Spain’s three-horse race, too close to call

A FEW weeks ago, the La Liga race looked a foregone conclusion with Atlético Madrid 10 points clear and favourites to lift their first title since 2014. Real Madrid and Barcelona, were shot, fading forces with old players, financial pressure and internal politics. Diego Simeone’s team were in full flow, supposedly more adventurous than ever before, buoyed by the goals of El Pistolero but still rock solid in defence.

Something has gone astray and the championship may now go to the final day of the campaign. Atléti are top of the table, but both Real and Barca are breathing hard down their necks and know how to time their run to the end of the season. Although Barca were dismantled by Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, Atléti also came up very short against Chelsea in the same competition. Real, on the other hand, showed some quality in beating Liverpool in the quarter-final first leg. In some ways, Atléti’s 3-0 aggregate defeat at the hands of Chelsea exposed the shortcomings of Simeone’s men.

It is hard for any Spanish club to win a long-distance run against the big two. No matter how consistent they might be, the track record, financial resources and cultural clout of Real Madrid and Barcelona gives them a sense of expectation that title pretenders lack. Right now, Atléti are trying to make a breakthrough, but Real, for example, have quietly moved back into contention. Barca, having put a finger in the dyke, have benefitted from an influx of youthful vigour and kept pace. But Atléti have stuttered and won 16 points out of their last 30. Real (26) and Barca (25) have fared much better in their last 10 games. Atléti have won just one of their last five La Liga games. A crisis is building and they have to get back on form quickly or face being overtaken.

To be fair to Atléti, they faced Real Betis on clasico weekend without leading scorer Luis Suárez and Marcos Llorente. Even so, with Real denting Barca’s chances, Atléti had the chance to put some insulation between themselves and Messi and co., but they had to settle for a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Benito Villamarín. Unfortunately, Atléti also added to their injury list, losing João Felix and Kieran Trippier. 

They still went back to the top of the table, regaining the position they lost 24 hours earlier when Real beat Barca 2-1 in the Clasico. But now there’s only two points separating the top three in La Liga and there’s just eight games to go. The average gap between top and second in Spain over the past decade has been almost seven points, while second and third has been 12. The battle is much tighter than at any time since 2014.

Where has it gone wrong for Atléti? Let’s examine their form earlier in the season. Their 20 wins in 2020-21 have included eight by a single goal and 10 by two goals. They’ve scored 52 goals and conceded 20, the lowest goals against figure in the league, but a goal haul that is some 17 goals lower than Barcelona. Basically, the margin of success is narrow, so when the machine is not rolling smoothly, those 1-0 wins can easily become 0-0 or 1-1 draws.

Suárez has netted 19 league goals but the rumour mill suggests he doesn’t like Simeone’s system and there is even talk of him returning to Liverpool in a shock move. He’s 34 years of age and the Simeone style is very intense and draining. Suárez is both injured and suspended, so he will miss vital games, and if Felix and Llorente are both unfit, Atléti will have serious problems.

Who has the most comfortable fixture list? The only clash between the top three remaining is Atléti’s trip to Barcelona on May 9, but of the top three, Real Madrid seem to have the most challenging run-in, with games against Sevilla, Bilbao and Villareal to come. Barcelona have to travel to Villareal and Valencia, while Atléti have a game in Bilbao and that vital clash in the Camp Nou. Real’s opponents have an average current league position of 9.75 while Atléti’s amount to 12.75 and Barca’s 10.75 – this can, of course, change by the day and is just one way of giving some form of value to outstanding fixtures.

Both Real and Atléti do look a little tired and both Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone have expressed concerns that their players are at their physical limits, hardly a surprise when Real, in particular, have a cluster of over-30 squad members, including Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema. While Real are also involved in the UEFA Champions League and Barca have a Copa Del Rey final coming up, Atléti can focus solely on the league.

It is going to be almost too tight to call, but Real Madrid are now favourites to retain their title. The growing view is that Atlético have allowed their advantage to be eroded and blown their best chance. It’s a premature assessment, but it is very clear the initiative is no longer with Los Colchoneros.

Atlético MadridReal MadridBarcelona
April 18Eibar (h)Getafe (a) 
April 21 Cadiz (a) 
Apr 22Huesca (h) Getafe (h)
Apr 24 R. Betis (h) 
Apr 25A.Bilbao (a) Villareal (a)
Apr 28  Granada (h)
May 2Elche (a)Osasuna (h)Valencia (a)
May 9Barcelona (a)Sevilla (h)Atlético (h)
May 12Sociedad (h)Granada (a)Levante (a)
May 16Osasuna (h)A.Bilbao (a)Celta V (h)
May 23Valladolid (a)Villareal (h)Eibar (a)

Is it with Barca? Amid all the talk about Lionel Messi and the political wrangling at the club, Barca have lifted themselves back into contention. Before losing to Real Madrid, Barca were unbeaten in the league in 2021 and Messi had regained his touch to become top scorer in La Liga. After a lack lustre start to the season, the introduction of a batch of young players has helped revitalise Barca, including Pedri (18), Trincão (21), Sergiño Dest (20), Óscar Mingueza (21), Riqui Puig (21) and Ronald Araújo (22), not to mention the exciting Ansu Fati (18) who is currently sidelined with injury.

It’s not necessarily a classic season in Spain and the big clubs are in something of a transitional period, but it is surely going to be one of the most exciting finales. Watch this space, as they say.

Photo: Alamy

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