The Spanish Primera Division title race has already had one major twist in its tail as Barcelona went from a four-point deficit to a four-point advantage over Real Madrid last month, and events on Sunday have suggested there could yet be time for another. Madrid rebounded from their loss in El Clásico before the international break in emphatic style, with a 9-1 victory over Granada giving the impression that they could be set for a return to their rampaging early season form.
While Madrid couldn’t eat into Barcelona’s lead, as the Catalans edged out a 1-0 victory at Celta Vigo, there was much to be encouraged about for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. Cristiano Ronaldo struck five goals against their hapless opponents in what was Madrid’s biggest La Liga win in 48 years. And perhaps equally as important, there was a successful return to the team for James Rodríguez. The Colombian had been out of action for two months through injury, but hit the ground running with two assists on Sunday. His return means that Madrid now have their full quota of midfield options available once more, following Luka Modric’s comeback from injury last month and Isco’s availability once again against Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday after suspension.
While not getting carried away with the manner of the win, Ancelotti expressed his satisfaction with the condition of his squad.
“It's simple mathematics: it's better to win 9 games 1-0 than one 9-1,” he said, according to Real Madrid’s official website. “But today we have to point out the good play, the team are back to playing as desired, just like they have played many times before. What mattered most was winning and playing well and we have achieved that.
“Everything went to plan. My team are in good physical shape, the players are fresh and we showed that throughout the match. We played with a good tempo and scored bags of goals.”
For a time it appeared that Madrid might close the gap at the top of La Liga to just two points. Instead, it remains four with nine games remaining after Jeremy Mathieu’s winner with 17 minutes remaining in Vigo. Although not Barcelona’s most convincing win of the season, it was another performance that showcased a different side to the once-kings of tiki-taka under Enrique. While holding firm in defense, they prospered going forward, as against Real Madrid two weeks ago, from a set-piece goal. And Enrique was encouraged by the way his side battled through against Celta Vigo side that came out on top earlier in the season.
“Winning is never bad -- even winning like we did tonight,” he said, according to AS. “We’ve got three marvelous points. Our results will be the judge. These games can really build confidence; it’s always a boost to beat opponents who are at a very high level. It will set us up for what’s to come.”
Featuring the exceptional talents of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the Catalans' attack should carry the club in the final stretch. And, having now been overtaken by Ronaldo in the race to be the top scorer in La Liga, Messi will be especially eager to find the back of the net against a struggling Almeria team at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.
While Barcelona’s fixture is the most challenging of the two leading title contenders in midweek, it is they who on paper have the toughest run-in. Most notably, they still have to play Atletico Madrid, who, of course, snatched the title from them in a dramatic final-day fixture last season. It’s not completely inconceivable that Diego Simeone’s side, currently nine points back, could still be in the title hunt themselves at that point. And if Real Madrid can again show the form that led them to a Spanish record 22 straight wins before the winter break, then the result of El Clásico may prove not to have been decisive after all.