Barcelona setback spices up title race

MADRID - A weakened team, an inspired Atletico Madrid and a jinx at the Calderon were the principal conclusions drawn after Barcelona suffered their first defeat of the La Liga season.

The Catalans' 21-match unbeaten run came to an end with a 2-1 reverse against Atletico on Sunday, allowing their arch-rivals Real Madrid to close to within two points at the top of the standings.

"La Liga enters a new dimension because any error from the champions now could prove fatal. For the run-in to the end of the season (16 games) the pressure will be constant," wrote Barcelona-based El Periodico on Monday.

Barcelona were deprived of five first-team defenders through injury and suspension which led to young winger Jeffren starting at right back.

"The makeshift starting XI was a handicap...and in the opening minutes Seydou Keita suffered an muscle injury that forced him off," Mundo Deportivo said.

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"What's worrying more than the defeat is the rash of injuries in the squad."

Atletico made the most of their unfamiliarity at the back to race into a two-goal lead through Diego Forlan and Simao Sabrosa and Barca struggled to get back into the game.

"We found it harder than usual to generate chances because of the great work done by Atletico. We lacked the control that allows us to play our game," Barca coach Pep Guardiola said, refusing to make excuses about missing players.

"Now Real Madrid have their destiny in their own hands, but so do we. There is still a long way to go."


Barça president Joan Laporta remained in good spirits, saying: "We have to face up to adversity, especially the injuries, but we are aware this can happen when a team is trying to win everything.

"We remain leaders and my counterpart at Atletico reminded me that every time we lose here we go on to win the league."

Barça have won only once on their last eight league visits to the Calderon, the last time being three years ago when Real lifted the title.

They still have to visit the Bernabeu at the beginning of April, and hold a 1-0 advantage in head-to-head meetings from their victory at the Nou Camp in November.

For Atletico Madrid, the result crowned a superb week as they qualified for the King's Cup final and then downed the league leaders to climb to 11th.

President Enrique Cerezo said Atletico could still play a part in the title race by breaking a run of 10 years without a win against city rivals Real Madrid, to give Barça a hand for a change.

"Real always start the league with a nine-point advantage. The six they take from us and the three we take off Barça," he joked.

"We are the first to have beaten the world champions and we still have to visit the Bernabeu."