- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

SEVILLE, Spain | After a bumpy start, the ideal script appears to be unfolding at the Peace Cup, the most lucrative preseason event on the soccer calendar.

Two of the biggest attractions bounced back to reach Friday’s semifinals: Big-spending Real Madrid downed Liga de Quito 4-2 after a tie against minnows Al-Ittihad; Premier League outfit Aston Villa moved past its opening loss to host Malaga and downed Mexican club Atlante 3-1.

Real Madrid faces Italian giant Juventus on Friday. Owing to the temperature, which has surged past 100 degrees this week, that game has a kickoff at 10:30 p.m. local time. Villa - which brought a large contingent of fans who are enjoying the famed Costa del Sol beaches - faces Portuguese champion FC Porto in the other semifinal.

“I’m pleased because the semifinal gives us another competitive game,” Villa coach Martin O’Neill said on the club’s Web site.

Villa midfielder Stiliyan Petrov suffered a dislocated shoulder against Atlante. On the bright side, 20-year-old defender Eric Lichaj, one of three Americans on the team, has gotten positive reviews after making his first two starts. Lichaj, who hopes to break into the senior team in league play this season, was not available for comment; a team official said, “We are keeping him under wraps.”

The 12-team event hit the jackpot when world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo became its poster boy after his move to Madrid last month. Event organizers are secretly hoping his club reaches Sunday’s final at Seville’s Olympic Stadium. Crowds have been sparse at games in Seville, with ticket prices at $25 - too high for some. With Ronaldo coming to town, a large turnout is expected to watch the Portuguese star face Juventus, which boasts a number of big-time players, including Alessandro Del Piero and Brazilian striker Diego.

If Real Madrid and Villa advance, it would set up a clash between clubs from what are considered the two best leagues in the world - La Liga and the Premier League.

“We want to win the Peace Cup, but the game [with Juventus] comes too soon,” Real Madrid captain Raul told the Spanish media. “It will be a great match, but we do not want to draw too many conclusions from it. In two weeks, we will be much better than we are now.”

Real Madrid, which plays D.C. United on Aug. 9 at FedEx Field, has looked woeful at times in the tournament. On Thursday, the club signed Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa in hopes of fixing its back line.

While this is only a preseason event, much is on the line for Real Madrid at the Peace Cup, which is sponsored by the Sunmoon Peace Football Foundation, a corporate sister of The Washington Times. The club is trying to prove its collection of expensive star players can quickly find the balance needed to win trophies following last season’s silverware drought. After spending nearly $400 million on new talent, including Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, fans will not be patient if Real Madrid does not just win - but win with flair.

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