x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Advantage Barca for the title

Their Madrid rivals slip-up for the third time and are five points behind as Messi becomes the youngest player to reach 100 goals for Guardiola's Spanish champions.

Cristiano Ronaldo, right, and Kaka both started for Real Madrid as they slipped up away in Bilbao.
Cristiano Ronaldo, right, and Kaka both started for Real Madrid as they slipped up away in Bilbao.

BARCELONA // Camp Nou's biggest roar of the night came before Barcelona's game against Sevilla had even started when the scoreboards flashed news from Bilbao. "Athletic 1 R Madrid 0" was all that was needed to cheer those getting drenched. Stadiums in Spain do not have cover because it seldom rains, yet Barca's last three home matches have been played in downpours.

Real Madrid kicked off two hours before Barca in a stadium where they are loathed for reasons which extend beyond the sphere of sport. Athletic Bilbao started brightly and the capacity Basque crowd waited just 50 seconds before the ball rapped both Real posts before striking Iker Casillas and bouncing to safety. Athletic's surge continued and they were ahead a minute later after Fernando Llorente headed in from a Francisco Yeste corner. The next 88 minutes were spent with Athletic protecting their lead and goalkeeper Gorka playing the game of his life as Cristiano Ronaldo peppered his goal with shots.

It was only the fourth time that all Real's grand summer signings had started together. Karim Benzema, playing because of an injury to Gonzalo Higuain, began brightly and hit a post in the 34th minute before fading in the second half. Kaka, whose lack of impact has started to cause concern, was much improved. Yet try as they might, Real could not score. "The game was lost after the first goal," said Real's sporting director Jorge Valdano. "San Mames is one of the most difficult stadiums to play in and we played a team who have played together for a long time. We have a grand project which will take time."

A perplexed coach Manuel Pellegrini, whose side had also lost away to Sevilla and Barca, said: "It's difficult to find explanations for the game. "We had five or six clear chances but we were not decisive enough." Barca kicked off knowing that a win would put them five points in front of their eternal rivals. Rafa Marquez, on for the injured Carles Puyol in the second half, played a big part in Barca's breakthrough. The Mexico captain crossed and Gerard Pique had a shot across goal before Sevilla's Julien Escude turned the ball into his own net.

Pedro made it two after 70 minutes, turning a defence-splitting Xavi pass over Palop for his 14th goal in all competitions this season. Lionel Messi made it 3-0 in the 85th minute, controlling a Dani Alves cross before picking his spot for his 100th Barca goal. The 22-year-old became the youngest player in the club's history to reach a century of goals and it was soon 101 when the Argentine received a pass from Eric Abidal, the defender having skilfully intercepted a Sevilla pass. Messi seldom misses such chances.

Long before, the happy crowd were roaring Ole! with every touch, safe in the knowledge that Barca are now unbeaten in their 18 league games so far while Real have lost three times. As well as praising Messi and his potential "to break all the records", the coach Guardiola played down Barca's five-point lead, saying: "You can be sure of one thing - the league will be decided in the last three or four matches. The lead is a mere anecdote that doesn't win you any titles."

His guarded outlook is to be expected and Real have not given up on any title hopes. In a vote of 42,000 of their fans yesterday, 77 per cent thought that they would still win the league. The Primera Liga is still two matches short of the halfway point, but such optimism seems misplaced. @Email:sports@thenational.ae