Barcelona and Real Madrid: Merengues Push Blaugrana Title Defense To Final Week

Real Madrid's second successive lop-sided victory may impress the pollsters, but unfortunately for Los Merengues, La Liga is decided by neither media surveys nor computer ratings, and with Barcelona overcoming their steepest remaining obstacle, the Blaugrana are now prohibitive favorites to retain their Primera Division title.

In matches kicking-off simultaneously in Seville and Madrid, Barcelona took early control of the title race, scoring early in their match at fourth place Sevilla.  Goals in the fifth (Lionel Messi) and 28th minute (Bojan Krkic) had the holders up two at half while Real Madrid - having traded goals with Athletic Bilbao - had yet to assert themselves at the Bernabéu.  

A late barrage from Los Blancos - four goals in the last 17 minutes of regulation time - tilted the scoresheet, while Barcelona's insurance goal from Pedro proved needed when Frederic Kanouté and Luis Fabiano put Sevilla within one with twenty minutes remaining.  

Barcelona would hold-on for their 3-2 win, taking the defending champions to a remarkable 96 points on the season, one point ahead of Real Madrid, who downed Athletic Bilbao, 5-1.

Next Sunday, both teams will finish the Spanish season against relegation embattled sides.  Real Madrid visits 18th place Málaga, who are even on points with 16th place Real Valladolid, Barcelona's guest at the Nou Camp.  The current incarnation of Málaga CF has never beaten Real Madrid in the Primera, though even if Real Madrid were to win next Sunday, they would need Real Valladolid to reverse their recent history with Barcelona.  Valladolid has not defeated Barça since 2002, failing to win at Camp Nou since 1997.  

With each Spanish titan being heavy favorites next weekend, Barcelona's victory in Seville may prove the final plank in their podium.

Whoever wins La Liga will ultimately overshadow a great season from the league's second place side - a season which would stand as the most successful in the history of the league were it not for their rival's performance.  Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have already set a record for points in a season, passing the 92 points the Merengues accumulated in 1996-97, when teams used to play 42 matches per season.  

Whether you look at this year's race through a capitalist's lens or cast it in light of Darwinian theory, Barcelona and Real Madrid have pushed each other to unprecedented heights, which should only raise expectations for next season.  Real Madrid are unlikely to calmly await Barcelona's regression, while the Blaugrana's Champions League exit should provide reason for redemption in 2010-11.

Race for Fourth

Sevilla vaulted themselves into fourth place when Mallorca lost to Real Madrid mid-week, but with Sevilla facing Barcelona on Saturday, Mallorca had reason to be confident in regaining the final Champions League spot.  Sevilla did their part, losing to Barcelona, but Mallorca failed to get the point they needed at the Estadio Raizor, where a struggling Deportivo La Coruña got a 68th minute goal from Riki to get a 1-0 victory.

Struggling does not adequately describe what Coruña has been through in the last two months.  Until Saturday, Depor had been winless since March 6, when they beat Tenerife.  The last time they had defeated a team beyond relegation was January 23, when they defeated Athletic Bilbao.  In between, Depor won twice and lost 11 in seventeen matches, a stretch that took the team out of contention for a Europa League spot.

Mallorca's loss to Depor puts their Champions League hopes in the hands of Almería, Sevilla's hosts on the league's last match day.  With Sevilla having the won their head-to-head tiebreaker, Mallorca needs a home win over Espanyol coupled with a result from Alermía.  Without it, Sevilla is back in Champions League.

Europa League

While Getafe (55, 6th) and Villareal (55, 7th) have distanced themselves from the other potential Europa League challengers, the Champions League race and Copa del Rey final will determine whether both get in, making Getafe's derby against Atlético Madrid (at the Vincente Calderon) and Villareal's trip to Real Zaragoza must-win matches for both clubs - each coming off Saturday victories.  A late goal from Málaga made their 2-1 loss to Getafe appear closer than it was, while Villareal's two goals within twenty minutes enabled their 2-0 victory over Valencia (despite finishing the match with nine men).

One of the club's fates will be decided by Sevilla.  In the Copa final against Atletico, Sevilla would earn an automatic birth into Europa League should they defeat the Atleti on May 19th.  However, if Sevilla finishes fourth, they will forgo their Europa League spot, which would go to Atlético (regardless of the result on the 19th), meaning the seventh place league finisher would be out of Europe.  If, however, Sevilla finishes fifth, they will qualify for Europa.  If they do so by winning the Copa del Rey, then the seventh place team will get into Europa.

Counting on Sevilla to miss-out on both Champions League and Copa del Rey would be betting on a long shot, meaning only Getafe, who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Villareal, controls its own destiny.  A win Sunday at Atlético Madrid and they qualify.  

Seeing as Atlético are unlikely to lay-down from their intra-city rivals, Villareal have reason to hope they will be back in Europe next season.

Relegation

Four teams are even on points with two relegation spots in play, with a convoluted head-to-head scenario seeing Real Valladolid and Racing Santander safe, Málaga and Tenerife in the drop.  Unexpectedly - after a beguiling relegation battle that saw Real Betis in the Segunda - La Liga has an even more entangled relegation battle this year than last.

Málaga's two year run in the Primera looks destined to end, with Real Madrid coming to La Rosaleda on Sunday.  Currently sitting 18th, they will need at least a point and help from their relegation comeptitors.

Racing would seem unlikely to give that help, hosting 14th place Sporting Gíjon in a match which, by the table, should be accessible for Santander; however, Racing is on a four match losing streak that saw a 5-1 loss to Sevilla two weeks ago follow-up with a 2-1 loss to Valladolid yesterday.

Valladolid, like Málaga, looks unlikely to get points next Sunday, tasked with a trip to title aspirants Barcelona.  Unlike Málaga, they are currently above the drop and could survive with losses from two of their peers.  With Málaga facing Real Madrid, it's a matter of Racing or Tenerife doing their part.

Tenerife's task is only slightly less daunting than those of Málaga and Valladolid, their trip to Valencia softened by Los Che having nothing for which to play.  At the Mestalla on Sunday, Tenerife may need only a point to stay in the Primera.

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