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By ESPN Staff

Real strikers under pressure after Ronaldo exit

MADRID, Feb 1 (Reuters) - After Ronaldo's exit to AC Milan, the remaining Real Madrid strikers will be under heavy pressure to end their barren form when they host relegation-threatened Levante on Sunday.

Ronaldo last played for Real when he came on as a substitute in the team's 2-0 defeat at Deportivo Coruna at the start of last month.

Real have found the net just three times in their last seven outings in all competitions, with Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring just once in five league games and new signing Gonzalo Higuain yet to open his account.

The team's poor form in front of goal could prompt coach Fabio Capello to reward skipper Raul with a place up front alongside Van Nistelrooy on his return to action after a thigh strain.

Real's lack of firepower up front has been accompanied by a dismal run of results. They were beaten by struggling Real Betis in the King's Cup and have lost four of their last seven league games.

To make matters worse, Real are low on reserves after suffering a string of injuries to leading players.

Midfielders Fernando Gago and Guti are the latest players to join the queue for the treatment table, but Brazilian international Emerson could be back in the squad for the Levante match.

Although Ronaldo's departure to Milan effectively brought the curtain down on the Galactico era at Real, the shortage of players could prompt the rehabilitation of David Beckham who has been out of favour since he announced he would be leaving for LA Galaxy at the end of the season.

Thanks to a series of slip-ups by their immediate rivals, Real are just four points off the pace in the league and will be firm favourites to beat a Levante side who have won just one of their last 11 league games.

Leaders Barcelona have also failed to convince in recent matches and doubts about their play were confirmed by a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Real Zaragoza in the first leg of their King's Cup quarter-final on Wednesday.

'We didn't have the strength to make the difference against them,' said coach Frank Rijkaard. 'We wanted to do things but we couldn't.'

Barca face a difficult away trip to Pamplona on Sunday to take on Osasuna who are licking their wounds after their back-to-back defeats against Getafe in the league and the Cup.

Second-placed Sevilla, who won their first match of 2007 with a 4-2 victory at Levante last weekend, host struggling Real Sociedad who are now eight points adrift of safety after their 2-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby.

Valencia's clash against Atletico Madrid at the Mestalla on Saturday should be one of the most keenly contested matches of the weekend even though it is unlikely to be pretty.

The two teams are level on 36 points, two behind third-placed Real, and victory for either side will provide them with a valuable boost in their bid for one of the Champions League places.

'We know that they are direct rivals,' Valencia striker Fernando Morientes told a news conference this week. 'Atletico have been following a parallel course to us this season and it could turn out to be a really important match.'