Barca facing tough task to retain La Liga title

MADRID - Champions Barcelona begin their bid for a sixth La Liga title in eight years at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday knowing that fellow heavyweights Real Madrid could, unusually, be just one of several challengers for their crown.

Under new coach Rafa Benitez, Real are desperate to recover from a 2014-15 season when they failed to win major silverware and will be looking to FIFA Ballon d'Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo to break more scoring records and hoping world record signing Gareth Bale can rediscover his best form.

Atletico Madrid proved they are genuine contenders by winning Spain's top flight in 2013-14 and inspirational Argentine coach Diego Simeone has overseen some canny business in the latest transfer window, including luring Colombia striker Jackson Martinez from Porto.

And it would be no great surprise if Valencia, flush with cash following last year's takeover by Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, and Europa League champions Sevilla, who gave Barca a mighty scare in this month's European Super Cup, are in the mix at the top of the table come May. "In Spain we don't just have Barcelona," Benitez told daily El Pais this week. "There is Atletico, Valencia, Sevilla, who are all performing very well," added the much-travelled 55-year-old, who began his coaching career in Real's academy after his nascent playing career was ended by injury. "But it's true that Barcelona are the champions and the reference point." Bilbao showed Barca are vulnerable when they thrashed them 4-0 in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup last week, going on to seal a 5-1 aggregate success in the return on Monday, and the pressure on the Catalan club to match last term's haul of Champions League, La Liga and King's Cup titles will be immense.

Much will depend on the form of talismanic forward Lionel Messi, who with strike partners Neymar and Luis Suarez rattled in a Spanish record 122 goals in all competitions last term.

Andalusian rivals Sevilla and Malaga get the new season under way on Friday when they clash at the Rosaleda (1830 GMT), before Atletico host promoted Las Palmas (1830) and Valencia play at Rayo Vallecano (2030) on Saturday.

After Barca play at Bilbao on Sunday (1630), Real are at another promoted side, Sporting Gijon (1830), and second-division champions Real Betis host Villarreal (2030).