Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid set for 10-game sprint to the finish in La Liga title race

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Author Sid LoweSpain

Gerard Peake knew, and maybe they all knew. At that point, everyone said it, even if they didn’t believe it. But that day he did it, and soon the others joined him. For the first time the Barcelona defender used a post-match interview, he said. So in late February, after Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Sevilla, he stood outside Sanchez’s pizzeria, looked at the microphone and the empty stands, smiled and said: Yes, of course, there’s always the championship race – I’ve seen worse.

It was an unusual way to put it, but Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone knew he was right, and it hurt.

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Has it happened again? Can a club that has lost a total of three European Cups in less than three minutes, two of them under Simeone, also lose the title in catastrophic fashion? I’ve seen worse, but not much more.

Then Atletico at 31. January defeated Cadiz 4-2, it seemed the title race was over. January ended with Atletico 10 points ahead of their opponents and with a game in hand. They scored 50 points and set a goal of 100. By comparison : Madrid and Barcelona were on their way to 76.

We have to be realistic, admitted Barça manager Ronald Koeman. We’re not in a position to win much. Meanwhile, Zinedine Zidane’s assistant at Real Madrid, David Bettoni, insisted: Madrid fans still believe in the team because their DNA will fight until the end. But it seemed a matter of pride, not points, and the end, Bettoni knew, was near.

It was over. But it’s not over yet.

February changed everything. Atletico have surrendered as many points in 12 days as they had previously surrendered in an entire season. From a possible 50 for 57 to just five in the last four games. They have dropped 11 points in 8 games, after only dropping 17 points in the previous 19 games. They hit the crossbar, the post, the keeper, and couldn’t get through, but they just couldn’t get through like they had before. Fear visited her again; pressure came, fatalism. Future games, whose points were inevitably calculated in advance as if they didn’t need to be played at all, were exhausted, the extra lives gone.

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Meanwhile, something happened in Barcelona and Madrid. Slowly at first, but with each stride, they quickened. It wasn’t always pretty, but the points were there. After Real Valladolid’s 1-0 win, Madrid’s Lucas Vazquez told his teammates how important the result was. Madrid have persevered, they have fallen several times, and now there is a chance. Something like that.

The fields can be perfect. Take week 27. Two brilliant shots in the final phase: one by Karim Benzema, one by Luis Suarez; one hits the post and goes in, the other hits the post and goes out. Benzema scores against Elche, Suarez not against Getafe. Madrid are now just six points behind Atletico. The game has begun. Turn the tables and Atletico are 10 points ahead of Madrid. His number’s up.

It was a recurring theme, the third late mission to save Madrid: Real Sociedad (89th minute equalizer), Atletico (88th minute equalizer) and Elche (92nd minute win). Barcelona, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their last 19 games. Although unconvincing at first, they are now on the rise and are arguably the best team in Spain. The only doubt is that they made it too late. Can Atletico keep what they have?

Atletico Madrid, once leaders in La Liga with 10 points, are now just four points ahead of Barca and six ahead of Real Madrid with ten games to go. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The derby did the most damage to the league leader. Atletico had a chance to outplay their opponents, but Benzema equalized late on. But he wasn’t the only one: Celta equalized in the 89th minute. Minute out. Looking for an equalizer in the last minute against Levante, they left a goal open and got a counter goal. This applies to both sides, of course: Alaves could have done the same last weekend, but Ian Cloud of Atletico saved a late penalty. The vulnerability was obvious and the nerves were strained, but this time disaster was averted.

Save the Championship, it says on the front page. That was half the headline, according to the paper. So many moments have passed with a half title that they should have given up dozens when La Liga ends at the end of May.

There is one that is more important than many people thought. La Liga is something you have to fight for. It’s over. It’s done. And then suddenly there were the headlines: THE COMPETITION LIGHTS UP. HOT LEFT. LIGA HOT. And a favorite: The hay competition! There’s a competition. The game was on, which didn’t always seem possible. Atletico was too good. Madrid and Barcelona were very bad. That’s enough.

And here we are.

Atletico still have to play Sevilla (away), Real Betis (away), Huesca (home), Athletic Bilbao (away), Eibar (home), Elche (away), BARCELONA (away), Real Sociedad (home), Osasuna (home) and Real Valladolid (away).

Meanwhile, Barcelona plays Real Valladolid (home), REAL MADRID (away), Getafe (home), Villarreal (away), Granada (home), Valencia (away), ATLETICO MADRID (home), Levante (away), Celta Vigo (home) and Eibar (away).

Finally, the meeting in Madrid: Eibar (home), Barcelona (home), Cadiz (away), Real Betis (home), Getafe (away), Osasuna (home), Sevilla (home), Granada (away), Sporting Bilbao (away) and Villarreal (home).

But they don’t start with the same line. Atletico is on top, where it was for the last 15 weeks, with 66 points. Barcelona are second with four points behind (62), while Madrid are third with six points behind (60). (But with a better, and now unquestionable, track record).



Julien Lawrence of ESPN estimates Barcelona’s chances of winning La Liga.

Behind us are two great teams who will not lose a game, Simeone said. Which can’t be entirely true – unless he’s convinced his team won’t beat Barcelona and the Clasico will end in a draw – but it says a lot about the pressure they’re under, what they’re facing. There is no room for half measures, no room for mistakes or slackness. Atletico didn’t have an easy game like Cadiz, every gruelling and busy week gives coronary arteries, now they need to get through, which may come. No excuses, no escape, no easy ride.

Atletico’s position is the best, but certainly not safe. They would have come in at the beginning of the season, if not at halftime, and they can lose more and the other team cannot. Kooman urges caution: Today the sun is shining, but tomorrow it may rain. Still, one cannot help but feel that Simeone needs to win at least seven of the remaining ten games and not lose to Barcelona.

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It’s hard to judge who has the heaviest equipment at first glance. Sevilla, Betis and Barcelona in the distance, maybe Atletico. Barcelona may be in Madrid, but Villarreal and Valencia are far away, and Atletico don’t have it easy at home either. Just like in Madrid, where Los Blancos still have home games against Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal. If these three candidates had achieved the same results against these teams as last time, Atletico would have finished in 94th place, Barcelona in 79th and Madrid in 83rd.

But these teams are not the same today, the schedules have flipped – home where they were away and vice versa – and these teams are certainly not what they were then. If all three teams have to score as many goals in the next 10 games as they did in the last 10, the away team wins: Barcelona with 90, Atletico with 85 and Madrid with 83.

I told the players that the destination is important, and it’s great when you get there, but that the journey is the most important part, that the best part is loving how you get there, Simeon said, though he probably didn’t believe it. Instead, his other mantra remains: Game after game.

The season is entering a phase where even Zidane can be forgiven for his habit of calling every game a final. It’s not that far from losing and running away. This also applies to the line : People seem to think we are going to win the league by 15 or 20 points, Simeone said. I don’t know what they expected.

Not that, not at that moment. But that’s what they have. A competition where there was none.

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