European Football: Real Madrid ready for title run-in

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The Independent Online
THE TITLE race in Spain shows all the signs of being one of the closest in Europe, with just goal difference keeping Barcelona ahead of Real Madrid, writes Rupert Metcalf.

The champions suffered only their third defeat of the season at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, allowing Madrid to equal their points total with a 3-1 win at Espanol yesterday.

An injury-hit Barcelona side were beaten by a Ricardo Mendiguren goal on the hour. Their Catalan neighbours were unable to do them a favour, despite Javier Escaich equalising in the 31st minute after Fernando Hierro had opened the scoring for Madrid in the seventh minute. Michel struck a post with a penalty late in the first half, but goals soon after the break from Robert Prosinecki and Ivan Zamorano settled affairs.

Deportivo La Coruna are still in contention, just one point behind the leaders, after a 3-2 home win over Albacete. Claudio Barragan, Adolfo Aldana and Bebeto, with his 25th goal of the campaign, were on target.

Next Saturday's meeting of Benfica and Porto could decide the Portuguese league. The champions, Porto, were held 0-0 at home by Bobby Robson's Sporting Lisbon, allowing Benfica to draw level on points after a dramatic 3-2 win at Boavista.

The home side had a defender sent off with the score at 1-1 and Benfica took a 3-1 lead, but then Helder and the goalkeeper, Neno, were shown red cards to give Boavista a one-man advantage. The midfielder, Paulo Sousa, could not save the penalty resulting from Neno's exit, but Benfica clung on to the points earned by two goals from Sergei Yuran and one from Isaias.

In Saturday's Italian Serie A programme, Milan had to rely on a late goal from Ruud Gullit to prevent their second defeat of the season. Internazionale, their city rivals, had taken the lead in the 44th minute with a close- range header from Nicola Berti, but the European Cup finalists were not to be denied, Gullit striking with a fierce diagonal shot in the 84th minute.

Milan lead Inter by seven points with seven games left. Parma are third, four points behind Inter, while Karlheinz Riedle scored for fourth-placed Lazio in a 1-1 home draw with Foggia. Paul Gascoigne had a quiet game and was substituted on the hour.