Can Real Madrid win the title quickly enough to force Barça into a humiliating guard of honour when they meet at Camp Nou?
Gerard Piqué was as good as his word. A week or so ago, when Real Madrid extended their lead at the top of the table to seven points, he insisted that Barcelona would do all they could to make the rest of the season feel very long indeed for José Mourinho's team. On Saturday night, they did. The rest of the season will indeed feel long for Madrid. And for everyone else: three months of filler before the inevitable, almost half the season just waiting for it to end – for Real Madrid to finally collect their league title, reclaiming it from Barcelona four years later. An entire country of football fans joining the queue at the post office, not daring to move, shuffling a little closer every week. The wait will be a long one, but for Real Madrid it will be worth it.
There are 16 weeks left but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the title race is over. It has ended in the same place that it ended last year. In January 2011, Real Madrid committed a "forbidden error" in Pamplona that seemed to bring the title race to an early end (even if it did occasionally threaten to reopen), losing 1-0 to Osasuna; in February 2012 Barcelona made the error that they no longer had margin for and lost 3-2 in the same stadium, in cold, windy conditions and on a frozen pitch. An impressive second half – Barcelona had 11 shots, Osasuna three – was not enough to turn round what Carles Puyol described as "the worst half I can remember".
Before the game, Pep Guardiola described Barcelona's situation in the league as "on the edge". Afterwards, he said it was "worse". The following night, when Real Madrid came back from the head start they always seem to give their opponents to defeat Levante 4-2, it was worse still: if not actually tumbling over the edge and crashing on to the rocks hundreds of feet below, leaving a cartoon impression at the foot of the canyon, at least dangling precariously over the void, their grip on the cliff face loosening by the second. While Real Madrid stand above them and maliciously tread on their fingers. It is only a matter of time. The question is: when? And can Madrid indulge in a little guilty pleasure? Can they wrap up the league quickly enough to force Barcelona into a humiliating guard of honour when they meet at Camp Nou?
Meanwhile, we're going to have to come up with something else to keep us occupied. The Champions League, for example. El Mundo Deportivo on Monday morning leads on: "Let's go for the Champions", while Sport says: "The Champions League cannot slip out of our hands."
The point was obvious: the league already has. On Sunday, Marca's cover ran on Colorín Colorado, the prelude to: The End. On Monday, it leads on: "And now for the Champions." Now that the league is tied up, that is. From the people who brought you "FOUR POINTS!", "FIVE POINTS!", "SIX POINTS!" and the critically acclaimed "SEVEN POINTS!" comes their best cover yet: "TEN POINTS!" screams Monday's front page of AS. It may not be imaginative but it does pretty well sum it up. Madrid lead by 10 points with 16 games left. "It was already hard with seven, so with 10 …" admitted Pedro, while Victor Valdés added: "The league is hard now; we failed here. It's going to be very difficult to pull that back – especially with Madrid playing the way that they are." Asked if the league was over, Guardiola responded: "We now have to go into Europe and defend our title there." "People are not stupid," Piqué said, "10 points is a lot of points."
A hell of a lot of points. More than Madrid have dropped all season. Mourinho insisted on Sunday night: "We will slip up for sure," but they will surely not slip up enough. Even if they were to lose three matches between now and the end of the season – and they are not likely to, even if they do have to go away to Athletic, Atlético, and Barcelona – they would still win the league. And that's assuming that Barcelona win every game, which they probably will not.
Saturday night's defeat at Osasuna could be explained by the freezing temperatures, the rock-hard pitch and the absence of five world champions – Cesc Fábregas, David Villa, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. But it was not just about Saturday night; it was about all the other nights. Defeat in Osasuna means that Barcelona have now won four, drawn five and lost two away. Leo Messi has scored only four on the road (three of them against Málaga). Madrid have won nine, drawn one and lost one away. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 11.
At this stage last season, Real Madrid had won 18, drawn two and lost one; they had 56 points. This season their record reads: won 19, drawn one, lost two; 58 points. Barcelona, meanwhile, had won 20, drawn one and lost one at this stage last season; this year they have won 14, drawn six and lost two. That leaves them on 48 points – compared with 61 at the same stage in 2010-11. This season, Barcelona have dropped the points that Madrid dropped last season: Mourinho's side lost the league because of the 5-0 against Barcelona, sure, but also because they lost to Sporting, Zaragoza and Osasuna and because they drew with Deportivo, Mallorca, Levante and Almería. In those four games, they scored only once. Barcelona's draws have come against rather stronger sides – Athletic, Espanyol, Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla and Real Sociedad – but they have been equally costly. Draws are the new defeats. Defeats are the new disasters. Barcelona have dropped 16 of 33 points away.
Fatigue and injury have played a part. In January, Barcelona played eight matches. They had travelled to east Asia for the World Club Championship and been forced to make up the extra league game. This weekend, their midfield was Javier Mascherano, Sergi Roberto and Thiago. Four different TV channels ran the same question, asking viewers for their opinion: did Barcelona throw the game and the league title? But while resting was a reality and, with a seven-point lead already sizeable, focus on the Champions League was natural enough, it was also an enforced necessity: Xavi has been struggling with an achilles, Iniesta is just back from injury, Fábregas's physical condition has faded since the Christmas break (the first he has had as a professional), and Busquets had a nasty gash on his shin. They are not alone this season. Alexis Sánchez has suffered injury, Puyol has missed games, Piqué has rarely been at his physical peak, and Villa broke his ankle. Only Messi has not been injured, but even he looks to be lacking a touch of sharpness now.
