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Feb 23, 2009

Unexpected hope for Real Madrid

Saturday night, Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Almost a full house to welcome the same brave Betis squad that drew against Barcelona a week ago. The crowd sounds upbeat. Real Madrid are on a roll in La Liga, but before the match most conversations focus on the next Champions League match against Liverpool. Will Gerrard play? Is Benítez really leaving at the end of the season? Who can possibly stop Torres?

A couple of minutes before kick off, a respectable-looking man sitting on my right, his face bearing a striking resemblance to Clint Eastwood, rises and screams off the top of his lungs: "Come on lads, by the end of tonight we'll be three points closer to Barça!" Most people around him simply laugh.

The Madrid media have spent all week talking about how Barcelona are supposedly starting to feel apprehensive after their draw at Betis, but the Real Madrid fans and their gaffer know better. Ten points behind Barça, La Liga is clearly out of reach and the Champions League is their last chance of silverware this season. The Spanish Eastwood is clearly an optimistic, as the league leaders host bottom-of-the-table Espanyol in what is probably the most uneven encounter so far in La Liga.

Every madridista refers to Espanyol as the Equipo Hermano, their brother team, almost a sibling, a member of the family. Given the fierce rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, it almost seemed logical that long ago Real Madrid supporters chose "the other club from Barcelona" as their pet team.

The fact that the club was called "Espanyol" only made it sweeter to them, politics always mixing well with football here. In the Bernabéu of old, radical supporters from both teams used to stand and sing together whenever Espanyol came to play against Real Madrid.

The brotherhood between their fans grew even stronger two La Liga seasons ago, when on matchday 37 Raúl Tamudo struck twice against Barcelona to draw the match even, stealing two points from Barça and leaving Real Madrid at the top of the table. Fabio Capello's side went on to win the title, and Tamudo became a cult hero for Real Madrid supporters in the process.

But this time it was different: Tamudo had been injured for months, Espanyol had last won 14 matches ago and their previous Liga victory at the Nou Camp happened in 1982 (you read that right, 27 years ago). Espanyol to win tonight? Surely the Spanish version of Dirty Harry has to be joking...and Real Madrid still needs to beat that disciplined Betis squad first anyway...

And then the match kicks off and we see nothing of that fighting Betis side we expected. Very poor defending sees them fall 3-0 behind in less than 25 minutes, as Ricardo looks like a shadow of the almost unbeatable goalie we saw only a week ago. Ricardo Oliveira manages to pull one back, but a certain Raúl González hasn't quite joined the party yet: he decides to finish it off for good with two spectacular strikes.

His second was a trademark palanca (lever) goal, Raúl's classic chip over the goalie that we hadn't seen for a while and that I, for one, thought I'd never have the chance to see again in my lifetime. When Raúl got the ball from Fernando Gago, 99.9% of those present at the Stadium knew exactly what he was going to do, with the surprising exception of Ricardo, who took three steps off the goal and facilitated the striker's effort.

Besides Betis' poor outing, Real Madrid were simply terrific. After just a few matches played in Spain, Lassana Diarra looks like a younger Marcos Senna, and his partnership with Gago in midfield might not be extremely creative, but it is indeed solid and very hard to beat.

With an amazing 6-1 scoreline at half-time, the optimistic Mr Eastwood and the rest of us turned to Barcelona through our radio receivers. Espanyol was surprisingly holding on to the 0-0, a side motivated because it's always fun for them to spoil Barça's party, because they wanted to get back at Sergi Busquets ("I don't care if they go down," he had said about Espanyol's troubled situation during the week), but most importantly, because they were bottom of the table and desperately needed points.

And then, once again in La Liga, the seemingly impossible happened. Barcelona, looking anxious all match, lost their composure after Seydou Keita was harshly sent off at the end of the first half. They had fallen for Espanyol's mind games. Their defensive unit looked out of place or nervous several times, such as in Iván De la Peña's first (he spent a good ten seconds unmarked waiting inside the box), or his second, when Víctor Valdés erred first with his feet and then with his positioning. It was 1-2 after 90 minutes: the leaders had been defeated by the bottom-of-the-table team.

But to the majority of Barça fans, this defeat should not be their most worrying issue. The utter feeling of despair both the team and Guardiola himself conveyed during the last 30 minutes of the match must be their real cause for concern. Barcelona had come back in several matches this season, and had done so by sticking to their way of playing football: fast passing game, getting Henry and Messi in dangerous positions, Alves and to a lesser extent Abidal going forward…

This was not the case on Saturday. The team panicked, opted for a direct football approach they don't master, and Guardiola only made it worse with questionable substitutions (why take off Eto'o?) and weird tactical decisions (why send Busquets forward as a striker with over 20 minutes left?). Espanyol easily held on for the win, climbed off the foot of the table and added more solid arguments for another week of Madrid media putting pressure on Barcelona.

The distance between the top two teams is still seven points, but for the first time this season Espanyol made Barcelona seem human, beatable. The tournament, already fantastic at all other levels, would become mouth-watering for the neutrals if the title race becomes relevant again. And then we have the Champions League fixtures...

At the end of the match I asked Mr Eastwood (his real name a very Spanish Paco): "How did you know?" His smiling answer: "I didn't, but isn't this the reason why we watch this (expletive) game? You just can't take results for granted!" And I have to agree: you can't indeed...

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