Brazilian stylists raise the tempo of Real-Barça rivalry

You could do the same with Barcelona's Nou Camp. Last summer it was Barcelona who went on a Brazilian spending spree. This time Real, having seen how well the investment worked for the Catalans, have followed suit - and with a vengeance.

Barcelona won the Spanish championship last season, and for a while thrilled Europe, with a squad consisting of six Brazilian players, four of whom arrived a year ago. At that point Real had just two Brazilians, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. Since then, they have acquired a Brazilian coach - Wanderley Luxemburgo, who joined last Christmas - and have bought two new Brazilian players. Maybe three.

The two new purchases are Robinho, a fabulously gifted 21-year-old thought by many in Brazil to be the best thing since Pele; and Julio Cesar Baptista, a bull of an attacking player - nickname, "the Beast" - who was snitched by Real from under the nose of Arsène Wenger, who had been coveting him all summer. The "maybe" is Cicinho, a right-back in the Roberto Carlos mould, over whom Real secured first "option" in a deal this week with his club São Paulo. Cicinho, whom Alex Ferguson tried hard to lure to Manchester United, looks likely to arrive in the Spanish capital in the new year.

Barcelona's only summer purchase has been the Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel, but the return from injury of top players such as the ex-Celtic striker Henrik Larsson and - yet another Brazilian - the World Cup-winning Edmilson suggests that the stable side they had last year has been imbued with just the right measure of freshness. Talking of which, a player who promises to cause as much excitement at Barcelona as Robinho at Real Madrid is the young Argentinian goalscorer Leo Messi, who has risen through the Barça youth ranks and, at 18 years old, is already a full Argentina international. Messi stole the show in a friendly at the Nou Camp against Juventus on Wednesday night. After the game Fabio Capello, the Juventus coach, was in raptures about the young Argentinian. "I have never seen a player of such quality at such a young age," Capello said.

The methodical Capello will not have failed to notice that in defence Barcelona still look as suspect as they did in defeat to Chelsea in the Champions' League last season. But in attack, they have an embarrassment of riches. Samuel Eto'o, the electric Cameroon striker, and Ronaldinho, the joyous heartbeat of Frank Rikjaard's Barcelona, are the leaders up front of a team that have the talent, the desire and the strength in depth this season not only to thrill Europe but to take it by storm.

No other serious candidates appear on the horizon seriously to challenge the big two in La Liga. Deportivo la Coruña and Valencia were each a force in Spain and Europe between 1998 and 2003 but last season they faded and this one, both having been knocked out of the Uefa Cup on Tuesday, they seem likely to fade more. On the other hand, Villarreal and Betis both advanced in the Champions' League against tough opposition - Villarreal beating Everton and Betis defeating Monaco. Yet this is precisely the reason why it would be rash to assume they will pose a threat domestically to Barcelona or Real. They both play lively, attractive football, but neither has the squad to sustain winning football in two big competitions at the same time. The Champions' League campaigns will energise the fans, but drain the players.

Which is a large reason why the big Spanish interest, both at home and abroad, will reside in the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid. And for more than the usual reasons, because in both cases the charisma of the club names has been bolstered by some prime footballing beef. Especially in the case of Real, who - for all the glamorous stars - were struck down by a bout of footballing anaemia during practically the whole of 2004, only recovering when the oddly Teutonic Luxemburgo - a man of discipline and rigid systems - began his rule of iron in January. Between then and the end of last season Real accumulated more points than Barça, and beat them convincingly at the Bernabeu, but did not do enough to avoid coming second.

Since then Real have shed Luis Figo, after Luxemburgo decided that the erstwhile galactico's loss of pace was slowing down the whole team, as well as the Argentinians Santiago Solari and Walter Samuel - all of whom have gone to Internazionale. But Zinedine Zidane, after taking what amounted to a year off, appears to have recovered his appetite for the game, as shown by his decision to play once again for France.

More prosaically, Real have bought two Uruguayan hard-nuts, Pablo Garcia and Diogo, to join the Dane Thomas Gravesen in the midfield engine room. In central defence, they have what amounts to an exciting new signing in the figure of Jonathan Woodgate, apparently recovered after a year of injury hell. For all his problems, the coach and the rest of the technical staff are convinced that they have found in the Englishman a gem of a centre-half.

No less is their enthusiasm for David Beckham, whom both Luxemburgo and the Italian general manager Arrigo Sacchi, coach of the legendary Milan side that swept all before them in the late Eighties, see as a linchpin of the new side. They admire his professionalism and what Sacchi calls his "all-terrain" qualities. Luxemburgo is convinced he has found the right position for the England captain: in right centre midfield, ready always to defend where needed and to join the attack out wide. Sacchi said in a recent interview that he would have loved to have had Beckham in his great Milan side. "He is one of the best professionals I have known," declared Sacchi, adding: "With me, in my Milan, he would have played always."

Major summer signings in Spain

Robinho (right) Santos to Real Madrid (£16.5m)

Julio Baptista Seville to Real Madrid (£14m)

David Villa

Real Zaragoza to Valencia (£8m)

Jan Kromkamp AZ Alkmaar to Villarreal (£6m)

Jose Reina Villarreal to Liverpool (£6m)

Mateja Kezman Chelsea to Atletico Madrid (£5.3m)

Carlos Diogo River Plate to Real Madrid (undisclosed)

Luis Figo Real Madrid to Internazionale (free)

Mark van Bommel PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona (free)

Santi Ezquerro

Athletic Bilbao to Barcelona (free)

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