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Thursday December 20 2012
Five La Liga title upsets

Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga looks unassailable but history warns against complacency. Mike Barnes looks at five Spanish title-race comebacks.

With Barcelona now 13 points ahead of third-placed Real Madrid, many believe the outcome of the race for La Liga is already a foregone conclusion. With two more points dropped against Espanyol last weekend, even Jose Mourinho has admitted that it is now ‘practically impossible’ for Los Blancos to win the Spanish title, but some seasoned Bernabeu followers may not agree.

When club President Florentino Perez this week implored the team and the fans not to give up, he may have had in mind the 2008-09 campaign, when Barcelona almost threw away a similarly substantial lead to a resurgent Madrid after the men from the capital had made an equally disastrous start.

With Juande Ramos in charge, Madrid were 12 points behind Barcelona with 15 games played, apparently floundering in 6th place following a 2-0 reverse at Camp Nou. That defeat against Barca signalled a run of 17 wins and a draw as Ramos’ men amassed 52 points from a possible 54, to narrow the gap to four points ahead of the return Clasico. Gonzalo Higuain gave Madrid the lead on 14 minutes to briefly effectively cut the gap to a point. Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry both scored twice as the Blaugrana eventually ran out 6-2 winners at the Bernabeu to quash the Madrid revival, but not before Los Blancos had asked the question of the Catalans.

Two years earlier, Fabio Capello’s Madrid overturned Barcelona’s slender lead with only five games remaining, holding on to pip Frank Rijkaard’s side to the title. Los Blancos actually sat third in the table for much of the 2006-07 season, behind Ramos’ Sevilla. Madrid retrieved a 3-1 deficit to defeat Espanyol 4-3 while Barca could only draw 1-1 with Real Betis, leaving the pair level on points with four matches to play. It stayed that way to the end, Madrid nicking the crown by virtue of their superior head-to-head results.

In 2003-04 the galacticos, under Carlos Queiroz, topped the table for much of the season and were still there with seven games remaining, closely followed by Valencia, then coached by Rafa Benitez. Calamity ensued, however, with home defeats to Osasuna, 0-3, and Real Sociedad, 1-4, were part of a disastrous run that saw Los Meringues lose six of their final seven games to finish fourth, behind Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna and seven points adrift of champions Valencia.

It was a similar story in 2001-02. Valencia’s form was inconsistent in the first half of the season, but a 2-1 win at Alaves in February saw them top the table with 14 games to go. Disputing the lead with them for the remainder of the campaign were Vicente del Bosque’s star-studded Madrid, who were expected to at least maintain the pace. Despite the presence of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Raul, though, Del Bosque’s side won only one of their final five games, failing to score in their last three, and ended the season in third place, two points behind Deportivo as Benitez’ Valencia romped to the title, nine points ahead of Los Blancos.

Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona side pulled off a famous smash and grab raid back in 1993-94, stealing the title from under the noses of Deportivo. Today, the Galicians are struggling at the wrong end of La Liga and facing mounting financial difficulties, but almost 20 years ago they were enjoying their Primera heyday. Under Coach Arsenio Iglesias, Deportivo took top spot in November after a 1-0 win at Atletico Madrid and remained there until the final game of the season.

Cruyff’s men had won El Clasico 1-0 at the Bernabeu thanks to Guillermo Amor’s late strike and trailed Deportivo by a point going into the final match. They took their momentum into a home clash against Sevilla and ran out 5-2 winners with a brace from Hristo Stoichkov and one apiece from Romero, Michael Laudrup and Jose Maria Bakero. Deportivo could only manage a goalless draw at the Riazor against Guus Hiddink’s Valencia and Barca were crowned champions.

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