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La Liga: Barça slip spices up title race

Spain’s soccer action has resumed after the winter break, with the champions being held to a draw and the managerial merry-go-round in full spin.

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Sitting pretty: Mourinho's Real Madrid are five points clear of Barcelona.

The winners of the El Gordo lottery announced, turrón digested and the winter sales in full swing can only mean one thing: La Liga is back after the Christmas break. The weekend’s action failed to disappoint with a Barcelona slip-up that could prove pivotal in the title race.

Following a 5-1 Real Madrid win on Saturday night against Liga new boys Granada, Barcelona travelled to Espanyol’s Cornellá-El Prat stadium for the Catalan derby on Sunday.

The visitors started brightly, taking the lead in the 16th minute with a Cesc Fàbregas header, but their title hopes suffered a setback when Álvaro Vázquez scored for the home side four minutes from time with a low header.

Pushing for a winner, defender Gerard Piqué hit the woodwork in injury-time and a penalty appeal was turned down by the referee, after an apparent handball by Espanyol’s Raúl Rodríguez, who blocked Pedro Rodríguez’s follow-up.

The 1-1 draw leaves the reigning Spanish and European champions five points adrift of leaders Madrid and means that the title, as things stand, is now out of their hands. Aside from the Copa del Rey final win against their eternal rivals, José Mourinho’s Madrid have yet to beat Barça, but to win the league, they now may not have to.

That doesn’t, however, alleviate the Special One’s more pressing Clásico headache as he learned over the holiday period that should both his side and Barça progress to the last eight of the Copa del Rey, the two sides will meet again next week in the quarter-finals.

But prior to that, the first leg of their last-16 tie against Málaga saw Madrid stage a classic remontada. Trailing by two goals at halftime, Mourinho used all three substitutes immediately after the break to bring on both Sami Khedira – who would pull back the first goal for his side – and an inspired Karim Benzema, who scored the winner, leaving the visitors trailing 3-2.

The sluggish performance by Los Merengues in the first half caused the coach to criticise some of his players for overindulging during their holidays. Barcelona on the other hand had no such problems, with Lionel Messi even brushing aside a fever to help thrash Osasuna 4-0.

The final results will be determined this week following the return legs, but it seems likely Mourinho’s side will be facing the Barcelona side that they just can’t seem to beat sooner than they would like.

In addition, a favourable Champions League draw sees Madrid play CSKA Moscow and Barcelona take on Bayer Leverkusen, meaning the two Spanish sides could meet yet again in that tournament, and we could see another five Clásicos before the end of the season.

The winter break also saw managerial changes, with Gregorio Manzano finally being put out of his misery and relieved of his duties by Atlético Madrid after a cup knockout by lower league Albacete in his final game in charge.

Relentlessly booed in recent weeks, he was replaced by former player Diego Simeone who was clear about the task at hand, stating: “We need to get the team’s spirit back”. Some 5,000 fans flocked to the Vicente Calderón to watch his first training session at the ground but El Cholo failed to get off to winning start on his debut, as his side’s trip to Málaga ended in a goalless draw.

Reyes goes home

The stalemate means Atléti remain rooted in mid-table, leaving the Argentine coach with plenty of work to do to. One man he can no longer count on and who was also put out of his misery is José Antonio Reyes, who returned to Sevilla, the club where it all began for him.

In 2004 – with the Andalusian winger content at his club – Arsenal made an offer of up to £17.5m, which Sevilla could not refuse. He would later go to Real Madrid (on loan) Benfica and Atlético Madrid and had success winning the Europa League, European Super Cup, one Liga, one Premier League, and the FA Cup.

His time at Atlético however, was marred by fallings out, first with coach Javier Aguirre and this season with Manzano, with the latter rift leaving Reyes wanting out.

Sevilla welcomed back their canterano with open arms for €3.5m but he failed to inspire his side to victory at the weekend as Rayo Vallecano picked up a valuable 2-1 win.

Miguel Michu opened the scoring for the hosts before Raúl Tamudo got the second just after halftime. Julien Escudé pulled one back for the visitors just after the hour, but Rayo held on for their first win in five.

Another man let go during the winter break was Javier Aguirre. His replacement Manolo Jiménez began his tenure as Real Zaragoza coach with a loss as Racing Santander inflicted a narrow 1-0 defeat.

Jiménez took over the side sitting bottom of the table and Bernardo Espinosa’s header in first-half injury-time was enough to earn a welcome victory at El Sardinero.

José Molina was another who took charge of his side for the first time – following Juan Carlos Garrido’s dismissal from Villarreal – and his team made a perfect start as Marco Ruben and Gonzalo had them 2-0 up in 18 minutes.

But Sofiane Feghouli pulled one back before half-time and Aritz Aduriz scored three minutes from time, as Valencia recovered to draw 2-2 at El Madrigal.

RESULTS:

RCD Espanyol 1 – 1 FC Barcelona

Real Betis 2 – 0 Sporting Gijón

Villarreal CF 2 – 2 Valencia CF

Getafe CF 0 – 0 Athletic Bilbao

Rayo Vallecano 2 – 1 Sevilla FC

Málaga CF 0 – 0 Atlético Madrid

Real Madrid 5 – 1 Granada CF

Racing Santander 1 – 0 Real Zaragoza

Real Sociedad 0 – 0 Osasuna

Levante UD 0 – 0 RCD Mallorca





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