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By ESPN Staff
Aug 17, 2006

La Liga: Barca favourites despite Real revolution

MADRID, Aug 17 (Reuters) - Such has been Barcelona's dominance of the Spanish footballing landscape over the past two years that it will come as a major shock if the Catalans do not wrap up a third successive league title this season.

Frank Rijkaard's side cruised to the title in imperious fashion last season and still had enough left in the tank to clinch an elusive second European Cup with a 2-1 win over Arsenal in the final of the Champions League.

In keeping with their recent policy, continuity has been the order of the day at the Nou Camp for the season starting on August 27 with the club making minimal changes to a squad that have carried all before them.

Iceland striker Eidur Gudjohnsen has been brought in from Chelsea to replace Swedish veteran Henrik Larsson and add further firepower to the team's intimidating forward line led by the electric Samuel Eto'o.

The club took advantage of the fall-out from the Italian match-fixing scandal to strengthen their back four with the addition of World Cup winner Gianluca Zambrotta and the ultra-experienced French defender Lilian Thuram from Juventus.

Relieved of the burden of pressure to win the Champions League, Barca are likely to play with more freedom than last season, while the disappointing performances of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi at the World Cup could also work in the club's favour.

The Brazilian, the catalyst to the club's revival since his arrival in 2003, had a poor tournament and will be keen to show he has not gone off the boil, while the talented Argentine youngster will have a point to prove after being restricted to a bit-part role in Germany.

Barca's arch-rivals Real Madrid will be pulling out all the stops to end the Catalans' hegemony and win their first major trophy in four years.

Following three seasons of disappointment on the pitch and incessant upheaval off it, the club's new president Ramon Calderon is banking on Fabio Capello to oversee a renaissance at the club.

The decision to appoint the Italian coach has been accompanied by the arrival of two other Juve old boys, Italy's World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro and Brazilian midfielder Emerson.

Doubts over the fitness and commitment of leading striker Ronaldo have prompted the decision to bring in Ruud van Nistelrooy from Manchester United to spice up the Real attack.

With all three players aged 30 or over, the signings smack of a quick-fix solution to the club's problems, but Capello has an impeccable record and his no-nonsense, pragmatic approach is bound to make Real a difficult side to beat.

It is difficult to look beyond the big two for the title, but Valencia, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Real Zaragoza look to be the pick of the bunch when it comes to fighting it out for the remaining Champions League places.

Valencia have spent close to 13 million euros on striker Fernando Morientes and left back Asier del Horno after their disappointing Premier League adventures at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.

But playmaker Pablo Aimar has jumped ship to Zaragoza and centre back Roberto Ayala is at loggerheads with the club over a contract dispute.

Atletico have dug even deeper to bring some appetising new recruits to the Calderon and stumped up a club record 23 million euros ($29.4 million) for Argentine pearl Sergio Aguero.

The arrival of the 18-year-old forward should take the pressure off Fernando Torres, but the club's most important signing is likely to be Mexican coach Javier Aguirre who steered unfancied Osasuna to fourth place last season.

The long-suffering Atletico fans have become so accustomed to false dawns, however, that they will not be holding their breath.

Sevilla will be hoping to build on last season's triumph in the UEFA Cup, Villarreal have no European distractions and Zaragoza look to have made a couple of tasty signings in the shape of Argentine duo Aimar and Andres D'Alessandro.