As the Spanish Liga counts down to this weekend's delayed start, FC Barcelona's Josep Guardiola is guarding against complacency, saying: "We can't assume we are back to our best."
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With a resolution to the dispute between the players' union and the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP) allowing Spain's top two divisions to begin this weekend, the talk turns to which teams will prosper on the trophy front this season.
Following last weekend's postponement – caused by disagreements between the Asociación de Futbolistas Españoles (AFE) and the LFP – the first round of games in the 81st Liga season, along with those in the second division, have been rescheduled for 26 October.
However, the second matchday goes ahead as planned, with FC Barcelona – narrow favourites to retain the title ahead of Real Madrid CF – opening their challenge at home to Villarreal CF on Monday because of UEFA Super Cup commitments.
The UEFA Champions League holders enjoyed an ideal start to 2011/12 by beating José Mourinho's Merengues over two legs to collect the Spanish Super Cup, 5-4 on aggregate. "Those two intense games against Madrid were excellent preparation for us but we can't assume that because we won we are already back to our best," said Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola, who has now equalled Johan Cruyff's haul of 11 trophies.
Barça finished four points above Madrid last term to clinch their 21st championship – and third in a row – and with the additions of Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas, Guardiola expects an even stronger showing in the coming campaign.
"We are doing everything in our power to help the new players adapt as quickly as possible," explained the 40-year-old. "Alexis has already won over his team-mates, who saw how much he ran at the Santiago Bernabéu [in the Super Cup first leg]. He comes from a humble background and shows that every day in training – he is very ambitious. With Cesc, I see a player whose characteristics and immense quality will stand him in good stead."
Describing Madrid as "the strongest possible rival", Guardiola predicts that the Copa del Rey holders will "go very far in all competitions". In their attempt to secure a first Liga crown since 2008, the nine-time European champions have recruited Nuri Şahin, Hamit Altıntop, José Callejón, Raphaël Varane and Fábio Coentrão.
"It looks like we are a better team than we were last term," Mourinho said after completing his side's pre-season. "We have done some great work this summer. I think we have improved some areas of our game but we must improve further."
With Madrid's main obstacle to a 32nd title almost certainly Barcelona, Mourinho – readying his troops for Sunday's curtain-raiser at Real Zaragoza – reckons there is little to choose between Spain's big two. "If you look at the six games we've played [against Barcelona] in the last four months, and study the results, you can see there is quite a balance," he said. "I don't expect that to change."
Elsewhere, much of the build-up has focused on Málaga CF, whose coach Manuel Pellegrini is attempting to quell great expectations ahead of their trip to Sevilla FC. Málaga's spending spree has brought in Santi Cazorla, Diego Buonanotte, Isco, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Nacho Monreal, Joris Mathijsen, Jérémy Toulalan, Sergio Sánchez and Joaquín.
Club Atlético de Madrid – who start at home to CA Osasuna – offloaded Sergio Agüero and David de Gea before investing in FC Porto's UEFA Europa League-winning striker Falcao. UEFA Champions League hopefuls Valencia CF landed Sergio Canales from Madrid but must do without Juan Mata, now at Chelsea FC. Unai Emery's men host Real Racing Club on Saturday.