with Nick Pulford
Real Madrid could fall at the penultimate hurdle in the Spanish title race when they go to Real Zaragoza tonight.
Madrid's major weakness in recent seasons has been their poor away record against high-class teams, and it is one that coach Fabio Capello has been unable to rectify this season. Against teams who finished in the top half of the table, Real have won only seven out of 27 on the road in the past three seasons, and against current top-half teams they have won just two out of eight on their travels so far this season.
Real won their past away game against a top-half team, Recreativo Huelva, but they needed a last-minute goal to secure a 3-2 victory. Their other away win against a top-half team reads better, as it was against fourth-placed Valencia, but it came at a time when Valencia were ravaged by injuries.
That leaves serious doubts over Real's ability to maintain their hot streak tonight. They have lost four out of eight on the road against top-half teams (at Sevilla, Villarreal, Getafe and Racing) and their only clean sheet away against a top-half team was in the 1-0 win at Valencia. Zaragoza, moreover, are one of the best home teams in Spain. They rank fourth-best on home form and their 12 wins in 18 home games include victories over Real's title rivals Barcelona and Seville. They are unbeaten in 10 home games this year (seven wins, three draws) but need points as they are involved in a tight battle for the Uefa Cup spots.
Zaragoza are certainly overpriced for the win and look a good bet on the handicap at least.
Barcelona should beat city rivals Espanyol at home tonight and, if Real Madrid do fail to win at Zaragoza, that would leave the champions needing only to win at bottom club Gimnastic on the final day to complete a hat-trick of titles. There is a slight doubt over Barcelona due to Ronaldinho's suspension - in his four seasons at the club, the Brazilian has missed seven home games and Barcelona have won only four of them. Two of the failures came against the big Madrid clubs, however, and Barcelona's excellent home record against Espanyol (nine wins and a draw from the past 10) suggests they can overcome Ronaldinho's absence on this occasion. It could be a low-scoring game, though, as Barcelona's attacking rhythm is disrupted when Ronaldinho is absent.
The other handicap bet that rates well in Spain is Racing Santander, who visit Real Sociedad. Racing have nothing to play for, however, and are missing key striker Nikola Zigic, so they are probably best swerved. The Uefa under-21 Championship kicks off tomorrow night, with Italy looking worthy favourites.
Handicap: Real Zaragoza.