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As Barca extend their lead at the top of the standings, Goal.com’s KS Leong asks if the ‘Men in White’ still have reason to remain upbeat...

Real Madrid’s La Liga title challenge suffered a blow at the weekend when a 1-0 defeat at San Mames against Athletic Bilbao was exacerbated 90 minutes later by Barcelona walloping Sevilla 4-0.
 
It wasn’t at all a surprising result. Stepping onto Athletic’s home turf is like being thrown, literally, into the lion’s den and the Basque outfit have been in superlative form this season. Barcelona’s win, meanwhile, was in a word, a masterclass, but Sevilla it seems, are a side who can only play one good game a month. And having used up their joker card just 11 days ago in the Copa del Rey in the stunning 2-1 win over the Blaugrana at the Camp Nou, Manolo Jimenez’s men simply ran out of tricks. Besides, the Andalucians have, by their own admission, given up on La Liga success.

Despite Los Blancos suffering their third league defeat of the season and falling five points behind Barca – and now only three ahead of Valencia – there has been no exaggerated cries of crises coming from the media in the capital while over in Catalunya, no one is making too big of a fuss of Barcelona’s five point cushion at the top of the table. That could probably be because Madrid are continuing to show a marked improvement in their performances and that Lionel Messi has continued to cement his status as the ‘The Anointed King’ as he cracked yet another milestone after becoming the youngest ever Camp Nou resident to notch up a century of goals. At 22 years of age.
 
But it could also be due to the fact that as the first half of the season draws to a close this coming weekend, Madrid have, amazingly, already negotiated their toughest league fixtures of the campaign. Yes, they will have to face the same 19 teams again, but consider this.

All three of Los Merengues’ defeats so far in La Liga have been at the most daunting venues in Spain: Sevilla, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. They also stammered to a draw at Osasuna just a fortnight ago, but managed to squeeze out a victory at Valencia, as well as wins at Villarreal and Atletico Madrid. Granted, the latter two have been far from impressive this term, but the point is that both encounters were played at their rivals’ backyard.

Two weeks from now, the ‘Men in White’ will face perhaps the last of their tough away days of the season when they make the trip up north to Galicia to face Deportivo La Coruna at the Riazor, a stadium which they have not won at for nearly two decades.

After that, their most difficult assignment on the road will be at Mallorca, three rounds from the end, assuming the Balearic Islanders will remain an impenetrable force at the ONO Estadi just as they have been for the first half of the term. And perhaps Getafe could prove a potential banana skin, considering how the modest side tend to do well at home against the big boys of La Liga.

Madrid’s home form is extremely crucial in their pursuit of the Primera Division throne. Unlike in previous seasons where they have been caught suspect in front of the Santiago Bernabeu die-hards, this term they have been nothing short of supreme. Not only have they won all nine of their home bouts in part one of the season, they have scored 30 times and conceded just six, the best record of any side in the Spanish top flight.

On the flip side of the coin, having already played all their closest and direct rivals away from home also means that they have had a fairly easy ride so far in their own territory. As they start welcoming their fiercest foes to their own ground, their proud 100% home record will start to come under threat.


The Bernabeu must prepare for war

But having an easier run-in on paper in the title race is one thing. Waiting for Barcelona to slip up is another matter altogether. The Catalans have also already negotiated Los Che at the Mestalla, Athletic at San Mames, and Osasuna at the Reyno de Navarra... all of which ended in draws. They are undefeated in the league after 18 rounds and with lowly Real Valladolid coming up this weekend to wrap up their first half of the campaign, it’s looking very likely that Pep Guardiola’s Globetrotters will enter the second part of the season unbeaten.

The Blaugrana are also out of the Copa del Rey, which will free up their schedule considerably. The treble champions are a team who have had virtually no rest in between weekends ever since pre-season kicked off and having that extra few days to rejuvenate and recharge could make them even more rampant than they were last term. Remember, it was in February of last year when they suffered a blip in form as the Copa and the Champions League went down to serious business and it was the three-game winless streak in La Liga that allowed Madrid to slash what was at one stage a 12-point gap.

A five-point deficit at present is far from insurmountable for Los Blancos, although, as Raul Albiol pointed out, it is a significant disadvantage. They have come back from worse. But to do so again, they need to rely on their strongest weapon: their home record. The Bernabeu was once a fearsome, intimidating cauldron for visiting teams and a bulletproof shield for the Madridistas. In recent years, however, it has almost become their Achilles Heel as their players struggle to appease the local fanatics and buckle under immense pressure to entertain. But if there’s ever a good time to revive the spirit of the Santiago Bernabeu, it will be in 2010.

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