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Aug 24, 2005

Real Madrid mount Brazilian bid to unseat Barca

MADRID, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Barcelona brought back memories of their heady days of the early 1990s when they outshone the rest of La Liga on the way to last season's title.

If Barca were a class apart in 2004/5, it looks likely they will be given a run for their money when the Primera Liga kicks off again this weekend.

A new-look Real Madrid, a slick Villarreal and a refurbished Valencia are powerful enough to prevent Barca imposing the sort of domination that Johan Cruyff's 'dream team' enjoyed over a decade ago.

Last season Barcelona dazzled fans with their fluent, attack-minded football but no less important was the contribution of a hard-working back four and the fiercely competitive attitude of Frank Rijkaard's young squad.

Rather than change a winning formula, the club has added just two recruits to their squad.

Experienced Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel has been brought in from PSV Eindhoven and the talented, if inconsistent, winger Santi Ezquerro has crossed the peninsula from Athletic Bilbao, both players arriving on free transfers.

With striker Henrik Larsson, midfielder Thiago Motta and defenders Edmilson and Gabri back from the serious knee injuries that cost them most of last season, Rijkaard will have a far more powerful squad at his disposal.

After two seasons off the pace, Real Madrid finally look to have found the balance and depth needed to compete and yet they still promise to provide the spectacle demanded by president Florentino Perez, his marketing men and the Real fans.

EXPENSIVE MAKEOVER

The transition has not come cheap, with Real stumping up close to €60million for the makeover.

The incorporation of midfield enforcer Pablo Garcia and fellow Uruguayan Carlos Diogo has bolstered the team's defensive resources.

Up front Brazilian duo Julio Baptista and Robinho will add a new dimension to an attack which lost its spark last season, even though another Brazilian, Ronaldo, scored 21 goals, three more than Baptista for Sevilla.

Real have carried out a ruthless clear-out with Argentine centre back Walter Samuel, utility midfielder Santiago Solari and the original Galactico Luis Figo all departing for the home away from home for Real Madrid rejects, Inter Milan.

England striker Michael Owen could be next on the list, having been left in no-man's land by the decision to recruit Baptista and Robinho.

If the big stars are prepared to accept that squad rotation will be the order of the day, Real could live up to their Galactico billing and challenge for honours both at home and abroad.

Last season the gulf between the top two and the rest was immense, runners-up Real finishing 15 points ahead of third-placed Villarreal. This time round it promises to be a much tighter contest.

ASTUTE REINFORCEMENTS

Villarreal have brought in a series of astute reinforcements, and Italian midfielder Alessio Tacchinardi and Dutch international defender Jan Kromkamp will complement the side's existing strengths.

On paper regional rivals Valencia, the 2002 and 2004 champions, should be challenging for the top two slots.

Former Getafe boss Quique Sanchez Flores is a smooth operator, Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert, Spanish centre-forward David Villa and Portugal defender Miguel Monteiro are classy recruits, but the loss of Edu to a knee injury is a big blow.

Perennial under-performers Atletico Madrid have been given a morale boost by the arrival of former Boca Juniors boss Carlos Bianchi and a clutch of tasty reinforcements.

Live-wire Bulgarian winger Martin Petrov, former Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman and Argentine duo Maxi Rodriguez and Luciano Galletti should provide the creativity that will allow lead striker Fernando Torres to push the side towards a Champions League place.

Sevilla have lost Baptista to Real Madrid, yet the addition of Javier Saviola, Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanoute in attack should let them improve on last season's sixth-place finish.

Of the newcomers Cadiz are trying to follow Getafe's example and ensure top-flight survival against the odds. Celta Vigo, back after a season in the second division, have made a host of new signings and will aim for a top half finish.

Alaves are a more unpredictable quantity but the presence of outspoken Dimtry Piterman in the president's seat will mean no shortage of entertainment both on and off the pitch.