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Buoyant Barcelona close in on title

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Phil Minshull | 13:11 UK time, Sunday, 11 April 2010

Deportivo, Espanyol, Xerez, Villarreal, Tenerife, Sevilla, Valladolid - those are the names of the teams that Barcelona have to play in La Liga during the next five weeks.

However, to quote the succinct front page of the Spanish sports newspaper As on Sunday: "21 points remain but the title seems already decided."

Barcelona's 2-0 victory at Real Madrid on Saturday returned them to the top of the table and gives them a three-point advantage in their bid to be crowned champions for the second successive season and the 20th time in their history.

The two defining moments in the game for me were not the occasions when the ball went in the net but a pair of incidents about 15 minutes from the end.

The first was when Carles Puyol crossed on to what normally for him is the wrong side of the pitch and darted down the left wing before putting the ball through the legs of his Spanish international team-mate Sergio Ramos.

The fact that Puyol would dare to be in such a place and try such a move against Real was evidence alone for me that Barca have the focus and self-belief to ensure they don't slip up down the home straight.

Barcelona's players, including Valdes (l) and Puyol (c) celebrate victory over Real. Pic: GettyBarcelona's players, including Valdes (l) and Puyol (c) celebrate victory over Real. Pic: Getty

Normally, Ramos is one of the fastest and most skilful right-backs in Europe and would have had the pace and mental agility to respond to Puyol's cheeky manoeuvre.

On this occasion, he just stopped Puyol with a crude body-check that would have made an ice hockey enforcer proud.

However, it wasn't pride that was etched across Ramos's face, it was frustration, with probably the niggling thought that the game and the Spanish title had slipped from Real's grasp.

Shortly afterwards, Spanish television cameras then provided an interesting contrast in portraits of the two teams' coaches.

On one hand, Barca's Pep Guardiola was continuing to exhort his players, bringing Puyol and Gabriel Milito over to the sidelines to pass on instructions and tactics.

Just a few metres away from the animated Guardiola, Real coach Manuel Pellegrini was slumped dejectedly in his seat, clearly going through the same thought process as Ramos with the added recognition that this was almost certainly his last El Clasico.

There were no accolades for him on Sunday morning with another Spanish sports newspaper Marca commenting:, "Pellegrini now has both his feet out of Madrid."

By the way, Guardiola made his own little bit of history on Saturday night by becoming the first Barcelona coach to win four consecutive El Clasico encounters.

When you consider who have been his predecessors - men like Helenio Herrera and Johan Cruyff - then that is some accolade.

If the game provided some answers about who is Spain's top team, it has also provoked plenty of questions in my mind.

Here are just a few of them.

Does Cristiano Ronaldo really have the appetite or mentality to succeed in the biggest games?

In a display remarkably reminiscent of his performance for Manchester United in last season's Champions League final, Ronaldo showed off his undoubted talent on only a few rare occasions.

Barcelona's back four, particularly an inspired Puyol and a very effective Gerald Pique, repeatedly had the measure of him.

Every mainstream Spanish newspaper had pictures of the game on their front pages on Sunday morning but, rather than a jubilant Lionel Messi, most of the shots were of a downcast Ronaldo, clearly despondent at his own inability to make an impact.

How much longer can Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque resist the claims of Victor Valdes?

The Barcelona goalkeeper again had an outstanding game, stopping everything that came his way, even if some of the Real efforts were rather tame.

Valdes has only conceded 19 goals this season, admittedly helped by some improved defending over last year, but against Real he demonstrated that he is certainly the best goalkeeper in Spain on current form. He may even be the best goalkeeper in Europe at the moment.

Del Bosque was watching the game from the director's box and is unlikely to ditch Real's Iker Casillas as his first-choice keeper with the World Cup so close to hand but even the Madrid-based media were agreeing on Sunday that the time has come to give Valdes his long-overdue first cap.

What has happened to 'The French Connection' at both clubs?

Karim Benzema again did nothing right, coming on for 12 disappointing minutes and his inept handball cost Real the chance of a consolation goal late in the game.

"I didn't sign for one of the best clubs in the world just to leave the following summer," said Benzema after the game, but the rumours around the Spanish capital suggest that he's going to be shipped across the Mediterranean to a Serie A club at the end of the season.

Thierry Henry is also clearly surplus to requirements at Barca, not even getting a minute in the pitch on Saturday. His time in Spain has clearly come to an end and a return to the Premier League may be beckoning.

However, Real may persist with Lassana Diarra despite his recent injury problems and relatively poor form following a good first half of the season, but, one way or another, it doesn't augur well for France at the World Cup.

Who will take over from Manuel Pellegrini as the Real coach?

It's a subject that has been looked at in this blog not so long ago but it is now definitely the time to consider the names again.

Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez will inevitably be mentioned, with possibly the likes of Luis Felipe Scolari also expected to feature in the speculation.

Whoever comes in will have to deal with Real's inferiority complex because it is now apparent that the players have accepted they are second best team in Spain, at least for the moment.

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