With Real Madrid's 0-1 loss to Real Betis last night, Barcelona have a great opportunity to go up 11 points on their rivals with a win away to Levante. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid could go up 8 points over their city rivals, and possibly tie Barcelona on points, with a win versus Sevilla.
This was not supposed to happen, but then again, Real Madrid are never supposed to lose. In all of the last La Liga season, Real only lost two games. But with a shock 1-0 defeat away to Real Betis, Los Blancos have already been beaten three times this season, and we're still pretty far from the halfway point.
Betis, despite sitting a respectable sixth coming in, were not considered powerhouses by any stretch. They had lost three out of their last four matches, including a 1-5 walloping in their local derby with Sevilla in just the previous fixture.
Suspensions and injury along the defensive line made them look shaky on paper. SBNation's Managing Madrid blog said in their match preview (not unreasonably at all) that "it's hard to find an [sic] scenario in which Real Madrid doesn't score more than one goal" against Betis.
Hard as it was, Betis found it. With an early goal from Beñat in the bag, Betis defended admirably. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lacked precision.
Mesut Ozil disappointed Jose Mourinho, who sent Kaka and Luka Modric to warm up in the first half and replaced the German not so long after. Cristiano Ronaldo was invisible for large stretches of play, lacking his usual fearsome form. Karim Benzema was perhaps their brightest player again, though he wasn't at his best either. Angel di Maria in particular was awful, and apparently assisted Beñat's goal with a wild clearance from the wing that dropped towards the middle for the Betis player.
In the post-match interviews, Mourinho placed some blame on the referee (no surprise there), which was somewhat warranted, as the ref made some questionable decisions. But in fairness, he also made some decisions against Betis, and refereeing decisions on balance over a season tend to even out at worst for Madrid.
At the same time Mou knew, and probably most Madrid fans know too, that the team's performance simply wasn't enough for the quality of the players.
Things could become even more complicated for Mourinho's men as their next match in the league will be against Atletico de Madrid, sitting second. Atletico themselves have a chance to go up 8 points on their city rivals, with a key win against Sevilla. That, and a victory in the local derby, would put Atletico up 11 and their fans in dreamland.
Ah, Atletico. It wasn't that long ago when I wondered on this blog if they could really challenge the top two in Spain for La Liga. They promptly lost their next match. Blogger's curse?
Still, they soldiered on. And despite Radamel Falcao cooling off a bit (he hasn't scored in six matches), Atletico are in fine position. Clearly, they need Falcao in good form to have any hope of challenging for the title, but at the same time they have proven that they have a fine team from top to bottom.
Frequently referred to as "dirty", they are certainly physical and not scared of anybody, least of all some soft rich team from a posh city. They certainly made it difficult last time Barca arrived, winning 1-0 for the majority of the game before a Lionel Messi brace rescued the result for Los Cules.
David Villa will miss the match as a precaution, and even Victor Valdes experienced some discomfort in training (although he will play). Barcelona hope that with Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol back, the defense will look a bit more solid, but there is no guarantee of a clean sheet this season.
And let's not forget that Atletico can catch up, in points at least, with Barcelona this matchday. It would not be that surprising at this point.
So despite Real Madrid's poor showing setting up Barcelona all alone in front of goal, Los Cules have gained nothing yet. A loss of focus at this stage would be terrible. Tito Vilanova will have to do his best to keep the team mentally sharp.