La Liga in focus: One slip – whether Man City, Barca, or Atleti – and Real Madrid will pounce


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Manuel Pellegrini returns to the club where he never stood a chance on Wednesday. The outgoing Manchester City manager, who remains very popular in Spain after successful spells with Villarreal and Malaga and a dignified season at the Bernabeu, felt undone by the politics at Real Madrid.

He was in charge for just one season, in 2009/10, when Barcelona won everything under new coach Pep Guardiola. Pellegrini said: “I was proud to manage Madrid. But you must be able to accept that it’s not just a sporting club but a very political one too.

“If one lets people interfere that have no knowledge, if one lets people debilitate oneself with criticism that comes from the political side, I don’t think that person is prepared for that role.”

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Pellegrini’s team finished second to Barcelona with 78 points. They have never picked up as few points since, but 76 points had been enough for them to win the title two seasons previous. Pellegrini, like Carlos Queiroz before him, felt his future was decided within a month of him being in the job by club president Florentino Perez; Madrid have used 26 coaches in the last 25 years. Losing 6-2 at home to Barcelona didn’t help his cause before he was dismissed, though.

Pellegrini has seldom shown his personality in England. He’s an intelligent, interesting man who has chosen not to fully engage with the media because that’s how his club wanted things after the blowouts seen under Roberto Mancini. Like his team on Wednesday evening, maybe he will choose an opportune time to come out of his shell again.

Pellegrini has done well to steer City into the last four of the Uefa Champions League for the first time; they had previously not been beyond the last 16. City held a surprisingly defensive Madrid in Manchester in the first leg, but that was a side without their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has missed the past three games with a thigh muscle injury.

The Portugal international is said to be desperate to play in the return leg. He trained with Real Madrid on Tuesday and Zinedine Zidane maintains that his star player is “100 per cent and ready to go”, but then he would say that. Fellow forward Karim Benzema was a notable absence from training and will not play, nor will influential midfielder Casemiro. Both Ronaldo and Benzema have been key players for Zidane, but Gareth Bale, the third part of their “BBC” strike force, has stepped up in their absence.

The Welshman, who is expected to start talking about a new contract with club officials soon, has been Madrid's best player the past month, an excellent period which started with a 2-1 win at Camp Nou in el clasico.

Before that, Madrid's season appeared finished, but Bale correctly called the league title still open after that game. Bale, with 19 goals in his past 20 league starts, has become a match winner with more responsibility. When the Welshman scored Madrid's winner in San Sebastian against Real Sociedad on Sunday, it was the first time Madrid had triumphed in a game without either Ronaldo or Benzema in their side since 2010. Bale accomplished that feat in a weakened side, too, for Madrid's priority is an 11th European Cup and because Zidane thinks that Barcelona will win all their remaining games and win the Primera Liga.

Bale was strong in the air and scored the headed winner with 10 minutes to play. Emboldened by increased confidence and support from the Bernabeu crowd, Bale is on the way to becoming Madrid’s talisman.

Three league defeats for Barcelona following el clasico helped realise Bale's league prediction, but the Catalans have steadied themselves and won their past three matches, the last an unconvincing performance against Real Betis in Sevilla's heat which was prompted by a half-time ticking off from Luis Enrique.

Barca still hold the advantage. Win their remaining two league games and they will be champions for the eighth time since 2005. Madrid have won the title three times since, yet they could still win two trophies this term.

Madrid have won 10 league games in a row to keep them in contention at the top of the table, though their performances haven’t been as spectacular as their results would suggest. They are still there, though, a point behind Atletico Madrid in second and Barca. All it takes is one slip, as Steven Gerrard or John Terry will attest, and Madrid are ready to pounce.

The same goes for Madrid against City. They will likely be less cautious than they were in Manchester, but Pellegrini is a man with a point to prove against his former employees. He claims that City are not going for a 0-0 draw, but to “attack, press and score because if we score, any draw favours us”. It has to be more exciting than the first leg.

