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By Tim Hanlon
Aug 20 (Reuters) - While Real Madrid and Barcelona have once more spent vast sums to win back the La Liga crown, they are set to face dogged competition again from champions Atletico Madrid who have a side built on a fraction of the cost.
Atletico became the first team since Valencia in 2004 to knock Real and Barca from top spot, breathing new life into the Spanish championship that had become a two-horse race.
Diego Simeone found success by building a side based on a strong team ethic and the belief that through hard work they could come out on top.
Unsurprisingly, with Atletico winning the league and reaching the Champions League final, their playing stocks have been raided by richer clubs and talisman Diego Costa has left for Chelsea.
But Atletico have also made some shrewd buys ahead of the new season and replaced Costa with the accomplished Mario Mandzukic from Bayern Munich.
The last time Atletico won the championship in 1995-96, they quickly went downhill and ended up relegated four years later but this time the club is better managed.
The key to the side's prospects, though, is again set to be their compactness and defensive frugality.
They have conceded just one goal in seven pre-season friendlies and in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Real Madrid they gave away little space to earn a 1-1 draw ahead of the decisive leg back at the Calderon on Friday.
"We are looking forward to the season and we know that there will be a lot of expectation placed on us," Atletico midfielder Gabi Fernandez told Spanish paper As.
"It is difficult to say whether the team is better or worse with the changes. Important players for the team have gone but at the same time others have arrived, who are strong on a national and European scale, from top clubs.
"Atletico's base is solid, we are very sure about our style of play and what our jobs are. The team is relaxed, with a lot of confidence and we will have to see if we are better or worse than last year."
Gabi said it did not concern him that few backed Atletico last season but conceded the team faced a tougher task than their better-resourced rivals.
"Personally what people say doesn't bother me although it is true that is nice if your work is valued," he said.
"We are not better or worse and yet it is more difficult for us than Real Madrid or Barcelona to win titles. It is harder for our good work to be recognised and it only happens when we are champions. Everyone expects us to drop off and go downhill but we have shown we are a team capable of everything.
"The team still has the same dreams. We are all very ambitious and just because we are not shouting it from the roof tops doesn't mean we don't feel that way. We are working with the same drive and we want to be the best."
As Atletico lost key players, Real and Barcelona once again reinforced with the cream of the market in the close season.
Last year, the marquee signings were Gareth Bale and Neymar for Real and Barca respectively. This year, James Rodriguez and Luis Suarez have been brought in, both for a figure close to 65 million pounds ($108 million).
Real are brimming with confidence after comfortably winning the European Super Cup against Sevilla and have set their sights on all six trophies available during the season.
Real have made adjustments to the side that won the Champions League against Atletico, with midfielder Toni Kroos and keeper Keylor Navas coming in after shining at the World Cup.
Barcelona, however, have made major changes.
Following the Catalan side's first season without a major trophy in six years, Barca have brought in Luis Enrique as coach and strengthened the squad in many areas of the pitch.
While the signing of Suarez has captured the attention of fans, the addition of defenders Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen was badly needed and they could make the difference in Barcelona's title hopes.
The defence has been Barca's main weak point in recent seasons and they are the first centre-halves to be signed by the club since Dmytro Chygrynskiy in 2009.
Coach Enrique is also set to reintroduce Barca's trademark short passing game following the unsuccessful experiment under Tata Martino who tried a more direct approach. (1 US dollar = 0.6018 British pound) (Editing by Ian Ransom)
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