La Liga – Barcelona go eight clear
Barcelona extended their lead at the top of La Liga to eight points after late goals from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi gave them a 2-0 home win over Real Madrid in Juande Ramos’s first game as manager.
Barcelona are now eight points clear of Valencia at the top of the table. Real though are 12 points behind the leaders in fifth and could slip down to seventh if results go against them on Sunday.
Cameroon striker Eto’o poked the ball over the line after Carles Puyol headed a corner back across goal on 83 minutes.
Messi sealed the win in injury-time after Madrid over-committed men forward and Thierry Henry surged down the right before picking out his strike partner, who lofted the ball deftly over Iker Casillas and beyond the desperate lunge of Fabio Cannavaro.
The result further diminished Madrid’s hopes of launching a title bid and proved that, for all their pretty football, Pep Guardiola’s side have the mental strength to grind out wins in big matches.
Until the first goal, Madrid keeper Iker Casillas had turned in a man-of-the-match performance – including a penalty save from Eto’o – as Madrid’s oft-criticised defence put their bodies on the line in a desperate attempt to kick-start their floundering domestic season.
Barcelona started the game at a frantic pace and the pre-match nine-point difference between the sides was clear as Real Madrid found themselves launching a rearguard action from the whistle.
That did not stop the diminutive playmaker from giving Madrid a torrid time. In the fifth minute he escaped from Cannavaro and Sergio Ramos to drill a low shot across goal that Iker Casillas did well to parry one-handed.
Henry went close with a drive into the side netting and Real had Cannavaro to thank when he manfully blocked Messi after a slick one-two with Eto’o.
All this was before the eighth minute and while Barca’s tempo did slow they still had the lion’s share of possession.
Yaya Toure and Eric Abidal were almost unlikely scorers for Los Cules but they were denied by desperate defending from the visitors, while Henry saw another shot blocked.
Despite Barca’s dominance, Real actually created two of the best chances of the opening 45 minutes.
Before he was replaced for clearly not being fully-fit after injury, a Wesley Sneijder shot forced Victor Valdes to tip the ball onto the bar, while Drenthe should have scored when he raced clear of Daniel Alves but was denied by a brave Valdes save.
Referee Luis Medina Cantalejo lost patience with Madrid’s physical approach and there was a flurry of yellow cards shown towards the end of the first half.
The first part of Madrid’s job was done though, with Barca frustrated at half-time.
The second period started in a similar fashion. Barcelona controlled possession and created chance after chance but twice Eto’o could not capitalise on Messi’s delivery.
Their game-plan also began to take its toll on the Catalan side. As the game progressed Barca misplaced passes, went for extended spells without instigating a passing move and failed to create chances with the same frequency.
Their frustration spilled over and Rafael Marquez was fortunate not to pick up a second yellow card when he slid late into Raul.
But 20 minutes into the second half, Los Cules found their rhythm again. Suddenly Real were not getting a sniff as their hosts pummelled the Madrid penalty area and were only denied by some phenomenal goalkeeping.
Casillas is the best keeper in Spain and arguably the top shot-stopper in the world and he pulled off a superb 70th-minute penalty save from Eto’o after Salgado brought down Sergio Busquets.
Two minutes later he made a quite incredible double stop from Eto’o and Messi, who thought he had an open goal after his team-mate’s low shot was kept out by the Spain keeper.
But it was not to be for Juande Ramos and Real’s defence were caught ball-watching when Puyol rose to head the ball into the six-yard box.
Eto’o got a faint touch on the ball, which seemed to cross the line in slow motion as young substitute Miguel Palanca failed to clear the ball.
Real were broken and, as they send men forward in a desperate attempt to grab an equaliser, they afforded Henry the freedom of the right wing to pick out Messi, who had the last laugh in the face of his earlier aggressors.