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Barcelona look for proof of progress against runaway leaders Real Madrid

MADRID (AFP) – The Clasico tomorrow will likely have very little bearing on the current season for either Barcelona or Real Madrid – but it should set the tone for the next one.

Atletico Madrid’s limp title defence, Sevilla’s late fade and Barca’s miserable start have all helped ensure Real Madrid, now 10 points clear at the top of La Liga, will almost certainly be crowned champions in May.

Those hoping for a dramatic finish have wondered if a comeback could yet be possible given Barca’s recent surge and Carlo Ancelotti has been trying to play down the idea the league is already won.

Asked on Monday, after their victory over Mallorca, how Real Madrid could ever lose the league from here, Ancelotti said: “How do you lose a Champions League final when you are 3-0 up? It happened to me once. I hope it doesn’t happen again.”

All logic, though, suggests the league is over, regardless of the result tomorrow. Even if they beat Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and win their game in hand, Barcelona would be nine points behind Madrid, with nine games left to go. To close the gap would require both Barca having a faultless finish and, more improbably, Madrid suffering a collapse, that for a solid and experienced outfit seems entirely inconceivable on the basis of what has gone so far.

“Winning La Liga will be very difficult,” said Xavi Hernandez last weekend after Barcelona’s win over Osasuna. “You can’t rule it out but we can’t be optimistic.”

The more tangible rewards on offer for the victor this weekend will be either Real Madrid tightening their grip on the trophy or Barcelona entrenching their place in the top four, with their chances of pipping Sevilla to second already growing by the week.

More significant, though, will be the impact the result has on how this season is viewed, which could in turn be hugely influential on how both clubs approach the summer.

For Barcelona, a win at the Bernabeu would put some substantial evidence behind the theory this team is ready to challenge again, certainly in Spain, even if not yet with the richest and most powerful clubs in Europe.

After the final days of Ronald Koeman, who increasingly saw the club’s crippling debts as an excuse for resignation and pessimism over poor results, Xavi has transformed the mood.

He took over with Barca lying ninth and they now sit third. They have not lost since December and have won their last four in a row, scoring 14 goals in the process.

Ousmane Dembele is reintegrated and revived. Pedri and Gavi have been superb. Even fringe players like Memphis Depay, Riqui Puig and Luuk de Jong have contributed.

The January signings have been decisive too, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres scoring 11 goals between them since the end of the transfer window.

“Auba has been a gift from heaven,” Xavi said last weekend.

If La Liga began on January 1, Barcelona would be top, which prompts the question: where would they be if Xavi had been appointed sooner?

Before Xavi’s first game on the bench back in November, Barca drew to Celta Vigo and Alaves, after losing to Rayo Vallecano. If they had won even just two of those, the title race might now be salvageable.

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