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Mon 18 Feb 2008 07:23 AM

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Real miss Di Stefano guile as Barca close in

Both Real and neighbours Atletico flopped over the weekend as Barcelona reignited their hopes.

On a weekend when Real Madrid elected to honour legendary striker Alfredo di Stefano, described by UEFA president Michel Platini as "a great among greats," both Real and neighbours Atletico flopped as Barcelona reignited their La Liga hopes.

Di Stefano - Real's honorary president - witnessed the unveiling of a statue of him at Real's training centre at Valdebabas in the suburbs of Madrid to commemorate the swathe of domestic and European titles the 'blond arrow' won in the club's white jersey.

Today's vintage could have done with him after Real slumped 2-1 Saturday at Real Betis, allowing Barcelona to close the gap at the top to five points with a win by the same score at Zaragoza sealed by a Ronaldinho penalty.

Thierry Henry had netted Barca's opener and afterwards insisted he was happy at the club despite coach Frank Rijkaard tending to give him a wider role than the one in which the Frenchman had so excelled at Arsenal before coming to the Nou Camp last summer.

"I just want to say I feel very at ease in this team and that I am very happy," said Henry.

"I said the other day I would play wherever the coach wants me to but then the following day I read things I didn't say, interpretations of people speaking about me," said the striker, who has netted seven times in 19 league matches since coming to Spain.

Ronaldinho's spotkick to cancel out a Zaragoza equaliser by fellow Brazilian Oliveira propelled Barca on to 51 points from 24 matches, to 56 for Real.

Real's German coach Bernd Schuster claimed his men deserved a point at Betis but the Sevilla-based side bounced back from Royston Drenthe's opener to win with goals from Edu and Mark Gonzalez, formerly a fringe player with Liverpool.

"I think we sat back and relaxed too much. I think a draw would have been a fair result," said Schuster, adding that a more charged-up side would come out midweek against Roma in the Champions League.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy was the width of a post away from levelling for Real on 66 minutes with a right-foot flick.

The title race is meanwhile more of a two-horse race than ever after would-be contenders lost ground Sunday.

Villarreal are eight points adrift of Barca after a goalless stalemate at home to Racing Santander while Atletico Madrid failed to overhaul the former after going down 2-1 at home to struggling Athletic Bilbao, who move five points clear of the drop zone.

Antonio Lopez put Atletico ahead but Markel Susaeta and Fernando Llorente turned the tables before the break.

Seville are sixth, five points behind Atletico, after scoring a fine 4-2 away win Saturday at Espanyol built on goals in the opening ten minutes from Luis Fabiano and Freddy Kanoute.

A left-foot strike from Luis Garcia gave Espanyol some hope five minutes before the break but the hosts then found themselves down to ten men after Zabaleta was sent off midway through the second period following a foul on Diego Capel.

Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen promptly restored the two-goal lead with the visitors' third after 73 minutes and, although Coro netted for Espanyol two minutes later, Sevilla held their nerve in a pulsating finale as Capel struck with the clincher 13 minutes from time.

It was Espanyol's fourth home loss in a row.

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