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Barca back to their best to defend European crown

Written by: Staff

MADRID, Sep 11 (Reuters) European champions Barcelona look back to their fluent best after a shaky start to the season as they begin the defence of their title against Bulgarian debutants Levski Sofia at the Nou Camp tomorrow.

Frank Rijkaard's side produced a sparkling first-half display to demolish Osasuna 3-0 at home in the Primera Liga on Saturday, with striker Samuel Eto'o scoring twice and setting up the third for Argentine teenager Lionel Messi.

On top of an impressive performance up front, the Catalans looked solid at the back, dispelling worries about their defence after a 3-0 loss to Sevilla in the European Super Cup and the narrow 3-2 win over Celta Vigo in their first league match.

''We have come a long way since the Sevilla match, the team wasn't in such good physical shape then as it is now,'' Rijkaard said after the Osasuna match. ''In general, we played a great game and we didn't give our opponents any chance.'' Rijkaard left skipper Carles Puyol on the bench, the first time the centre-back had been forced to watch a game from the dug-out for almost five years, but his replacement Lilian Thuram gave an assured performance at the centre of the back four.

''We showed that we have got a lot of players that can do the job for us and we will need them all as it is a long, hard season,'' said Rijkaard.

''Puyol played two games for Spain and we have another match coming up soon so that's why he was on the bench.'' Rijkaard reserved his highest praise for Eto'o although Ronaldinho also showed flashes of brilliance on returning to the lineup after missing the league opener with a bruised leg.

CONFIDENT LEVSKI Opponents Levksi, the first Bulgarian side to reach the group stage, will have their work cut out against Barca on Tuesday as the Catalans have won the opening game in each of their last five Champions League campaigns.

The Bulgarian champions have lost all five of their previous European visits to Spain and were thrashed 4-0 by Barca in their only visit to the Nou Camp in the 1976 UEFA Cup quarter-finals.

But they warmed up for Tuesday's match in style, destroying Marek Dupnitza 8-0 away in the league at the weekend with striker Georgi Ivanov going one better than opposite number Eto'o by notching a hat-trick.

Levski coach Stanimir Stoilov is confident his side will be a hard nut to crack for all of their Group A opponents, but is not helped by the suspension of fullback Lucio Wagner, sent off against Chievo in the second leg of the third qualifying round.

Stoilov said last week: ''I know all of them will be regarded as hot favourites against us but we are ready to fight. We'll have to show people we didn't reach the group stage just through luck.'' REUTERS PDS PC1147

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