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THE FINISH LINE

La Liga set for tight contest after summer transfer blitz

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are in a three-horse race for the Spanish league title

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Real Madrid struggled for goals and creativity last season, and manager Zinedine Zidane is relying on Hazard (at left here, seen in action against RB Salzburg) to solve the problem and be the catalyst for a much-needed revival.

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Frenkie de Jong becomes the leader of a new generation emerging at Camp Nou and will be expected to exert more control in midfield.

Madrid

THE 2019/20 Spanish football league season has kicked off this weekend with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid all boasting far stronger teams than before.

This after a record-smashing summer transfer window which saw Spain's three biggest clubs splurge over 800 million euros (S$1.2 billion) on new players.

The defending champions Barcelona have been practically in a league of their own in the last two seasons, and they are favourites once again to win a third consecutive title after making some smart moves in the summer to replenish their glittering squad of serial winners.

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Barcelona began their season with a tricky away game against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday morning (3am, Singapore time), where they flaunted France's World Cup-winning forward Antoine Griezmann and fresh-faced Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who both signed for a combined 195 million euros.

The Catalans were without talisman and usual top scorer Lionel Messi for their first match as he recovers from a muscle injury.

Barcelona are also still linked with a sensational move to re-sign Brazilian star Neymar from Paris St Germain.

The 33-times champions Real Madrid, meanwhile, are plotting an attempted resurgence in the league and they start away to Celta Vigo on Saturday, after two disastrous campaigns in a row that saw them finish 17 and 19 points adrift of Barcelona respectively.

Madrid have spent a staggering 305 million euros in the off-season with a third of that amount on Belgium forward Eden Hazard, but the mood at the Santiago Bernabeu is far from optimistic after a terrible run of results in pre-season.

Last year's runners-up Atletico Madrid have also thrown big money around this summer after cashing in on the sales of Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez and Rodri and they host Getafe in a euphoric mood after an outstanding pre-season campaign.

"I've never been more excited about a new season," said Atletico midfielder Koke. "New players have come in with lots of hope and humility and they are prepared to word hard."

Portuguese teenager Joao Felix will be the player to watch at the Wanda Metropolitano after an 126-million-euro move from Benfica, although the forward's impressive early performances indicate he will not be intimidated by his huge price tag.

Valencia - the team owned by Singapore's former remisier king Peter Lim - finished fourth last season but will face a stern battle for the final Champions League spot with Sevilla.

Valencia's new coach Julen Lopetegui is determined to rebuild his reputation after being sacked by both the Spanish national team and Real Madrid last year.

Sevilla are the biggest spenders outside the top three, shelling out some 150 million euros on 13 new players, although they have bid farewell to crucial players in Wissam Ben Yedder and Pablo Sarabia.

Real Mallorca make a long-awaited return to the top flight after a six-year absence and are joined by Osasuna and Granada, who were both relegated from La Liga two years ago.

FIVE KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH

Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)

Hazard raised eyebrows by returning to pre-season out of shape but there was nothing lethargic about the stunning goal he scored against RB Salzburg in a recent friendly.

Real Madrid struggled for goals and creativity last season, and manager Zinedine Zidane is relying on Hazard to solve the problem and be the catalyst for a much-needed revival.

Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)

Many wondered whether it was prudent to spend all the money from the sale of Griezmann o+n a player who has barely started his senior career but Felix has dazzled in pre-season and already erased the frustration of the Frenchman's departure.

The 19-year-old will need time but could unlock a more adventurous Atletico, who look well-placed to challenge.

Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona)

De Jong was at the heart of Ajax's barnstorming Champions League semi-final run last season but he faces a quite different challenge at Barcelona.

He becomes the leader of a new generation emerging at Camp Nou and whether alongside or instead of the 31-year-old Sergio Busquets, De Jong will be expected to exert more control in midfield.

Maxi Gomez (Valencia)

After winning the Copa del Rey and snatching fourth place, Valencia backed their coach Marcelino Garcia Toral by signing his No 1 target from Celta Vigo.

Maxi hit 13 goals for a struggling Celta side last season and could be crucial to Valencia's hopes of making the top four again, particularly if Rodrigo Moreno completes a shock move to Atletico Madrid.

Martin Odegaard (Real Sociedad)

It was perhaps not surprising that Odegaard failed to live up to the extraordinary hype that surrounded his move to Real Madrid as a 16-year-old in 2014.

But a two-year loan at Real Sociedad offers the Norwegian a chance to build on an encouraging spell at Vitesse last season. Still a brilliant young talent, Odegaard should be able to step up. REUTERS, AFP