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Pressure on Real and Barca builds

Álvaro Arbeloa promised to keep fighting despite Real Madrid's defeat at Almería last Sunday night. Teammate Sergio Ramos shook his head and lamented the result: It's hard, he said after the game, to take this defeat. Kaká, meanwhile, was defiant: "I don't think this defeat is definitive," he was reported as saying in the sports newspaper AS.

Hang on a minute ... defeat? Madrid wasn't defeated by Almería. It didn't lose. It drew 1-1. And it nearly won, too: In the 94th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo smashed a free kick off the Almería bar.

But while Kaká's remark might have been an error from AS, while it might have been a word put into his mouth or a headline that was a little more bombastic than it should have been, Arbeloa's and Ramos' mistakes were their own; Freudian slips that were extremely telling. Maybe they weren't mistakes at all. They definitely said defeat. And, in a way, that's what they meant. The final week of the first half of the Spanish season proved the point once more: For Real Madrid and Barcelona, draws are the new defeats.

Madrid had lost. It had lost two points. And, some said, it had lost the league title. AS' match report opened on the "defeat," reminding readers that although Madrid had not actually lost, it might as well have done; Marca mentioned a small slip-up -- small but "potentially fatal"; El Mundo was quick to insist that you pay a "heavy price" for drawing; and one columnist complained that the team had "thrown away" half a league title. El País, too, talked of "half the title" having gone Barça's way.

Under normal circumstances, that would be crazy talk. But as these pages have documented over the last two weeks, La Liga long since left normal behind. The gap at the top of the table is only four points. But with ties decided by head-to-head goal difference at the end of the season, that gap is effectively five points -- unless Madrid can somehow beat Barcelona by a better score line than 5-0.

It's only five points and there are still 19 games -- half the season -- left to play. That's 57 points to play for with only five points to make up. (And both Madrid and Barcelona have to go away to Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Atlético.) But Barcelona has dropped only five points all season. With an identical second half from the league leader, Madrid would have to win every single game to overtake its rival. "I can't win every game," said Real coach Jose Mourinho, "even if that is my intention."

Trouble is, he may have to. As Mourinho put it: "We have won 15, drawn three and lost just one [of our opening 19 games]. That is a good record -- but is not enough." Just as a points record was not enough last season: Madrid broke the former best, but so did Barcelona. Just as 17 wins in 18 games was not enough under Juande Ramos the season before -- because Barcelona matched Madrid and then beat it at the Bernabéu. In the opening half of this season, Madrid has an exceptional record. Barcelona, though, has won 17 of 19. The points were dropped early, too. Now, Barcelona looks even harder to take points from. It has won its last 13.

That can be hard to take. For both teams. Although in purely footballing terms, it often seems like the league is far too easy for Madrid and Barcelona -- and that stats certainly point that way -- in emotional and psychological terms, the opposite is true.

One of the clichés bandied about is that soccer, certainly league soccer, always gives you the opportunity for revenge. You always get a second chance. Not so now. Players go on to the pitch now knowing that they absolutely must win. With season totals nearing the 100-point mark -- "the [expletive] barbaric" totals that Pep Guardiola talked about -- draws are virtually useless.

Mourinho recently admitted that he took risks earlier than he would have done in any other league in the world. Last season, he won the Italian title for Inter Milan with four defeats and -- this is the really big stat -- 10 draws. In Spain, that would be impossible. In fact, you could barely afford either half of that equation: Four defeats and 34 wins probably would not win you the title; 10 draws and 28 wins might not, either.

With his side trailing in one game recently, Mourinho said he had gone all out for the win when he would previously have been a little more cautious. In terms of the spectacle, that can only be a good thing. In terms of pressure, it can be devastating. The pressure for those teams fighting relegation -- for those players who know that, in a sense, an entire town really does depend upon them -- probably remains the greatest pressure of all, but it can be tough at the top, too. Forever in the eye of the storm, watched over, scrutinized, all too aware that only the best is good enough.

All too aware, in fact, that sometimes even the best is not good enough.

When Real Madrid won 17 of 18 going into the clásico two years ago, the Madrid press resurrected an old favorite: AS dusted off its patented cagómetro or crappingyourselfmeter. Barcelona was registering 10 million crapahertz. Barcelona, it said gleefully, was running scared. Madrid was breathing down its neck; the Catalans could see their rivals in the rearview mirror, relentless in their pursuit, close enough to touch, ready to pounce. It was impossible to shake them off, they just wouldn't die. No wonder Barcelona was nervous, edgy. Frightened.

The sports daily Marca liked the analogy so much that it invented its own version, saying Barcelona was suffering from Canguelo, the heebie-jeebies. The pressure was huge. Madrid was pushing and pushing and Barcelona could not relax.

As is so often the case, there was an element of truth, but it was an entirely one-sided analysis. The pressure on Barcelona was intense. What they forgot to mention was that the pressure on Madrid was equally asphyxiating. They forgot to mention that if Madrid was not letting up, nor was Barcelona -- and the Catalans, after all, had the lead. They forgot to mention that Madrid was also crapping itself, that it, too, had the heebie-jeebies. Then when the clásico came, Barcelona batted Madrid out the park.

During that run, Juande Ramos mentioned the pressure but no one in the capital wanted to listen. Wesley Sneijder sighed, "They just won't lose," but few took any notice. They were acting as if being second was better than being first, acting as if the only one suffering from stress was Barcelona.

In footballing terms, the effects are positive. Without Madrid pushing it all the way, there is little chance that Barcelona would have reached such extraordinary figures over the last two years; without Barcelona to chase, there is no way Madrid would have racked up its records, either. Whether it is a good thing for the rest of the league is another matter; whether it is good for the players is, too.

Life seems so easy easy for Madrid and Barcelona, but privately players admit it is hard. "Terrifying," said one. "Overwhelming," said another. From the outside, it is difficult to judge the colossal tension, to appreciate it. The pressure is bordering on the cruel. You feel like you cannot make a single mistake, ever. Football is a sport: You can win lose or draw. Or it was. Now you can only win. Every. Single. Week.

When you draw, as Madrid did last weekend, it is a defeat. And because you only accept victory, because the stakes are so high, because there is so much money at stake, because there are hidden interests and politics, you simply cannot accept anything else. Clubs and fans and the media look for someone to blame, someone to pay the price, someone to take the bullet. They look for immediate solutions, even when the best solution is often not to seek a solution at all. When you don't win, the paranoia starts, the recrimination, the accusations, the war.

When you don't win, the pressure you assert on those whose job it is to deliver victory gets greater and greater. Those who actually go on the pitch know that. They feel it.

Once upon a time, winning was an objective. For Madrid and Barcelona, it has become an obligation.

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