MADRID - Real Madrid's shock 1-0 defeat
at home to Sporting Gijon on Saturday and Barcelona's victory by
the same scoreline at Villarreal brought a third consecutive La
Liga title firmly within the Catalan club's reach.
With eight games left, Barca have an eight-point advantage
over their great rivals, whom they thrashed 5-0 at the Nou Camp
in November, and their run-in to the end of the season looks
significantly less challenging on paper.
Real host Barca in two weeks, a few days before they clash
in the King's Cup final, and then have tough away games at
Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal.
Apart from Real and fifth-placed Espanyol, Barca's other six
opponents are all in the lower reaches of the standings.
Coach Pep Guardiola, who has engineered league triumphs in
his first two seasons with Barca and victory over Real in all
five "Clasicos" he has contested, warned against complacency
after the Villarreal game and said sport was capable of
producing big surprises.
"If you declare yourself champion with an eight-point lead
and eight games left you can only lose the league," the
40-year-old former Barca and Spain midfielder told a news
"In the end the league is only won when it is won," he
added. "We have some terribly difficult matches coming up.
"Madrid is always Madrid and they will fight to the end."
Barca beat Villarreal, who surrendered third place to
Valencia as a result, without suspended playmaker Xavi.
Guardiola also rested joint La Liga top scorer Lionel Messi
after an injury scare on duty with Argentina, only bringing him
off the bench in the second half.
Spain defender Gerard Pique scored the crucial goal in the
67th minute when he controlled a Sergio Busquets flick from a
corner on his chest and lashed the ball into the net from close
range, sparking wild celebrations from the Barca bench.
"We got the better of the third-placed team and made them
run," Guardiola said.
"We didn't have that many chances but we were more concerned
with controlling the game. It was a great win."
Barca have 81 points from 30 games and host relegation
threatened Almeria next weekend. Real, who play at Athletic
Bilbao, have 73 points.
Both clubs are in Champions League quarter-final action
midweek and if they progress to the last four will meet home and
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