Zambrotta and Thuram add steel to Barcelona

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The Independent Online

Spain's La Liga starts this weekend with Barcelona the clear favourites to win a third consecutive domestic title. Frank Rijkaard may have lost his assistant Henk ten Cate to Ajax, but his legendary compatriot Johan Neeskens is a popular replacement.

Spain's La Liga starts this weekend with Barcelona the clear favourites to win a third consecutive domestic title. Frank Rijkaard may have lost his assistant Henk ten Cate to Ajax, but his legendary compatriot Johan Neeskens is a popular replacement.

Barça's formidable squad have been boosted by the summer acquisitions of the defenders Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram from Juventus to strengthen the one area of their team which needed it. The forward Eidur Gudjohnsen will replace Henrik Larsson, while the return from injury of Xavi ­ probably the best midfielder in Spain ­ means they travel confidently to Celta Vigo on Monday.

Barcelona have looked strong in pre-season, destroying Espanyol and Bayern Munich 4-0 midweek. Ronaldinho may receive the plaudits, but Samuel Eto'o scores most of the key goals. With Lionel Messi maturing, there is not a comparable front line in football.

However, the Catalan club were beaten 3-0 by a spirited Seville in a lively all-Spanish European Super Cup last night through goals by the Brazilian Renato, Frédéric Kanouté and the substitute midfielder Enzo Maresca.

The team most likely to challenge Barça are Real Madrid, whose new president, Ramon Calderon, has installed Fabio Capello as manager after a succession of ineffectual appointments. Italy's World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro and the Brazilian midfielder Emerson followed Capello from Juventus, strengthening a squad which had already added Ruud van Nistelrooy. The midfielder Mahamadou Diarra arrived at the Bernabeu this week from Lyon for £18m, Spain's biggest summer transfer.

With Zinedine Zidane's retirement, Madrid have a new spine. They have world-class performers in every position, but the inability of these individuals to gel means that David Beckham enters his fourth season abroad without seeing a single trophy. But he is no longer guaranteed his place under Capello.

Valencia are the 15-1 third favourites for the title. They have lost Fabio Aurelio to Liverpool and, surprisingly, let Pablo Aimar switch to Zaragoza for £7m. But they have bought well. The signing on Thursday of the Betis winger Joaquin for £17m is in addition to Fernando Morientes and Asier del Horno. The team's lead striker David Villa scored 25 league goals last season.

Atletico Madrid have signed the promising 18-year-old Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero from Independiente for £14m. With the winger Mista from Valencia, the former Porto midfielder Costinha and the Spanish international left-back Pernia from Getafe, Atletico appear to have been shrewd. Despite speculation, Fernando Torres stays.

Villarreal will hope for a solid domestic season after their Champions' League run affected league form last term. Robert Pires from Arsenal and striker Nihat Kahveci are the pick of Manuel Pellegrini's signings.

Seville won their first trophy since 1948 in beating Middlesbrough to lift the Uefa Cup in May. The former West Bromwich midfielder Vincenzo Maresca says: "It's important to finish in the first six in the league. We also want to defend our Uefa Cup." Aside from Javier Saviola, who returned to Barcelona, they have kept their best players like winger Jesus Navas and right-back Daniel Alves, and have added the Uruguayan striker Chevanton from Monaco for £6m.

Deportivo La Coruña need to improve on last year's eighth place finish after being affected by poor home form. They have bought players from Barcelona and Madrid, as well as Riki from Getafe.

Key summer movements in La Liga

Barcelona: In Eidur Gudjohnsen (Chelsea, £8m); Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram (Juventus, £13m combined). Out Maxi Lopez (Mallorca, loan); Henrik Larsson (Helsingborgs, free).

Deportivo La Coruña: In Antonio Barragan (Liverpool, £3.5m). Out Cesar Martin (Levante, free).

Levante: In Laurent Robert (Benfica, undisclosed); Damiano Tommasi (Roma, undisclosed); Ze Maria (Internazionale, free);

Mathieu Berson (Aston Villa, undisclosed).

Real Madrid: In Fabio Cannavaro, Emerson (Juventus, £13.7m total); Ruud van Nistelrooy (Man Utd, £11m); Mahamadou Diarra (Lyon, £17.7m). Out Zinedine Zidane (retired).

Real Zaragoza: In Pablo Aimar (Valencia, £7.4m); Gerard Pique (Man Utd, loan).

Valencia: In Asier del Horno (Chelsea, £4.8m); Fernando Morientes (Liverpool, £3m); Hugo Viana (Newcastle Utd, £1.5m); Francesco Tavano (Empoli, £5.4m). Out Pablo Aimar (Real Zaragoza, £7.4m); Marco Di Vaio (Monaco, free); Fabio Aurelio (Liverpool, free).

Villarreal: In Robert Pires (Arsenal, free).

Seville: In Chevanton (Monaco, £5.39m).

* Milan said yesterday that negotiations for a possible transfer of the Brazilian striker Ronaldo from Real Madrid had been "definitively broken off".

European weekend fixtures

Spanish League Today: Valencia v Real Betis (9.0). Tomorrow (4.0 unless stated): Athletic Bilbao v Real Sociedad (6.0); Deportivo La Coruña v Real Zaragoza; Espanyol v Gimnastic; Osasuna v Getafe; Racing Santander v Atletico Madrid; Real Madrid v Villarreal (2.0); Recreativo Huelva v Real Mallorca.

French League Today (7.0 unless stated): ES Troyes AC v Toulouse; FC Lorient v Nantes; Lille v Bordeaux; Nice v Olympique Lyon (4.15); Sochaux v Paris St Germain. Tomorrow (5.0 unless stated): AS Nancy v Auxerre; Marseilles v Le Mans; Monaco v CS Sedan Ardennes; St Etienne v Racing Lens (8.0); Valenciennes v Stade Rennes.

German League Today (2.30): Bayer Leverkusen v VfL Wolfsburg; Bayern Munich v Nuremberg; Borussia Mönchengladbach v Arminia Bielefeld; Hanover 96 v Alemannia Aachen; VfL Bochum v Energie Cottbus; VfB Stuttgart v Borussia Dortmund. Tomorrow (4.0): Hamburg SV v Hertha Berlin; Mainz v Eintracht Frankfurt.

Italian Super Cup Final: Internazionale v Roma (7.45).

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