La Liga title race going to the wire
Will Barça, Atlético or Madrid claim the trophy?
A single point covers the top three teams in the La Liga title race – Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid – with just three games of the Spanish league season remaining.
It is one of the tightest European title races in recent memory and looks set to go down to the wire, with leaders Barça just about holding the advantage, not least as both of the Madrid clubs are in the Champions League semi-finals.
But with games running out fast, which of the trio will lift the title, and who will be disappointed?
Barcelona seem to have recovered from their recent hiccup, a run of three straight defeats, which was their worst sequence in the league for more than a decade.
An 8-0 win at Deportivo La Coruña was followed by a 6-0 home victory against Sporting Gijón, two results that sent a message to the rest of the league – Barcelona are back in business. Any defeat is a crisis for a club like Barcelona, but they seem back to their glorious old selves now.
Luis Enrique’s side also have the advantage of not being in Europe – having been knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals by Atlético – so their focus can be completely on defending their league title, although they have the Copa Del Rey final against Sevilla to come.
Barça look to have a relatively simple last three matches, with a nine-point haul enough to guarantee that they will win the title. First they travel to Real Betis, before hosting Espanyol in the derby and travelling to Granada on the last day.
Most teams have a wobble at some point in the season and it looks like Barça’s, which was prompted by their 2-1 El Clasico defeat to Real Madrid at Camp Nou, was theirs and few teams in the history of football can boast the firepower of this Barcelona team.
Luis Suárez has scored 53 goals this season, his best ever personal total, while Lionel Messi has scored 25 La Liga goals – taking his individual career record to 500 strikes – and Neymar has added 23 in the league. Between them, the fêted MSN have scored over 100 goals this season.
Suárez is not only leading the race for the Pichichi – his 34 La Liga goals have him three strikes clear of his nearest rival, Cristiano Ronaldo – the Uruguay international’s 15 assists in the league are more than any player in the league has managed too.
It is eminently possible that all three teams – Barça, Atlético and Madrid – will finish the season with 90+ points, but the title is currently Barcelona’s to lose, even though the huge cushion they had at the top of the table has been eroded over the last few weeks by the two Madrid clubs.
Diego Simeone continues to work wonders at Atlético Madrid, leading his side into the semi-finals of the Champions League again and keeping them in contention for the La Liga title.
While Barça are the favourites, Atlético should never be written off, having won five games in a row since their shock 2-1 defeat at Sporting Gijón last month, a result that could prove costly.
Picking out individuals when Atlético so obviously function as an absolute team is perhaps unfair, but Antoine Griezmann has had a breakthrough season, with the France international being converted from a wide player into a striker by Simeone.
Griezmann has scored 20 La Liga goals from 35 starts in the competition, a superb record that would have generated far more headlines were he not competing for attention with the likes of Ronaldo and Suárez.
The Atlético supply line is operated by Koke, whose 13 assists in the league this season are only bettered by Suárez. Koke has forged a particularly strong partnership in the last few weeks with his compatriot Fernando Torres, who has found form at the key point of the season after taking an agonisingly long time to score his 100th goal for the club.
Torres has scored five goals in his last six games and could yet fire his way back into the Spain squad for this summer’s Euro 2016. But first he has his sights set on glory with Atlético, who face Rayo Vallecano, Levante and Celta Vigo in the league and Bayern Munich in Europe.
A point behind Atlético and Barça, Real Madrid will need their rivals to slip up if they are to claim the league title yet again.
Madrid – who are facing Manchester City in the semi-finals of the Champions League – may therefore see Europe as their best route to silverware this season as they look to win the competition for the 11th time.
That El Clasico victory over Barcelona – sparked by Ronaldo’s dramatic late winner – is one of nine straight league successes for Zinedine Zidane’s side, who had to come from behind to beat Rayo 3-2 at the weekend, inspired by the fit-again Gareth Bale.
Question marks over the fitness of Ronaldo and striker Karim Benzema have caused problems for Madrid in recent weeks, with Ronaldo having been publicly critical of squad players such as Lucas Vázquez and Jesé, who are the obvious alternatives.
Zidane, in charge of Madrid after the sacking of Rafael Benítez, has shown himself to be a tactically adept coach, but his relative lack of experience compared to Simeone and Enrique may be key in the coming weeks.
Madrid’s last three fixtures in the league see them travel to Real Sociedad and host Valencia, while their last game of the season is away at Deportivo La Coruña.
More twists and turns are possible before the La Liga title is decided, but don’t bet against all three contenders winning all of their games, which would see Barça edge out the Madrid clubs.