Football: Spain’s frenzied title race coming to a head in a criss-cross of first against third and second versus fourth
Gerard Pique said in any normal season this weekend would decide La Liga’s champion but even he admitted this time there are no guarantees.
On Saturday afternoon, Barcelona face Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou and on Sunday, Real Madrid play Sevilla at Valdebebas, Spain’s frenzied title race coming to a head in a criss-cross of first against third and second versus fourth.
When it is all over, there will be three games left and Atletico could be five points clear or Real Madrid and Barca may be first and second, level on points, with Atletico just a single point behind.
Sevilla, presumed to have dropped out of the running after their surprise defeat by Athletic Bilbao on Monday, immediately have a chance to force their way back.
In terms of the table, only an Atletico victory might feel definitive, and even then only if it is followed by Sevilla winning away at Real Madrid, the two most unlikely results combining to leave Atletico’s chasers needing an incredible swing in the final three games.
Any other scenario will ensure the race is still open on Monday and if form is anything to go by, there will more surprises to come.
In the last two weeks, the top four have played 10 games between them and only half of those have resulted in expected victories. Athletic Bilbao in ninth have beaten Atletico and then Sevilla, Real Betis in seventh held Real Madrid, and eighth-placed Granada won at Camp Nou.
After three months in which Atletico seemed to be the only ones faltering, their 10-point advantage fizzling as the other three hit their stride, suddenly nobody is in form and nothing is guaranteed.
“I can’t say whoever is top of the table after this weekend will end up winning the league,” said Pique on Sunday, after Barcelona had just scraped past Valencia 3-2 at Mestalla.
“In other seasons, yes, and I hope that we will be the ones on top. But even if it’s someone else in first place, I wouldn’t put my house on them being champions.”
Barcelona made hard work of Valencia, who sacked Javi Gracia as coach the next day after six games without a win.
Ronald Koeman has overseen improvements this season but Barca’s soft centre remains, a fragility that means any game feels vulnerable to a sudden change of momentum. “We have to concentrate more defensively,” said Koeman after the loss to Granada.
Real Madrid’s own pivotal moment was supposed to be their win in the Clasico last month but they have managed only two wins from four in the league since, injuries and Covid-19 cases depriving Zinedine Zidane of options to rotate, just when he needed them most.
Defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday will be tough to recover from too, and it remains to be seen if Zidane persists with Hazard, after the Belgian capped an underwhelming performance with an unwelcome reaction, by laughing with former Chelsea team-mates after the full-time whistle.
Atletico have not so much collapsed as lost the edge in attack that meant tight games earlier in the season went their way while Sevilla looked to be timing their run perfectly but Monday’s loss to Athletic, and the nature of it, by conceding in the 90th minute, felt particularly damaging.
As well as the points, the biggest prize for any victors this weekend might be belief, a renewed sense of conviction in a neck-and-neck race that Atletico coach Diego Simeone has predicted will be won by the team with the “strongest mentality”.
Lionel Messi held a barbecue at his house for the Barcelona players and their partners last weekend, a gathering that is being investigated by La Liga and Catalan authorities to see if any virus rules were broken.
Atletico’s players also joined up together, reportedly without breaching protocol, as the teams try to extract every psychological advantage in a title chase that has been the tighest and most unpredictable in Europe.
It might be dramatic, tense, even crucial, but perhaps the biggest surprise this weekend would be if there were not still more twists to come.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Real Sociedad v Elche (1900)
Alaves v Levante (1200), Barcelona v Atletico Madrid (1415), Cadiz v Huesca (1630), Athletic Club v Osasuna (1900)
Getafe v Eibar (1200), Valencia v Real Valladolid (1415), Villarreal v Celta Vigo (1630), Real Madrid v Sevilla (1900) Monday Real Betis v Granada (1900)