La Liga: Momentous week for Barça and Madrid as El clásico looms
Spain’s big two face a crucial few days for their ambitions in the league and Europe.
By Halima Ali
When a gaping 10-point chasm separated Real Madrid and Barcelona, Pep Guardiola was adamant: winning the league is impossible. As the difference closed to eight, six and then four points, he stuck to the party line, but ahead of what is set to be a defining couple of weeks in the race for La Liga and the Champions League, the FC Barcelona coach finally ceased his mantra at the weekend, admitting the domestic title “is a little less impossible now”.
This Saturday, with five games remaining, Real Madrid travel to the Camp Nou attempting to get one hand on the league trophy that has eluded them for four years, but first-up is a Champions League semi-final first-leg game for Los Merengues against their European bête noire Bayern Munich, while Barcelona meet Chelsea.
A month ago it would have seemed unlikely that Barça could derail Madrid’s title challenge but with only a four-point gap and a difficult fixture away to Athletic Bilbao looming on the horizon, the season looks set to be decided one way or the other. It is what Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson calls “squeaky bum time”.
When the two sides last met in the league in December, it was Madrid who were looking the stronger side while Barça had struggled on the road but still took the spoils, winning 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu.
More recently, it is Madrid who are experiencing patchy form, dropping six points in the last seven games. At the weekend, Barcelona laboured yet eventually beat Levante 2-1, with Lionel Messi getting both goals. Real Madrid beat Sporting Gijón 3-1 but nerves were evident, particularly when the home side went a goal down early on.
When they meet on Saturday, both sides will be relying on their talismans as FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have taken their goalscoring to new levels by jointly setting a record for liga goals in a season with 41 each. Meanwhile Madrid also equalled the record number of goals scored in a season – 107 – an achievement previously set under Welsh coach John Toshack 22 years ago and will be seeking goal 108 at the home of their eternal rivals.
The weight of history
But before the trip to Cataluña, there is the Champions League. José Mourinho’s men face an impressive Bayern side in Munich. The two sides – who have been European Champions 13 times between them – have met in the semi-finals on four previous occasions, with the Germans coming out on top three times, a worrying statistic for the Portuguese coach. And while he insists “history doesn’t count” this is the first stern test his side have faced in competition.
Former Madrid player Arjen Robben, who was forced out of the club upon president Florentino Pérez’s return in 2009, as well as former manager Jupp Heynckes, who led the Spanish side to the club’s seventh Champions League title before being shown the door at the Bernabéu, will also be looking to settle old scores, providing added motivation if any was needed. Not to mention that the final in May will be played at the Allianz Arena, home of the German side.
It is a game that Madrid will need to be at their best to win. Putting aside their liga form, they must go up a gear if they are to realise their dream of La décima.
Barcelona meanwhile, also take on a familiar foe in the form of Chelsea, a side they controversially defeated in the 2009 semi-finals of the competition. The west London side had four penalty appeals turned down by the referee during the contest at Stamford Bridge before Andrés Iniesta’s late equaliser saw the match end 1-1 to put his side into the final on away goals.
Twelve of the 18 Chelsea players who were part of the squad that night remain at the club including Didier Drogba – who was apoplectic at the final whistle and earned himself a three-game ban from UEFA – all of whom will be eager to exact revenge on the reigning European champions.
A tough week lies ahead for both sides, the toughest week of the season. The fate of the two biggest titles rests on the performances put in over the next seven days. For Barça, who have been chasing Madrid since the turn of the year, it could be their opportunity to cut the gap to one point and truly stake their claim to a fourth successive league title as well as getting a foot in the final in their quest to win back-to-back UEFA Champions League titles and a fourth crown in seven years.
For Madrid, who have won only one Copa del Rey title in four years and who have let a seemingly unassailable lead be closed, the stakes are even higher. Mourinho must beat his Barça jinx to keep his grip on the title and ensure his men do not lose it all in a week. Either way, it makes for a mouth-watering week of football.
Getafe CF 5 – 1 Sevilla FC
Rayo Vallecano 0 – 1 Atlético Madrid
Athletic Bilbao 1 – 0 RCD Mallorca
Real Betis 1 – 0 Osasuna
Real Zaragoza 1 – 0 Granada CF
Málaga CF 1 – 1 Real Sociedad
Villarreal CF 1 – 1 Racing Santander
RCD Espanyol 4 – 0 Valencia CF
Levante UD 1 – 2 FC Barcelona
Real Madrid 3 – 1 Sporting Gijón
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Published: Apr 17 2012
Category: Spain News, Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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