Football: Spanish duopoly under threat: Phil Davison reports on little Deportivo's efforts to win a championship race dubbed 'the lollipop war'

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THEIR fans call them Superdepor. But can little Deportivo de la Coruna, promoted to the First Division only three seasons ago, hold off Barcelona and break the eight-year championship duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid?

Deportivo are four games away from becoming the first Galician side to win the championship. And they are doing it at a time when Barcelona, built around the Dutchman Ronald Koeman, the Dane Michael Laudrup, the Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov and the Brazilian Romario, have taken over the 'dream team' mantle from an increasingly dour Milan.

Deportivo are three points ahead of Barca - it is still two points for a win in Spain - with the troubled Real already out of the picture and left only with the consolation of a Uefa Cup place.

But four games is a long time in football and the managers, Johann Cruyff, of Barcelona, and Arsenio Iglesias, of Deportivo, at 63 the oldest coach in the Spanish league, are locked in psychological warfare in the run-in. Here, they are calling it the chupachups (lollipop) war.

It began when Cruyff decided this month that his footballing machine would play all their remaining home games on a Saturday - Sunday is the regular fixture day here - to keep the pressure on the team from the Atlantic coast. The Dutchman, never noted for his modesty, also insisted his team were the better of the two and suggested Deportivo would crack as they did in the run-in last season.

The snowy-haired Iglesias, nicknamed el zorro (the fox) and normally a man of few words, was not amused. Taking the mickey out of Cruyff's habit of sucking lollipops to calm his nerves in the dug-out, Iglesias had lollipops handed out to every one of the 30,000 fans who went through the turnstiles at Deportivo's seafront Riazor stadium for last weekend's match against Tenerife. A giant red lollipop-shaped balloon above the blue- and-white Deportivo scarves on the terraces rammed home the message.

If Deportivo, whose fans call themselves the Riazor Blues, pull it off, no one will be more surprised than their Brazilian striker, Bebeto, who had never heard of the town of La Coruna - population 250,000 - when his compatriot, Mauro Silva, persuaded him to sign two seasons ago. Bebeto (real name Jose Roberto Gama da Oliveira), who won Spain's pichichi (top scorer) award last season, said earlier this season: 'Barcelona are currently the best team in the world.'

Iglesias is almost Shankly-like in his comments. 'The ball is round. If it bounces badly, well . . . ', or: 'When we've got the ball, keep it moving. When they've got it, stop it moving.' Only recently, after Cruyff's comments, did he stop saying he was focusing only on the next game and began saying his team could pull it off.

Oddly enough, Deportivo are not playing as well this season as they did last, when they led for the first two-thirds before cracking and allowing Real and Barcelona to overhaul them. Their striking partnership of Bebeto and Claudio has not been as efficient this term and the goalkeeper Liano's remarkable record of only 18 goals conceded in 34 games has been crucial to their success. Barcelona have rattled in 77 goals to Deportivo's 52 and the Catalans have a handy three-goal edge on goal difference.

On paper, Deportivo have the easier run-in, but three of their four opponents - including Lerida tomorrow - are involved in the battle to stay up. Barcelona are away to Deportivo's arch-rivals and fellow- Galicians, Celta de Vigo, tonight, playing on Saturday because the match is being televised.

Celta may still be hung over from losing Wednesday night's Spanish Cup final to Zaragoza on penalties, but they could do their old enemy a mighty favour by upsetting Cruyff's men.

A Barcelona slip-up tonight and a Deportivo victory tomorrow could give the upstarts, whose best finish came when they were runners-up in the First Division in 1949-50, the title before the final day of the season.

On the other hand, if Barca confirm the form book tonight, their penultimate match, against Real in Madrid's Bernabeu stadium next month, could be the key to the title.