Barcelona rely on Eto'o return to relight fire

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The Independent Football

When you have experienced a cataclysm in your life - a bereavement, a marital break-up, the loss of your job, defeat for your team in a final - it is bewildering to discover on waking up the next morning that the world goes on regardless.

Such may have been David Beckham's sensation the day after Fabio Capello's brutal announcement that he would never play again for Real Madrid. The Spanish league just carried on without him, frenzy as usual, as if he had never left.

Or perhaps not quite. Real, having played abominably over the previous month, actually won - and did so playing with a hunger that had been missing for a long time. Seville, leaders at the end of 2006 and strong-looking championship contenders, lost their second game in a row, dropping points at home for the first time this season. Barcelona, as formidable in Spain over the last two seasons as Chelsea have been in England, have experienced, like the Londoners, a Christmas-new year blip. They lost away at the weekend in the Catalan derby against Espanyol and have won only six points in their last five games.

The upshot of all this is that the Spanish league is unusually tight, with excitement guaranteed. In England 14 points separate the first and third Premiership teams. In La Liga, 13 points separate the first and twelfth. Realistically, there are six teams left in the championship race, separated by seven points. Apart from the big three, the candidates are Zaragoza, a sort of Buenos Aires of the north, packed with competitive Argentines; Atletico Madrid, after a decade in the doldrums, coming good under their Mexican coach, Javier Aguirre; and Valencia, who had bad luck with injuries at the season's start but, having won their last three games, have pushed up into fourth place.

But Barcelona remain favourites. On paper they are the strongest team in Spain by far. If one considers that they have been missing two of their best players most of the season, and that if they win a game they have in hand over their immediate rivals they will go top of the table, then the odds have to be strongly on them to make it three championships in a row. Their electric Cameroonian striker, Samuel Eto'o, returned to training yesterday after an absence of four months and Leo Messi, the mesmericArgentine, is due back next month, probably in time for the resumption of the Champions' League and Barça's game against Liverpool.

And yet, as Johan Cruyff noted yesterday, his former team will rue their failure to capitalise on the failings of Seville and Real, who until Sunday's victory against Zaragoza looked down and almost out. "There would not still be six teams in it if Barcelona had notched up nine points against Espanyol, Atletico and Getafe, instead of two," said Cruyff, who has both played for and coached Barça. "As a consequence, Valencia are back from the dead and the daily disasters at Real have become merely anecdotal."

It was five weeks ago that Barça went for a week in Japan to the World Club championship. It was a bad idea for two reasons: it submitted the players to jet lag mid-season and, after losing the final against Internacionale from Brazil, the team suffered a blow to their morale.

However, the return of Eto'o, assuming he is able fully to recover his form, will make a big difference. Not only is he a goalscorer extraordinaire, he has more impact on the team as a whole than any other player, Ronaldinho included. The Cameroonian has a hunger that is contagious, and a speed - in pace and thought - that raises Barça's game not one gear, but two. Eidur Gudjohnsen, the ex-Chelsea Icelander, has battled manfully in his absence but neither he, nor any other striker in Spain, causes as much fear as Eto'o does.

One challenger, however, would be the Mali forward Frédéric Kanouté, who after mediocre spells at West Ham and Tottenham, is now the top scorer in Spain, with 15 for the league leaders, Seville. At their best this season, the Uefa Cup holders have been a whirlwind in attack. But logic says they will lack the experience and strength in depth to go all the way.

There again, logic said barely nine days ago that Real Madrid were out of the race. After losing 3-0 at home to Recreativo de Huelva and then 2-0 away to Deportivo la Coruña, who had not scored since November, it seemed they were doomed to a trophyless season. If Capello's hopes remain alive, it is because he has had the good fortune not to have been sacked; to have seen his team sacked before he has been.

The team that beat Zaragoza 1-0 at home on Sunday night bore little resemblance to the XI that started the season. That team have been practically ditched, replaced by a new Real filled with rookies, the young Argentine debutants Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain; reserves, Miguel Torres and Raul Bravo; and a resurrected no-hoper, Ivan Helguera.

With Beckham gone, and Ronaldo's departure imminent, the galactico era is now officially over. The new Real Madrid look less fun, but on Sunday's showing, at least, they could prove more effective.