Back to business for Barcelona

The winter break is unlikely to derail what seems a stroll to the title for Catalans

Former Barça defender Éric Abidal embraces Tito Vilanova on the latter's return to work.
Former Barça defender Éric Abidal embraces Tito Vilanova on the latter's return to work. GERMAN PARGA (EFE)

The winter break is over and for most teams it was a welcome chance to repose and recharge tired batteries after a frantic end to the first half of the season. But Barcelona is not most teams.

"We're playing well and everything is working great, so it's a shame there's the Christmas break now," said Xavi before La Liga shut down for the festive season. "You never know whether a break is going to help or hinder you [...] it's a shame because we are going so well."

Indeed. A full 16 points clear of Real Madrid, Barcelona has more or less wrapped up the title with 21 games to go. Of course there is always the possibility that the Catalan club's serene stroll to the title can be derailed, but it looks increasingly unlikely due to Barcelona's effortless superiority. Real Madrid managed a 2-2 tie in the first clásico of the season, and that has so far proved to be the only points dropped by its arch-rival: 16 wins in 17 games. And there is little to suggest Barcelona cannot go the season undefeated. Its nearest challenger, Atlético, was swatted aside two match days ago and another potential banana skin was avoided at Valladolid last time out.

During the same period Real was held by Espanyol and beaten by Málaga. And it is precisely for former that will have first tilt at chucking a spanner in the works of Barcelona's windmill at Camp Nou on Sunday. On paper the tie is a gimme; three points for the home side. But paper form is never to be trusted in derby matches. Four seasons ago an Espanyol side in relegation trouble and with a new coach in place traveled to Camp Nou and pulled off a famous victory.

A similar Espanyol will visit this weekend. In the drop zone since the third week of the season, the Cornellà club parted company with Mauricio Pochettino, the architect of the club's last win in Camp Nou, and brought in veteran Mexican schemer Javier Aguirre. Cue an upturn in results that included pegging back Real in the Bernabéu. In the last six meetings between the sides the points have been shared twice. It's not much to hang on to, but maybe Espanyol will catch Barça cold after the Christmas holidays. Tito Vilanova will be back in the dugout for the home side after successful surgery to remove a tumor.

At Real Madrid at the moment the focus is more on off-field affairs than matters on the turf. None is under the spotlight more than the dropping of Iker Casillas for the defeat to Málaga. Mourinho once famously quipped "God, and after God, me," but benching Saint Iker was an act of sacrilege few in the Bernabéu will appreciate.

It's unlikely Mourinho will present himself to the crowd 40 minutes early when Real Sociedad comes to town on Sunday, as he did in the derby with Atlético. If they want to boo, let them boo me, was the challenge.

Anything other than a thumping victory is going to raise questions over whether Mourinho will last the season, and anybody other than Casillas between the sticks might bring things to a head long before then. With practically no domestic sporting value to this contest or the next 20 to come for the home side, the Mourinho show is the main attraction in Madrid at the moment.

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