Ending on a bang, not a whimper
There's nothing mathematically decided as yet in La Liga, with Gimnástica de Tarragona (Nastic to you) dead but not quite buried, and four sides at the top still in with a shout for the league title.
The complaints earlier in the season that this was a poorer standard league than in previous years are falling on deaf ears now, with the most exciting finish since 2002-03 brewing up. Back then, six points separated the top four at this stage, and the league went down to the last day.
After the weekend's actions, only four points separate the top four sides. It's difficult to maintain the poor-stuff thesis when a side like Espanyol can once again show how their mid-table status makes no difference to their quality and threat come the big day. With their minds allegedly on Wednesday's UEFA Cup final in Glasgow, they walked off at half-time in the Bernabéu 1-3 to the good. Some distraction - and that with their two best players - Tamudo and De la Peña, sitting out the game at home.
Of course, much will be made of this wonderful game (4-3) if Real Madrid go on to win the title. It will be seen as a turning point, a moment in the season when the final proof arrived that Madrid had recovered their famous spirit of 'remontadas' (come-backs), a curious and paradoxical sign of weakness in the otherwise solid win-at-all-costs philosophy that has run through their post-war history.
Jorge Valdano invented the phrase 'miedo escénico' to refer to the fear that visiting players might harbour of the hostile reputation of certain grounds, causing them to lose (for example) a two-legged tie they should really have won - as did Derby County in 1975, when Real Madrid turned around a 4-1 deficit from the first leg of their European tie with the English champions.
It was that game that began a string of similar European nights in the Bernabéu, leading to Butragueño's equally famous phrase 'No hay nada como una buena remontada en el Bernabéu' (There's nothing like a good comeback at the Bernabéu) - a phrase with an unintentional comic resonance that hides the truth of the fact that a really good side, for example the Real Madrid of Di Stéfano and company, would not have been losing in the first place
But Butragueño was probably referring to the spirit that the comeback can engender, and the look of invincibility it can convey. As Raúl commented after the Espanyol game, 'Six months ago we'd have lost that'.
At Barcelona the following evening, nobody was saying anything as positive after the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw with struggling Betis - but six months ago it remains equally true that Barça would have won that.
The champions didn't play badly, but the ruthlessness is ebbing away, along with the team spirit. It's as if Madrid and Barça are looking at the end of the season from different ends of a telescope. For Madrid it's just getting bigger and closer, and for Barça the image is diminishing, with the end unclear. On Sunday night Real Madrid stood top of La Liga by virtue of their head-to-head record with Barça, for the first time some October 2005. That statistic makes pretty extraordinary reading, and is proof of just how dominant the Catalans have been over the past couple of seasons.
It's the old yin and the yang again. When one of these sides is on the up, the other is on the slide - or so it appears. The force of contrary laws takes over, evident in Barça's amazing 4-0 collapse at Getafe in midweek, in the second leg of the King's Cup semi-finals (5-2 to Barça in the first leg). They are suffering from the 'remontada' in reverse, which we could perhaps christen the 'de-montada'.
And where Real Madrid made all the right moves to correct their ailing position at half-time, taking off the ineffective Guti and bringing on a hyped-up Reyes, thereby changing the game (he scored the equaliser and set up the winner), Barça made all the wrong ones - taking off Messi and Ronaldinho to protect their 1-0 lead, only to see the initiative handed to Betis and the draw conceded with two minutes remaining on the clock.
And whereas the Bernabéu was rocking like it used to on those European nights of yore, the Camp Nou was holding up posters that read Vergonya (Shame on you!), alluding to the capitulation at Getafe that has cost them the double.
|“||Six months ago we'd have lost that ”|
It's not over yet - for all that the pro-Madrid press would have us believe. If the champions can get their heads together, their remaining four games look fairly unproblematic, save Atlético Madrid away, with the hosts looking to consolidate a UEFA Cup berth. Traditionally it's a toughie for Barça. They face Getafe and Espanyol at home, two games that look comfy enough on paper, but the Getafe game will be massively conditioned by recent events, and you could argue that it could go either way…..so bet on a draw.
The derby against Espanyol might be tricky too, not that their neighbours will be playing for anything by then, but there's no great love lost between the two clubs, and much of what surrounds the Espanyol philosophy is very pro-Madrid. Nothing would give them more pleasure than to contribute to Barça's dethroning and to confirm Madrid's simultaneous restoration. They could be the kingmakers, in the penultimate game.
Of Madrid's last four games, the two away fixtures look tricky (Recreativo and Zaragoza) but it's precisely in the away-day context that the team has thrived this season, with ten wins to Barça's six.
Their home record is relatively poor in comparison to all their challengers, but it has improved dramatically of late. Deportivo and Mallorca at home should cause them few sleepless nights, with both those sides in the comfort zone of the table and by then likely to be dreaming of their holidays.
The 2-1 home defeat of near neighbours Recreativo on Saturday night was more comfortable than it looked, although the visitors played well and are vying with Sevilla for team of the season. The defeat leaves them four points off the UEFA places, but it's been a significant achievement to get anywhere near those heights.
Sevilla have a reasonable-looking run-in too, it has to be said. The only worrying game might be Zaragoza at home, but Deportivo and Mallorca (away) look distinctly winnable, for the same reasons cited above in Madrid's final fixtures.
It would appear to be the destiny of Depor and Mallorca, as well as Espanyol, to decide where the trophy ends up, but Zaragoza appear to have discounted their chances of making the Champions League. Their main motive will be to preserve their UEFA Cup place, an objective that should be easily within their grasp. Whether they'll go hammer and tongs against Madrid and Sevilla remains to be seen.
Whatever - these final games do have a tendency to produce odd results, and no outcome can be discounted. All eyes are on Spain again.
Who deserve it the most? Sevilla and Valencia - but that's not the way the world goes round. But it's certainly ending with a bang.