World Soccer
Wednesday March 18th, 2009

If a week is a long time in politics, it can be forever in soccer. Seven days was all it took to completely change attitudes on both sides of Spain's great divide and reopen a title race that appeared all over.

What seemed like -- and, in fact, was -- a baseless campaign from the Madrid media, what appeared an attempt to create a state of anxiety where none existed, began to look like it might actually have some foundation other than simple wishful thinking. One round of games later and it had become the most logical thing on earth.

Suddenly, Real Madrid supporters' Cofradía del Clavo Ardiendo (Brotherhood of Clutching at Straws) was reborn, blind faith bringing hope where previously there was none. Suddenly, concern returned to Catalonia. There were, the Madrid press unpleasantly put it, a few thousand pairs of soiled pants in Barcelona.

Going into the weekend of Feb. 14, Barcelona led the league by a colossal 12 points, plus head-to-head goal difference. In other words, Real Madrid would have to claw back four victories on its archrivals -- one of which would have to be by more than 2-0 against Barcelona itself -- to win the league. It would have to win every single remaining game and still rely on Barcelona collapsing.

The task looked impossible. Barcelona had only lost once all season and that was on the opening day. Since then, it had played 21 matches and not been beaten. It had only drawn twice, against Racing Santander and Getafe, and had won 19 of the last 20, registering the club's best-ever run.

It did not matter that Real Madrid's results had improved dramatically under new coach Juande Ramos. His first league game in charge had been a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, but since, then Madrid had won seven successive matches. Trouble is, it is no use winning seven straight when the team you are pursuing has won 10 in a row. Besides, while Barcelona was scoring goal after goal, well on course for 100 for the season, there was something oddly unconvincing about Madrid -- even in victory.

Madrid had won seven in a row, sure, but that run included four far-from-convincing 1-0 wins. Against relegation-bound Numancia, it had won 2-0 but had been anything but impressive, and it took some dreadful refereeing and even worse goalkeeping for Real to see off struggling Osasuna 3-1 at home. Seven wins and not one genuinely good display. Not even the 3-0 against a pathetic Mallorca side, which gifted Madrid a goal in the opening two minutes, was much to write home about.

Meanwhile, Barcelona had put five past Deportivo La Coruña, four past Numancia and three past Sporting Gijón and Mallorca. It was time for Madrid to give up. Or so it seemed. Then something strange happened. Barcelona didn't win. And Madrid did. Impressively.

On Saturday, Feb. 14, Barcelona traveled to Real Betis. Two set plays and the Catalans found themselves 2-0 down at halftime. By the end of the game, they had peppered the Betis goal and fought back to 2-2, thanks to two goals from Samuel Eto'o, but they had dropped two points. It was the glimmer of hope the capital's press had been waiting for and one front-page headline the following morning declared Madrid's trip to face Sporting Gijón that day a "golden opportunity."

They took it, too. Sporting's defense might have been awful but at last Madrid was impressive -- two goals from Raúl, one from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and another from Marcelo completing a 4-0 victory. The excitement kicked in. So did the Madrid propaganda machine.

There was some method in the madness. Two years ago, with the sports daily AS inventing the Cofradía del Clavo Ardiendo, with Madrid playing under the banner of Juntos, podemos (Together, we can do it) and the "spirit of Juanito" (named after the late midfielder), Fabio Capello's team won a barely plausible league title as Barcelona fell apart.

But still, this was madness. Barcelona's lead was still 10 points; a bigger lead than Madrid had overcome in 2007. Bigger in fact than had ever been overhauled at the same stage in Spain. And while Barcelona had shown some signs of slipping -- it had had to come back from behind against Racing, Osasuna and Betis, while the 4-1 against Numancia flattered it -- there was no real hint of a collapse. Barcelona had still not been beaten since the opening day.

Not that it stopped the press. The campaign to pile on the pressure was relentless. "The league is reborn," screamed the cover of Marca the next day. Every day for the rest of the following week, the message on the cover of the two main sports dailies in Madrid was the same.

Then came the big one on the front of Marca: Alongside a photo of Pep Guardiola hiding his face, it screamed: Canguelo en Can Barcelona, which roughly translates as "Barcelona has the jitters, Barcelona is running scared." Quotes from players from both clubs littered the cover: "Sergio Ramos: If they slip up again, they'll get nervous"; "Xavi: In Madrid they believe in comebacks"; "Sergio Busquets: We can't rule them out."

The response from Catalonia was inevitable, and if anyone doubted the belligerent bias of the country's divided sports press, here it was in all its schoolboy-in-the-playground simplicity. For a moment, at least, it appeared Madrid's dad was bigger than Barcelona's dad.

When the Catalan media asked aloud, "What on earth are you talking about?" the answer arrived in devastating fashion. This, said the Madrid press, is what we're talking about. On Saturday, Feb. 21, Real Madrid battered Betis 6-1.

At the same time, Barcelona was incredibly defeated 2-1 by Espanyol -- the first time it had been beaten by its city rivals in 27 years and the first time the team at the bottom of the Spanish league had ever beaten the team at the top. The following week, it got even better.

In just seven days, a 12-point lead had been cut to seven, Barcelona had sewn serious doubts and Madrid had scored 10 goals, transforming its image. "The crappingyourselfometer has hit 800 crapahertz," gloated one columnist in Madrid.

Never mind a state of optimism, a state of euphoria had been declared in Madrid. Suddenly, everything was possible. Even, said Raúl on the cover of Marca, the double. The excitement took hold of the whole club, chests puffed out, pride took hold, and optimism was rampant. But you couldn't help thinking they had got a tiny bit carried away.

If proof seemed to come a day later when club president Vicente Boluda announced -- in rather impolite terms -- that his side was going to run rings round Liverpool in the Champions League, it soon transpired that the optimism was well-founded, domestically at least.

After losing 1-0 to Liverpool at the Santiago Bernabéu, Real returned to domestic duties that weekend and beat Espanyol 2-0, while Barcelona lost an incredible match 4-3 to Atlético Madrid. The gap at the top of the table was down to just four points, leaving the Catalan press talking of a crisis.

If the Madrid media had been on a mission, it was time to pat themselves on the back. Mission accomplished. Game on.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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