Barcelona’s chances of winning the Spanish title looked doomed on Saturday after a 0-0 draw in the local derby with Espanyol.
“We haven’t thrown in the towel but we need to win the next matches and I’m going to motivate them to win the next game,” said Barca coach Frank Rijkaard.
Despite dominating the game for long periods, the Spanish giants failed to find the net in their Nou Camp stadium thanks to a combination of poor finishing and solid defending from Espanyol.
“It’s a disappointment because we had chances, we didn’t score but we also had some bad luck. But we did try everything we could to get a goal,” added Rijkaard, whose men have drawn their last three league games.
Real Madrid now have an eight-point advantage over Barca at the top of the table and a game in hand.
The 30-time Spanish champions could have this season’s league title wrapped up by the time Barca visit the Santiago Bernabeu stadium for the latest edition of ‘El Clasico’ on May 7.
Barcelona had a purple patch in the middle of the first half but Xavi Hernandez, Gianluca Zambrotta and Samuel Eto’o couldn’t convert good opportunities.
Even the introduction of the often-inspirational Lionel Messi at half time failed to break the deadlock.
Barca pressed hard for almost the entire second half but were unable to break down a resilient Espanyol, marshalled by their in-form keeper Carlos Kameni.
Espanyol, for their part, ended a four-game losing streak.
La Liga leaders Real can extend their advantage to 11 points with five games remaining if they can win at Racing Santander on Sunday, although Real coach Bernd Schuster said that he would be happy with just a point.
“In recent weeks we have always been hunting for a victory but this time a draw would be good. A point at this stage in the season… I would be happy with that,” said Schuster on Saturday.
The German coach acknowledged that Racing could be difficult to beat in their own El Sardinero stadium.
Racing currently lie fifth in La Liga with ambitions of playing in Europe for the first time and a win over Real would see them move into the places for next season’s Champions League.
“They are a very well-organised team, well balanced in every area, and tough defensively. In attack they have four players with a lot of speed and force. Also, the support of their supporters is very important,” added Schuster.
Spanish international Sergio Ramos is expected to return for Real after his one-match ban and Fabio Cannavaro should be back in the centre of the defence after being rested in Real’s 1-0 win over Murcia last Sunday.
Real’s neighbours Atletico Madrid, who are currently fourth, put together one of their worst home performances of the season when they went down 3-1 to Real Betis.
Jose Mari Romero’s thunderbolt from the edge of the area after 14 minutes was only parried by Atletico goalkeeper Leo Franco and Juande Prados was in the right place at the right time to open the scoring for Betis.
Atletico equalised 11 minutes later thanks to a screaming shot from 25 metres out from Kun Aguero, the 16th goal of the season from the Argentine teenager.
However, Betis clinched their third consecutive away win thanks to second-half goals from Xisco Munoz and Jesus ‘Capi’ Capitan.
Sevilla’s chances of returning to the Champions League took a hit when they slumped to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Almeria, their worst loss at home for three seasons.
Dani Alves headed the ball into his own net midway through the first half to give Almeria the lead.
Things went from bad to worse after the break with Alvaro Negredo getting two goals and Juanma Ortiz another, before Fredi Kanoute got a consolation strike for Sevilla.
At the other end of the table, two goals from Brazilian striker Ricardo Oliveira helped relegation-threatened Real Zaragoza beat fellow strugglers Recreativo Huelva 3-0.
The result means that Zaragoza and Recreativo swap places with the former climbing out of the relegation zone and the latter slipping into the bottom three.
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