Will big spending lift Barcelona past Real Madrid this season?

Last season, Barcelona made it to the semifinals of the Champions League, but off-the-pitch distractions and inconsistent performances on the pitch saw the Blaugrana fail to keep the pace with rivals Real Madrid in the home stretch of the La Liga season and finish 3rd, a distant 18 points behind Real.

The disappointing season saw the end of Frank Rijkaard’s tenure at the Nou Camp, and taking his place in the technical area is former Barcelona player Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola, who will be looking to put a little pep in the step of the Barca squad this coming season.

Speaking of that squad, there are a lot of new faces in it, as the club has been one of Europe’s biggest movers and shakers this summer, in an effort to close the gap between them and Real, and keep the likes of up-and-comers Villareal and Atletico Madrid at bay.

The defense has been strengthened with the addition of Sevilla’s Brazilian right-back Daniel Alves for a hefty fee of €32m, €16.5m going to Villareal for promising center-back Martin Caceres, and more than €7m to bring back former Barca youth product Gerard Pique from Manchester United.

The midfield has also been bolstered with the signings of Seville’s Seydou Keita for €14m and Arsenal’s Alexander Hleb for €15m.

Throw in the signing of goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto from Celta to provide cover for Victor Valdes, and Barca have spent well over 80m this summer.

But, just as they’ve been spending big, they’ve raised funds by cutting a little fat, per se, selling off Ronaldinho to AC Milan for more than €20m, and pocketing good money from the sales of defender Gianluca Zambrotta to AC Milan for €9m, Deco (Chelsea for €10m), Giovani dos Santos (Tottenham for €6m), and Oleguer (Ajax for €3m).

As for their bitter rivals, Real, Los Merengues have put all of their eggs into the Cristiano Ronaldo basket for much of the summer, and from the latest reports, still seem intent on signing him, even though, as we’ve heard many, many times, Manchester United are adamant about keeping him at Old Trafford.

Outside of the Ronaldo saga, Real have been pretty quiet when it comes to bringing in names, though things have picked up recently with their pursuit of Hamburg SV’s Rafael Van der Vaart.

They have picked up promising Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay, a 10m acquisition, and they also brought back the likes of 2007/08 revelation Ruben de la Red to the club after spells elsewhere.

But, the most action (outside of numerous comments about Ronaldo) has been on the selling front, where they’ve sold off several names, none of which were likely going to be major players for Bernd Schuster this term.

So, has Barca’s big spending and Real’s relative idleness on the transfer front thus far set the stage for a potential swing in the balance of power in La Liga next term?

Barcelona’s big spending has been impressive, certainly, and they’ve done well to add a mix of players who’ll make a significant impact from the outset and some future prospects in Caceres and Pique.

Alves rightfully commanded a big fee, and he’ll not only be a key cog in Barca’s back line, but he’ll also contribute greatly on the attacking front as well.

In midfield, Alves’ former Sevilla teammate Keita will chip in with the odd goal and assist, but he’ll also provide a tough-tackling defensive presence, while Hleb will be a big playmaking presence, whether or not he’s scoring goals.

The only area that hasn’t been addressed, and one that needs to for multiple reasons, is forward. With Samuel Eto’o seemingly headed for the exit door sometime before the end of the transfer window, and with Lionel Messi slated to miss a few early-season fixtures thanks to his likely participation in the Olympics, a reinforcement, whether it costs more or less than €20m, is a good idea. Bojan Krkic is still being eased in, and Thierry Henry, while still good for 15 to 20 goals or more, can’t be counted on to every time out.

Names like Adebayor, Drogba, and others have been bandied about, but they may just as well do well to keep Eto’o, who, for all of his ‘issues,’ is going to bag goals when he’s needed/ready to/not injured. There’s a solid rotation to be had there, especially with a budding young star in Krkic, but it wouldn’t hurt to add someone, and it doesn’t have to be a big-money signing.

There’s more than enough talent in that squad to not only surpass Real atop La Liga, but also to go one further than their European finish last term, but the biggest improvements need to be in the mental area in terms of consistency, confidence, and not having the kinds of lapses that plagued them last season. It can be said that Rijkaard didn’t have the kind of control over the side that he needed to, and it shouldn’t take long before we find out what kind of team they’ll be under Guardiola.

Do Real need to make any big moves to stay a step ahead, however? The addition of Van der Vaart looks to be a bargain buy, and he’ll add firepower and relative youth (he’s 25) to the squad, and holding onto de la Red could also prove to be as good as going out and spending €15m or more elsewhere if he can carry his form from last season’s spell at Getafe and his impressive showing with Spain at Euro 2008 into becoming a regular part of Schuster’s plans.

Barcelona have definitely improved their squad, and if they throw in a forward before the end of the month, will do so even more. But frankly, they should be just as concerned with Atletico Madrid and Villareal, and maybe Sevilla, as they should be with Real, because there’s going to be a stiff battle at the top, not only for the crown, but also for automatic Champions League slots (which increase to three for La Liga for the 09/10 competition).

All the same, while Real haven’t gotten markedly better, they certainly haven’t gotten worse, and until further notice, they’re the side to beat. And if they add Ronaldo (doesn’t look likely, yes, but hypothetically)? Well, the rest of Europe best be on notice, whether we like them or not.

Will Barcelona’s big spending pay off in taking back the title from Real, or will it just so happen that Real don’t need to spend any money to stay ahead of the pack?

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