Seventy-two minutes have passed at the Santiago Bernabeu. A largely listless third-placed Valencia side are struggling to show their attacking class, with the much sought-after David Villa cutting a frustrated figure having been well marshalled by his former team-mate Raul Albiol. Real, leading through a well-taken but poorly defended first half goal from Gonzalo Higuain, have chipped away at the visitors but failed to extend their advantage.
The ball breaks to David Silva on the edge of the box. According to reports, Silva may well be wearing white next season. For all his effectiveness tonight, he might as well already be wearing it. Nevertheless, his side have started to play a little and Silva is intent on hauling them level. He swings his left foot, sending a fierce shot against the angle of post and bar with his Spanish international colleague Iker Casillas beaten. Silva’s effort is just a couple of inches away from striking a damaging blow to Real’s title hopes, close to finding the same corner of the net that Barcelona’s Pedro Rodriguez successfully located seven days earlier.
Instead, the ball rebounds to safety. Real are let off the hook and Cristiano Ronaldo goes some way to banishing the memory of his forgettable display against Barca by doubling the hosts’ lead shortly after. Another potential banana skin avoided, with Real anticipating a week of relaxed preparation for their trip to Zaragoza next Saturday. In contrast, top of the table Barca will be undertaking at least one 16-hour coach trip in the name of fulfilling their European duties in Milan. The nature of the champions’ journey is a minor concern given that Jose Mourinho’s Inter side will almost certainly make them work extremely hard once they arrive in the Italian capital. Barca will be glad to find basement boys Xerez waiting at the Nou Camp upon their return to league action next weekend. The newly-promoted Andalucians have been rejuvenated in recent weeks but will surely struggle to impose themselves on even an understrength and overworked Barca outfit.
For Real, however, this weekend was an important test and one which they passed with flying colours. In much the same way that it was important for Arsenal’s pride that they bounced back from their humbling at the hands of Chelsea in November, something they did with a second half fightback at Anfield two weeks later, Real needed a reaction after El Clasico. While that seems a somewhat tenuous parallel to draw, Real’s defeat at the Bernabeu last weekend mirrored Chelsea’s win at the Emirates in that the home side were handed a lesson by a far superior side after enjoying a fine run of form. And while Liverpool were dispatched to re-establish Arsenal’s title credentials at the time, Real needed to see off Valencia to get back on track in the two-horse race at the top of La Liga.
It could be argued that Real would already have been crowned worthy champions of any other league in the world by a country mile, despite the stage fright displayed last month when failing to overturn the first leg deficit accumulated in Lyon. The attacking talent at their disposal is well-documented and Kaka’s recent injury has only served to allow Rafael van der Vaart to flourish in the Brazilian’s absence. Further forward, Higuain remains among the most potent strikers in world football despite a poor showing against Barca. They also have that turbo-charge button more commonly known as Cristiano Ronaldo up their sleeve.
It all makes for a thrilling final few weeks in the Spanish title chase. Barca lead by a point but still face trips to El Madrigal and the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, the homes of Villarreal and Sevilla respectively. Real’s relentless romps against all other opposition are leaving no margin for error and Barca may not be able to afford another two points dropped as understandably happened on the outskirts of their own city this weekend. The Messi vs Ronaldo debate, if anyone is still in any doubt about such a question, can thankfully be left on the shelf for the run-in. Both Barca and Real will have to dip into the depths of their comprehensive reserves to remain on course for glory towards the end of a tiring season.