Barca closing in on La Liga title

April 4, 2011

SOCCER-SPAIN/In our latest Monday Spanish soccer post, Mark Elkington in Madrid reviews the situation in La Liga after Real Madrid’s shock 1-0 defeat at home to Sporting Gijon and looks ahead to this week’s Champions League action.

La Liga is Barca’s to lose

In a week when Real Madrid were reported by local media to have vetoed the playing of any Shakira songs in the Bernabeu because of her romance with Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, the Spain defender gained more than ample revenge.

Pique scored the only goal as the leaders survived their toughest remaining game in La Liga this season -– aside from the eagerly-awaited “Clasico” at Real in two weeks time -– volleying in the decider against Champions League qualification-chasing Villarreal.

The 1-0 win at the Madrigal put the champions on 81 points with eight left to play and they moved eight clear of Real, who were upset 1-0 by relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon at home earlier on Saturday.

Jose Mourinho was without joint La Liga top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, in-form Karim Benzema and Marcelo due to injury, while Xabi Alonso was suspended, and it was Miguel de las Cuevas who made them pay with a well-worked goal near the end.

“If Barca don’t win the league it will be because we have lost it,” Barca’s David Villa, a former Sporting player, said on Monday.

“Sporting have set things up well for us. The league is ours to lose. I’m very pleased for (Sporting coach Manuel) Preciado. I have a lot of time for him as a coach and a friend.”

There was more than just three points at stake in the Bernabeu, as both Mourinho and Preciado had been censured following a war of words earlier in the season.

The Portuguese had suggested Preciado had fielded a weakened team in losing to Barca back in September, prompting a strong rebuff from the gruff Asturian.

Mourinho’s provocative jibe drew widespread criticism from a number of other top-flight coaches, who accused him of putting down smaller clubs, and it came back to haunt him at an awkward moment.

Madrid’s first home defeat of the campaign, which also ended Mourinho’s incredible nine-year undefeated run in home league games with Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real, means Pep Guardiola has a third consecutive league title within his grasp in his third season in charge.

Real bidding for more “clasicos”

The Champions League provides Real Madrid with a welcome refuge from their La Liga travails, though a potential semi-final meeting with Barca awaits if Real get past Tottenham Hotspur and Barca eliminate Shakhtar Donetsk respectively in the quarters.

Real’s tie with Spurs is attractive given Mourinho’s close links with England, his friendship with their manager Harry Redknapp and the Portuguese coach’s insistence that he wants to return to work in the Premier League one day.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo have only just returned from injury, while Karim Benzema damaged a leg muscle on duty with France and is “in dry dock” as they say in Spain.

Mourinho does have Gonzalo Higuain back in the reckoning after the Argentine made a rapid recovery from his back surgery.

With clashes against Barca in the league and King’s Cup final just around the corner on top of the season run-in, Mourinho has to make some tough decisions with his half-fit players for the Tottenham game.

Tuesday’s visitors are not to be under-estimated having already bettered Inter and AC Milan this season.

Real and Spurs have only ever met once before in Europe in the 1984-85 UEFA Cup quarter-finals.

A Steve Perryman own-goal in the first leg at White Hart Lane was all that separated the sides, as the Spaniards went on the lift the trophy that year.

Real’s current director general Jorge Valdano could still have scars on his leg from the horrendous flying challenge that saw Perryman sent off in the second leg.

Given the attacking style of both Real and Spurs, it is unlikely to be a tie decided by a solitary goal.

Barca, meanwhile, have a tricky test against Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, who were one of the top performers in the group stages.

Guardiola’s outfit needed extra time to defeat them in the European Super Cup final in 2009 and lost 3-2 when the two sides last met at the Nou Camp in 2008.

A fourth and fifth “clasico” this season is far from assured.

PHOTO: Barcelona’s Gerard Pique celebrates after scoring against Villarreal during their La Liga match at Villarreal, April 2, 2011. REUTERS/Heino Kalis.

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