Real Madrid took a giant step towards winning their 31st league title this weekend when they beat Villarreal 3-2 in the Bernabeu after all their closest rivals had failed to win. There may still be 17 games to go but Madrid now have a nine point advantage and it will be very difficult for Barcelona, or anybody else, to close the gap on the leaders. Barça could do no better than a 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao in San Mames.
Guti and Robinho were the stars of a fantastic game of attacking football. After just eight minutes Guti found a gap in the Villarreal defence with a great pass to Robinho and the Brazilian beat Diego Lopez with a first time shot into the far corner. Villarreal hit back quickly and Iker Casillas conceded his first goal in 573 minutes when Rossi smashed the ball past him after receiving a pass from Nihat.
Madrid then played some of their best football of the season and Diego Lopez produced excellent saves from Robinho, Salgado and Guti to keep the scores level at half time. In the 52nd minute Madrid went ahead again after a splendid counter attack: Casillas threw the ball to Guti who laid the ball off to Sergio Ramos, the defender ran for 50 metres before setting up Raul on the right, Raul’s shot was saved by Diego Lopez and from the rebound Raul squared to Guti whose shot was also stopped by the keeper, the ball came out to Robinho who finally found the net with a low shot.
In the 75th minute Capdevila found himself unmarked at the far post after a corner and he had a simple job to equalize from close in. It only took a minute for Madrid to bounce back in typical fashion. Gago received from a Robinho throw-in and sent a lobbed pass into Sneijder, who had just come on, and he shot across the keeper into the far corner for the winner. Madrid have now won an impressive 17 games out of 21 this season.
Barcelona paid the price for their lack of punch in front of goal when an own goal from Lilian Thuram saw them drop two points against Athletic Bilbao. Seventeen-year-old Bojan Krkic gave Barça the lead in the first half but their failure to get a second cost them dearly. Thierry Henry had one of his worst games at Barça and Deco was also poor. The Catalans may find themselves concentrating on the Champions League and Copa del Rey if they want to avoid another trophyless season. Click here for a full report on Athletic-Barça
Atletico Madrid missed a chance to move into third place when they lost 1-0 at Mallorca. Arango made the most of poor defending in the 21st minute to score the only goal of the game. Atletico hardly had a chance in the 90 minutes and Reyes was sent off near the end after receiving two yellow cards. This was Mallorca’s first home win in the league since the beginning of October.
Espanyol are in a mini crisis, they were recently knocked out of the Copa del Rey and have now lost three consecutive league games. First choice keeper Kameni is at the African Cup of Nations and second choice Lafuente is injured, add to this the loss of top scorer Raul Tamudo for two months with a fractured arm and it is obvious that a Champions League place next season is going to be complicated. This week they lost 1-2 at home to Betis whose winner from Edu came in the 91st minute.
The other team in the top six, Racing Santander, nearly lost as well. Ivan Bolado gave them an early lead at home to Zaragoza but goals from Diego Milito and Celades looked like winning it for Zaragoza before Tchite’s last gasp equalizer made it 2-2 at the end. Javier Urureta has taken over as Zaragoza’s coach after Ander Garitano resigned from the post for personal reasons after just one week in charge.
Sevilla move up to seventh place after a controversial 2-1 victory over Osasuna. Poulsen gave Sevilla the lead in the 55th minute before Sola equalized for Osasuna. Josetxo was sent off with five minutes remaining for his second yellow card, and then in injury time referee Iturralde Gonzalez gave a penalty for a non-intentional hand ball from Javi Garcia who also saw his second yellow leaving Osasuna with nine men. Luis Fabiano made no mistake from the spot to score his fourteenth goal of the season.
Valencia continue with their dreadful run under Ronald Koeman, losing 0-1 at home to Almeria. Felipe Melo scored the only goal of the game after 17 minutes that leaves Koeman’s job on the line. It seems that Valencia president, Juan Bautista Soler, does not want to admit he made a mistake sacking Quique Flores earlier in the season, and Koeman has declared he will not resign. How low will Valencia have to fall before Soler realises that Koeman is not the right man for the job?
There was some relief for the two bottom clubs who both won this week. Deportivo beat Valladolid 3-1 for their first home win for four months. Lopo, Xisco and Guardado put Depor three goals up before Victor scored Valladolid’s consolation. Valladolid’s miserable afternoon was complete when goalkeeper Asenjo was sent off in the second half.
Levante earned their first away win of the season at Murcia to give themselves a glimmer of hope. Ivan Alonso gave Murcia the lead at the start of the second half, but Alvaro and Riga from a penalty put Levante in front. Abel equalized for Murcia in the 88th minute but Pedro Leon made it 2-3 in injury time to seal the three points.
Finally, Recreativo slipped into the bottom three after losing 1-3 at home to Getafe. Albin gave the visitors an early lead before Camuñas equalized on 15 minutes. Granero scored a free kick just before half time to put Getafe in front again, and in the 91st minute Manu Del Moral wrapped things up with a third.
Top Six: Real Madrid 53 points, Barcelona 44, Villarreal 38, Atletico Madrid 37, Espanyol 36, Racing Santander 33.
Top Scorers: Luis Fabiano (Sevilla) 14 goals; Diego Milito (Zaragoza) 14; Van Nistlerooy (Real Madrid) 12; Güiza (Mallorca) 11; Nihat (Villarreal) 11.