Barcelona open title defense against Villarreal

Updated: 26 August 2011 17:04 IST

With the players' strike over, Barcelona finally begin their campaign for a fourth straight Spanish league title on Monday, against the potent offense of Villarreal.

Barcelona open title defense against Villarreal

Barcelona:

With the players' strike over, Barcelona finally begin their campaign for a fourth straight Spanish league title on Monday, against the potent offense of Villarreal.

The Catalan giant will have to recover quickly from Friday's European Super Cup against FC Porto and overcome injuries to central midfielders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola says he's not concerned about defending the title and that "we have always looked forward and this will not be an exception."

Defender Eric Abidal and midfielder Javier Mascherano filled in as centerbacks last season and will likely do so again for World Cup winners Puyol and Pique.

Spain's opening week also features the visit of Real Madrid to Zaragoza on Sunday then the Andalucian derby between Sevilla and a revamped Malaga.

All teams will have to quickly regain their focus after Spain's first work stoppage in 27 years delayed the first round.

While the European champions' defensive line may be in tatters, two-time defending Ballon D'Or Lionel Messi has begun the campaign in fine form scoring three goals in Barcelona's embittered two-leg Spanish Supercup win over Real Madrid.

Messi, who was just named UEFA's Best Player in Europe, scored twice in Villarreal's visit last season, that was more evenly contested than its 3-1 result.

The Argentine star will likely have the chance to further get to know newcomers Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, who could be back from a leg injury in time to make his Camp Nou debut.

Villarreal's flowing attack took it to a fourth-place finish last season. And despite losing playmaker Santi Cazorla to big-spending Malaga over the summer, the "Yellow Submarine" still has enough talent to maintain its offensive verve.

Most importantly, Villarreal held on to striker Giuseppe Rossi, who was linked to various major clubs - including Barcelona - during the off-season after scoring a team-high 31 goals in all competitions last season.

"Despite the rumors this summer I am (still) with Villarreal and I want to have a great season," the Italy international said after scoring a double to classify Villarreal for the Champions League group phase in a 3-0 win over Danish side Odense this week.

Madrid, meanwhile, need to turn their attention to the pitch after a tumultuous week following coach Jose Mourinho's abrasive antics in its Supercup defeat to its archrival. A depleted Zaragoza side that has lost key players from last season's difficult season appears to be the perfect opportunity to do so.

"In football you can't dwell on the past," said Madrid defender Sergio Ramos. "Now we have a season ahead of us and that's what we have to think about."

Malaga owner Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani spent €60 million ($85 million) to completely overhaul his squad and make the Costa del Sol club into a continental competitor.

The road to Europe, however, will very likely pass through Sevilla, for years the most dominant team in southern Spain and a perennial European side.

Midfielder Sergio "Duda" Barbosa, one of Malaga's returning veterans, said the game against Sevilla was a chance for his team "to demonstrate how far we are going to fight by the end of the season."

On Saturday, Sporting Gijon hosts Real Sociedad to inaugurate the new season, followed by Racing Santander at Valencia and Betis at Granada.

Sunday marks a change in league scheduling, with more games during the day rather than the evening in hope of increasing television audiences at home and abroad.

Therefore, the schedule begins with Atletico Madrid hosting Osasuna at noon local time, on a day when temperatures are forecast to surpass 30 degrees (86 F). Athletic Bilbao then welcomes Rayo Vallecano, Getafe plays Levante and Espanyol is at Mallorca.

This weekend's first and second division games were in doubt until the players' union and league struck a deal on Thursday that satisfied the players' demand for the payment of €50 million ($72 million) owed in back wages to over 200 players.

The games originally scheduled for the first round will be played from Jan. 20-22, while the 20th round of games, which were initially scheduled to be played then, will be moved to May 2.

Topics : Football Valencia Villarreal Barcelona Lionel Andres Messi
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