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30 stats for Messi's 30th birthday

By ESPN Staff

Madrid stand on the brink of revival

It has been an impressive rise for a club who have not looked like challenging for the La Liga title all year. But Real Madrid are now in pole position to claim their 30th League championship.

Tied on points, but ahead on a better head-to-head record, Madrid go into the game knowing that a win away against Zaragoza, coupled with a Barcelona defeat to UEFA Cup finalists Espanyol, will secure them the title.

And more importantly, stop Barcelona winning a third in succession.

Zaragoza are no pushovers and, with the team fighting for a UEFA Cup place for next season, the Estadio La Romareda is one of the toughest places in Spain to visit. Barcelona know that first hand as they lost 1-0 there in April.

With Espanyol out of the running for European football, and the disappointment of a wet night in Glasgow still fresh in the memory, Barca will certainly be favourites going into the game, even without the suspended Ronaldinho.

There is, of course, a third possibility. Sevilla, who have been the best team in the competition in terms of attacking football this season, have Mallorca and Villareal to play, and they sit only two points behind the leaders.

A successful UEFA Cup campaign may have hindered their title charge, as they have slipped away from the top two and haven't led the league since January, but Juande Ramos' side are ready to capitalise on any slip-ups from Spain's big two.

Still, a win for Madrid (assuming Barca lose) and everything is over. Two wins in their final two games assures them of the title.

It is the first time that Madrid have led the league this season and, in contrast, it is the first time that Barcelona have looked like letting it slip since October.

Madrid's exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich galvanised their league form and a 3-3 draw against Barcelona three days later Pointed the way in the league. Real were unlucky not to win the game after Lionel Messi equalised in the last minute and notably, it has been the ability not to draw against other teams since has made them into title contenders.

Since Barca's defeat to Zaragoza in April, Madrid have begun a charge that has seen them win 7 of their last 8 games, including some vital late goals against Sevilla, Espanyol and Recreativo Huelva. Three points are vital at this stage of the season and Fabio Capello's men have become masters of the late win.

More that that though, there has been a passion instilled at the Bernabeu that has not been seen for some time. A desire to win that has been missing in four trophyless seasons, and none more so than in top scorer Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

The former United marksman has netted 23 times in the league (miles ahead of his team-mates) and has been particularly potent in recent games, with a few important goals in May and a vital double against Sevilla. He has even earned himself a recall to the Holland squad, after falling out with coach Marco Van Basten earlier in the season.

The return of David Beckham at the end of April has also contributed to the team's revival, as the former England captain has been in inspired form on the right wing, setting up a goal for Sergio Ramos in the 2-1 win over Valencia and playing a major part in their unbeaten month of May.

Credit too, must go to manager, Fabio Capello. After an indifferent start, the mercurial Italian has shown that he is still capable of greatness. While the likes of Robinho, Emerson and Antonio Cassano have announced their displeasure with the squad rotation system, Capello has stuck by players criticised at the start of the season. Mahamadou Diarra, Fabio Cannavaro and Raul are now starting to repay him for his faith.

In admitting a mistake in recalling Beckham, Capello has shown himself to be a big man, and a top class coach. Yet he is still to decide on his own long-term future.

Managers of the ilk of Rafa Benitez, Arsene Wenger, Sven Goran-Eriksson and Bernd Schuster have all been linked with the club in recent months, but it is now clear that Capello has the backing of the Madrid board, given the recent turnaround.

Schuster was heavily rumoured to have signed a pre-contract agreement with Real, but a rare public backing from Madrid supremo Predrag Mijatovic, has made Capello's position clearer.

'I think he will stay,' the Yugoslavian said recently. 'He has another two years on his contract. He has worked very hard and deserves to win the league.

'He has done a great job. We started badly and looked to be out of the title race at one point, but Capello never gave up.'

High praise indeed, especially for a Madrid manager, but then the the reaction is if the club fail to win the league is still to be seen. Notoriously hungry for success, four years without a trophy may be too much for the board and Capello may yet be made the scapegoat.

That would seem a foolish move, as the Italian has shown that he has what it takes to turn the club around and, on the brink of their first title win since 2002/03, he is almost certainly the man to bring the future success that everyone at the club craves.

With a whole host of transfer targets including Kaka, Thierry Henry, Adriano, Christoph Metzelder, Gabriel Heinze and William Gallas rumoured to be on the way in the summer, it looks as if the days of big spending at the Bernabeu are not yet done and a big name like Capello is vital to bringing new players to the club.

Madrid have a job to do in the league first though, and all eyes will be on them and their coach as the final fixtures of the La Liga season unfold.

  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter