One down, three to go…..

April 18, 2011

SOCCER-SPAIN/CLASICOIn our latest Monday post on Spanish soccer, Mark Elkington in Madrid reviews the first of four games in three competitions in 18 days between arch rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid and takes a look at surprise La Liga package Levante.

One down, three to go

Real Madrid and Barcelona achieved their primary aims in Saturday´s 1-1 “Clasico” draw, the first of four titanic clashes between the arch rivals in 18 days.

Barca maintained their eight-point advantage at the top of La Liga and with six games left to play surely have their third consecutive league title in the bag.

Madrid did not get beaten. After five consecutive defeats against Pep Guardiola´s team they avoided a repeat of the 5-0 rout they suffered in Nou Camp last November and gave themselves the belief they could maybe upset Barca in the coming games.

Saturday´s match was like a warm-up for Wednesday´s King´s Cup final in Valencia and the Champions League semis which start next week.

Jose Mourinho ditched his standard 4-2-3-1 formation, bringing extra muscle into the midfield in the shape of centre-back Pepe and dispensed with his playmaker Mesut Ozil as he “parked the bus” (in front of their own goal) as they say in Spain.

Barca enjoyed 72 percent of the possession and at times just played passes at the back like it was a training game, while all 11 of Real´s players watched warily from their own half.

Real had Raul Albiol sent off for fouling David Villa which allowed Lionel Messi to score from the penalty spot early in the second half, but the visitors failed to press home their advantage and when Ozil entered the fray late on, Real gathered a head of steam.

Dani Alves brought down Marcelo in the area and was lucky not to receive a second yellow card, and Cristiano Ronaldo scored from the spot with eight minutes to go.

Real almost stole a winner but Madrid´s fans were just pleased they had not lost again. They said it was a draw that felt like a victory.

Mourinho echoed that sentiment and launched his now habitual attack on the match officials, saying for once he would like to play Barca 11 v 11 for 90 minutes.

He had a point with Alves. That would have made it 10 v 10, but overlooks a penalty that should have gone Barca´s way when Iker Casillas brought down Villa in the first half.

Pepe rode close to the wind with some crunching tackles in midfield, following through after the ball had gone on a number of occasions and managed to really get under Messi´s skin.

The Argentine World Player of the Year won´t have won many friends in the lower rows of the main stand when he blasted a ball at them in frustration near the end. The referee didn´t caution him.

Mourinho´s tactics didn´t win any support from Real Madrid´s honorary president, however. Alfredo Di Stefano, the club´s most famous former player, was scathing in his weekly column in sports daily Marca on Monday.

“The football Barcelona played at the Bernabeu was simply brilliant,” he wrote.

“Barca play football and dance, Real just dashed from here to there constantly.

“It´s clear that Barcelona are superior. Real were a team without personality. This match should give pause for thought as to how to face up for the next game, because trying to play Barcelona on the break clearly isn´t the most adequate.”

Mourinho has the chance to win his first trophy with Real on Wednesday, the club´s first in two and a half years and their first King´s Cup since 1993, but surely he has to be a bit more adventurous in a one-off match.

He still has a double within his reach, while Barca´s Pep Guardiola has his eyes on a second treble.

Could Levante snatch a place in Europe?

Outside the top two, in the “best of the rest” of La Liga, promoted Levante have the third best record in the second half of the season behind Real and Barca.

The cash-strapped team from Valencia beat struggling Hercules 2-1 on Sunday to make it eight wins, three draws and two defeats since the midway point of the campaign. Ruben Suarez´s freekick was one of the goals of the weekend.

They climbed to ninth in the standings with 42 points and are now mathematically safe from relegation.

More than that, they are just four points off seventh-placed Atletico Madrid and the last Europa League qualification slot.

A win at the Calderon next weekend, and Luis Garcia´s over-achievers could be contemplating a European campaign next season.

PHOTO: Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola (R) gestures as his Real Madrid counterpart Jose Mouirinho looks on during their La Liga match at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, April 16, 2011. REUTERS/Felix Ordonez.

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