Valencia thrash Alaves to put Barça party plans on hold

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The Independent Online

Barcelona will have to wait a little longer before retaining their Spanish title. The Catalans beat next-to-bottom Cadiz 1-0 on Saturday and would have been crowned champions had second-placed Valencia not beaten Alaves - they won 3-0 - last night.

Frank Rijkaard's side remain eight points clear in La Liga with four games left - one more than Valencia - and a draw on Wednesday at fifth-placed Celta Vigo will be enough for Barça to seal their 18th league title.

Barça fans already consider the title a forgone conclusion and were singing "campeone" against Cadiz. Their loudest cheer, however, came when Xavi was introduced with 10 minutes to go after five months out.

The Spanish international was accorded a standing ovation when he came on to replace Deco and will be available for the Champions' League final against Arsenal and the World Cup. "It was an unforgettable night," the midfielder said. "I've never received a reception like that and it was great to feel useful again for the team and as a footballer."

The 26-year-old was in outstanding form at the start of the season but tore his right cruciate ligament in a training session at the beginning of December. It was initially thought the injury might keep him out for the rest of the season but he has made a rapid recovery.

With striker Lionel Messi back in full training for the first time since being injured against Chelsea seven weeks ago, Rijkaard's side are nearing full strength ahead of the Champions' League final in Paris on 17 May. Barça have so far received 50,400 requests for their 21,000 final allocation.

Ronaldinho put Barça ahead against Cadiz with superbly timed volley from a Juliano Belletti cross in the eighth minute. The Brazilian is Barça's regular penalty taker, but he encouraged 24-goal leading scorer Samuel Eto'o to take a 62nd minute spot-kick after Mark van Bommel was fouled. Eto'o has led the scoring charts all season but is in danger of being caught by Valencia's David Villa, who scored last night to take his tally to 23. Diego Forlan pipped Eto'o to the prestigious Pichichi award on the final day of last season, and the Cameroonian saw his penalty saved and looked tense throughout an insipid Barça performance.

There were further developments over the weekend concerning Thierry Henry's anticipated move to the Nou Camp, after the French winger Ludovic Giuly said, "We speak on the telephone all the time and we have had a conversation recently. I think he's coming. He will say so when he makes an announcement before the World Cup starts. He will get a great welcome in Barcelona because everybody is excited thinking about him in our shirt."

The Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood hardly helped matters yesterday, stating that the club were unsure of Henry's intentions because he can be "moody".

"We haven't a clue what he wants to do," Hill-Wood said. "He's slightly moody too. Some days he's up, some days he's down. He has a wonderful life in London and gets very well paid. We hope he decides to stay with us, but I haven't got any more idea than you have. I think he's irreplaceable, but we're fine, we'll manage. We've managed before, but it will be a big blow."

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