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La Liga Comment: Sevilla Better, But Raul The Best As Barcelona Begin To Worry

Only Juande Ramos could have defeated this Sevilla side. Of course, Raul will steal the headlines - he stole this one - but he was very much the finisher-in-chief to the creative genius that was his coach.

This was a Sevilla side that played as they did at their very peak - just like under Juande - they had a point to prove for themselves, and their fans; Manolo Jimenez was desperate to show Sevillanos that he's not as bad as all that. The motives were manifold and after such a lacklustre showing at Camp Nou midweek, it was clear that all their concentration and all their energies were to be focused into putting their mini-slump to an end tonight.

And so, straight from kick-off, they played their best 30 minutes of the season. Diego Perotti showed just what makes him the third world class winger Sevilla have on their books under the age of 23; Jesus Navas was unplayable as usual, the midfield and the full-backs were relentless.

They could and perhaps should have got two if not three goals by the half-hour mark, while Madrid themselves were half a yard from getting a goal of their own, but for Gonzalo Higuain to go a fraction of a second too early.

The visitors stemmed the Sevillan tide as half-time drew closer and then snuck an equaliser before the break thanks to some excellent attacking play from Cristoph Metzelder (that's no misprint) and a near-post finish from Raul.

Just like midweek, Madrid snatched an undeserved equaliser going into the break but unlike midweek, the hero was not to be Higuain, but Raul.

He scored a magnificent second and a scrambled number three - only his third ever La Liga hat-trick, in fact - to put the game beyond Sevilla. A late strike from Diego Capel proved in vain, as Marcelo added a fourth at the death.

As usual, the captain came through when he was needed and relished playing without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. He looked a far more free forward and works better alongside just the one forward: the faster and more mobile Higuain. Juande surely must now see that it must be one of Raul or the 'Hunter' to partner 'Pipita', and the No. 7 just got the goals to seal his place, in all probability, for the remainder of the season. And you couldn't argue with that.

Due credit can and will go to Raul for his tireless display and motivation of his team-mates who were at times run ragged by the hosts early on, but the real genius in Madrid's performance came in the second period.

If Juande Ramos is in any way flawed, it's that he doesn't always read just how his opponents will come at his side prior to a game. Madrid have rarely impressed in first halves under his leadership, but once he gets his boys back in the dressing room having surveyed an inevitably cagey first half, invariably, he says all the right things, makes all the right changes and crucially, gets all the right results.

It was a given Madrid would win. Sergio Ramos stayed back, Marcelo dropped deeper to support Miguel Torres, Lass and Gago played closer together, Guti didn't do a lot, but his passes were always a danger - all the intricacies were perfected and Sevilla, for all their scintillating play, were as good as nullified.

Juande showed just how to stop his own creation and Madrid - without Pepe, without Robben, without Heinze (perhaps a blessing) and without long-term absentees Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ruben de la Red and Mahamadou Diarra - broke a six-year winless streak at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Pep Guardiola said that this week - and particularly this weekend - would be pivotal. The forever-cautious coach put his neck on the line and now, while official lines coming out of clubs will never fail to be politically correct and agonisingly non-committal, the Barca boys will be thinking of 2007, of Fabio Capello, of 2-0, 3-3, 4-3, another 4-3, 3-2 and of course 3-1. It may not be likely that lightning will strike twice, but as long as it's possible, it won't escape the minds of all the Blaugrana, whether they admit it or not.

The race is as on as they come. A win in El Clasico would make the difference between the two sides just one point, meaning even Barcelona drawing thereafter could be enough for Madrid to find their way to first place and their third successive Liga, with Raul once more playing the heart, soul and hero of the Merengues. Writing off the skipper would be stupid, writing off Madrid is impossible.

Sulmaan Ahmad,