BARCELONA • When Barcelona routed Valencia 7-0 in a King's Cup semi-final game at home in February, the Catalan giants were on a high and the Peter Lim-owned club on a low.
Valencia's 2-1 La Liga win at the Nou Camp on Sunday, however, highlighted a reversal of fortunes for the clubs. Valencia are enjoying a mini-revival under Pako Ayestaran, while Barcelona are mired in a slump. Out of the Champions League, they have now seen a nine-point lead in La Liga vanish.
Only a superior head-to-head record with Atletico Madrid keeps Barcelona at the top of the table.
Diego Simeone's men, into the Champions League semi-finals at Barca's expense, eased to a 3-0 home win over Granada on Sunday to join the champions on 76 points.
Third-placed Real Madrid are only a point behind.
Despite Barcelona suffering a third straight league defeat for the first time since 2003, Luis Enrique remained upbeat about his team's chances of winning the title.
"Our margin for error has run out and we are aware of the challenge," he said, denying that fatigue has been a factor. "We've got a marvellous challenge, if we win the five games remaining we will be champions."
Barcelona still have to face Deportivo La Coruna - without suspended defender Gerard Pique - Sporting Gijon, Real Betis, Espanyol and Granada. Barca have already played 56 games so far this season - seven more than Atletico and 12 more than Real, owing to their participation in the Club World Cup, European Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and their run to the King's Cup final.
They dominated from start to finish against a Valencia side who had just 31 per cent possession. But Ivan Rakitic's own goal and Santi Mina's fine finish put the visitors 2-0 up at half-time despite having just one shot on target.
Lionel Messi's 500th career goal gave Barca hope. Yet, an inspired goalkeeping display from Diego Alves, who produced a spectacular save to deny Rakitic late on, and a shocking miss two minutes from time by Pique at the near post consigned the hosts to defeat.
It was a second straight victory for Valencia. When Ayestaran replaced the sacked Gary Neville as manager on March 30, the club were just six points above the relegation zone. They are now up to 12th in the table on 40 points.
"This is the least that we could give back to the supporters," said Ayestaran, after notching a famous win over a side who recently boasted a 39-game unbeaten run.
"We have vindicated ourselves as a team. We can be very proud and they deserve this. There are always incentives and every game is an opportunity."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE