By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor
It's official: Real Madrid now depend on themselves to win La Liga. Having lost 3-1 to Barcelona on December 10, Jose Mourinho's men saw their lead at the top of the Primera Division cut to three points - and with a Clasico at Camp Nou still to come.
A comprehensive 5-1 victory at home to Granada on Saturday saw that advantage extended temporarily to six points ahead of Barca's derby at Espanyol, but Pep Guardiola's men were unable to close the gap back to just a one-win deficit as they were held by their city rivals. And that means Madrid can now afford the luxury of losing their next Clasico in April and still walk off with their first league title since 2008.
Should that happen, Barca fans will surely complain that Madrid's success is a hollow one; that only by defeating the Catalans will their fierce rivals be considered worthy winners. But Real enthusiasts won't care, Jose Mourinho won't care - and nor will the history books.
High fives for a five-point lead | While Barca stutter, Madrid keep winningBarca often look uncomfortable in their intensely-disputed city clash with Espanyol. And Sunday night was no exception. The champions were rattled from the first whistle by a home side operating at a high tempo, feeding off the spectacular atmosphere at Cornella for what is their most-anticipated fixture of the entire season.
Victor Valdes brilliantly saved a header from Joan Verdu beneath his post early on and the Barca keeper watched with relief as Gerard Pique hacked the rebound off the line. It was, however, a warning.
After that, Espanyol players appeared to take it in turns to gift their rivals the lead. And after Cesc Fabregas' tap-in had been disallowed for handball by Lionel Messi, the former Arsenal captain put his side in front with a header from the edge of the box which goalkeeper Cristian Alvarez should really have saved.
But the visitors were unable to break down their hosts again, despite their superiority, and Espanyol remained in the contest. The home side looked the more likely to score in the remainder of the first half, but Verdu, Sergio Garcia and Thievy all fluffed their lines in front of goal.
And when Espanyol did equalise through substitute Alvaro Vazquez's header five minutes from time, it was arguably the perfect moment because it gave Barca virtually no time at all to react. Even so, Mauricio Pochettino's men still needed a Raul Rodriguez handball and the woodwork to survive with a point in what was a frenzied finale.
So for Espanyol it was a point won, but for Barca it is two dropped - and for Madrid two gained. Mourinho's men now need only to match their rivals between now and the end of the season, aside from a Clasico which they can afford to lose, in order to claim the title. And with their superior win ratio in games so far in 2011-12, they will be confident of doing so - even though the league is not yet at its halfway stage.
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