Out of Copa, Real Madrid turns to league championship chase

Pablo Barera (L) vies for the ball with Real Madrid winger Mesut Özil. (PHOTO EPA)

January 27, 2012, Friday/ 16:40:00

Eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Barcelona, Real Madrid will now turn its focus to breaking its rival’s three-year reign at the top of the Spanish league, beginning with a home game against last-place Zaragoza on Saturday.

 A win over struggling Zaragoza could increase Madrid’s lead to eight points over second-place Barcelona, which plays at Villarreal later in the day.

 Madrid captain Iker Casillas said his team has been bolstered by outplaying Barcelona during Wednesday’s 2-2 draw, even if the Catalan side advanced to the Copa del Rey semifinals.

 “We know we deserved more,” the Spain goalkeeper said. “We are sad but also happy with the image we gave. People were saying that Barca was a notch above us, but it is clear that the two teams are a lot closer.

 “Now we have to think about the league and the Champions League.”

 Despite remaining winless in its last nine visits under Jose Mourinho to Camp Nou Stadium, Madrid played its best game against the European champions since the arrival of the Portuguese coach two years ago.

 Madrid had several chances to go ahead before Barcelona scored two goals, and then fell one short of overturning the knockout series after a strong second-half comeback. Barcelona’s 2-1 victory in the first leg, when Madrid’s ultra-defensive stance backfired, proved decisive in ending Madrid’s hope of repeating as Copa del Rey champions.

 Mourinho’s future at the Spanish powerhouse has come under question after he was jeered by his fans last week when reports emerged of strife within the squad over the opening-leg game plan.

 But even after his team’s excellent attacking performance, the former Chelsea coach, who turned 49 on Thursday, was steadfast in his defense of his strategy.

 While not criticizing his coach’s decision making, Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso recognized that the opening loss to Barcelona ultimately decided the series.

  Madrid routed Zaragoza 6-0 with a hat trick by Cristiano Ronaldo in the season opener.

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