rash red card for screaming at a line judge in the second-leg against Bilbao.

Despite the team's unsteady start, it will be foolhardy to write Barcelona off in fighting for titles this season.

Enrique will have a deeper squad come January as new signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal will join the team, following the club's completion of the one-year transfer ban because they broke Fifa regulations regarding the transfers of underage players.

Much will depend on the form of talismanic forward Lionel Messi who, with strike partners Neymar and Luis Suarez, rattled in a Spanish record of 122 goals in all competitions last term.

The 28-year-old Messi has scored three goals across the three official games played so far this season, and he should be as motivated as ever after a second straight disappointing summer with Argentina, who came up short again, falling to Chile in the Copa America final.

But Barcelona know that fellow heavyweights Real Madrid could, unusually, be just one of several challengers for their crown.

Under new coach Rafael Benitez, Real are desperate to recover from last season when they failed to win major silverware and will be looking to Fifa Ballon d'Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo to break more scoring records and hoping world-record signing Gareth Bale can rediscover his best form.

Atletico Madrid proved they are genuine contenders by winning Spain's top flight in 2013-14 and Argentinian coach Diego Simeone has overseen some canny business in the transfer window, including luring Colombia striker Jackson Martinez from Porto.

And it would be no great surprise if Valencia, flush with cash following last year's takeover by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, and Europa League champions Sevilla, who gave Barca a mighty scare in this month's Uefa Super Cup, are in the mix at the top of the table come May.

"In Spain, we don't just have Barcelona," Benitez told daily El Pais. "There is Atletico, Valencia, Sevilla, who are all performing very well," added the much-travelled 55-year-old, who began his coaching career in Real's academy. But it's true that Barcelona are the champions and the reference point." 
- Wire Services.


FIXTURES

TOMORROW (Singapore time)

  • l 2.30am: Malaga v Sevilla

SUNDAY

  • 12.20am: Deportivo v 
Real Sociedad, Espanyol v Getafe
  • 2.30am: Atletico Madrid v 
Las Palmas
  • 4.30am: Rayo Vallecano v Valencia

MONDAY

  • 12.30am: Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona
  • 2.30am: Sporting Gijon v 
Real Madrid
  • 4am: Levante v Celta Vigo
  • 4.30am: Real Betis v Villarreal

TUESDAY

  • 2.30am: Granada v Eibar

The 5 challengers

ATLETICO MADRID

Last season: third

Atletico's title triumph in 2013/14 is the only time Barcelona and Real Madrid have been denied the title for the past 11 years. Diego Simeone's men now look better placed to launch another challenge after another busy summer at the Vicente Calderon. The signings of strikers Jackson Martinez (right) and Luciano Vietto to join forces with Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres provide a frontline as deadly as when Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa were paired together in the early stages of Simeone's reign.

VALENCIA

Last season: fourth

Valencia, struggling to meet Financial Fair Play regulations, could be affected by the loss of their most important player from last season in Nicolas Otamendi to Manchester City.

But, the promising young talents of Santi Mina (right) and Zakaria Bakkali add to an already impressive array of attacking talent. With a small squad, a return to the top four is likely to be the height of Nuno Espirito Santo's men's ambition this season.

SEVILLA

Last season: fifth

Another Europa League title, their fourth in 10 years, provided a route back to the Champions League for Sevilla.

The eight new signings from the sale of Aleix Vidal and Carlos Bacca will provide plenty of options for coach Unai Emery.

The capture of Ukranian star Yevhen Konoplyanka (right) on a free transfer from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk could prove to be the deal of the summer.

VILLARREAL

Last season: sixth

Villarreal signalled their intent to break into the top four with the double capture of the highly rated Samu Castillejo and Samuel Garcia from Malaga and by bringing Roberto Soldado (left) back to La Liga after a disastrous spell with Tottenham Hotspur.

However, with competition at the top of the table so stiff, Marcelino's men may target winning the Europa League as the most realistic route back into the Champions League.

ATHLETIC BILBAO

Last season: seventh

The high point of Athletic's season may have already come before the league even gets underway as they beat Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate to claim their first trophy in 31 years in the Spanish Super Cup. A reliance on 34-year-old striker Aritz Aduriz (right) makes a return to the top-four unlikely, but they are always dangerous in Cup competitions and could go far in the Copa del Rey and Europa League. 
- AFP.

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