No matter the outcome in the big game of the weekend, this was supposed to be Real Madrid’s night. Whilst first and second-placed Barcelona and Atleti slugged it out at the Camp Nou, a win against a struggling Espanyol side that hadn’t won in five games and had taken just four points on the road all season, would ensure Madrid made ground on at least one of their rivals.
Instead, it was Barca who were handed an early Christmas present and now almost certainly have the title wrapped up before Santa has even arrived.
All of Madrid’s flaws so far this season were in evidence at the Bernabeu as a lack of aggression and cohesion in the first-half saw them go behind before multiple failures in front of goal allowed Espanyol to stay in the game in the second, and they snatched a point with two minutes remaining as the hosts again conceded from a set-piece.
“We will try to finish the season the best we can. We will fight for titles, but the League is almost impossible,” lamented a defeated sounding Jose Mourinho afterwards.
Minutes after the Portuguese had finished his Press conference, though, there was a glimmer of hope for Los Blancos. Radamel Falcao had put Atleti ahead with the kind of subtle but deadly finish that sadly means his time with the red and white side of Madrid is surely numbered.
But if the champions’ performance was a microcosm of their struggles, the champions elect’s performance was likewise a demonstration of why they will not be caught. This was already the sixth time Barca have come from behind to win this season. That ability to come back is bolstered by a team that delivers goals from all over the pitch and there was no finer an example of that than the fact that it was their right-back Adriano and holding midfielder Sergio Busquets who gave them a 2-1 half time lead.
Indeed, Busquets became the 13th Blaugrana player to find the net so far this campaign with his composed finish, yet one source has provided nearly 50 per cent of their 54 League goals as Leo Messi took his 2012 tally to an even 90 with two more trademark finishes in the second period.
All of which leaves Barca nine points clear of Atleti and a lucky 13 clear of Madrid after just 16 games. “It is a boring League,” said a despondent Diego Simeone pointedly in his Press conference. Unsurprisingly, though, that wasn’t a sentiment Tito Vilanova was quick to share.
“We have many points, but it is true that there are games we have won at the end and suffering. I don’t have the sensation that we are going to win all the matches easily, I am sure we will have to come from behind and will drop points. It doesn’t seem like an easy League to me, much less a boring one.”
An easy stance to take from such a privileged position, but, even if the League is boring, at least it still has Messi and Falcao to entertain.
There was at least celebration for one small corner of the capital, though, as Rayo Vallecano made history by winning for the first time ever at the Mestalla and it was a particularly sweet moment for a former Valencia player as Chori Dominguez slotted home the decisive penalty seven minutes from time.
And defeat for Los Che leaves them seven points off the top four after Malaga showed they are currently kings of Andalusia with a 2-0 win at Sevilla thanks to goals from Martin Demichelis and Eliseu.