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Trending: Barca confident of Messi stay


Transfer Rater: Courtois to Juventus


Sergio Ramos ready for battle

The Toe Poke
By ESPN Staff

Barca rebuild to try to prevent Real hat-trick

MADRID, Aug 26 (Reuters) - After a clear-out of several high-profile players, the appointment of a new coach and a series of astute signings Barcelona should have a good chance of stopping Real Madrid from winning a hat-trick of league titles.

Real took full advantage of Barca's woes to wrap up an easy victory in the last title race, but a second season without a trophy prompted a minor revolution at Barcelona.

Mild mannered Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard was jettisoned in favour of former Nou Camp favourite Pep Guardiola.

The ex-midfielder has limited coaching experience but possesses the sort of inside knowledge that should enable him to handle the fraught atmosphere that so often prevails at the Catalan club.

Out have gone the under-performing Ronaldinho and the unwanted Deco, together with the fading defensive talents of Edmilson, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta.

In have come the dynamic Daniel Alves and the assured Martin Caceres to bolster a shaky-looking back four, while Seydou Keita and Aleksandr Hleb have been brought in from Sevilla and Arsenal to add some much needed bite to the midfield.

Although he was initially seen as surplus to requirements by Guardiola, the explosive Samuel Eto'o earned a reprieve with a succession of impressive pre-season performances.

If he avoids a repetition of the injuries that have hampered his progress in the past two seasons, the Cameroon striker could prove to be one of Guardiola's most important players.

Even though they failed to hit it off last season, Eto'o, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry remain three of the most feared forwards in world football.

While Barca have concentrated on rebuilding both their squad and team morale, Real appear to have been distracted by their fruitless summer romance with Cristiano Ronaldo.

With the Portuguese winger deciding to stay at Manchester United, Real missed out on their man and also managed to put Robinho's nose out of joint following reports that they were prepared to use the Brazilian to raise funds for the deal.

As a result Robinho is angling for a move to Chelsea and the champions have reinforced their squad with just one recruit, Dutch midfielder Rafael van der Vaart from SV Hamburg.

Real have a wealth of resources in midfield, with Spain international Ruben de la Red back after a successful loan spell at Getafe and Arjen Robben back fit following a series of injury problems last season.

Unless they make a late swoop for a new striker, however, they look short-staffed up front and dangerously over-reliant on Ruud van Nistelrooy and Raul for goals.

Villarreal, who pipped Barca to the runners-up spot last season, have made their usual raft of astute signings and are likely to challenge for the Champions League berths once again, but they will have to do without injured Turkish striker Nihat Kahveci for the early part of the campaign.

Sevilla have been in scintillating form in pre-season despite losing the influential Alves and Keita to Barcelona and Christian Poulsen to Juventus.

Last season the Andalucians' ambitions were dealt a hammer blow by the tragic death of Antonio Puerta and the departure of coach Juande Ramos, but with morale restored they should be battling for the top places in the table.

After a traumatic period on and off the pitch, Valencia will be hoping normal service can be resumed under new coach Unai Emery.

The club have managed to hang on to Spain midfielder David Silva, but they will need to do the same with prolific striker David Villa if they are to challenge for the top places.

Of the rest, Atletico Madrid will be looking to consolidate their position among the elite after a fourth-place finish last season.


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