The La Liga giants start their campaigns at home on Sunday, with Real Madrid hosting Real Betis and Barca welcoming Levante. (Getty Images)
Madrid: A mass exodus of talent from La Liga means the 2013-2014 campaign looks more than ever to be an exclusive battle for the title between wealthy Real Madrid and Barcelona. For years, the Spanish league has drawn players from all over the world but while Real and Barca, the world's richest clubs by revenue, continue to attract the biggest names, the trend seems to be swinging the other way for financial reasons.
There are 14 Spanish players alone who have moved to the English Premier League for the new season, including internationals Alvaro Negredo, Roberto Soldado and Jesus Navas. Spain's Thiago Alcantara has gone to Bayern Munich, Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli, and Colombia striker Radamel Falcao to Monaco.
Champions Barca, under new coach Gerardo Martino, can perhaps shake off the loss of Thiago with the depth of talent in their midfield, but have strengthened anyway by splurging 57 million euros ($75.62 million) on Brazil striker Neymar.
Real also have a new coach in Carlo Ancelotti and should be able to cover for the missing Higuain. They have lavished over 75 million euros on players such as Spain Under-21 internationals Isco and Asier Illarramendi. They start their campaign at home to Real Betis on Sunday, while Barca are at home to Levante earlier in the day.
Real and Barca benefit from individual television deals which give them around half of the total revenue generated by La Liga and help them to maintain squads whose second XIs could probably finish in the top half of the table.
Their closest rivals, such as Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Malaga, have all lost their leading lights. The money they have taken in from sales has had to be used in belt-tightening exercises as they strive to meet the new Financial Fair Play rules being imposed by European soccer's governing body UEFA, rather than invested in new players.
Atletico, who start out at Sevilla on Sunday, finished third last season to qualify for the Champions League and gave the top two a run for their money before faltering near the end of the season.
They sold top-scorer Falcao for some 50 million euros but hope to have landed one of the bargains of the close season - Spain striker David Villa for a fee that could rise to only 5 million euros.
"The club's great work recently has been to maintain the structure of the team," coach Diego Simeone told a news conference on Wednesday. "Although important players have gone, this structure remains."
With Brazilian forward Leo Baptistao and Argentina defender Martin Demichelis also low-cost additions, they could arguably have a stronger squad than last year. They take on a Sevilla side that has been completely overhauled to start from scratch again under Unai Emery.
Negredo and Navas have been sold to Manchester City and the club is hoping long-standing sports director Ramon 'Monchi' Rodriguez's renowned scouting structure can deliver the goods once again.
Sociedad were surprise fourth-placed finishers last term but face up to the new season, starting at home to Getafe on Saturday, without midfield mainstay Illarramendi, who was lured away to the Bernabeu.
The Basque side is sticking with pretty much the same squad and hoping the untried Jagoba Arraste, promoted from within, can carry on the good work of previous coach Philippe Montanier, who has returned to France.
The weekend's other outstanding match features Valencia hosting Malaga on Saturday, last season's fifth and sixth-placed finishers respectively. New Valencia coach Miroslav Djukic will hope the 3-million-euro Helder Postiga can fill the boots of departed top-scorer Soldado.
New Malaga coach Bernd Schuster will have his work cut out to emulate Manuel Pellegrini's time at the club without the many players who have left, including Isco, Joaquin, Julio Baptista, Javier Saviola and Jeremy Toulalan.