MADRID (Reuters) - European champions Real Madrid will begin their LaLiga title defence against promoted Almeria on Sunday but they will be under no illusion that the biggest obstacle in their pursuit of a 36th title will be a revamped and hungry Barcelona side.
Real completed the double last season by claiming a record-extending 35th LaLiga title before conquering Europe too, winning a record-extending 14th Champions League title.
Carlo Ancelotti will be relying on almost the same group of victorious players to leave their mark on this season. The additions of former Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger as a free-agent and France midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco for a fee that could rise up to 100 million euros will further strengthen the squad.
With 34-year-old French striker Karim Benzema and 22-year-old Brazilian winger Vinicius Jr forming a potent duo up front, Real have a fine mix of youth and experience to tackle the toughest challenges, such as in their amazing run of comebacks against Paris St Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in last year's Champions League.
Determined to end their three-year LaLiga title drought, Barcelona were Europe's biggest spenders in the close season as they splashed out around 150 million euros ($155.21 million) to assemble an all-star team, signing Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich, Brazil winger Raphinha from Leeds United and defender Jules Kounde from Sevilla.
However, due to a deep financial crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and, restricted by LaLiga's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, Barca are still unable to register their new players ahead of the season opener on Saturday against Rayo Vallecano.
Barca are running against the clock trying to activate a final financial lever, along with their attempt to sell Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong which would enable them to get the green light from LaLiga for their new signings.
Their deadline is the end of the transfer window on Aug. 31.
Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid will also want to consider themselves among the title contenders following their triumphant run to the title in 2021.
But they kept a low-profile during the close season, with the priority being to ensure they did not lose any of their key players in the build-up to their opening match against Getafe on Monday.
They extended goalkeeper Jan Oblak's contract until 2028 and France international midfielder Thomas Lemar's until 2027, and signed fullback Nahuel Molina from Udinese.
Forward Alvaro Morata is back after spending a season on loan at Juventus and he will add some much needed firepower to Atletico up-front, alongside Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix.
Julen Lopetegui's Sevilla, who kick off their campaign against Osasuna on Friday, signed playmaker Isco Alarcon as a free agent after his contract with Real Madrid expired at the end of last season. Along with Champions League semi-finalists Villarreal, they will be eager to challenge the top-three's dominance in the league.
(Reporting by Fernando Kallas, editing by Pritha Sarkar)