Barcelona to pay tribute to ‘the voice of the Camp Nou’

Camp Nou will not be the same this weekend. Manel Vich, the distinctive and authoritative voice of the stadium’s PA system for 60 years, passed away on Friday age 78. He had only missed four games in six decades, two for surgery, one for his daughter’s wedding and the last home game against Sporting Gijon due to illness.

Vich first took to the microphone at Barcelona's old Les Corts stadium because the club had nobody to read the line-ups. For decades, he was only allowed to announce in Spanish while Spain was under the dictatorship of General Franco. Catalan was banned, but in 1972 he used it to announce: "A child is lost and waiting at the grandstand entrance." The use of Catalan drew a furious response from Tomas Garicano Goni from the Spanish government. Catalan was not used for announcements in the stadium for a further three years. Forty years later, he said: "It's an honour for me, after 40 years, to be able to carry on speaking my language, our language."

His distinctive: “Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the stadium” was a much-loved, familiar feature at Camp Nou.

See also:

• Reaction: Barcelona coach Luis Enrique hits out at critics: 'If you don't win 8-0, does it not count?'

• Gallery: Barcelona within striking distance of La Liga title following win

Vich, who claimed that he smoked a cigarette to make sure his voice was it its best, maintained that the most difficult name to pronounce was “Cruyff”. He pronounced it as requested by Johann, but the fans booed as they called him “Cruif”. He changed to the incorrect pronunciation from then on. Like the recently departed Dutchman, he will be sorely missed by Barca fans.

Barca will hold a minute’s silence before kick off against Espanyol in a huge derby game. Barca will be clear favourites against their neighbours who reversed their poor form with a 1-0 win at the weekend against Sevilla, who had made 11 changes from the side who had played in Ukraine three days previous. Sevilla still haven’t won away in the league in 2015/16.

Espanyol need a point to guarantee survival, but what unnerves Barca fans more than anything is the possibility of a repeat of their final home game of the 2006/07 season, also against Espanyol. Then Espanyol’s heroic striker Raul Tamudo scored twice in a 2-2 draw, the second in the 90th minute. It silenced Camp Nou and allowed Real Madrid to go top and win the title. Tamudo remains a hero to Espanyol fans to this day. Fans around Spain were convinced that Espanyol had been paid a bonus by Madrid. It happens in Spain and few would be surprised if it happened on Sunday, though Atletico Madrid would stand to benefit more if Barca don’t win.

Barca hope that Espanyol won’t be silencing them again and think it shouldn’t have come to this, because, as Gerard Pique said: “We had the league won; now we have to go and win it again. And if we do win it like this now, we will celebrate twice as much.”

But first, that pre-match silence for Vich. Sadly, he won’t be able to call for it.

Player of the week

Ruben Rochina was considered a little too cocksure when he was at Barcelona and Blackburn Rovers. The forward was talented but inconsistent. Now 25 and in his second season at Granada, he appears to have matured. He was a goalscoring man of the match as Granada beat in-form Las Palmas 3-2 to lift them out of the relegation zone.

Game of the week

Aside from the Barcelona v Espanyol derby, Getafe v Sporting Gijon is the most important game. Both are on 35 points with two games to play and neither can afford a defeat. Relegated Levante will have less of a reason to beat Atletico Madrid at home, while Real Madrid are at home to Valencia.

What else?

• Villarreal on Wednesday travel to the airport on named after the man who co-wrote the song they took their nickname from. Villarreal, also known as the Yellow Submarine, will arrive at Liverpool John Lennon Airport ahead of their Europa League semi-final second leg on Thursday.

Liverpool players were irked by the celebrations of their Villarreal counterparts after their 92nd-minute winner in the opening leg and are feeling vengeful in what is sure to be a very vocal Anfield. Villarreal’s hopes of progressing were lifted farther by a 2-0 win at neighbours Valencia in La Liga at the weekend, despite many changes to Marcelino Garcia Toral’s side, which saw them confirm fourth place this season to secure a chance to compete in the Champions League next term.

These are great times for Villarreal.

• Bilbao Athletic, the second team of Athletic Bilbao, did really well to reach Spain’s second tier this season. They are the only top-flight team with a side in Segunda, but life has been tough for the Basques. They are going straight back down, but the players will have learnt from the experience.

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