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Clásico caution

Next week is the real Jornada 19, the week that defines the true half-way of the league programme, so I'll wait until then to do the traditional 'half-term report'. Next week is also a bit special because the opening games that should have been played back in August, which were called off because of the players' strike, will finally make their belated appearance.

The Jornada 20 games will therefore be flung forward to early May. Clear as mud eh? Well - the reason's fairly straightforward. The Spanish league plays its paired-up games in strict parallel rotation, unlike many European leagues. So if you play Levante at home on the first weekend, you'll play them away again on the 20th, in a mirror-image second half to the season. So Jornada 20 needs moving, or else all the teams would be playing each other consecutively over two weekends - an interesting prospect but one that would be almost unprecedented in modern professional football, I imagine.

The scene has been further complicated by the latest caprice of the gods, pairing up Real Madrid and Barcelona for another Clásico-fest, this time in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey. The Bernabéu version will be this Wednesday (18th) and the return leg on the 25th. Suddenly, things have turned a bit cup-coloured, as if the league matches this weekend and next are simply a minor nuisance to be tolerated (and won) with the minimum of fuss and injured players.

In a sense this is good, because there are many observers of the game here who complain that the King's Cup has lost its value over the years, and that the big stables only bring out their stallions when the semi-finals call. But the premature pairing-up of the big two means that an extra space has been created for the rest of the aspirants, and the Valencia v Levante game looks like an interesting prospect too. Little Mirandes, the leaders of Segunda B who put out Racing de Santander, can also continue to dream. Drawn against Espanyol, their chances will reside in how seriously the Catalans take the two ties, but you would think that the prospect of a more-than-likely semi-final place would ensure that Espanyol put out a decent side.

Correct me if I'm wrong - and if you live in Spain - but since the draw I think I've detected a definite whiff of Clásico-fatigue in the air, as if it were actually the last thing the two teams wanted at this stage of the season, and the last thing that the media wanted too, such is the complexity of dealing with the event. It's a money-spinner, sure, but it can take up an inordinate amount of your time, at such short notice.

When you can see the date of the return league game at the Camp Nou, you can start preparing yourself for the event several months in advance, but the prospect of these two games, although they were always on the cards, has not been met with massive enthusiasm throughout the land. The age-old complaint about the competition's obsessive two-legged nature has resurfaced, and many journalists are again calling for a reform of the system to make it into a straight knockout competition. It may well be that the two Clásicos will generate plenty of income for advertisers and for the two clubs involved, but it can drag out the drama too much, and in doing so can create a sort of spectacle-fatigue.

Maybe it's also because Madrid's current ascendancy will be challenged before they can even get used to enjoying it. A five-point advantage is a rare luxury, but psychologically it will seem like peanuts again if they lose over the two legs. As far as Barcelona are concerned, the tie represents a nasty challenge. If they lose it, the collateral damage may be far greater than the relatively minor problem of losing in the final last season. Out of the cup and trailing in the league is not a wonderful prospect, although the nature of the consequences can also depend, given the special nature of this rivalry, on the manner of the defeat.

Real Madrid still feel that they were robbed in the Champions League last season. Whether they are right or not, the idea served to bolster their morale, to protect them from the darker implications of the loss. It is also to their credit that they have bounced back from the Bernabéu result in December, a measure of their greater mental strength this season. However, an aggregate loss now to Barcelona is tricky to contemplate. They would have to pick themselves up all over again, and try not to dwell for too long on why they cannot seem to out-compete their bogey-men. It's going to be interesting, Clásico fatigue or not.

Meanwhile, the awkward thing called the league got in the way. Both the giants had their feet of clay revealed, Madrid trailing at one point at Mallorca after the excellent Hemed's goal, but rallying in the second half to win with replies from Gonzalo Higuaín and José Callejón. The latter is slowly winning his manager's confidence, and always seems to score when he's given a game. If I were Mou I'd put him on from the start against Barça. They're not used to him. How about leaving the off-form Ronaldo on the bench? Now that would really confuse the opposition.

Barcelona had a few scares themselves, and Betis, who always seem to play decently at the Camp Nou, had the temerity to score twice, doubling the collective achievements of the nine sides who had previously failed to score there this season. In fact, Ruben Castro, in the 32nd minute, became the first person to ripple a Camp Nou net in the league since April, when Almería managed the feat. Roque Santa Cruz actually pulled the scores back to 2-2 early in the second half, but once Pedro Mario got his marching orders and Betis were reduced to ten men, the inevitable happened and Barça ran out 4-2 winners.

However, changing tack a little, a glance at the league table on Sunday night revealed a much more democratic scene than last season at the same stage, and all sorts of possible outcomes from the final 20 games - albeit outcomes outside of the top two. With regard to the summit, Pep Guardiola said in response to a journalist who asked him if he thought the league title was slipping from his grasp: "I think that with 60 points still to play for, a lot can happen." Indeed, and that refers to almost all the teams in La Liga. Zaragoza are eight points adrift of safety and have reason to fear the coming months, with internal problems and supporter rebellion, but apart from them, Sporting de Gijon's position as the third-from-bottom side is hardly cause for trauma, with only five points separating them and Atlético Madrid, in 10th place.

Things also look slightly upside-down in places, with Villarreal still anchored down in penultimate place and half-a-dozen teams in Europe rumoured to be bidding for their best player, Borja Valero, and Levante and Osasuna in 4th and 6th places respectively.

Neither Malaga nor Sevilla have managed to impose themselves on those with less finance and quality, and although Valencia have so far managed to keep Barcelona in their sights, even they fell to a sucker-punch at home on Saturday night, losing 1-0 to lowly Real Sociedad for the first time at the Mestalla since 1996. Racing de Santander kept up the theme, by recording higher-flying Osasuna's first home defeat of the season, and Sporting defeated the already-mentioned Malaga, with a last-gasp goal from Oscar Trejo. Even Atlético Madrid are showing signs of life under the new management of Diego Simeone, beating poor Villarreal 3-0 in the Calderón. Next week they travel to Anoeta, so I'll cast my eagle-ish eye upon them for you.


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