South American fantasy artists add spice to battle of the big two

For all the talk of Real as a club in transitional disarray last season, it is worth remembering that they finished with 80 points, just four behind the champions, Barça, but 15 clear of third-placed Villarreal, who will provide a Champions' League test for Everton. Villarreal, with Diego Forlan prolific, led a chasing pack of five sides, the others being Real Betis, Espanyol, Seville and Valencia. There is little evidence to suggest that the top two will be toppled.

Barça have sparkled in pre-season, not least in Wednesday's 9-0 rout of the Chinese Super League champions, Shenzhan Jianlibao. Their 18-year-old Argentinian playmaker-striker, Lionel Messi, celebrated a senior international call-up with two goals, while Samuel Eto'o also got two. Henrik Larsson, Giovanni van Bronkhorst, Deco, Andres Iniesta and Ludovic Giuly also scored to illustrate Barça's firepower, while Ronaldinho was eye-catchingly influential without finding the net.

For all Barça's attacking options and glamour names, they have been quiet in the transfer market, leaving Real to grab the headlines with the signing of two Brazilian internationals, Julio Baptista and Robinho, either of whom would be a mouthwatering prospect for most sides.

"Baptista is very powerful, has great technique. He can score goals and has the ability to play in several different positions," said Real's director of football, Arrigo Sacchi. "Robinho is incredible, a fantasy player who will bewilder the supporters in the Bernabeu."

The transfer carousel has also brought a pair of Uruguayans, the midfielder Pablo Garcia and the winger Carlos Diogo, to the Bernabeu, while Santiago Solari, Walter Samuel and Luis Figo are gone or going, as might Michael Owen be. David Beckham said yesterday he wants to stay for the rest of his career, while his England team-mate Jonathan Woodgate will be happy just to get his career back on track at last in Real's defence.

Real's coach, Wanderley Luxemburgo, has made it clear that he expects his new-look squad to gel quickly, with any dissenters or impatient players urged to leave. "I don't want to see angry faces here," he said. "Everyone should be content because if not we will not be able to construct a winning team."

Barça are the bookmakers' favourites for the title, by a slight margin, but their president, Joan Laporta, is emphatic about their chances. "We have a very powerful squad that does not need anybody," he said, discounting the view that Real's new Brazilians will give them an edge.

"We are the team to beat. We have generated a great sense of expectancy. We are not scared."

Barça and Real both start their league seasons away at promoted clubs, Alaves and Cadiz respectively. Expect flying starts and a thrilling duel at the top.

La Liga legends in the making: Virtuosos and visionaries

* JULIO BAPTISTA (Real Madrid, striker) Coveted by many, including Arsenal, the 23-year-old Brazilian international opted for Real because he wants a Spanish passport. Originally a tough central midfielder with São Paulo, nicknamed "The Tank". His positioning, touch and finishing led to 38 goals in 63 La Liga games as a striker at Seville.

* ROBINHO

(Real Madrid, striker)

"If Pele is the King, Robinho is the Prince," is a typical piece of praise for the 21-year-old, who has also been compared with another legendary compatriot, Garrincha. The pedalada (stepover) is his trademark, and he famously performed eight during one dribble in a title-winning match for Santos.

* LIONEL MESSI (Barcelona, midfielder)

Stole the show at last month's Youth World Championships, where his midfield genius - jinking pace, vision and control have drawn comparisons with Maradona - inspired Argentina to success a few days after his 18th birthday. A huge season awaits a boy who joined Barça aged 13.

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