Barcelona captain Carles Puyol admitted Saturday's 2-0 win over Real Madrid in 'El Clasico' at Camp Nou was a major step in the title race, but said there was no way reigning champions Real would throw in the towel despite being 12 points adrift of the leaders.
Barcelona scored twice in the final seven minutes in a sensational finale, with Samuel Eto'o netting on 83 minutes before Lionel Messi scored with a 91st-minute chip to secure a first Clasico win since November 2005. Sevilla and Valencia are now Barca's closest rivals, lying eight points behind them in the standings, with Villarreal and Real, last season's top two, both struggling.
"We worked very hard and that drained us, but the most important thing is the three points," said Puyol. "The gap of 12 points is important, but Madrid would never consider giving up. The hype is something that we cannot control. We were not that bad before and we are not that great now, everyone has to look for the middle ground."
Spanish international Puyol helped set up the opener for Eto'o and revealed it was a training ground move. "We practiced the move for Eto'o's goal with me arriving to meet the cross and look what happened!" enthused Puyol. Eto'o, who had missed a penalty 13 minutes earlier, celebrated by tearing off his shirt and running to the touchline.
Messi then sealed the game with a brilliant chip that Fabio Cannavaro could not clear off the line and wild celebrations followed. "Barcelona are already celebrating the league title, but for us the important thing is to beat Valencia and get to January in good shape," said Real defender Michel Salgado. "There were a lot of jokes about how many goals Barcelona were going to put past us, but we had our chances."
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola dismissed Salgado's suggestions that his side were already celebrating the title, pointing out that there were other teams in the title race besides Real. "Only 15 games have been played and there are a lot of other teams around us to play, like Villarreal and Valencia," said Guardiola. "In January we will play in three competitions again and that will take a lot out of the side."
Guardiola also took a swipe at Real for their harsh treatment of Argentine Messi who was fouled throughout the match. "I have no doubt that forms part of the game plan," Guardiola said. "There were three consecutive fouls on him that could have done a lot of damage. I was worried that the game was going to carry on like that."
Real coach Juande Ramos, who replaced Bernd Schuster four days ago, said Messi's habit of running with the ball accounted for the fouls rather than a malicious tactic. "Messi will always play with the ball at his feet and is therefore more likely to get injured," said Ramos. "There was no form of aggressiveness in this match."
Winning a third consecutive title looks a big ask with Ramos admitting Barcelona's lead would take some overhauling. "It's a substantial lead, but there is still a lot of games to be played and it depends a lot on how others teams do," declared the former Sevilla coach. "Barcelona are in excellent form, but let's see what happens in the second half of the season when there is also the Champions League to be played."
Both Barcelona and Real have qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League and await the draw on 19 December.