Real slip-up could hand Barca title

MADRID - As Barcelona close on a third successive La Liga title, Real Madrid's attention is turning to next season and a future that seems certain to include Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho has been questioned in some quarters both for his conservative tactics in the Champions League semi-final first-leg defeat by Barcelona and his outburst that followed at the Bernabeu.

Real president Florentino Perez has a notorious lack of patience with coaches but even though the Champions League, and almost certainly the domestic league, have proved elusive in his first season Mourinho can boast a tangible record of progress.

He has landed one major trophy after Real saw off Barcelona in the King's Cup final and reaching the Champions League semi-finals was a significant achievement given that the club had not made it beyond the second round in six previous seasons.

Support for the former Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan boss is likely to remain solid from the club and the Portuguese won high praise from Real's honorary president Alfredo Di Stefano.

"Real may not be in the (Champions League) final but all the club's values have been reinforced in the duels against Barcelona," Di Stefano wrote in sports daily Marca on Thursday.

"A squad of enormous quality, a corps of star players, tactical order on the pitch, sportsmanship among the players, effort and commitment, and a coach with charisma and personality."

It is a noteworthy vote of confidence from a huge figure at the club who has not been slow in the recent past to criticise Real's safety-first brand of football under Mourinho.

According to media reports in Spain, Real have already started to work on the squad for the new campaign, with the futures of Kaka and loan signing Emmanuel Adebayor top of the agenda.

Barcelona could celebrate their passage to the Champions League final by wrapping up the title as early as this Sunday.

Pep Guardiola's side, who face Manchester United in Europe's showpiece final at Wembley on May 28, are eight points clear with four matches to play, leaving Real to make up an unlikely nine points given that Barca have the head-to-head advantage.

A draw at the Nou Camp against city rivals Espanyol could be enough to give them the title if Real get beaten away to Sevilla on Saturday.

Real head off to the Sanchez Pizjuan without suspended defender Ricardo Carvalho and winger Angel di Maria looking to end their worst run of the season, two defeats and a draw.

Valencia and Villarreal, third and fourth respectively, have secured Spain's last two Champions League qualification places barring major slip ups, though Europa League semi-finalists Villarreal could yet steal the last automatic slot.

Valencia, who have 63 points, host Real Sociedad on Saturday and Villarreal, 60 points, visit Real Mallorca on Sunday.

Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, tied on 52 points and Athletic Bilbao, who are one point back in seventh, are in pole position for the three Europa League places.

Sevilla take on Real without injured midfielder Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian international, who has been one of their leading players in the second half of the campaign, is to have surgery on a broken bone in his foot.

Atletico host improving Malaga on Saturday and Bilbao are at home to outsiders for the Europa League positions Levante.

RELEGATION BATTLE

The relegation battle still has many twists and turns left in it and sees some direct clashes this weekend.

Bottom club Almeria (26 points) only avoided the drop last week due to their superior head-to-head record over Deportivo La Coruna who are 12 points ahead of them in 17th, while Hercules also appear to be doomed in 19th with 33.

However, the next six clubs, Getafe, Deportivo, Osasuna, Real Zaragoza, Malaga and 13th-placed Racing Santander are only separated by three points.

Getafe, who host Almeria on Saturday, are 18th with 37 points and are only one point from safety, but have suffered five defeats from their last six outings.

Hercules are at home to Racing on Saturday and 16th-placed Osasuna (38 points) visit 15th-placed Zaragoza (39 points) in the last game of the weekend on Sunday.

"I like to work out the maths but I'm having to throw it away. We can't think about results only about ourselves," Osasuna midfielder Fernando Soriano told reporters.

"We are all hoping Sunday comes quickly because having to wait is the worst."


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