Euro Zone: Iniesta injury hurts Barça's push for title

In the first of a series of reports on the thrilling run-ins in Europe's top leagues, Pete Jenson explains why Messi's men still have work to do in <i>La Liga</i>
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The Independent Football

Barcelona and Real Madrid have turned the Spanish league into a pseudo-Scottish affair with 24 and 21 points respectively separating them from third place. Valencia are this season's Dundee United, while Mallorca and Seville are scraping for the right to be La Liga's Hibernian.

But despite the unhealthy distance that has opened up between the best and the rest, the big two go into the last seven games with just three points between them and a grandstand finish on 16 May is all but assured. Barça may well have to win all their remaining games to stay out in front and in so doing will amass an incredible 101 points.

To see their players bouncing up and down in a huddle at the Bernabeu last weekend after they won El Clasico 2-0, and to witness thousands of supporters spilling on to Las Ramblas at the final whistle, you would have thought Barça had already crossed the finish line.

They certainly have the initiative after that strangely comfortable win at the weekend but for all the fireworks and car-horn celebrations of Saturday night their players and the vast majority of their traditionally pessimistic fans know it is a long way from being over.

"Bad grass never dies," was the caption on the satirical cartoon on the back of Barça supporting paper Sport yesterday with the image of captain Xavi pushing a lawnmower over the Bernabeu playing surface only for the grass to be growing just as quickly behind him – in other words Real will never give in.

Their sporting director Jorge Valdano pointed out immediately after Saturday's defeat that Madrid had won their last seven games while Barça had dropped points on two occasions in that same run of matches.

Barça also have two draining Champions League semi-final legs against Internazionale to play between now and the last day of the campaign and they must fight on those two fronts without one of their most important players. When they needed a goal from nowhere at Chelsea last season it was Andres Iniesta who delivered it. He will be watching this season's Champions League semi-finals and the remainder of the league calender from the sidelines after tearing a thigh muscle in his right leg in training yesterday.

Even without Iniesta, Barça should win all their remaining home games starting tonight against mid-table slackers Deportivo la Coruna and then against La Liga's three worst sides, Tenerife, Xerez and Valladolid. But their three away trips, to neighbours Espanyol this weekend, and to Villarreal and Seville could see them drop points.

For Real Madrid the key will be to recover quickly from losing to Barcelona by winning their next two matches, away to Almeria tomorrow, and at home to Valencia at the weekend. Neither game will be easy with Valencia needing to secure third spot and Almeria coached by Pep Guardiola's great friend Juanma Lillo, having rested up to five key players last weekend to prepare to do his pal a favour.

Beyond those two matches Madrid's run-in looks easier than Barcelona's, although they do have to make the trip to Mallorca who have won 13 of their 15 home games this season.

If it does got down to the last weekend then it will probably be advantage Barcelona once again. Pep Guardiola's side are at home to Valladollid in their last match of the campaign – a team who have had three different managers this season, players caught out partying after heavy defeats, and who will almost certainly already by relegated by the time the match is played.

Madrid's game will be less straightforward. They will have to travel to Malaga, a side who could still need points to stay up or at the very least would be out to ruin Real's final push for the domestic crown.