Real Madrid breathed new life into the Spanish title race when they produced their best performance of the season to claim a crushing 4-2 victory at home to the League leaders, Barcelona, yesterday. Strikes in the first half from Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo and a superbly taken effort from Michael Owen midway through the second period secured Real an enthralling win at the Bernabeu that left them six points behind the Catalans with seven games left to play.
Earlier Seville moved up into third place in the standings after an authoritative 3-1 win over their fellow high-flyers, Espanyol. But Seville's city rivals Real Betis failed to stay in the Champions' League places when they were held to a 2-2 draw at home to Levante. They are now in fifth place, level on 50 points with Villarreal.
Knowing that nothing less than victory would keep alive their hopes of depriving Barça of the title, Real flooded forward into attack from the first whistle and were rewarded with a two-goal lead inside the first 20 minutes. Zidane helped himself to the first after Ronaldo had dinked in a neat cross from the right-hand side of the area and the Brazilian ended his recent goal drought with a simple header at the far post after David Beckham had fired in a trademark free-kick.
The former Real Madrid striker Samuel Eto'o pulled one back for the Catalans just before the half hour when he scorched past Ivan Helguera and Roberto Carlos and then netted with a deft finish with the outside of his foot. But Real hit Barça once again on the stroke of half-time when Raul stabbed in under the keeper, Victor Valdes, at the near post after Roberto Carlos had steamed down the left wing and cut back a pass into the area.
Barça had a string of chances to narrow Real's lead but sometop-class keeping from Iker Casillas and some desperate defending kept the Catalans at bay. Real went 4-1 up when Owen notched his 11th League goal of the season when he timed his run in behind the Barça defence perfectly, picked up Beckham's perceptive through ball and fired it coolly to one side of Valdes.
There was no relenting in the breathless pace, however, and Ronaldinho provided new but short-lived hope for the Catalans when he fooled Casillas with a sweetly struck free-kick from the edge of the area 18 minutes from time.
Owen was more than happy with his contribution to Real's victory and insisted he is happy with life in Spain despite suggestions he has not played as often as he would have liked. "I am very happy with the goal and I think we all played very well," Owen said. "People think I have only played a bit part but I have played as many games as most of the others. I've played in over 50 per cent of the games and I am happy with the way things are going."
Owen and his team-mates still believe the title race is on. "Six points is still a lot to make up but we will put pressure on Barça and try and do our best," added the England striker. "It would be nice to win the title in my first year here."
Barça's disappointment was compounded by the news that Eto'o could face four weeks on the sidelines after injuring his right knee late in the game. "He will be out of action for a minimum of three weeks but it could go up to six or even eight depending on how serious it is," said Jordi Ardevol, the head of Barça's medical services. "He is in great pain but we have to wait several hours for the muscles to relax before we can perform the tests."
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Casillas; Salgado, Pavon, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Beckham, Gravesen, Zidane (Celades, 90), Raul; Owen (Figo, 82), Ronaldo.
Barcelona (4-3-3); Valdes; Belletti, Oleguer, Puyol, van Bronckhorst; Marquez, Xavi, Iniesta; Giuly, Ronaldinho, Eto'o.
Referee: R R Dominguez.