MADRID: Atletico Madrid have been sitting comfortably as Spain's third power for the best part of a decade but that status is under threat ahead of the new La Liga campaign by a Sevilla side on the rise and an ambitious Villarreal.
Atletico began last season as title contenders after a superb pre-season and making some eye-catching signings. However, that early promise soon faded as the new arrivals struggled to bed in and they had to pull together an impressive late charge to finish in the top four.
Hopes for this campaign have been tempered following their Champions League defeat by unfancied RB Leipzig and little prospect of new signings due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With few arrivals on the horizon, there will be increased pressure on last year's recruits, particularly 126-million-euro (US$149.47 million) forward Joao Felix, who showed only flashes of brilliance in a campaign in which he scored nine goals in all competitions.
"We had a lot of new players and the first year is never easy," said midfielder Saul Niguez.
"But I think this year we'll see those players settling in more and understanding more what the boss wants from them.
"I sincerely think this year we'll learn from our errors and be a more consistent team and we'll try and achieve great things despite it being a strange season."
Atleti will certainly need to be consistent as they will be feeling the heat from Sevilla, who came fourth but finished level on points with them last season before crowning their campaign by winning a sixth Europa League title.
Sevilla are one of the few teams that could actually benefit from the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, as the reduced spending power of their European counterparts means that, for once, their squad will largely stay together.
The club may have parted with long-serving playmaker Ever Banega but they have brought back former captain Ivan Rakitic from Barcelona and added Spain international Oscar Rodriguez.
"This is one of, if not the best, Sevilla sides ever but we want more, our ambition knows no limits," said president Pepe Castro.
"Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico have enormous power but I'm certain Sevilla are ready to take their place if one of the three slip up."
Another side with ambition to gatecrash Spanish football's elite is Villarreal, who narrowly missed out on a top-four finish last term.
They have made three smart moves in midfield by signing Dani Parejo, Francis Coquelin and Takefusa Kubo as well as appointing the highly experienced Unai Emery as coach.
(US$1 = 0.8430 euros)
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)