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Champions elect

So, to twist that well-worn phrase, it's all over bar the pouting. There remains a philosophical possibility that Real Madrid could drop seven points in the next four games - the trip to San Mamés is a tricky one, and the game at Granada might also be more difficult than it looks, if the hosts are in need of a win to stay up, but there seems little point in clutching at straws. Real Madrid are champions elect, and probably deservedly so. Even the Catalan press, in harmony with Barcelona's own public show of 'saber perder' (know how to lose), were reasonably generous towards Madrid, which is something of a first. Nevertheless, Xavi, the arch-scowler, who always looks as if someone's just told him that his house has been burgled, spoiled it all by announcing to the press that 'Nosotros sabemos perder' (We know how to lose), which means of course that he doesn't - or else why say it? The implicit target of his remark, Real Madrid, are of course sore losers, but it was an unnecessary point to make. We know all this. As they say in Yorkshire, Xavi should save his breath to cool his porridge.

The game itself was not the greatest of the recent clásicos, but it was an absorbing encounter which will go down in La Liga history as the game that divided the past from the present, and which has possibly marked the development of the near future. Barcelona will be reluctant to admit that the loss of this league title - theirs for the last three seasons - is irrefutable proof of the end of an era, but as Mr Zimmerman remarked, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Barcelona can still finish the season with five trophies. They can add the small matters of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League to the Supercopas of Spain and Europe, not forgetting the Club World Cup that they won in December. But games like Saturday night can leave their mark, even though it wasn't a 2-6, the last game that announced what was to come for the next few seasons. Interestingly, that result, back in 2009, occurred in a context that it is easy to forget - because Juande Ramos' side had just won seventeen out of eighteen and moved to within four points of Barcelona. The win took Barcelona seven points clear with four games to go (identical to this season) and was achieved just before their famous Champions League encounter with Chelsea.

Aside from the spooky coincidences, the 2-6 dealt a psychological blow to Real Madrid from which, you could argue, it has taken them until Saturday night to recover. Indeed, this was the first of the last eight league-based clásicos that Madrid have won, going back to 2007 during Bernd Schuster's time in charge when they won 1-0 in the Camp Nou.

So what's the big deal about the result on Saturday night? Well, first of all the statistics and records. It seems ironic, or iconic, that Real Madrid should wait for this particular game in order to establish the all-time record for goals scored in the professional Spanish game since 1928 - or more specifically since the 'Quinta del Buitre' (the Vulture Squadron) managed 107 under John Toshack in 1989. These things matter in Spain. The man whom destiny chose was Sami Khedira, not exactly a prolific goalscorer, but he was nevertheless on hand to poke the ball from between Carles Puyol's dithering legs to open the scoring on Saturday night and register the 108th. It was a strange goal, but one that arose as a consequence of Madrid's superior ability in the air, Pepe rising virtually unchallenged to nod goalwards, as Cristiano Ronaldo had done a little earlier and almost scored. And the latter then set a further record, beating his own 41 from last season, and pushing his personal envelope a little further still. He might not get to fifty for the league season, but don't put it past him. Setting the record in the Camp Nou made it something of a complete night for madridismo. You could argue that it's their fair turn, having taken some slings and arrows in the past four seasons - many of which were entirely of their own making, of course. But now they know that their greatest opponents are fallible. They weren't so sure before, since their Copa del Rey win over Barcelona seemed like the exception that proved the rule.

It was an interesting goal too from Ronaldo, symbolic of what they have been trying to do for so long against Barcelona now - hit them on the counter-attack but at the precise moment that inflicts maximum damage. Two minutes earlier, when Alexis scored a rather messy equaliser, it looked like the same old story for Madrid - take the lead, surrender possession, and then slowly but surely allow the water to seep through the dyke until the sandbags eventually give way. But to race down the pitch and re-establish the lead almost immediately was a hammer-blow for Barcelona, from which they never really recovered. They could have won the game, of course. Any team that enjoys 66% of the possession is going to create chances, but those to whom the opportunities fell were uncharacteristically wayward (as in Stamford Bridge) and Madrid were untypically focused for the whole game, instead of just some of it. They also managed to keep their discipline, which is a lesson for the future. José Mourinho sat quietly in the dug-out, and greeted his first-ever win there (in ten) with a quick run down the tunnel, in contrast to the last time he had something to celebrate there with Inter. Apparently at half-time he had suggested that if Barcelona scored (always a reasonable possibility!) then it would open up the game better for the counter-attack policy. A perverse idea, perhaps, but one that proved to be prescient.

And what of Barcelona, who having lost two games all season, now find themselves with two consecutive defeats to ponder. Crisis? Hardly - but Tuesday's game against Chelsea now assumes nuclear proportions. In the last two games, Barcelona's dedication to their own style has been as admirable as ever, but you sometimes feel that they lack a 'Plan B'. It's as if their tiki-taka universe has reaped so many dividends that they see no reason to contemplate any other approach, not even for a moment. Is this the way all empires fall - through a stubborn but understandable belief in the efficacy of your approach and the tempting feeling that you might be untouchable? I don't think that Barcelona have ever got too carried away with themselves, because they have maintained a fierce competitive edge and spirit, despite the glut of success and almost universal praise that has come their way. But at times, you feel that they need a Grant Holt to bring on for the last ten minutes - and ok, I'm joking (with no disrespect to Norwich's new icon), but you take the point. There are no surprises with Barcelona. The only ones are when they change the personnel around, as they did against Madrid. Gerard Pique - conspicuous perhaps by his absence. Is it the Shakira effect, or something more?

The rest is fairly predictable, in a fantastic way. The fact that the tiki-taka can fail does not necessarily spell the end of Barcelona's hegemony. But the world will be watching to see how they react from this latest blow. When Madrid are happy, the wind begins to drop in Barça's sails. And Chelsea will have noted the reduction in the Catalans' firepower when Dani Alves is restricted to his own half of the field. Fabio Coentrao, from being the culprit in the defeat at Bayern, got his act together and played an excellent clásico, keeping Alves quieter than he has been for many a night. With Andres Iniesta similarly subdued and young Cristian Tello unable to really outfox Alvaro Arbeloa, the pressure on Messi to perform was just too great, for once.

Does the world want another clásico, in Munich? Well of course it does (with the exception of the residents of Munich and west London). It would be the mother of all finals, in the media and commercial sense of the phrase. The chances are pretty even, since neither side was exactly hammered in the first legs. But it seems too massive to be true - as if it were never meant to be. Besides, such a clásico might not be a great game, whereas Real Madrid v Chelsea sounds more interesting somehow, as does Bayern v Barcelona. I only personally exclude Bayern v Chelsea because of personal journalistic reasons. There are those, I'm sure who would be happy with that outcome for the final.

Elsewhere, life goes on. Valencia beat Betis 4-0 and appeased their supporters before next week's difficult Europa second leg against Atlético Madrid, the latter winning the first 4-1. It's difficult, but not impossible. Unai Emery has told his players that he will not be at the Mestalla next season, so where will he be? Real Sociedad, in all probability. You read it here first folks. Athletic will also have to come from behind, having succumbed last week (2-1) to an excellent second-half display from Sporting Lisbon in the other semi-final tie. They warmed up with a 1-0 win in Santander, which almost certainly relegates poor Racing, who have had a miserable season, with a difficult situation to resolve, off the pitch and in the boardroom. The situation remains unresolved, and the team's body language suggests that their motivation is at an understandable low. Zaragoza and Sporting (the latter won their game 2-1 against Rayo) can still live in hope, but they are still six points from safety, with four games to play. It's not looking good. To quote Xavi, they know how to lose.


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