New-look Real out to avoid another whitewash
MADRID, Aug 24 (Reuters) Fresh from another expensive makeover, Real Madrid begin their quest to end a three-year trophy drought when they host Villarreal on the opening weekend of the Spanish season.
Although Real have signed Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, new coach Fabio Capello has concentrated on rectifying the defensive weaknesses that have plagued the team since they last won the title in 2003, their last major piece of silverware.
Capello persuaded Italy's World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro and Brazil's Emerson to follow him from troubled Juventus and has also brought in tirelss midfielder Mahamadou Diarra from Olympique Lyon.
The former Juventus boss has introduced a more rigorous regime since his arrival last month but the team's pre-season results have been unspectacular and their fans will be hoping for a big improvement in Sunday's match.
''We're on the right track,'' Capello insisted after his side's 2-1 win over Anderlecht in a friendly yesterday.
''The team is beginning to come together and things will only get better as everyone reaches the same level of fitness.'' The game will be played out against the backdrop of Ronaldo's possible move to AC Milan.
Real have met representatives of the Serie A club and are reported to be mulling over their offer for the Brazilian, who has been the club's leading scorer for the past four seasons.
Villarreal beat Real 1-0 at the Carranza trophy at Cadiz last weekend, but the Mediterranean side paid a very heavy price for their participation in the pre-season tournament.
KNEE INJURIES New signing Robert Pires and highly rated centre back Gonzalo Rodriguez both sustained knee ligament injuries that will put them out for most of the season, while midfielder Josico strained a thigh muscle.
But with new recruits Nihat Kahveci and Cani likely to join playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and striker Diego Forlan in the starting lineup, they should still be able to cause problems for Real.
The season kicks off with Valencia hosting Real Betis on Saturday night.
Valencia have put their internal wrangling behind them for the time being following their qualification for the Champions League group phase.
Betis, however, are in turmoil amid concerns over the future of midfielder Joaquin, who is likely to end up at Valencia, and striker Ricardo Oliveira, who looks to be on his way out after arriving nine days late for pre-season training.
Champions Barcelona do not begin their defence until Monday at Celta Vigo because of their involvement in the European Super Cup against Sevilla tomorrow.
Frank Rijkaard's side have been in electric form in pre-season, capping their preparations with a 4-0 demolition of German champions Bayern Munich on Tuesday.
But midfielder Deco insisted the warm-up games meant nothing now that the season was about to get underway.
''We've got good results because we have started strongly in every game but that is irrelevant now. If we don't keep working hard things could go against us,'' he said.
UEFA Cup winners Sevilla play their first game at home to promoted Levante next Tuesday.
REUTERS PDS KP1613