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Football | Spain

Lionel Messi and Ronaldo © Reuters Images

How the La Liga title race looks



Where Barcelona are 13 points clear of second-placed champions Real Madrid and on course for a fourth title in five years with nine games to play.

Top Four Standings Played Points

1. Barcelona 29 75

2. Real Madrid 29 62

3. Atletico Madrid 29 61

4. Real Sociedad 29 48

Last season's top four finish:

1. Real Madrid 100; 2. Barcelona 91; 3. Valencia 61; 4.Malaga 58

Remaining key fixtures:

With both 'Clasicos' out of the way - Barca drew 2-2 at home to Real in October and lost 2-1 at the Bernabeu last month -Barca merely need to avoid a meltdown to secure the title.

Their trickiest-looking fixtures are at Atletico Madrid onMay 12 and at home to fellow Champions League hopefuls Malaga on June 1, the final matchday of the campaign when they should have already clinched Spain's domestic league crown.

Atletico could challenge Real - whom they meet in May's King's Cup final - for second spot with their city rivals distracted by their bid for a 10th European title, which has eluded the club since 2002.

The battle for fourth place and a berth in Champions League qualifying looks to be between Sociedad, Malaga and Valencia, with Real Betis and Getafe in with an outside chance.

Levante and Sevilla could still make it into the Europa League with a late surge.

Analysis:

Far from losing their cutting edge following the exit of coach Pep Guardiola, Barca set a new points record for the first half of the campaign of 55 from a possible 57 to storm 11 points clear of Atletico and 18 ahead of stuttering champions Real at the top of the standings.

Appointing Guardiola's assistant and close friend Tito Vilanova to replace him proved a wise decision and resulted in a smooth transition helped by the return of zippy left back Jordi Alba, a Barca youth academy product, from Valencia.

Real's title defence, by contrast, got off to a woeful start when they lost two and drew one of their opening four matches, although they did manage a draw in October's 'Clasico' at the Nou Camp.

A steady stream of media reports detailing alleged rifts between combative coach Jose Mourinho and various members of the squad did little to ease the tension, while Cristiano Ronaldo's revelation that he was unhappy prompted speculation Real's top scorer might seek an exit.

Mourinho acknowledged his expensively assembled squad appeared to lack motivation against the lesser teams and they were also afflicted by the 'curse of Andalusia'.

Four of their five defeats have come in the southern Spanish region - against Sevilla, Granada, Malaga and Real Betis – and they squandered a 1-0 halftime lead in a shock 2-1 reverse at city neighbours Getafe at the end of August.

While Barca's campaign has again been fired by the incredible goal-scoring exploits of World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Real have been forced to rely more heavily than last term on Ronaldo.

The Portuguese's strike partners Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain have had a relatively barren run with only 19 goals between them compared with 31 at the same stage last season.

Messi already has 43 goals - almost half of Barca's total of 90 - and is closing in on his record of 50 set in the 2011-12 campaign. Ronaldo trails on 28, five less than he had after 29 matches last season.

Barca stumbled as the second half of the campaign got underway and they were stunned by the news that Vilanova needed more treatment for cancer and would be leaving for New York.

They began with a 3-2 defeat at Sociedad in January and have since lost 2-1 at Real and drawn at Valencia and Celta Vigo.

Real had, however, effectively given up on the title and turned all their attention to the Champions League, the club's and Mourinho's great obsession.

They managed to dump Barca out of the King's Cup with a fine performance at the Nou Camp in late February only days before beating them in the league.

But it appears to be far too late for Mourinho's men to catch their great rivals, whom they may still meet in the semifinals of the Champions League.

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