Barcelona win, Lionel Messi scores. Real Madrid win, Cristiano Ronaldo scores.
Life continues as normal in La Liga, Spain’s premier football division, where the title race is entering the home straight.
But the championship is still Barcelona’s to lose — four points clear of their great rivals with just eight games left.
Barcelona waltzed to a routine 4-0 home win over Almeria on Wednesday, with Messi curling in a magnificent left-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area to open the scoring.
Real Madrid had a stiffer test in their local derby against Rayo Vallecano before second-half goals from Ronaldo and James Rodriguez secured the points.
It was the Portuguese international’s 300th goal for Real in 288 matches and put him just 23 goals behind the club’s record goalscorer Raul, who took 741 matches to reach a tally of 323 goals.
However, Real picked up five yellow cards, making Ronaldo, Rodriguez and Toni Kroos ineligible for their next league fixture.
Ronaldo was booked for a dive in the penalty area when he appeared to slip as he was being tackled. He protested with the customary melodrama, and he had a point. At least Los Blancos’ next league game is at home to little Eibar.
If Madrid harbor any hopes of overhauling their great rivals, it’s because they have a marginally easier run-in.
Both they and Barca play against Valencia at home and Sevilla away, two sides still chasing that lucrative final berth in next year’s European Champions League.
But Barcelona also have to visit third-place Atletico Madrid in their penultimate game of the season.
If by then Real have closed the gap, it will be a nerve-wracking affair for Barca fans.
Their side has a superior goal difference but that will count for nothing if Barcelona and Real are level on points after the final round of matches on May 24th — because the title will be decided on their head-to-head record, which favors Real.
The top two also have to balance domestic requirements with the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and that’s where Real will come up against their cross-town rivals Atletico in a repeat of last year’s final.
It will be a feisty affair, while Barcelona arguably have a more tactical battle against Paris Saint-Germain. For the top teams in Europe, the games come thick and fast at this stage of the season: injuries, suspensions and tactical rotations will all influence the outcome.
Besides the race for La Liga, there is also the undeclared contest between Ronaldo and Messi to finish as La Liga’s top scorer.
Messi has 33 goals. Ronaldo has scored 37, helped by no fewer than five goals against a depleted and relegation-threatened Granada last weekend. Carlos Bacca of Sevilla is a distant third on 17.
The quality of both Ronaldo and Messi is indisputable but some might argue it’s easier for them to find the net in Spain than if they were playing in England, Germany or Italy.
The statistics suggest it might be. Nothing can be taken for granted in the faster and more physical English Premier League.
Ask Manchester City, whose galaxy of international stars recently lost at Burnley and Crystal Palace, and were held at home by Hull City — all clubs in the bottom half of the table. And history shows Italian sides have miserly defenses.
It seems that scoring does come easier in Spain against more modest opposition.
The top four teams have averaged 2.38 goals a game so far this season (including Wednesday’s games,) with Barcelona and Real Madrid averaging an astonishing 2.9 goals per game. In England the top four have scored an average 1.95 goals, in Germany’s Bundesliga 2.04, and in Italy’s Serie A it’s a meager 1.67.
Do the maths another way. In Spain, the bottom ten have let in an average 1.65 goals a game, almost the same average for the bottom half of the Bundesliga table (1.68).
Clubs in the bottom half of the English Premier League have conceded only 1.49 goals a game on average, and it would be somewhat less if not for the defensive generosity of Queens Park Rangers. In Italy, where the bottom three have all shipped more than 50 goals, it’s still only 1.52.
Of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Barcelona have built a side around Messi, which perhaps explains Luis Suarez’ slow start in a Barca shirt (though he’s knocking them in now.)
Meanwhile, Real have Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale as well as Ronaldo but regular viewers will know how much the team revolves around the Portugal captain.
The gap between football’s rich and poor in Europe continues to grow as the big clubs enjoy television and other revenues from European competition, and massive sponsorship deals, while lesser clubs sell talent to survive.
But again in Spain it’s more pronounced than elsewhere: 12 of La Liga’s 20 clubs have stadiums whose capacity is less than 35,000. Poor Rayo Vallecano can only squeeze in 15,000, Eibar barely 5,000.
Last year (2013-2014 season) 76 clubs in Europe had average attendances for league matches of more than 25,000 fans, according to data collated by worldfootball.net.
Barcelona and Real Madrid were, of course, in the top five but the next best-placed Spanish club was Atletico Madrid, in 17th place. Looking at the top 50 clubs by home attendance, there were 13 German teams, 11 English, 6 Italian and 5 Spanish clubs.
By any standard, the gap between the top and the bottom in La Liga is stark — perhaps to the detriment of club football here, not that Messi and Ronaldo mind.