Real Madrid's La Liga title bid still on if they take advantage of a soft fixture
In the final minutes of the past weekend's match in Granada, right before Luka Modric scored the winner for Real Madrid, the faces of the Madridistas showed stress. Every missed pass, every wrong move, every misunderstanding between players generated exaggerated gestural reactions. The team's body language was clear: They were feeling a huge amount of pressure.
Under normal circumstances, a trip to the stunning city in Andalusia should not represent such a huge weight on Madrid's shoulders. In fact, in most scenarios, the fixture would be almost hidden in their minds, a low priority among the handful of matches they marked in red on the calendar before the season began.
But this was not business as usual: As Real Madrid sits four points behind leaders Barcelona in La Liga -- the Azulgranas also have a game in hand away at Sporting de Gijon -- and out of the Copa del Rey since December, any additional points lost in La Liga would mean the end of the domestic season.
The reasons for the pressure were obvious, but once Modric scored, the situation improved more than a little for his club. In fact, the remaining 15 fixtures do not look insurmountable for the Madridistas. For starters, except for the challenging trip to the Camp Nou the first weekend of April -- a must-win match if there ever were one -- the calendar does not show any other demanding away match for Real Madrid.
Aside from Barcelona, Real Madrid's top-ranked opponent in seven remaining trips is Malaga, in 10th. Although Real struggled against 19th-placed Granada on Sunday, it should be easier to play against Levante (20th), Las Palmas (18th) or the reckless Rayo Vallecano (15th), as their calendar dictates, than against better ranked opposition.
The Madridistas still have to face six teams in the current top eight, but all of them will have to visit their home turf, the Santiago Bernabeu.
Athletic de Bilbao (sixth) and Atletico de Madrid (second) will appear in front of the Bernabeu before the end of this month. In March, it will be the turn of Celta de Vigo (seventh) and Sevilla (fifth), while Eibar (eighth) and Villarreal (fourth) will travel to Madrid in April.
It's not far-fetched to say Real Madrid can count on their traditional solidness in front of their public to defeat the upper half of the table, while they will travel to play mostly against teams that have not performed well so far and, at least on paper, look beatable.
Perhaps it was this calendar structure that led Atletico de Madrid's Diego Simeone to make his infamous statement -- "La Liga seems dangerously prepared for Real Madrid to win it" -- before the beginning of the season, overlooking the obvious fact that every team meets the same rivals both home and away. Or perhaps he was alluding to the refereeing, though that couldn't possibly happen because the Argentinean never speaks about the refs.
Whatever the reason behind Simeone's rant, the fact is Barcelona's calendar looks slightly more complex than Real Madrid's. The Azulgrana will host Celta (seventh) and Sevilla (fifth) before February ends, then Real Madrid (third) in April and the now-depressed but always-threatening (at least for Barcelona when titles are involved) Espanyol in May.
However, the most interesting spell in the calendar is two consecutive, demanding trips to Eibar (eighth) and Villarreal (fourth) in March, both hard-to-defeat teams at their respective stadia. Those two matches will happen right before Real Madrid's trip to Barcelona and after a demanding month of February for both teams, so it seems safe to say that if Barcelona manage to arrive in the next Clasico with their current advantage intact, the title should be theirs to lose.
Last but not least in the calendar front regarding Barcelona and Real Madrid, it is relevant to mention that both teams still have to host Valencia. Despite their appalling performances since Gary Neville took over -- they languish at the 14th position, only four points above the relegation zone, after nine consecutive matches without a win -- the Valencianistas have the required talent to surprise any team on any given night, assuming they decide to use it.
Although some radical Real Madrid fans forget to mention them -- sometimes on purpose and sometimes because they honestly don't remember -- there is of course one more challenger to the title. Simeone's Atletico, with a one-point advantage over the Madridistas, could benefit from a not very demanding calendar.
They have to cross the capital to visit the Bernabeu at the end of February, but most of their fans firmly believe they enjoy the upper hand over the Madridistas after a few derbies with positive results in La Liga. After that predictably tense encounter, only their trips to Bilbao and Valencia look intimidating. Before the end of the season, they will have to host Villarreal, Malaga and Celta, all of which are currently in the upper half of the table.
Right now, the title is an uphill battle for Real Madrid, and anyone could tell that by looking at the players' faces in Granada. The only glimmer of hope they have requires impeccable performances in February and March. They need to have two perfect months, with which they would surpass Atletico if they defeat them at the Bernabeu and could potentially reduce Barcelona's lead by taking advantage of the Azulgrana's toughest spell of what's left of the season. Then they would play an anticipated Liga final at the Camp Nou.
The city of Barcelona sounds like the distant future now. In the next seven matches, the Madridistas can't take a single day off, and they know it. Three points Saturday against Athletic de Bilbao should be a good start.
Eduardo is a football analyst for ESPN FC, BBC Sportsworld and Radio Marca. He's been a Real Madrid socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.