SAO PAULO (AP) – The Brazilian league begins this weekend with Santos favored to win the title thanks to the experience of coach Muricy Ramalho and the young talent of striker Neymar and playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso.
Neymar and Ganso are touted as the future stars of Brazil's national team, while Ramalho has won four of the last five league titles, giving Santos a clear edge heading into the eight-month competition that starts Saturday.
Defending champion Fluminense again will have playmaker Deco, Argentine midfielder Dario Conca and striker Fred in the squad, but it lost Ramalho after winning the title last year.
Flamengo will challenge with Ronaldinho, who will be playing in the Brazilian league for the first time since leaving for Europe more than 10 years ago.
''I'm sure it will be a great championship,'' Flamengo coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo said. ''Flamengo is one of the favorites, but we have several top teams with chances again this year.''
In 2010, three teams arrived in the final round with a chance of winning the title - Fluminense, Corinthians and Cruzeiro. Four teams had a chance in the last round in 2009.
Ronaldinho arrived at Flamengo as one of the greatest acquisitions by a Brazilian club. He helped Flamengo win this year's Rio de Janeiro championship, but he will be starting the Brazilian league season under pressure after a series of poor performances that prompted jeers from fans of Brazil's most popular club.
Several other former national team players are back from Europe to play in this year's competition, including Adriano with Corinthians, Juninho with Vasco da Gama, Elano with Santos and Luis Fabiano and Rivaldo with Sao Paulo.
International players will also be present again. Cruzeiro will have Argentine playmaker Walter Montillo and Uruguay defender Mauricio Victorino, Botafogo will enter the competition with Uruguay striker Sebastian ''El Loco'' Abreu and Argentine striker German Herrera, while Palmeiras will have Chile midfielder Jorge Valdivia.
Copa Libertadores champion Internacional has four Argentine players on its roster - Mario Bolatti, Andres D'Alessandro, Pablo Guinazu and Fernando Cavenaghi.
Ramalho left Fluminense after last year's title saying that club directors were unable to improve the club's conditions as promised. He took over Santos about a month ago and was able to lead the club to the title of the traditional Sao Paulo state championship.
Santos won't start the Brazilian league at full strength, however. Ramalho will have to rest the regular starters in the first few rounds because the team is focused on the Copa Libertadores, Latin America's most important club competition. Santos is the only Brazilian team left in the competition and will face Paraguay's Cerro Porteno in the semifinals.
In addition, Ganso injured a muscle in the first leg of the Sao Paulo state final and won't return to action for several weeks.
''I can't start the Brazilian league with my best players, I need to rest them, there is no alternative,'' Ramalho said. ''Otherwise everyone will be getting hurt for the rest of the season and we can't afford that.''
Corinthians also won't be able to count on Adriano for several months because of an Achilles' injury, and Sao Paulo's Luis Fabiano likely won't play in the team's opener because of a lingering knee ailment. World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari won't have Valdivia available for Palmeiras' debut because of a muscle injury, while Internacional coach Paulo Roberto Falcao will be without D'Alessandro because of a thigh problem.
Brazil does not follow the European football calendar and teams play regional tournaments in each of the country's 26 states in the first few months of the year. The Brazilian Cup is played in the first half of the year and the Copa Sudamericana will take place in the second.
Four of the 20 teams competing in the Brazilian league - scheduled to end in December - will be demoted to the second division.
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