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Easter musings

Sorry about my absence last week, but everything got kind of complicated. I crossed the Danube from Bulgaria into Romania last Sunday week, and headed for Bucharest, only to find that the 'derby' between Rapid and Dinamo was on a little too early for me to attend, and besides, the hotel receptionist told me that it was normally 'war'. So I went to bed instead. I regret that now, and may never get another chance to see the Bucharest battle, but I was whacked.

Determined to write a piece last Monday nevertheless, I arrived in Paris on Monday afternoon to find my flight to Bilbao cancelled due to a pilots' strike on Air France. Fine - but the hotel they took me to had no wi-fi, and so I gave up. Instead of writing on La Liga I spent an interesting evening in the bar chatting to a Nicaraguan guy about the revolution, as you do. So apologies for the no-show.

Anyway, it's Easter and I'm heading to Valencia and then south to Almeria. On Friday I'll most likely watch the game between the hosts and Villarreal B, since I've never been to Almeria's ground and it'll be another one for the nerdy ground-hopping collection. Almeria can still get into the Segunda 'A' play-offs, and need to win to have much hope of staying in the race. Their excellent away point at Valladolid suggests they're moving into gear, at the right time.

The right time? Well, Easter tends to be the traditional period of make-and-break, largely because of the amount of games played during the period. Teams arriving at this stage with players suspended or injured begin to curse their no-buy policies in the winter transfer window, and teams previously threatened with relegation begin to shrug and accept the inevitable.

Cue Sporting de Gijon, who after looking as though they might make a fight of the second half to the season, with Javier Clemente at the helm in place of the sacked Manolo Preciado, have sunk to bottom spot and are regretting the arrival of the famous bus-parker, who has been accused of outmoded methods this week and been involved in one of his famous spats with a journalist who dared to suggest that he might be better off playing on the golf course, in serene retirement. Poor Sporting, a better side than they appear, drained of their last drop of confidence by a manager who continues to feed the press with inelegant metaphors. Clemente, as mentioned a fortnight ago, favours the four-wheel figurative phrases, and continues to insist that to drive in Formula One, one needs a racing car. "The car I've been given," he insisted at the weekend, "isn't made for this competition. The previous people got the design wrong." And then he wonders why he is unpopular.

At the other end, things are hotting up, as we always suspected they might. On Tuesday night, if Barcelona beat Getafe at the Camp Nou, they'll be within a psychological single point of Real Madrid, thanks to Valencia's draw at the Bernabeu on Sunday. Madrid then nip across town to play Atletico, and although they haven't lost a derbi for aeons, it is nevertheless an uncomfortable game to be facing, in the circumstances. Atletico have not been playing so well of late, to which the 2-0 defeat at Levante attests, but they need the points if the Champions League places are not to fade too far into the distance, and the game could be decisive in the unfolding of this season's plot. And if you'll excuse me quoting myself, the Liga de Mierda idea that reared its head some time ago was dismissed in this column by pointing out that the duel between the top two will always sustain interest, even if it excludes the rest from a decent view of the top places. Maybe this is wrong, but it's the post-modern Spanish scene, as far as it has unfolded in the post-millennium period.

For now, the complaints in Spain are more about the monetary implications of the duopoly, as opposed to the distribution of the silverware. People want to feel that the gap should grow no further, and that if necessary, there should be some sort of executive action to ensure this. Meanwhile, Leo Messi has scored 60 goals in all competitions, and Real Madrid have already managed 100 in the league. In Europe's two major competitions, the semi-finals have five Spanish sides. I rest my case, m'lud, especially with little Levante still in fourth place.

Oh - and there's the small matter of the clasico to come, which promises to be nuclear in nature. Barcelona have stepped up a gear since the turn of the year, and although Madrid have not exactly been slouches, the famous 10-point lead, allegedly unassailable, has been slowly but surely whittled down. It's making for some fascinating viewing. Do Barcelona have the easier run-in, now that we're looking more carefully at the final slope? Well - away to Levante next Saturday could be tricky, although the old foxes from Valencia's other team might find the Catalan hares difficult to chase down. They'll not be without motives, of course, since having come so far, it would be desperately disappointing not to finish at least in the top six. I'll leave the quinielas to Ed Alvarez, but they're going to get difficult from now on.

After that it's the clasico, followed by a trip to Rayo Vallecano, which isn't as easy as it might have looked a few weeks ago. Despite the internal problems at the Madrid club, Rayo stuffed Osasuna 6-0 on Saturday night and the combination of the small pitch and the vociferous support might prove a potential hiccup. You never know. Then it's neighbours Espanyol at home, which should be a fairly comfortable occasion, Betis away and Malaga at home. These are marginally 'easier' than Madrid's fixtures, which include a trip to Bilbao, but we cannot assume that the clasico is a straight home win for Barcelona. Most people's calculations have made this assumption.

Back down below, Racing seem destined to join Sporting now, with the prospect of second division football threatening further their financial survival. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope for the Santander team is that the majority of their games are against direct or near-direct rivals. A couple of morale-boosting wins might still see them escape, but it's looking bleak.

Zaragoza, on the other hand, despite losing 4-1 at home to Barcelona on Saturday night, look the most prepared for the great escape. They'd won three on the trot before Barca came to visit, and their performance in the first half, before Abraham was sent off, was symptomatic of a side that believes it can survive. They have not been labelled as go-karts (as opposed to Formula One), and are re-paying their manager's faith in them. They are still four points shy of Villarreal, however, and despite the latter's shocking inability to put a decent run together - their three-game undefeated run under Miguel Angel Lotina having included two draws - you still feel that they have too much quality to go down. That being the case, Zaragoza would have to consider Granada the next possible victim, which is interesting because they play them at home next Sunday. That might indeed be the game of the weekend.

Supporting one of the sides who are mathematically still threatened with relegation (Real Sociedad) makes one conscious of the minimum points required to stay up, usually quoted as around the 42 mark. This season, with seven games to play and Zaragoza still on 28, you feel that 40 would guarantee safety, a lower amount than has been needed for several seasons now. For Zaragoza to win four of their remaining games seems unlikely, given this season's average, but strange things tend to happen from here on. Nobody can afford to relax, which keeps the interest levels - and the famous maletas (suitcases) - full of figurative pay-offs between teams, in the news.

With Celta playing Deportivo next weekend in the Galician derby, a game that may decide the Segunda 'A' title this season, the sides in the bottom half of the top flight will be conscious of their motives not to swap places with either of them for next season. And the Champions League? Let's leave that for another week, before we can fantasise about another clasico.

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