Under José Mourinho, Real Madrid CF were crowned kings of Spanish football when they won their 32nd Liga title – and first in four years – last May yet the Portuguese coach will need to fend off a new breed of challengers to keep the Merengues at the top.
Ahead of the 82nd Spanish top-flight campaign, FC Barcelona and Valencia CF – Madrid's closest rivals last term – announced changes to their respective coaching setups with Tito Vilanova and Mauricio Pellegrino tasked with catching Mourinho's record-breaking charges.
Arriving at the Camp Nou for Sunday's opener against Real Sociedad de Fútbol, Blaugrana fans will witness the beginning of a new era following the departure of Josep Guardiola – winner of 14 trophies in four seasons at the helm of the four-time European champions. His assistant throughout, Vilanova insists he will not respond well to being compared with the man he met as a boy when both trained at Barcelona's La Masia youth academy.
"I am here to do my work and not to compete with those who came before me," the former RC Celta de Vigo player said. "I would lose in any comparison with Pep but I will say that on footballing matters we were in agreement 99.9% of the time. [In fact] I never really felt like the second in command because I participated in much of what was done."
Having come through a recent health scare – requiring treatment for a tumour in his mouth – the 42-year-old Vilanova says he has no fear about attempting to peg back a Madrid side that triumphed last term with an unprecedented 100 points and 121 goals.
"After what I went through you might say that coaching Barça is child's play," he explained. "[I discussed the decision to lead the team] with my family and my doctors and they all said, 'go for it', that I was in perfect condition and there wouldn't be any problems."
While Barcelona are strengthened by the arrival of Spanish international Jordi Alba, the full-back's old club Valencia – who begin with a visit to the champions on Sunday – have replaced outgoing coach Unai Emery with Argentinian Mauricio Pellegrino. Meanwhile, Andrés Guardado, João Pereira, Fernando Gago, Sergio Canales and Nelson Valdez have reinforced the playing staff.
A former Valencia defender, the 40-year-old Pellegrino was a double Liga winner at Mestalla under Rafael Benítez – whom he later assisted at Liverpool FC and FC Internazionale Milano – and twice a UEFA Champions League runner-up.
Hoping to register similar success on his first foray into top-flight management, the 1998/99 league champion with Barcelona said: "The moment of truth is upon us and it is time for us to give everything we have. We still have things to improve but we will play a good game against Real Madrid at the weekend. If we don't, we can expect to suffer."
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