x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Only 90 minutes to decide the title

Real are joint leaders with Barca with nine games to play. The encounter between the pair in Madrid in less than two weeks seems more like a title decider.

Another weekend in the Primera Liga, another win for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Real have now won all 15 of their home matches this season and Sunday's 3-2 derby victory over Atletico was their 11th consecutive league win. They are joint leaders with Barca on 74 points, with nine games each to play. The encounter between the pair in Madrid in less than two weeks seems more like a title decider with every passing week. The options are clear.

If Real win the league then the ?256million (Dh1,267m) investment in new players last summer will be vindicated. Coach Manuel Pellegrini is likely to keep his job and the Champions League defeat to Lyon will be erased from memory. If Real don't win the title, Florentino Perez's project will be dismissed as a vanity affair no different from his Galacticos era. One game could swing such decisions. Barca's circumstances are different. Coach Pep Guardiola has built up a considerable bank of credit and will keep his job for next season as long as he wants it. A failure to retain the title at Real's expense will be a significant blow, but the Catalans could return to the capital weeks later and win the European Cup. The prospect of Barca fans dancing around the Cibeles fountain - the traditional point of celebration for Real fans - has been discussed enthusiastically in Catalonia.

Both clubs are happy with their lot at the moment. Real feel they can beat Barca at home, while Guardiola's side, flushed with memories of a 6-2 victory the last time they played at the Bernabeu, are relishing the prospect. So it is in Madrid and Catalunya at the moment - constant speculation about the eventual outcome of the Primera Liga, a debate which changes with every fresh result. Every conversation drifts inevitably towards the latest twist in the tale. One week a referee will be the villain, the next a player or coach. Last week's hero was Lionel Messi, while the ever-selective memories will overlook two deliberately received cards in Sunday's Madrid derby for Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso. Playing the card system is not seen as immoral in Spain.

Both clubs are so self obsessed, however, that they are failing to look at the wider picture. Valencia's 3-0 defeat at Zaragoza means there's now a 21-point gap between the leading pair and the rest - something which should be of major concern. In the English Premier League - largely considered the other greatest league in the world - just four points separate the three leading Premier League clubs, while below them, nine points separate the next five teams.

Spain's duopoly envelops the country. Fans of every other club will have a preference for Barca or Real. They will watch their own team, but also the two giants on television. It's not just the smaller clubs. For decades, Sevilla fans were honoured to be considered a Real feeder club - until their side started beating them. Espanyol fans will link with Real fans against Barca. Unlike in England, where media money is shared, television contracts are drawn up along club, rather than league lines, so the market dictates that Barca's TV revenue is 100 times that of Xerez. Yet Xerez are supposed to challenge.

The gap is growing. Deportivo la Coruna and Valencia won the league in the past decade. Now it's inconceivable that a team outside the big two will do this, because the rich are getting richer and the rest are getting left behind. Madrid's budget is four times that of Atletico, the third highest-spending club. Barca and Real fans are not unduly concerned. It suits them fine to worry about just one opponent, not that the life is being strangled out of Spain's top division.

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