Post-Neymar Barca look to chase down Madrid
By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - La Liga's reputation as the epicenter of world soccer talent has been bruised by the world record smashing sale of Neymar to Paris St Germain and how Barcelona react to the departure of one of their leading players will define the new season in Spain.
Barca outscored Real Madrid last season with their ferocious attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar but still surrendered the title to Zinedine Zidane's side.
Purists at Barcelona hope the virtuoso Brazilian's departure will lead to new coach Ernesto Valverde building a more balanced side and reverting to the possession-based style of play perfected under former coach Pep Guardiola to try and wrestle the title back from Madrid.
The champions are also grappling with questions over their strongest formation.
They looked at their most powerful last campaign playing a four-man midfield lead by playmaker Isco rather than with their usual three-pronged attack, which has left question marks about the future of Gareth Bale.
There is little doubt about the quality of Real's nucleus of players that last season won the league and became the first team to successfully defend the European Cup since 1990, however, and they looked as unbeatable as ever in their 2-1 win over Manchester United to win the European Super Cup.
The range of talent in Real's squad explains why their recent transfer activities have been geared towards building for the future rather than the immediate present, bringing in 19-year-old full back Theo Hernandez from Atletico Madrid and Spain under-21 midfielder Dani Ceballos.
Barca have added more pace to their side with the return of winger Gerard Deulofeu after stints in England and Italy although the Spaniard cannot be expected to be a replacement for Neymar.
Valverde has strengthened in the one key area they were lacking last term by recruiting Portugal right back Nelson Semedo, although he still faces a huge task in hunting down Zidane's all conquering side who show no sign of letting up.
"I don't know if we can play even better than we have been, but we're going to keep trying," Zidane said after the Super Cup win. "Our ambition is to keep getting better and better."
The title race is set to be even more of a two horse race than in previous seasons as third force Atletico Madrid have been unable to strengthen due to a ban on registering new players until January, while Diego Simeone's side may also take time to bed into their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
Competing with Atletico for third will be Sevilla, who spent much of the last campaign competing for top spot until dropping out of the title race and finishing fourth and have had a summer of change, bringing in former Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo to replace Jorge Sampaoli.
They have also parted ways with Spain winger Vitolo, captain Vicente Iborra and, more crucially, long time sporting director Monchi, who has been credited with unearthing so many of the players responsible for the team's many successes in the 21st century.
Valencia will expect a big improvement on a chaotic last season with the appointment of Marcelino, who built a rock solid defence and consistent side in his years at Villarreal, while Athletic Bilbao are also primed for a new era after losing Valverde, their longest running coach, who has been replaced by reserve team manager Jose Angel Ziganda.
Elsewhere, Catalan side Girona are gearing up for their first season in the top flight while Levante and Getafe made swift returns to La Liga after being relegated in 2016.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)