Barça in bullish mood after upstaging Real during summer

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The Independent Football

It is a surprise that we have had to wait this deep into the 21st century to say it but now, as another Spanish football season begins, we finally can: there are only two contenders for La Liga this year: Real Madrid and Barcelona.

It is a surprise that we have had to wait this deep into the 21st century to say it but now, as another Spanish football season begins, we finally can: there are only two contenders for La Liga this year: Real Madrid and Barcelona.

If Greece can win the European Championships anything is, of course, possible, but it does seem hard to imagine that either Claudio Ranieri's Valencia, the reigning champions, or Deportivo la Coruña, champions in 2000 and always in the top three since, will pose a threat to the ancient duopoly this time around.

English interest this Spanish season will centre on Madrid but in Spain it is Barça that have been generating the greatest pre-season buzz. Mainly because, with apologies to Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate, it is the Catalans for a change who have been the bold ones in the summer transfer market.

For Real's president, Florentino Pérez, a greater achievement than the acquisition of the two Englishmen - as well as the Argentine centre back Walter Samuel - has been the successful retention of all his stars. At different times over the past six months it seemed that either David Beckham, Ronaldo, or Roberto Carlos might succumb to Chelsea's Russian charms, but all of them stayed and, it appears, happily so.

Barcelona, by contrast, have gone transfer crazy this summer. It might seem a curious way to respond to a run that took them in the final four months of last season from relegation contenders to second place (their highest position since 2000), but there it is.

Under Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard, the Dutch flavour of the team has given way to a Brazilian one. Out have gone Philip Cocu, Marc Overmars and Edgar Davids; in have come ex-Arsenal man Silvinho, Edmilson, Juliano Belleti (all defensive players) and Deco, the Brazilian-born star of last season's European Cup-winning Porto team. They join the two resident Brazilians, defensive midfielder Motta and Ronaldinho, the player most likely to take over the mantle of world's greatest footballer from Zinedine Zidane.

The most exciting purchases have not, however, been Brazilian. Barcelona have a new attacking threesome this year: one French, one Swedish, one from Cameroon. There is Giuly, the pacy little forward who at Monaco last year tore Real Madrid's Champions League dreams to shreds. There is Henrik Larsson, who has been looking so lethal in the pre-season that he must be wondering how on earth he chose to wallow so long in the Sargasso Sea of the Scottish league. And then there is Samuel Eto'o who, at 23, looks like a good bet to soon stand alongside Ronaldo and Thierry Henry as one of the world's most thrilling goalscorers.

The exuberantly self-confident African Player of the Year has electric speed, a sweet first touch and a brutal eye for goal. Real, for whom briefly he played, know him well enough to be terrified when the first of the season's two "superclasicos" takes place at the Camp Nou in November.

Will the Barcelona defence be terrified of Michael Owen? Will the Englishman even make it onto the Real bench? He has to compete for a place, after all, with Ronaldo, Raúl and Morientes - back from loan at Monaco, where he was the Champions' League top scorer last season with nine goals, three of them against Real.

The early indications are that, yes, Owen will be among the substitutes but that he will soon get a chance to win his place in the starting line-up, because Raúl remains as puzzlingly ineffectual after the summer break as he was all last season. Real played mesmeric football in their 3-1 Champions' League qualifier victory this week against Wisla Cracow.

But Raúl, for about the fiftieth Real game in a row, was nowhere to be seen. The man who barely 16 months ago Alex Ferguson described as the best player in the world appears, at the tender age of 27, to have fizzled out. Real fans have worshipped him for a decade but even the diehards are beginning to mutter that what he needs, if he is ever to recover his spark, is a spell out of the team.

Another curiousity of the new Spanish season is that Real appear to have a stronger defence than Barcelona - and practically everyone else in La Liga. Last season Real were so wobbly that every corner against them felt almost like a penalty. But now they have a potentially formidable back four: an Anglo-Argentine axis in the middle made up of Jonathan Woodgate, who has the chance now to emerge as a truly great central defender, and the unsmiling Samuel, known in his former club Roma as il Muro - the wall; and the brilliant Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado on the flanks.

Real failed to land Patrick Vieira but, in the versatile Iván Helguera, Beckham will have a stout ally in central midfield. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how Barcelona cope with the loss of Davids, the anchorman of last season's epic resurgence.

Why are Valencia and Deportivo no longer considered to be serious contenders for the Spanish title? Mainly because Real Madrid and Barcelona look so strong. Valencia remain an impressively solid unit, marshalled by their Argentine centre-half Fabián Ayala, but it seems statistically improbable, apart from anything else, that Ranieri will be able to maximise his resources the way Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's new manager, did.

As for Deportivo, they have achieved miracles season after season under their devotedly religious coach Javier Irureta, but the team is aging and there has been little in the way of exciting renewal this summer.

So it has to be the Old Firm, Real and Barça. With Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Zidane, Deco, Figo, Eto'o, Roberto Carlos, the world's most famous man and - quite possibly - two other Englishmen on the pitch, the games this season between Spain's two mighty rivals really ought to live up to their heroic billing.

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