Real Madrid hoped the January appointment of club legend Zinedine Zidane would give their side fresh impetus to challenge Barcelona.
Insiders said that the majority of players had not really bought into Rafa Benitez being coach, that they were too negative once they had taken a lead, that the football played by the Madrileno who had played and worked at Real Madrid simply was not up to the standards expected by the demanding Bernabeu crowd.
Read more from Andy Mitten:
[ Barcelona, top of the world, are top dogs Arsenal can only hope to be lucky against ]
[ Uefa Champions League last 16: ‘True unit’ Atletico Madrid just a level above PSV ]
It was hoped that Zidane would change all that quickly by giving his side more freedom. It has not happened.
Zidane’s Madrid remain formidable at home, where they have won all four games and scored 20 goals, but they have won only one of four away, scoring only four.
Zidane deserves time at a club which tends not to give it to mould the team how he wants it. But Madrid continue to make the same mistakes; they are not as strong as they should be at the back. Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored and then missed a penalty at Malaga for which he was chided on social media by former Barcelona president Joan Laporta, is not replicating the form of previous seasons.
Madrid have gone from being two points behind Barca when Zidane was appointed to being nine adrift. No team has ever made up such as gap with 13 games to go and with one of those games being at Camp Nou still, that is too much for most in the Madrid media to stomach.
“Depressing,” said Madrid-supporting journalist and cheerleader Tomas Roncero. “This is starting to get truly exasperating. For any dyed-in-the-wool Madridista, these are times that are tough to take. When I was a kid, my Real Madrid would pursue the league title with the ferocity of a pack of wolves. And if you think they were a side boasting the latest Ballon d’Or holder and with coffers bursting with pesetas, then think again.”
Zidane and his players claim that the league is still worth fighting for, that it remains their focus as much as winning an 11th European Cup, but they will have to overcome a Barca team unbeaten in 32 matches.
Barca’s run is incredible, but they are not playing to their full potential every week and struggled to overcome Las Palmas on Saturday, but as the 41-goal Luis Suarez said after the match: “We suffered but those are the games that win you titles.”
Madrid are drawing rather than winning those games and the Catalans would need to blow up badly to allow Zidane’s charges – or Atletico Madrid, in second place – to overhaul them. With both Madrid teams drawing at the weekend, it was a great set of results for Barca.
Credit should also go to Malaga, who Madrid have failed to beat this season and last. They played so well that goalkeeper Keylor Navas was man of the match. At the start of December, Malaga were 18th and had won only two of their 13 games. Relations between their Qatari owners, led by Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, the city council and fans were strained.
The city council voted to remove Al Thani’s name from a roundabout they had named after him and there were doubts about Malaga’s finances. They did not have a shirt sponsor, nor money for transfers, but they have been one of Spain’s form teams since under Javi Gracia, the 45-year-old former Real Sociedad midfielder who is already managing his ninth team.
The Malaga team which drew with Madrid cost less than €2 million (Dh8m), the days of their 2011 largesse long gone with the Qatari project downscaled and their annual wage bill cut from €150 million in 2011/12 to €38 million last season, though Malaga fans loved the ride which took them to the Uefa Champions League last eight in 2013.
Now, survival is the priority, both as a club and in La Liga. Home support remains strong and Malaga have risen to 12th, only seven points off a European spot. They will have a tough game at in-form Real Sociedad on Saturday.
Madrid’s home form has been impressive under Zidane, but on Saturday it will face a tough test against Atletico.
Three wins in a row for Gary Neville at Valenica, but there is still a huge job to do
Valencia won three games in succession for the first time in a year with a 2-1 win at bottom of the table Granada. Gary Neville's record as manager now reads played 20, won seven, drawn seven, lost six, hardly warranting the pernicious abuse he received a couple of weeks ago when his injury-hit young side looked like they were facing a relegation battle.
Valencia’s five first-half goals against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League on Thursday gave their confidence a huge lift. Bringing in Paco Ayestaran, who worked with Rafa Benitez at Liverpool, as a coach seems to have helped too. Neville wanted an experienced Spanish coach who knew the Spanish league inside out, and he has that. Ayestaran also speaks English, which will help until Neville’s Spanish is conversational. He is having classes every day.
The wins are buying Neville time. He knows he has got a big job to do and he is prepared to do it, but while he has got a good relationship with owner Peter Lim, Neville staying in charge of Valencia would be a hard sell to supporters if the team were not winning. Now, they are.
There is much work to do. Valencia did not play particularly well at Granada, just as they did not when they won there in the Copa del Rey. Several of the players are not good enough to play for Valencia. They cost too much; Valencia recruited poorly last season, yet Neville also has some real gems.
Portuguese playmaker Andre Gomes, 22, is a magnificent player. Signed from Benfica in 2014, Valencia have already turned down offers for him. He is still improving and needs to add goals to his repertoire. Five in 50 for Valencia should be at least 10 in 50. He needs to make more assists, too. His passing will improve with age. He lost the ball in central midfield which led to Barcelona scoring the first of their seven goals at Camp Nou at the start of the month, yet Gomes still has the quality to play for one of the best teams in the world one day. It will be interesting to see if Valencia can resist offers for him.
Gomes showed his level when he stood out recently as Valencia held Real Madrid. He strides forward, his powerful physique making him a similar type of player to Frank Lampard or Michael Ballack. He is hungry to improve, an intelligent young man who speaks three languages. He is pleasant around the training ground, where his professionalism is exemplarily; Gomes never stops running and his vision impresses.
If Neville is to stay, then he must make keeping Gomes a priority and utilise the powerful talent who looks so impressive when he moves towards the opposition goal. The Portuguese international is good enough to become the focal point of the team.
Game of the week
It is hard to look beyond the Madrid derby, but it will be interesting to see if Valencia can maintain their good form against an Athletic Bilbao side who are likely to provide sterner opponents than any of the teams they have beaten in the last three games. Barcelona v Sevilla should be engrossing, too. Sevilla were the last side to beat them, five months ago.
Player of the week
Keylor Navas was superb for Real Madrid in Malaga. He needs to be like that every week if he is to stop Madrid going for David de Gea again in the summer. Madrid like the idea of having Spain’s best goalkeeper in their team, even if it is at the expense of the Costa Rican Navas.
Atletico Madrid and Villarreal have the best two defences in La Liga, so it was no surprise that their weekend game ended 0-0. Atletico have conceded only 11 all season. It was their 100th clean sheet in 194 Spanish domestic league and cup games under Diego Simeone. Atletico are second, but have not won against any of the other top-four teams this season, meaning they are unlikely to repeat their 2014 title success. If you want to be the best then you have to beat the best.
Rayo Vallencano held Sevilla at home and are now unbeaten in six and four points clear of the relegation zone. It would be a shame to lose one of Spain's most entertaining sides and most authentic clubs to the second division.
Impressive and unlucky against Valencia in the previous week, Espanyol won their first La Liga game since December with a victory against Deportivo La Coruna. The win keeps them four points clear of the relegation zone.
Levante got a first win of the year to move off the bottom of the table.
Jonathas's superb goalscoring form continued with a wonder strike for Real Sociedad in the Basque derby at San Mames. Sociedad have found form for the first time in three years and risen to 10th.
The Copa del Rey final between Barca and Sevilla has been conformed for Sunday, May 22 at Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon. That is the sensible option. "In a word, fantastic," said Barcelona coach Luis Enrique.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport