And when the match came, as it happens with many eagerly-awaited games, it was a bit of a disappointment. Just a bit. Real were able to restrict Barcelona to a professional, take-points-and-forget-about-it 1-0 win. At the end of the day, it's just three points, but there is much more to it than it seems.
The good news for Real Madrid is that there aren't four goals anymore between themselves and Barcelona: the last time these teams played, Barça had run out 6-2 winners, away, a historic result which Catalan fans treasure just as much as any of the five trophies won in 2009 (maybe soon to be six: the whole club is raring to travel to the Club World Cup and etch their name where there fame is). The bad news for Real, apart from the defeat itself, is that the difference wasn't shorted by increased excellence in their own game, but a mere ability to just keep up with the Joan-ses by splashing the cash. They are still second best, only not as distant as before. Real, however, don't do plucky and meritorious second places. Not winning the league will be deemed a failure, full stop.
More good news for Real, however, lie in the fact that, taking into account that this is a league featuring 18 other teams, Real arrived at the Camp Nou one point ahead. Barcelona were, and still are, the only unbeaten team in the division, universally praised for their style, but they weren't top of the pile at kick-off time. Real, humiliated in the Spanish Cup by third-level minnows, were. How come?
Although it's always very difficult to beat Barcelona, the blaugranas have been held to three league draws, which means six points dropped, which is as much as two defeats. And in a two-horse title race like this one, each of those points could mean the difference between retaining the trophy or losing it. Real could conceivably lose their meetings against Barcelona and still win the title if they keep beating everybody else.
As mentioned before, Barcelona will have the Club World Cup disrupting their season this month, and you can never know how much damage it could do to them in terms of extra tiredness and future fixture pile-up. And by the way, Barcelona have been drawn to play Sevilla in a two-legged tie in the Copa del Rey, followed, if they win, by Valencia or Deportivo in the quarter-finals: maybe the fixture congestion will be eased for them that way. In the absence of Real Madrid, it's the toughest draw Barcelona could get.
Talking about Sevilla and Valencia, they refused to gatecrash the Big Two party by drawing their games before El Gran Clásico started. Both still stand quite close behind, just two and three points off Real, but they seem to lack the self-belief and the ruthlessness to turn into reality their pretensions of being considered title-winning material. Those two points dropped this week won't return, and they have only themselves to blame if the public interest lies still with the two giant clásicos.
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Javier Sierra en el Parador de Sigüenza
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