x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ball in Barcelona's court after Real Madrid loss

The 38-game Primera Liga season is just two matches beyond the halfway stage, but it already looks over.

The 38-game Primera Liga season is just two matches beyond the halfway stage, but it already looks over. The two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid was reduced to one with Real's defeat at Osasuna on Sunday night.

Jose Mourinho's side are now seven points behind the Catalans - effectively eight when the head-to-head rule is counted after Barca's 5-0 el clasico triumph in November.

Few expected them to prevent Pep Guardiola's brilliant side winning a third consecutive title, but Sunday's single goal defeat at Osasuna was still surprising.

Real had only lost one game all season (famously at Camp Nou), while the Navarrans had not won in eight and languished 17th in the table.

Managed by Jose Antonio Camacho, a former Real player and coach, they had not managed a single away win all season, but then league form can count for nothing when they meet Real and the warning signs were there.

Mourinho's men only narrowly overcame Osasuna 1-0 at the Bernabeu in the league.

They were also held by the Navarrans last season and lost 2-1 the season before, and struggling to raise their game in the inhospitable Reyno De Navarra stadium.

It matters not Osasuna's top scorer has only netted four times compared to Cristiano Ronaldo's 29, nothing is at it should be when Madrid visit Pamplona.

Indeed, Ricardo, the Osasuna goalkeeper, was in such good form that he was the star of the night, rather than his former Manchester United teammate Ronaldo.

There were more ironies. While Real have scoured the planet for the game's finest talents and introduced Kaka from Brazil, a former World Player of the Year, and debutant Emmanuel Abebayor from Togo as substitutes, the game's single goal was scored by a midfielder born on their doorstep.

Javier Camunas was overlooked by both Real and neighbours Atletico before he ended up at Rayo Vallecano, the Spanish capital's third best supported club from the tough Vallecas neighbourhood.

Tough is how Real traditionally find their visits to Pamplona and Sunday was no exception.

Real may have complained that the temperature was close to zero and that there was no hot water in the dressing rooms, but that was proof that the cosseted millionaires from the capital were soft in the eyes of the 18,000 Osasuna fans who fill their tight stadium most weeks.

And the eight yellow cards brandished - six of them to Osasuna players - were merely further evidence of the steel needed to ensure a famous victory.

It drives Real mad that the political differences mean that teams in Spain's north always raise their game against them.

Fans in the Basque country and Navarra loath Real and make life as difficult as possible for them - like throwing three match balls on the pitch during play on Sunday.

As Osasuna celebrated a vital win and the victory was greeted with fireworks in Barcelona, Real's players put a brave face on the defeat.

"Seven points is a substantial lead, but we can claw our way back," Iker Casillas, the captain, said. "We just hope that Barcelona slip up at some point."

"A team like Real Madrid doesn't give up easily," Sergio Ramos added. "We will fight for the title for as long as mathematically possible."

"We didn't deserve to lose," an even-handed Mourinho said. "But Osasuna were a tough team and the crowd was fantastic.

"It's a small venue and you really feel the heat. I have nothing negative to say about my team. Congratulations to Osasuna."

"The result is tough, but it's not definitive," said Mourinho's nemesis, Real's sporting director Jorge Valdano.

Brave words, but Real will now be looking towards the Champions League and the Copa Del Rey for their first trophy since 2008. Just don't mention that Barca could stand in their way in both competitions.