Then there's the motivational question: after three years of winning the league, and the pressure that was placed upon them to win those titles, requiring more than 90 points for each of the past two seasons, a drop at some stage was inevitable. Barcelona may still look like the superior side against Real Madrid but they play them only twice a season in La Liga; the title does not reside in the clásicos. It resides in the games that do not seem to matter too. The league does not offer instant gratification, it is harder to motivate every week. Yet at the same time, the level of the big two demands that you do exactly that. As Puyol put it: "We are not machines." The bar had been set ludicrously high. At some stage, and on some front, there was bound to be a dip of sorts.
For some of a conspiratorial mind, there is a simpler answer. When Sánchez scored what would have been Barcelona's equaliser in the 81st minute and the linesman's flag went up, Guardiola gestured insistently to the referee just how far on side the player actually was, like a fisherman boasting to his mates. Xavi took off down the touchline to remonstrate with the linesman and Guardiola man-marked the fourth official. As it turns out, the goal was probably rightly ruled out – after countless replays it looked like it got a tiny touch on the way through – but that did not stop some in the Catalan media crying foul. Writing in Sport, Emilio Pérez Rozas insisted: "Mourinho's pressure on the refs has paid off … now they are eating out of his hand." They were not slow to note that Madrid have had 10 penalties this year – more than anyone else in Europe's top leagues – and none against, Barcelona three. Madrid have had more penalties in the past three months than Barcelona have had in the entire time Guardiola has been in charge.
That stat, those complaints, reveal something but perhaps not what those who lay such weight by them would wish (the same people, incidentally, who dismissed conspiracy theories when they were presented by the other side … and so it goes round and round). They reveal that Madrid's attacking has been relentless this season – there are few genuine question marks about those 10 penalties being perfectly correct decisions – and that Barcelona have more vulnerable than before. Yes, decisions matter; but the sensations are driven by more than just stats and suspicions. For Barcelona a bad decision is game-changing when once it may not have been. Madrid, in contrast, have blown teams away. They keep giving opponents the first goal – six times this season they have been behind, five times they have won the match – and still slaughtering them.
They are relentless, irresistible and boast gigantic variety about them. The sheer number of great players they have was likely to tell eventually – on Sunday, the 13 players who turned out for Madrid cost a combined €364m* – and although the tensions have been real, and the mistakes apparent, the work that Mourinho has done is impressive. He has also been given a second year – a concession not made for any of his predecessors.
Even when Madrid are not playing well, they have a power that is unrivalled. This is an astonishingly athletic side; talented, too. As the former Madrid sporting director Miguel-Angel Portugal put it on Sunday night: "Against Madrid, when you're most convinced you can win you're suddenly two down, or three, or four … You leave thinking you have played well but you have been hammered." Just look at the number of chances Madrid create from other teams' corners.
Last season, they failed to score against Depor, Levante and Mallorca. They were tactically complicit in their own failure; this season, they have learnt the lesson. This season they failed to score in two games in four days against Levante and Racing but since then they have been unstoppable, winning 17 and losing one of their past 18. That one was against Barcelona but may, ultimately, not matter. This league was not in play there. Look at their results at home, Barcelona apart: Madrid have scored four, four, four, four, five, four, seven, six, three and three at home. Even away, they have twice scored three, twice scored four and twice scored six. Now, barring a spectacular collapse, they just have to wait, a long wait. But then what's 16 weeks four years later?
*Barcelona's cost €115m, in case you're interested.
• And so the battle for fourth gets even tighter and even more confusing just when it looked like becoming clearer. The teams in front lost (or drew) and the teams behind won. Espanyol and Athletic were beaten and Atlético hammered Racing but drew 0-0, keeper Toño stopping everything. "We played well, the way that you lot like, but didn't win," said Diego Simeone. "I always said I prefer to play badly and win." Meanwhile, there were wins for Málaga and Osasuna. So, Levante lose again but stay in a Champions League spot and everyone moves up closer, like some mass game of sardines. That's 16 weeks now that Levante have been in a Champions League place, despite winning only two in 13, one in nine. Just two points separate fourth from ninth: Levante, Espanyol, Atlético, Malaga, Osasuna and Athletic.
• The third best team in Madrid are officially Rayo Vallecano, not Getafe. As it always was and always should be. Michu scored twice more – that's 11 for the season for him now – in a windy 2-0 win in Vallecas.
• You want great goals? Valencia are your team this week. (Apart from Madrid for whom Ronaldo and Karim Benzema both scored beauties). Sofiane Feghouli smashed one in, while Jonas got another after a gorgeous assist from Roberto Soldado. Mind you, Borja Valero's for Villarreal was pretty special, Michaël Pereira struck a rocket against Málaga, and none could beat Nélson's for Betis. Out for nine months after a terrible broken leg, he made his first appearance of the season – and scored a lovely winner in the 92nd minute to give Betis a 2-1 win over Athletic and pull them away from the relegation zone and coach Pepe Mel away from the sack.
Results: Racing 0-0 Atlético, Osasuna 3-2 Barcelona, Betis 2-1 Athletic, Espanyol 0-2 Zaragoza, Málaga 3-1 Mallorca, Rayo 2-0 Getafe, Valencia 4-0 Sporting, Villarreal 3-1 Getafe, Real Madrid 4-2 Levante. Monday night: Real Sociedad v Sevilla.