No team has overhauled a gap this big to win the league – and Real Madrid are unlikely to make history and catch the Catalans
In 2005, someone phoned for a pizza and Levante laid on a crate of Catalan Cava. In 2011, a human circle spun on the turf, players and staff embracing and singing, a solitary cameraman in the middle of them, capturing the moment. On Sunday night there were no celebrations – in fact, they were trying very hard not to celebrate – but for the third time in seven years FC Barcelona might just have won the league at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium. Not in May this time but in November; not mathematically but practically. That at least is the conclusion many reached. And you can't really blame them.
Sport called it the "coup de grâce", El Mundo Deportivo called it a decisive "blow", while AS said that Barcelona had "escaped" and Marca's cover warned: "they're getting away."
They might already have got there. An implausibly brilliant Andrés Iniesta scored one and provided three, two of them for Leo Messi, in a 4-0 victory against Levante. It was the fourth consecutive away game in which Barcelona had scored four times and it equalled the best ever start to a Spanish league season. Tito Vilanova's team have scored 43 times already this season and Messi is on 19 goals, as many as Emilio Butragueño got in the whole season when he was top scorer in 1990-91, and with 12 wins and one draw in the opening 13 games they have equalled Madrid's record from the following season, 1991-92.
That season, Madrid did not actually win the league. Barcelona did. And Vilanova was quick to insist that Barcelona have not won the league this season either. "The league decided?" he asked. "No. There are still 75 points left and Atlético are only three points behind us."
Atlético? Ouch. It might not have been intended as a kicking but it might just have been the biggest kicking of all. Administered with a great big pair of Doc Martens. Look at Monday morning's table and Madrid are just three points behind Barcelona. The problem is it is Atlético Madrid. And they are eight points ahead of their city neighbours, who they face next weekend. Marca's cover declared "they're getting away" and the they was not just Barcelona, it was Atlético too.
But however brilliant Atlético have been this season – and they have been superb; competitive, well-organised, and startlingly effective – when it comes to the title race it is hard to look beyond Madrid and Barcelona. And right now it is not just that two places separate them, it is that 11 points do. The change is dramatic and it really could be decisive, even as early as this. So high are the final totals likely to be that the capacity to close any gap is reduced. Eleven points is only three points more than Madrid dropped last season, only nine more than Barcelona did.
Madrid have already lost three times in the league, five times overall – more, three months into the season, than in the whole of last season. In 21 games they have already lost what they lost in 58. No team has overhauled a gap this big to win the league, ever. In Madrid's history six coaches have reached this stage of the season eight or more points behind, according to Onda Cero's football statman Mr Chip: Amat, Quincoces, Valdano, Toshack, García Remón and Schuster. Not one of them survived in the job.
On Saturday Madrid lost 1-0 to Betis. Afterwards Mourinho complained about a penalty not given, a goal disallowed and the fixture list. He also had another little dig at Real Madrid's fans for their coldness, in stark contrast to Betis's supporters on Saturday night. "Other teams," he said, "control the calendar." As usual, "other teams" was Mourinho shorthand for Barcelona. When it came to the goal and the penalty he probably had a point, when it came to the fixtures he did not. Not just because it is a bit of a laugh for any coach with the resources and squad that Madrid have to complain, but because the very thing that, compared to Barcelona, went against his team this time round went in his favour in September.
Forget referees and fixture lists – and when they have suited, they have been forgotten – against Betis Madrid's problem was actually much the same problem as it has been in previous games this season. And, although results did not even reveal as much, the same as it was last season too. What is a surprise is that it has taken teams so long to realise that what they tended to do against Barcelona was also applicable to Real Madrid. More applicable, in fact: cede them possession. Let them have the ball, just don't let them have the counterattack. More often than not they will find a way through, but they can be frustrated.
Add to that a sense of fatigue, Mourinho's not-exactly-veiled complaints that some players have lacked focus, dressing room tension, institutional conflict, asphyxiating pressure from the media, an obsession with the Champions League, occasional conservatism, and you get a slightly sluggish start to the season. And in this league, "slight" can be enough. Even in Europe, Madrid have not yet played at their best.
"Against this Madrid you have the ball and you think that you're dominating. Suddenly, wallop. In three plays they have created six chances," explained Betis's manager Pepe Mel admitted before the game. "They play openly on the break and it works well for them. They have no problem doing that because they know that when they do that they are the best."
"We tried to let them have the ball," Mel admitted afterwards. Madrid had 67% of the possession but, while there were chances, they could not find a way through. The final 10 minutes were played with Sergio Ramos as a makeshift centre-forward.
The knives have been out for Mourinho for some time; some of them deservedly, some of them less so. On both sides of the divide, he has become an obsession: he is attacked no matter what he does; he is defended no matter what he does. "I am the always the baddie," the coach said. He certainly is now. On Sunday, he was in the line of fire. On Monday, he was still there. Marca dedicate three pages to his long list of battles and excuses. Excuses that, Carlos Carpio notes, he trotted out in January 1997 ... when he was at Barcelona. Roberto Palomar, one of Mourinho's most consistent critics, was on to him. "All that was missing was Mourinho telling the dog called My Tits joke to really look ridiculous," he wrote. "For Mourinho, a fly buzzing round the press room would be enough for him to invent a conspiracy theory and avoid talking about football."
It was left for Alvaro Arbeloa to fight off the critics. From Malcolm X to Walt Disney. Last time he went for: "If you're not careful, the press will make you love the oppressor and hate the oppressed." This time he quoted Mr Ego from Ratatouille: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
Derby hangover. "After losing to Sevilla, our fans couldn't give a toss about Madrid," Pepe Mel said on Saturday morning. As it turned out, that was not entirely true. Betis's fans were delighted on Saturday night and even more delighted by Sunday night. A week after Sevilla thrashed them 5-1, they defeated Madrid with Adrián making a couple of wonderful saves to make up for last week's nightmare and Sevilla were battered 4-0 by Atlético Madrid. With Reyes back to being anonymous. Falcao scored the first from a penalty, to make it 50 for Atlético Madrid and end his drought. Maybe it is time to take Atlético seriously? Next week, Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. Beat them and it really will be.
Málaga are back in a Champions League place after a thumping 4-0 win over Valencia, who slipped down to eleventh. They still have not won away from home and Mauricio Pellegrino is under pressure. Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, continues to succeed in difficult circumstances – and with a class and decorum that sets him apart. He is having to handle his squad carefully and he rested a handful of key players in Russia in midweek, having already got through in the Champions League. Among them was Isco. Against Valencia he was brilliant. Again.
And so at last it happened … a Spanish club sacked a manager. Not that the manager is the problem at Espanyol. Mauricio Pochettino was the first coach to get the boot on Monday morning. It looks like Marcelino might replace him.
Results: Real Sociedad 0-0 Osasuna, Rayo 2-0 Mallorca, Valladolid 1-0 Granada, Málaga 4-0 Valencia, Betis 1-0 Real Madrid, Epsanyol 0-2 Getafe 1-1 Athletic, Deportivo Atlético 4-0 Sevilla, Levante 0-4 Barcelona.
Monday night: Zaragoza v Celta.